OPINION: Out of necessity, I taught my son to choose a college for its value, not its prestige or vibe — My latest in The Hechinger Report

Without photoshopping his face onto the body of a water polo athlete, like some of the parents caught up in the recent U.S. college cheating scandal, I could have prepped my older son, Jonah, for college like a prize pumpkin at the county fair.

Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.

Lots of parents do these tasks; most aren’t even considered cheating. It’s just how things are done these days among many upper- and middle-class families.

With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.

More here.

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Geographic Inequality

Steve’s folks called with good news over the weekend. His mom’s brother and wife are going to retire just 20 minutes away from them in North Carolina. Steve’s folks retired to the area from Cleveland about ten years ago, and we’ve always been worried about their distance from extended family. Now, they have people to spend holidays with, when they can’t make the trip up to us.

They sent me a link on Zillow to their new house, so I spent a little time checking out the other homes in the area. Those homes — perfectly nice places with a couple of bathrooms and three bedrooms — are a quarter of the price of homes in my neck of the woods. This is why people are leaving the metropolitan regions, like Chicago and New York.

Not really a big deal, I suppose. If North Carolina can offer people a better quality of life than the older cities, then good for them. Families, like mine, that need alternative schooling options for disabled children and have work tied to the big cities can never go there, but there are many families who are more flexible. So, good for them, right?

However, if some areas of the country are homes of the rich and others are homes of the middle class, working class, and retirees, then it does open up some political problems.

Imagine if the representatives from some states become advocates not for the interests of the particular local industries, ie Iowa farmers, West Virginia coal miners, but for entire economic classes, ie New York Rich People and North Carolina Retirees. Then political debates would be less about opposing commercial interests and directly about class. I suppose it is that way now, but those economic tensions could be more obvious and competitive than they are already.

Any discussion about changing the electoral college or representation in Senate would also become strongly charged with these economic tension.

Sidenote — If we limit the voice of small population states in the electoral college and the Senate, it might make affairs more democratic, but it would also mean a massive disinvestment in the entire center of the country. There would be no federal projects for highway construction in Nebraska, say or farm subsidies in Iowa. There might be really cheap homes out there, but there would be no way to drive to those houses.

The growing affluence of big cities is going to have long term political implications.

Revisiting the Gifted & Talented Debate

Mayor DeBlasio recently proposed getting rid of the special gifted and talented schools in New York City. There’s scrutiny on the IQ test given to 4-year olds. Those schools basically caused us to leave New York City, so I have written a lot about them in the past.

In a nutshell, I had my kid tested when he was FOUR YEARS OLD (ugh!) to see if he was gifted and talented, like all of my friends. Because nobody wanted to send their kid to the underfunded local school. He did well enough to get into the lower level gifted schools, but it would have involved lots of subway riding with Ian who was still a toddler who needed naps. I couldn’t figure out how to make it work, so we left.

In a rant on Twitter this morning, I listed my reasons for hating G & T programs:

  • There is no scientific way of sorting out a bunch of hyper 4 and 5 year olds into two camps of gifted and not gifted. None. Just looking at my son’s cohort at school, his kindergarten teacher sorted extremely badly. The kid who is on track to be an aerospace engineer at NASA? Dissed.
  • The process of sorting kids into two piles — gifted v. forgettable — is awful. Full stop.
  • Why should one group of kids get more challenging, fun instruction with higher paid teachers than another group? Equal education for all.
  • The literature on G & T verges on science fiction. Attributing supernatural powers of empathy and reason to mysterious kids. It’s laughable.
  • There’s a place for specialized programs in high school, where sorting is based on mature test taking ability and years of evidence of solid work. But earlier than that, it’s silly, unfair, and pointless.

Previous posts:

Intolerant of Intolerance

A couple of days ago, I was on twitter all day promoting an article. It’s an important (unpaid) part of the job. And as I was doing that, I was reading all the tweets of the day. Of course, everyone was responding to the latest statement by our president. He knows how to whip them up good.

Anyway, bored with talking about my article, I threw out a one sentence tweet that was the equivalent of “I know you guys are all saying this, but, in my conversations with others, they are saying that. Shrug.” It was mild and boring, and I expected nobody to notice it.

