Sunday, December 19, 2010

back, for real

So, after a month of traveling and living out of my backpack (and accordingly smelling and looking like canned ass), I'm back in the relative sedateness (a word? eh, maybe, too lazy to look it up) of London for seven more godforsaken weeks. These weeks are made significantly worse by the fucked up British exam system. Let me explain. The full-time (i.e. three year, because that's how long college is here) students recieve one grade for their year long classes. This grade is based either entirely on the final or 75% on the final and 25% on a blind assessed essay. That's all. Class participation? Doesn't count. The other essays assigned during the semester? Don't count. All that counts are the three hour final exams.

So, first of all, this system leads to people not showing up for their assigned in-class presentations (which is really unfortunate when you're the co-presenter) or doing the other assigned essays (which clearly works to my advantage by making me look good in comparison but still baffles me). The big issue, though, is that now everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

See, the way finals work here is that although the exams ostensibly cover all twenty weeks of class, there are actually only twelve (or fourteen) questions on each exam, of which you need to answer three (or four). People generally prepare six topics for each final. When I say "people", I mean "reasonable people". However, in each of my classes, someone has announced their intention to prepare upwards of ten topics. We call those people "the crazies." Even the people who are only preparing six topics are acting like the final exams are The Most Difficult Things You Will Ever Have To Do. Seriously, every conversation I've had with a full time LSE student has gone something like this:

LSE student: So, have you started revising (British for studying) yet?
Me: Um, a little. (This is a lie. I haven't started at. all.)
LSE student: (Without any pause for breath) I've already made study guides for all my classes, but I'm thinking about doing some extra topics for my [insert random class here] class because what if [obscure theorist] doesn't show up on the exam and I mean, I already got the marks I needed last year, but you know, I want to graduate with a First, so I think maybe I should do some supplementary reading because they like that kind of thing and have you looked at the past years exams for our class because it looks like she's changed the class a little, what do you think?
Me: Um, I dunno, she said that last year's exam was fine, so...
LSE student: (Suspiciously) You're awfully relaxed.

And I am awfully relaxed, I suppose. I mean, exams don't start for two weeks, I only have one exam per week and I only need to learn 5 or 6 topics for each class. Compare this to Smith where my exams (and final papers, almost all of which were due here before spring break) are clustered over four days and I'm expected to know everything that's been covered in the class. Frankly, I spend about three hours each cramming for those tests, so I don't see why these (seemingly significantly easier) tests require studying from 10 in the morning to midnight every day including weekends. Maybe I'll be singing a different tune after my first final, but for the time being, I'll just keep rolling my eyes.

talking 'bout my (sub)generation

If you know about the Babysitters Club books, you are probably a girl who was born between 1981 and 1985 or you had a sister who was born during that period. I cannot think of anything else that so accurately defines what I think of as my subgeneration (although Saved by the Bell and Newsies come pretty close). When I was in elementary school, I spent endless hours discussing my favorite Babysitter ("artsy", dyslexic, sweet-toothed Asian-American, Claudia Kishi) and imagining how exciting my life would be when I was thirteen and could have sort-of boyfriends and funny babysitting jobs and maybe go out for pizza with the gang. I had over a hundred of the books (which came out every month), the board game, some of the Bradlees clothing bearing the BSC logo and not one but two of the videos of the short lived cable series (the theme song to which STILL gets stuck in my head...."Say hello to your friends (Babysitters Club!) Say hello to the people who care!"). By the time I actually turned thirteen, of course, I had realized that the Babysitters were horrifyingly lame suburban assholes who didn't swear. This realization didn't hamper the fascination, though. Even in college, on long van rides (especially when driving to New York and passing through Stamford) or over dinner, inevitably, someone would pose the embarassed question " you guys remember the Babysitters Club?" In unison the whole van/dinner table would yell "YES!" and then proceed to name their favorite babysitter, laugh at the ridiculous plotlines and share dorky tales of elementary school idolization. When the series' author, Ann M. Martin (Smith College '77) came to an event at school, the book signing was mobbed.

