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The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream

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Gareth Cook writes in the Atlantic:

Raj Chetty got his biggest break before his life began. His mother, Anbu, grew up in Tamil Nadu, a tropical state at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Anbu showed the greatest academic potential of her five siblings, but her future was constrained by custom. Although Anbu’s father encouraged her scholarly inclinations, there were no colleges in the area, and sending his daughter away for an education would have been unseemly.

But as Anbu approached the end of high school, a minor miracle redirected her life. A local tycoon, himself the father of a bright daughter, decided to open a women’s college, housed in his elegant residence. Anbu was admitted to the inaugural class of 30 young women, learning English in the spacious courtyard under a thatched roof and traveling in the early mornings by bus to a nearby college to run chemistry experiments or dissect frogs’ hearts before the men arrived. Anbu excelled, and so began a rapid upward trajectory. She enrolled in medical school. “Why,” her father was asked, “do you send her there?” Among their Chettiar caste, husbands commonly worked abroad for years at a time, sending back money, while wives were left to raise the children. What use would a medical degree be to a stay-at-home mother?

In 1962, Anbu married Veerappa Chetty, a brilliant man from Tamil Nadu whose mother and grandmother had sometimes eaten less food so there would be more for him. Anbu became a doctor and supported her husband while he earned a doctorate in economics. By 1979, when Raj was born in New Delhi, his mother was a pediatrics professor and his father was an economics professor who had served as an adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

When Chetty was 9, his family moved to the United States, and he began a climb nearly as dramatic as that of his parents. He was the valedictorian of his high-school class, then graduated in just three years from Harvard University, where he went on to earn a doctorate in economics and, at age 28, was among the youngest faculty members in the university’s history to be offered tenure. In 2012, he was awarded the MacArthur genius grant. The following year, he was given the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the most promising economist under 40. (He was 33 at the time.) In 2015, Stanford University hired him away. Last summer, Harvard lured him back to launch his own research and policy institute, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Chetty turns 40 this month, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential social scientists of his generation. “The question with Raj,” says Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, one of the country’s leading urban economists, “is notif he will win a Nobel Prize, but when.”

The work that has brought Chetty such fame is an echo of his family’s history. He has pioneered an approach that uses newly available sources of government data to show how American families fare across generations, revealing striking patterns of upward mobility and stagnation. In one early study, he showed that children born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of earning more than their parents, but for children born four decades later, that chance had fallen to 50 percent, a toss of a coin.

In 2013, Chetty released a colorful map of the United States, showing the surprising degree to which people’s financial prospects depend on where they happen to grow up. In Salt Lake City, a person born to a family in the bottom fifth of household income had a 10.8 percent chance of reaching the top fifth. In Milwaukee, the odds were less than half that.

Since then, each of his studies has become a front-page media event (“Chetty bombs,” one collaborator calls them) that combines awe—millions of data points, vivid infographics, a countrywide lens—with shock. This may not be the America you’d like to imagine, the statistics testify, but it’s what we’ve allowed America to become. Dozens of the nation’s elite colleges have more children of the 1 percent than from families in the bottom 60 percent of family income. A black boy born to a wealthy family is more than twice as likely to end up poor as a white boy from a wealthy family. Chetty has established Big Data as a moral force in the American debate.Now he wants to do more than change our understanding of America—he wants to change America itself. His new Harvard-based institute, called Opportunity Insights, is explicitly aimed at applying his findings in cities around the country and demonstrating that social scientists, despite a discouraging track record, are able to fix the problems they articulate in journals. His staff includes an eight-person policy team, which is building partnerships with Charlotte, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, and other cities.

For a man who has done so much to document the country’s failings, Chetty is curiously optimistic. He has the confidence of a scientist: If a phenomenon like upward mobility can be measured with enough precision, then it can be understood; if it can be understood, then it can be manipulated. “The big-picture goal,” Chetty told me, “is to revive the American dream.”