Almost instantly, tons and tons of people starting yelling at me. Like tweet-screaming at me. If I wanted lots of traffic, I could get it by wading into the muck. But I don’t want it. It’s terrible for my career, so I instantly deleted the tweet. Even though everything that I said was absolutely correct. Who needs the hassle? I don’t have tenure. I can’t say whatever I like. Not even the truth.

Shutting down conversation really rubs me the wrong way, because I was trained to be a professor, a political science professor. I love swimming in the grey area, the middle zone, the contradictions. I love the challenging questions. If everybody says X, I have to say “let’s consider Y for a minute.” That’s how I was trained. There is no way that I would start a career in political science today.

A few months back, I got into something with an old blogging buddy who yelled at me for looking for a middle road on the topic du jour. He yelled at me and unfollowed me. Said that it was inappropriate to talk the way I did, because “it was a war!!!”

Everybody feels like they are in the middle of a war. People aren’t happy. Day-to-day people who never touch social media or pundit themselves on the op-ed pages of the big newspapers are whispering stuff to me over glasses of wine in the local pub. I can’t tell their stories. I would get demolished.

But the hate on the Internet is particularly intense. As I said, I got some pretty horrific comments on my HuffPost article about the flight attendant and Ian’s autism. Commenters said that I should have aborted my kid, beaten him, or drowned him. I should say that 90 percent of the comments were positive, but those evil ones stand out in my head more. I still haven’t recovered from that.

I find myself walking away from the usual sources of information and looking for something light and funny and simply not angry. I’m reading home decorating Instagram posts. Seriously. I watched a five minute video this morning from some designer who made a family room in some rich lady’s home more inviting.

We’re heading into an election. I’ve always talked about politics in this blog. But I’m not sure if that I should. I’m not sure that I want to. I may even delete this blog post in thirty minutes. We live in bad times.

Free College and Student Loan Forgiveness in the Democratic Debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk during in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last night, education policy was front and center. But only higher education. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have various proposals that aim at reducing the burden of college students and recent graduates. On the table are free college and student loan forgiveness.

Now, college tuition rates are insane. Some colleges are $73,000 for full cost of attendance. Yes, there are tuition discounts for merit and need, but lots of students pay full freight. That’s their sticker price. And some students do rack up significant amounts of debt, particularly if they tack on masters degrees, take a long time to graduate, and just make bad decisions.

You know that I’m highly sympathetic and have ranted about those issues for a while. But I’m worried about blank checks for college for a number of reasons.

It penalizes people who made hard choices to avoid debt: A school teacher who doesn’t take vacations but puts money in 529 accounts for her kids since birth. A college graduate who takes a boring job, rather than the dream job, to pay off the loans. A student who attends a community college for two years, before transferring to a four year college. The kid who goes to an in-state public college, solely because of cost.

It does nothing for students who can’t finish college, which may be even more of a serious crisis than debt.

It does nothing for students who need a degree from a trade school. Or don’t attend college at all, but still need training and employment support.

It does nothing to stop the cause of the problem – colleges. They are allowed to keep raising tuition, even at in-state public colleges, without any checks. Even, as they do in my state, waste buckets of cash on losing sports teams. And there is no pressure on them to improve quality. They keep replacing full time faculty with adjuncts.

There is no distinction between public and private colleges in their plans. A public college is a right, a private college is not.

As many have pointed out, it benefits the middle class without much trickle down help for working and lower class citizens.

Steve and I attended a grad school program that didn’t provide any funding for its grad students. Not even tuition. (Yes, majorly stupid, but let’s move on.)

I kept my loans manageable by working part-time, sometimes full time, at a policy institute at the same time as taking classes and writing a dissertation. I also taught a few classes. Steve taught a great deal, while doing his classwork. While students at other universities were building their CVs, we were ghost writing papers and teaching 50+ students at the Bronx Community College.

Even with all that, our combined student loan debt when we got married was over $75,000. We paid it off around my 50th birthday. We’re better off than most of our classmates, who were looking at bigger numbers. That debt was awful. It had a big impact on our careers and other life choices (children, homes). Grad school was a MAJOR financial train wreck. (I’m not even going to talk about the impact of beginning to save for retirement in your mid 30’s, rather than your 20’s.)

So, I am highly, HIGHLY sympathetic to anybody who wants to ease that burden on others. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with the current proposals, because they don’t check the colleges themselves, don’t distinguish between public and private colleges, penalize good behavior, and don’t help people who choose alternatives to college.