Last summer, I visited Opportunity Insights on its opening day. The offices are housed on the second floor of a brick building, above a café and across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard’s columned Widener Library. Chetty arrived in econ-casual: a lilac dress shirt, no jacket, black slacks. He is tall and trim, with an untroubled air; he smiled as he greeted two of his longtime collaborators—the Brown University economist John Friedman and Harvard’s Nathaniel Hendren. They walked him around, showing off the finished space, done in a modern palette of white, wood, and aluminum with accent walls of yellow and sage.

Later, after Chetty and his colleagues had finished giving a day of seminars to their new staff, I caught up with him in his office, which was outfitted with a pristine whiteboard, an adjustable-height desk, and a Herman Miller chair that still had the tags attached. The first time I’d met him, at an economics conference, he had told me he was one of several cousins on his mother’s side who go by Raj, all named after their grandfather, Nadarajan, all with sharp minds and the same long legs and easy gait. Yet of Nadarajan’s children, only Chetty’s mother graduated from college, and he’s certain that this fact shaped his generation’s possibilities. He was able to come to the United States as a child and attend an elite private school, the University School of Milwaukee. New York Raj—the family appends a location to keep them straight—came to the U.S. later in life, at age 28, worked in drugstores, and then took a series of jobs with the City of New York. Singapore Raj found a job in a temple there that allows him to support his family back in India, but means they must live apart. Karaikudi Raj, named for the town where his mother grew up, committed suicide as a teenager.

I asked Boston Raj to consider what might have become of him if that wealthy Indian businessman had not decided, in the precise year his mother was finishing high school, to create a college for the talented women of southeastern Tamil Nadu. “I would likely not be here,” he said, thinking for a moment. “To put it another way: Who are all the people who are not here, who would have been here if they’d had the opportunities? That is a really good question.”

Charlotte is one of America’s great urban success stories. In the 1970s, it was a modest-size city left behind as the textile industry that had defined North Carolina moved overseas. But in the 1980s, the “Queen City” began to lift itself up. US Airways established a hub at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and the region became a major transportation and distribution center. Bank of America built its headquarters there, and today Charlotte is in a dead heat with San Francisco to be the nation’s second-largest banking center, after New York. New skyscrapers have sprouted downtown, and the city boundary has been expanding, replacing farmland with spacious homes and Whole Foods stores. In the past four decades, Charlotte’s population has nearly tripled.

Charlotte has also stood out in Chetty’s research, though not in a good way. In a 2014 analysis of the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Charlotte ranked last in ability to lift up poor children. Only 4.4 percent of Charlotte’s kids moved from the bottom quintile of household income to the top. Kids born into low-income families earned just $26,000 a year, on average, as adults—perched on the poverty line. “It was shocking,” says Brian Collier, an executive vice president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, which is working with Opportunity Insights. “The Charlotte story is that we are a meritocracy, that if you come here and are smart and motivated, you will have every opportunity to achieve greatness.” The city’s true story, Chetty’s data showed, is of selective opportunity: All the data-scientist and business-development-analyst jobs in the thriving banking sector are a boon for out-of-towners and the progeny of the well-to-do, but to grow up poor in Charlotte is largely to remain poor.

To help cities like Charlotte, Chetty takes inspiration from medicine. For thousands of years, he explained, little progress was made in understanding disease, until technologies like the microscope gave scientists novel ways to understand biology, and thus the pathologies that make people ill. In October, Chetty’s institute released an interactive map of the United States called the Opportunity Atlas, revealing the terrain of opportunity down to the level of individual neighborhoods. This, he says, will be his microscope.

Drawing on anonymized government data over a three-decade span, the researchers linked children to the parents who claimed them as dependents. The atlas then followed poor kids from every census tract in the country, showing how much they went on to earn as adults. The colors on the atlas reveal a generation’s prospects: red for areas where kids fared the worst; shades of orange, yellow, and green for middling locales; and blue for spots like Salt Lake City’s Foothill neighborhood, where upward mobility is strongest. It can also track children born into higher income brackets, compare results by race and gender, and zoom out to show states, regions, or the country as a whole.

The Opportunity Atlas has a fractal quality. Some regions of the United States  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2019 at 11:47 am

Amazing graphic: The Temple of Time, by Emma Willard

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Click to enlarge. And she did many more: check out Jason Kottke’s post and the links in it.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2019 at 3:36 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player

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Cal Newport writes in his blog:

I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy.