Mueller Hearings, Impeachment, and 2020

I just spent an hour driving Jonah back and forth to pick up his car from Jimmy the Mechanic. The hand-me-down Toyota — 150,000 miles — that he uses to commute to his college for a summer class needed nearly $1,000 in repairs. Sigh. Some day, he’ll have a job, right?

On the way over, we listened to the Mueller hearing on NPR. I used the hearing to talk about the committee system, impeachment rules, divisions in the Democratic Party, and polling information about 2020. Jonah is a political science major, so I squeeze in mini-lessons whenever I can.

Mueller can’t indict a sitting president, because that’s the job of Congress. The House impeaches, and the Senate convicts. And the outcome is obvious. The House will impeach, but there aren’t enough votes in the Senate. That’s why Pelosi isn’t supporting impeachment at this time.

Impeachment would shutdown government for a year. That means no legislation on healthcare or anything really. It would be worth the sacrifice, if the impeachment would lead to ushering out Trump out of office. But it wouldn’t. In fact, the proceedings would make sure that every Republican who hates Democrats, more than they despise Trump, would show up to the voting booth on Election Day. Pelosi fears that a failed impeachment would hand the election to Trump.

There is no way that a diehard Republican is going to vote for a Democrat, but there is a chance that they might stay home on Election Day. That’s what we want. We want bored, lazy Republican voters, not energized, woke Republicans.

Most members of Congress know that an impeachment is unlikely, but they hope that the hearings will undermine Trump’s reputation. Give him a black eye or two.

Are you watching? It is working?

National Identity, Origin Myths, and Culloden

Road from Edinburgh to Inverness
Road from Edinburgh to Inverness

About midway through our trip to Scotland, Steve picked up a rental car and we headed north to Inverness. Inverness is in the heart of Highlands, where the kilt and the bagpipe and the clans ruled for hundreds of years.

Yes, Steve bravely drove on the wrong side of the road for several nail-biting days on our trip. He may or may not have dinged up the back bumper on a narrow road one day. He said the first day was stressful, but after Day One, he felt fine. We could have done just fine using the train and bus system for that part of the country, but a car was nice, because we able to really explore the quiet lanes of the country. It would have been cool to have more time to drive up the coast and see even more remote areas and islands. Next time.

One of our day trips was to the ancient battle site, Culloden. Here, in 1745, thousands of Scots — massively outnumbered, exhausted, and out-gunned — stepped onto the battle field knowing that they wouldn’t make it out alive. The dead bodies were later just dumped in mass graves with big rocks laid through the field with clan names.

The fields of Culloden

There’s a big museum commemorating the battle there and you can walk through the field to think about the despair and the bravery of the troops.

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

This battle and the ramifications of the massive Jacobite revolution is everywhere in the area. Later, we visited Urquhart Castle or the remains of it. It had been blown up at some point during the whole Jacobite mess. And every site we visited on our trip had been impacted in some way by the lost battle, the bravery of the men, the brutal oppression of the British afterwards, and the decimation of the clan system.

Memorial at Culloden

This battle was the core of their national identity. A battle that they lost and arguably was a stupid, stupid fight; there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. But I thought it was fascinating that a country could identity itself as losers, especially after looking up at all the monuments to winning in London; the English are not shy about their colonial past.

Southerners also embraced the loser identity for years, focusing on the bravery of the soldiers, rather than the fact that they were fighting for the slavery. I wonder how many Southerners were of Scottish descent and took their cues from that country.

Every country has its own origin myths. For us, it’s the George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross and the flag, and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello. We won our war, so that makes things easier. People like their myths clean and simple. For Scotland, it’s bravery and honor, regardless of the cost. For us, it is founding fathers and the birth of democracy. Even if things weren’t perfect in the beginning, the myth goes, our country had seen a gradual march towards greater freedom.

Trump and his supporters are struggling to maintain old notions of the American Origin Myth at a time when the contradictions are too clear. We’re in a period where we’re redefining ourselves as a nation and trying to make peace with the past. It’s fine to have an origin myth based on being losers, as the Scotland example shows, but you can’t have an origin myth based on evil. Maybe a country doesn’t need an origin myth at all. It’s fascinating to see how all this turns out.