This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career.

Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians. He told me that post agreed with his experience.

“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.

He then went on to explain exactly what he and the other strong students did differently as compared to their less accomplished peers.

I reproduced his explanation below (I added the headings and edited the text slightly), as I think it offers profound insight into the difference between the type of work most of us do and what it actually takes to become so good they can’t ignore you.

As you read Jeremy’s strategies, ask yourself what it would mean to apply these same ideas to your livelihood, be it as a writer, programmer, consultant, student, or professor. When I performed this exercise I was embarrassed by the gap between what I should be doing (if I want to maximize my ability), and what I actually do.

Good food for thought as we roll toward a new year…

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.” . . .

Continue reading.

Newport notes later:

This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts: . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

21 June 2019 at 8:06 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Music

California report card

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Kevin Drum has an interesting post on how California measures up these days, and it’s worth looking at if that sort of thing interests you. (I am reminded of a friend whose recommendations often ran, “It’s the sort of thing you’d like if you like that sort of thing.) But since California does represent a certain cross-section of America, and since I lived there for more than 30 years, it seems of interest to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2019 at 12:25 pm

Why Jessica Biel Is Wrong about Science and Vaccines

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James Hamblin writes in the Atlantic:

One morning in 1934, panicked passengers jumped from the deck of the SS Morro Castle as it sank just off the coast of New Jersey. The ocean liner had caught fire, and the passengers had rushed to grab personal flotation devices. But some improperly wrapped the life preservers around their necks. As they fell and hit the water, the torque snapped their spines.

Personal flotation devices save exponentially more lives than they cost. Of the catastrophic boating accidents that occur daily, 84 percent of people who drown were not wearing one. But etch the details of this horrific wreck sceneinto one’s mind, and a person might become a life-preserver skeptic. Our basic tendency toward short-term thinking means we judge risk based on whatever is in front of us. We draw anxiety disproportionately from wherever we happen to be focusing our attention.

The same psychology applies throughout public health. At the moment, much attention in the U.S. is being paid to vaccines—rather than the diseases they prevent. This week, the actor Jessica Biel drew fiery eyes for lobbyinglegislators in California to kill a bill that would standardize the process of exempting children from required vaccinations. Biel, perhaps best known for her leading role in 2006’s The Illusionist, expressed concern for the well-being of a friend’s child. She has responded to accusations of being “anti-vax” by contending in an Instagram post that she “believes in vaccinations,” but wants to protect personal freedom: “I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients.”

Like life preservers and everything else, vaccines do come with some fleeting risk of unintended adverse outcomes: mostly rashes or fevers, and in extremely rare cases, seizures. But these risks pale in comparison with those of the diseases vaccines prevent. Before the advent of vaccination, measles alone killed some 6,000 children in the United States every year.

This year has already seen more measles cases than any other since the disease was declared eliminated two decades ago. The trend stems from low rates of vaccination, which are making exemptions from vaccine requirements a flash point. California has triggered a reckoning with why exemptions exist at all—and why belief came to factor so heavily into a question of science. When is a health issue a matter of belief, and when is it simply wrong? When is it so wrong that it’s neglect?

No federal law requires vaccination. But every state mandates that in order to send a child to public school—to have that child sit in close quarters with other children all day, every day—parents must take preventive measures to ensure the child does not carry certain dangerous infections. Requirements are implicit in the legal precedent that withholding vaccination constitutes “medical neglect” of a child. Legally, for example, it’s considered neglect to let a cut on a child’s arm get infected and then refuse antibiotics. If that infection had been airborne, as with measles, declining treatment as a child gasps for air would also be textbook neglect. It has been deemed neglect in cases where infectious diseases could have been easily prevented, but weren’t.

Researchers at Ohio State recently reviewed cases across the country from 1905 to 2016 and found that a majority of the time, refusing vaccination was found to be neglect. There was a curious caveat, though. In states with “religious exemptions,” parents did not have to follow public-health mandates to vaccinate their children against measles and other diseases if the parents cited “genuine and sincere religious beliefs.” The Ohio State researchers found that in these states, vaccine refusal did not constitute neglect—or it was considered neglect only if someone’s belief was deemed insufficiently “sincere.”

Religious exemptions have slowly expanded in the United States, to the point that now, in almost every state, parents can opt out of school requirements—and leave a child open to catching and spreading lethal diseases to other children—if doing so is guided by what the state considers a sincere belief. In such cases, the same behavior is not neglect.

Exemptions have expanded to include “personal or philosophical belief” exemptions as well, which are currently offered in 17 states. When the standard is sincerity of belief, the thinking goes, it shouldn’t have to be drawn from a major religion (or even a minor one).

Accordingly, the number of people taking up belief-based exemptions has been steadily increasing, and rates of vaccination declining. The constitutionality of vaccine requirements is well established, and courts have found states are not obligated to grant religious exemptions. Nevertheless, the overall effect of such respect for the concept of personal belief has been that, gradually, vaccine requirements have become requirements in name only.

The return of measles, though, is forcing a breaking point. In 2015, a measles outbreak was traced back to a single child at Disneyland. California health officials saw that the outbreak happened not simply because of one unvaccinated child, but because only 90 percent of kindergartners in the state were fully immunized. To establish herd immunity for measles, a community needs 94 percent of people on board. . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including the rise of rogue doctors who sell immunization exemptions.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 June 2019 at 1:40 pm

Better Schools Won’t Fix America

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A forceful and cogent article in the Atlantic by Nick Hanauer:

Long ago, i was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong.

What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.

To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.

Whenever i talk with my wealthy friends about the dangers of rising economic inequality, those who don’t stare down at their shoes invariably push back with something about the woeful state of our public schools. This belief is so entrenched among the philanthropic elite that of America’s 50 largest family foundations—a clique that manages $144 billion in tax-exempt charitable assets—40 declare education as a key issue. Only one mentions anything about the plight of working people, economic inequality, or wages. And because the richest Americans are so politically powerful, the consequences of their beliefs go far beyond philanthropy.

A major theme in the educationist narrative involves the “skills gap”—the notion that decades of wage stagnation are largely a consequence of workers not having the education and skills to fill new high-wage jobs. If we improve our public schools, the thinking goes, and we increase the percentage of students attaining higher levels of education, particularly in the STEM subjectsscience, technology, engineering, and math—the skills gap will shrink, wages will rise, and income inequality will fall.

The real story is more complicated, and more troubling. Yes, there is a mismatch between the skills of the present and the jobs of the future. In a fast-changing, technologically advanced economy, how could there not be? But this mismatch doesn’t begin to explain the widening inequality of the past 40 years.

In 1970, when the golden age of the American middle class was nearing its peak and inequality was at its nadir, only about half of Americans ages 25 and older had a high-school degree or the equivalent. Today, 90 percent do. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans attaining a college degree has more than tripled since 1970. But while the American people have never been more highly educated, only the wealthiest have seen large gains in real wages. From 1979 to 2017, as the average real annual wages of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 156 percent (and the top .01 percent’s wages rose by a stunning 343 percent), the purchasing power of the average American’s paycheck did not increase.

Some educationists might argue that the recent gains in educational attainment simply haven’t been enough to keep up with the changing economy—but here, yet again, the truth appears more complicated. While 34 percent of Americans ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 26 percent of jobs currently require one. The job categories that are growing fastest, moreover, don’t generally require a college diploma, let alone a STEM degree. According to federal estimates, four of the five occupational categories projected to add the most jobs to the economy over the next five years are among the lowest-paying jobs: “food preparation and serving” ($19,130 in average annual earnings), “personal care and service” ($21,260), “sales and related” ($25,360), and “health-care support” ($26,440). And while the number of jobs that require a postsecondary education is expected to increase slightly faster than the number that don’t, the latter group is expected to dominate the job market for decades to come. In October 2018 there were 1 million more job openings than job seekers in the U.S. Even if all of these unfilled jobs were in STEM professions at the top of the pay scale, they would be little help to most of the 141 million American workers in the bottom nine income deciles.

It’s worth noting that workers with a college degree enjoy a significant wage premium over those without. (Among people over age 25, those with a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $53,882 in 2017, compared with $32,320 for those with only a high-school education.) But even with that advantage, adjusted for inflation, average hourly wages for recent college graduates have barely budged since 2000, while the bottom 60 percent of college graduates earn less than that group did in 2000. A college diploma is no longer a guaranteed passport into the middle class.

Meanwhile, nearly all the benefits of economic growth have been captured by large corporations and their shareholders. After-tax corporate profits have doubled from about 5 percent of GDP in 1970 to about 10 percent, even as wages as a share of GDP have fallen by roughly 8 percent. And the wealthiest 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1973 to 21 percent today. Taken together, these two trends amount to a shift of more than $2 trillion a year from the middle class to corporations and the super-rich.

The state of the labor market provides further evidence that low-wage workers’ declining fortunes aren’t explained by supply and demand. With the unemployment rate near a 50-year floor, low-wage industries such as accommodations, food service, and retail are struggling to cope with a shortage of job applicants—leading The Wall Street Journal to lament that “low-skilled jobs are becoming increasingly difficult for employers to fill.” If wages were actually set the way our Econ 101 textbooks suggested, workers would be profiting from this dynamic. Yet outside the cities and states that have recently imposed a substantially higher local minimum wage, low-wage workers have seen their real incomes barely budge.

All of which suggests that income inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US is broken, and powerful people are determined to keep it from being fixed. Mitch McConnell won’t even allow the US to take steps to protect the next election from Russian interference. And he is getting away with it.

Later in the article:

. . . However justifiable their focus on curricula and innovation and institutional reform, people who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child’s educational success: household income.

The scientific literature on this subject is robust, and the consensus overwhelming. The lower your parents’ income, the lower your likely level of educational attainment. Period. But instead of focusing on ways to increase household income, educationists in both political parties talk about extending ladders of opportunity to poor children, most recently in the form of charter schools. For many children, though—especially those raised in the racially segregated poverty endemic to much of the United States—the opportunity to attend a good public school isn’t nearly enough to overcome the effects of limited family income.

As Lawrence Mishel, an economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, notes, poverty creates obstacles that would trip up even the most naturally gifted student. He points to the plight of “children who frequently change schools due to poor housing; have little help with homework; have few role models of success; have more exposure to lead and asbestos; have untreated vision, ear, dental, or other health problems; … and live in a chaotic and frequently unsafe environment.”

Indeed, multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances—most significantly, income. Now consider that, nationwide, just over half of today’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 38 percent in 2000. Surely if American students are lagging in the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills our modern economy demands, household income deserves most of the blame—not teachers or their unions.

If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed, we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.

Today, after wealthy elites gobble up our outsize share of national income, the median American family is left with $76,000 a year. Had hourly compensation grown with productivity since 1973—as it did over the preceding quarter century, according to the Economic Policy Institute—that family would now be earning more than $105,000 a year. Just imagine, education reforms aside, how much larger and stronger and better educated our middle class would be if the median American family enjoyed a $29,000-a-year raise. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

10 June 2019 at 8:15 pm

Measles for the 1%

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Lisa Miller has an interesting if somewhat depressing article in The Cut:

On an unseasonably chilly morning in May, three dozen or so plaintiff-parents, most of them from the Green Meadow Waldorf School, showed up at the Rockland County Courthouse, looking, in their draped layers and comfortable shoes, like any PTA from Park Slope or Berkeley. They were virtually vibrating with expectation and stress. For four long months, on behalf of their kids, they had been on the phone, sending off bullet-point emails, arranging meetings, coordinating calendars, and taking time off work, in an endless battle that had so far cost them hours of lost income and created child-care hassles — and made them into national pariahs besides. Today’s proceedings, they hoped, would result in a decision that might enable them to move on with their lives.

When legal arguments began, small smiles appeared on the parents’ faces. The opposition’s lawyer came off as clumsy, like an oversize actor fumbling his lines. Their lawyer, on the other hand, exuded a smooth confidence bordering on arrogance, an attitude that seemed to swell as he approached the lectern. Michael Sussman, 65 years old and educated at Harvard Law, is the most prominent civil-rights crusader in the Hudson Valley, having made his mark at 30, while working for the NAACP, when he helped to desegregate the Yonkers public schools. Now Sussman, who happened to have sent his own seven children and stepchildren to Waldorf schools, was defending his clients against the intrusion of local politicians into their personal decisions and private lives.

As he stood before the judge, Sussman’s voice rose in a slow crescendo. Recent actions by Rockland County against his clients were “infuriating,” he said; they pandered to biased constituencies and were rooted in “fundamental hysteria.” And then he roared. “Executive authority has its limits!” The parents were as still as forest animals, riveted. Their lawyer was articulating what they fervently believed: that even amid the biggest outbreak of measles in the United States since 1994 — with 200 cases in Rockland County, their own backyard — it was their right as citizens not to vaccinate their kids. This conviction had become for them a matter of conscience and principle. Most had kept their kids out of school for almost half the year rather than take them to the pediatrician for a shot.

If you live among or near certain quarters of the progressive left, among the art and fashion and tech elites who shop at farmers’ markets and worry about toxins in the air and water and believe that hiring a doula may gentle today’s medical-industrial approach to giving birth, then you have probably heard of Waldorf schools. Perhaps you have friends whose children go to one, or perhaps you’ve yearned for such a community for your own, knowing that Waldorf signals a countercultural wholesomeness, a respite from the onslaught of modern forces you’re pretty sure aren’t good for kids: the wide-open access to violence, snark, and pornography available with every Wi-Fi connection; the birthday-party goody bags stuffed with plastic crap; the stress and anxiety you see on very young children already worried about how they’ll do on the test. If you are the kind of person who sees self-interested, app-driven American capitalism as a threat to the preciousness of childhood and to a durable, intimate family life, then you are, at least conceptually, in Waldorf’s prospective audience. Waldorf parents, many of whom are themselves deluged by busyness and stress, agree that they will expose their children to no technology — none, including television, movies, and recorded music, even on long car rides — until middle school. The parents who work at Apple, Google, and Hewlett-Packard and send their kids to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Menlo Park, California, endorse these limits with psychic relief — they know too well what their kids need protection from.

Waldorf pioneered this off-piste approach to raising kids, but it does not have a monopoly on the many ways liberal parents try to circumvent the institutionalized options that dominate the public-school system: “free” schools; home-school collectives; schools boasting “child-centered learning”; mountain, backcountry, or farming schools. There are about 300 Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired institutions in the U.S. (and more than 3,000 worldwide). Each offers an arts-based curriculum in which children are encouraged to play outdoors, use their imaginations, and think for themselves. In Waldorf schools, children become proficient at knitting and sewing, gardening and painting. Waldorf kids know how to juggle at young ages and to bind books by hand as teenagers. No one wastes a precious minute prepping for or taking a standardized test, because everyone on a Waldorf campus agrees that children are far more than brains to be filled, unreflectively, with meaningless facts and that real learning happens when the body — and the soul — are engaged as well.

Overwhelmingly white, affluent, and well educated, Waldorf parents identify as cultural creatives and nonconformists. Satisfied families describe their Waldorf kids as puppyish, freewheeling Pippi Longstocking types who grow up into intellectually curious, competent, self-confident people who thrive, as Sussman boasts his own children have done, at Wesleyan and Swarthmore and Oxford, working as videographers, nature illustrators, and the builders of nonprofits. Eric Utne, founder of The Utne Reader, that alternative digest for the left, sent his four sons to Waldorf schools; when he stopped running his magazine in 2000, he became a Waldorf teacher himself. Utne loves Waldorf for its “unhurried” approach to childhood. The schools represent the progressive counterargument to the vaunted “early reading” programs of public schools, which start drilling kids on vowel sounds in pre-K. According to Waldorf’s pedagogy, kids don’t read until they’re 7 or 8 years old, and because they’re not forced or rushed into it, they embrace literature with natural interest and hunger, Utne told me. He has seen third-graders devouring Plato and the fantasy series Dune.

Across the country, in every state, great numbers of these specially nurtured children remain unvaccinated. Apart from certain religious or ethnic groups particular to certain geographic regions — pockets of the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn and Rockland, say, or pockets of the survivalist right — Waldorf kids have some of the lowest vaccination rates in America. In California, Waldorf schools, along with home schools, have some of the lowest vaccination rates — many as low as 20 or 30 percent, and some as low as 7 percent. The Brooklyn Waldorf school has the ninth-lowest vaccination rate in Kings County, and in Manhattan, the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf school is No. 7. At the start of the school year in 2018, Green Meadow had the third-lowest vaccination rate in Rockland County after two yeshivas in Monsey. “All the Waldorf schools are horrible,” says Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “There are several in Texas I would not consider safe for children.”

All states require kids to prove they’ve received a full schedule of vaccinations before they enter school. But a large majority of them, 47, also offer exemptions to parents who say their religious or spiritual beliefs prohibit vaccination, granting them a kind of “conscientious objector” status. And 16 states offer a broader “philosophical” exemption to those who wish to refuse vaccines on secular but moral grounds. Objectors have typically been members of very conservative or fringe sects who believe, for example, in the healing power of prayer or, as in the case of Christian Science, the ability of the mind to resist disease. The Amish have often opposed vaccination, and certain Muslim groups, especially those originating in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan but also the Nation of Islam, have regarded vaccination as a malevolent government conspiracy. Segments of the Dutch Reformed Church see vaccines as impeding a person’s divine destiny.

In recent years, the number of parents seeking religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions has grown, and it is increasing little by little every year. Jews, including ultra-Orthodox groups, have traditionally accepted vaccination, but as this year’s outbreak in and around New York City shows, that is changing. Fears of vaccines causing autism persist, but that is only one thread of the story. A second thread, Hotez believes, is predatory peddlers of disinformation targeting especially vulnerable communities in order to market alternative therapies. But the phenomenon is much more expansive than even that. In the 2017–18 school year, 7,044 kindergartners in Texas had nonmedical exemptions. There were 3,344 in Washington State; 3,427 in Oregon; 4,753 in Michigan; and approximately 2,000 each in New Jersey and New York. But the number of unvaccinated children in the U.S., though small, has risen significantly in the past year. According to the CDC, the percentage of unvaccinated children increased from 0.8 percent in 2016 to 1.1 percent in 2017. These three tiny decimal points represent a huge increase to about 63,555 unvaccinated kids a year. And vaccination refusal is a contagion, like the measles. People who don’t vaccinate their children tend to live among people who also don’t vaccinate their children.

How and when did liberal parents travel so far from Dr. Spock? The measles vaccine was approved in 1963, six years before Americans landed on the Moon, at a moment when technological progress was a joyride Americans took en masse. But in one generation, the kids of those Spock-raised kids have seemingly lost faith in progress and in the wisdom of the conventional wisdom, regarding every figure along that formerly congenial hierarchy — the scientists, the pharmaceutical companies, the government approvers, the politicians, even the wise and gentle pediatricians — as an object of suspicion and a plausible agent of the systemic harm that is being done, unconscionably, to kids. And in place of faith in experts, they have developed an alternative parenting culture built on anxiety about all the ills that might befall children (sickness, damage, death) and a sense that they, and only they, know how to protect the specialness, and purity, of their kids. To preserve that sanctity, parents have to begin to regard the material world — everything from movies to memes to vaccines — as contaminating. In some circles, at least, liberal American parents have evolved from emulating the Jetsons to emulating the Amish in one generation, always with the insistence that they’re doing it for the kids.

n almost every Waldorf kindergarten, the walls are pink. Not just a flat hardware-store pink but a dappled, translucent, rosy pink. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian intellectual who started the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart in 1919, called the method of application Lasur, German for “glaze.” According to Steiner’s color theory (derived from Goethe, whom he admired), kindergarten walls ought to be comforting but not confining, so a child can feel that the boundary between indoors and outdoors is in some sense permeable. The décor in a Waldorf kindergarten is prescribed as well. It looks domestic but intentional, like Little House on the Prairie went to Stockholm on vacation. There are usually curtains, also pink or red, and a table where items from the natural world are displayed: a vase of flowers, a handful of seashells, leaves, rocks. There may be a kitchen. Housework — including sweeping, gardening, baking, and darning — is a regular part of every day.

Every toy in a Waldorf kindergarten is constructed from natural materials. The tea set, including the cups and saucers, is carved of wood, and the stuffed kitties are knitted wool. Waldorf cloth dolls, famously, wear no facial expression, so children can feel free to impose their own ideas of mood and character on their make-believe games instead of receiving cues from a mass manufacturer. A Waldorf kindergarten is also stocked with ordinary objects — blocks, scarves, bits of yarn — that children can use to build their imaginary worlds. “Anything can be anything” is what Waldorf teachers say.

“My son can knit, he can sew, he can light fires, he can forage,” says Susanne Madden, a small-business owner with a first-grader at Green Meadow. “If the zombie apocalypse were tomorrow, he will be fine, but the kid next door, who’s on his iPad all the time, he won’t. My child is not in the grind, he has no anxiety, he’s not being dragged from place to place. He’ll happily play with two sticks, two stones, and a hedge.”

Madden picked up a pamphlet advertising Green Meadow at a farmers’ market. She went to school in Ireland, and her husband is Irish, and when their child was born, they realized they wanted something more nurturing than a conventional public school. They visited Green Meadow and felt right at home. Although Waldorf schools have tried to adapt to the modern world, they retain an antiquated, mystical, European feel: With its low buildings and wooden bridges set in a grassy dell, Green Meadow looks as if its architects had been hobbits. In the early grades, kids are taught fables, myths, and fairy tales — often from the Brothers Grimm and other children’s stories popular in Steiner’s day — which they are expected to memorize. As soon as they are able, they copy the stories they’ve memorized into blank books in their best cursive writing, eventually using fountain pens, and illustrate them, so by the end of the year each child has made what amounts to an illuminated manuscript. Math is taught through games with little faceless gnome toys — like Smurfs or trolls, if they were made by hand and sold at craft fairs. Every Waldorf child learns to play a special wooden recorder, called a pentatonic flute, and, even in high school, to dance, in broad, careful motions, sometimes waving silk scarves or toy swords, according to a choreography Steiner invented called “eurythmy.” Each fall, most Waldorf communities gather to celebrate Michaelmas with a pageant that enacts the story of St. George slaying the dragon. In Waldorf performances, he merely “tames” it.

Steiner developed his belief system (which Waldorf people call “a spiritual philosophy”), known as “anthroposophy,” after having personal experiences in which he spoke with the dead and had visions in which he saw the plans of the gods. Although Waldorf schools say they’re secular and no teacher ever explicitly instructs children in the tenets of Steiner’s philosophy, this system does form the basis of Waldorf education, as the schools acknowledge: According to an FAQ on the website of the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, “Waldorf education … has its foundations in anthroposophy.”

Of course, very few Green Meadow parents officially identify as anthroposophists. Indeed, most admit, laughing, that they can’t even pronounce the word, and while some dabble in the study groups offered by expert faculty after school, more of them say they’ve attempted to read Steiner and found him incomprehensible. But through osmosis or proximity almost all have come into contact with anthroposophy’s core belief, which they regard with varying degrees of skepticism: Reincarnation and karma are real, and each child is born to particular parents to fulfill a particular destiny.

When Steiner started his Waldorf school, vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough were less than a decade away, and the mystic — watching scientific progress and the rise of industrial-era materialism with a wary eye — warned that vaccination could impede proper spiritual development and “make people lose any urge for a spiritual life.” Without the right interventions, Steiner thought, a person receiving a vaccine could sustain damage that would carry into a subsequent life.

The job of the teacher, then, is a sacred one: to guide children through the stages of childhood with wisdom and gentleness so that each child may attain the freedom, competence, and curiosity to fulfill his or her destiny. Steiner followers say children younger than 7 especially need a low-stress environment, marked by gentle, comforting domestic routines, because they are still partially connected to the spirit world. At age 7 (after they lose, in Waldorf parlance, their “milk teeth”), children come “awake,” which is why the third-grade classrooms are painted orange-yellow and why it’s the right time to teach the kids to read. Fourteen to 21 is a time of  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 June 2019 at 9:57 am

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