A quick anecdote. Once I was very drunkenly making out with a boy who had diabetes. We were talking about his diabetes and he was explaining it to me politely in response to my (probably very rude) questions about whether he had to give himself shots, etc. He explained that he did have to give himself shots, but with a little EPI pen type thing, not a syringe. I interrupted, drunkenly: "Oh, see, I thought it was a syringe because....oh, this is dumb. When I was a kid, I used to read these books and this girl-" Him: "Wait. Oh my god. Every single girl I've ever talked to about my diabetes has brought this up. It's that fucking Stacey from the fucking Babysitters Team or some shit like that, right?" And indeed, it was. Everything I know about diabetes (and for that matter, everything I knew about dyslexia before coming to BAA) comes from the Babysitters Club. That, in and of itself, is not remarkable. I'm really not that smart sometimes. What is remarkable is that clearly, I'm not the only girl who hears the word "diabetes" and thinks "Stacey" (I mean, "diabetes" was one of her character traits for God's sake: the others being "fashionable", "boy crazy", and "from New York City"). Clearly, there are more than there should be.

I want to reread the Babysitters Club books now, in the same spirit that I watched Annie, my favorite movie as a five year old, last year. A good ten of us watched Annie for the first time in years and years last year and realized that a) Miss Hannigan was an alcoholic (just went right over my head as a little kid) and b) everyone from Annie to Grace (and several of the orphans in between, not to even mention Miss Hannigan) were BIG RAGING LESBOS! Oh, watch it again. You'll see. Anyways, I'm interested to see whether the Babysitters Club has any hidden subtext. Given my recent drunken conversation with Rose about feminism and the Babysitters Club (remember how on the night when everyone got snowed into Kristy's house, Kristy, the group's supposed "tomboy" woke up early to put on makeup and blow dry her hair because her sort of boyfriend Bart had slept over?), I kind of doubt it. But then again, Ann M. Martin was a Smithie, so you never know. There may have been some serious Sapphic subtext between, say, Dawn (character traits: blond, from California) and Mary-Anne (character traits: quiet, stupid as all get out, the only one with a "real boyfriend").

Who was your favorite Babysitter? Alternately, what's your subgeneration's equivalent of the BSC?

it's a start...

So many things to write about today! Gay marriage, the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Iraq. One at a time, one at a time.

I am so proud to be from Massachusetts today. Fifty years from today, just as we are now celebrating the anniversary of Brown, we will celebrate the anniversary of the first day that the validity of the relationships of same-sex couples were recognized and enshrined in law. There's still a lot of work to be done, even in Massachusetts, but this is a huge step and I'm so very happy it happened in my state. Let's see you try to top that, New York. WE RULE!

Shit. I want to write a really long entry on Brown, but I'm about to go out for a pint. That'll be up later (along with some thoughts on Iraq), mkay?

happy anniversary?

Unless you're living under a rock, you've probably heard that today is the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that legally ended desegregation. I say "legally" because desegregation is still alive and well in most of the United States. Sadly, the major difference between now and the era of Brown is that today's desegregation is de facto rather than de jure.

First, why integration is important. I honestly believe that diversity in educational institutions is an important benefit in and of itself. The United States is still a country filled with extreme racism. I'm not saying that mixing students of different racial backgrounds will automatically erase this racism. Obviously, elimating racism (besides probably being impossible to do in totality) would take a whole lot more than that. However, the first step to breaking down prejudice is simply letting people get to know each other. I know people who didn't know a person of a different ethnicity until college.

Why didn't Brown work? (Disclaimer: I'm not at all trying to belittle the importance of Brown here. It was a huge milestone in the civil rights battle and continues to be an inspiring example of good things the judiciary can do. All I'm saying is that the promise made by Brown: fully integrated and equal education for all students, regardless of race) has yet to be fulfilled.) The first reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, the United States is still a country filled with extreme racism. When cities and towns across the country began implementing their desegregation plans, many white families responded by moving to the suburbs where their kids could attend schools filled (almost entirely) with people of their own race, leaving the central urban areas to the (often lower-income) people of color. Shockingly, the resources available to the city schools took a precipitous drop at this point. Michigan (along with a few other states, I believe) tried to remedy this situation by instituting desegregation plans that took place across district lines, most notably in the Detroit metropolitan area. Angry Oakland County parents responded with a lawsuit, Milliken v. Bradley, which, in 1974, made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled cross-district desegregation plans unconstitutional. These days, regardless of race most students attend schools primarily filled with other students that look like them.

All of this wouldn't be as big of a problem were it not for the troubling business of the achievement gap. Like I said, diversity is obviously a Good Thing in and of itself, but the resegregation of American schools wouldn't be nearly as troubling if students of all races were performing equally well. They aren't. Every year the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a representative survey of student knowledge, is carried out among the nation’s fourth and eighth grade students. In 2003, black and Latino eighth grade students scored an average of 34 points lower than white and Asian Pacific Islander eighth grade students on the mathematics assessment and 27 points lower on the reading assessment. In 2001, white students had a 93% high school completion rate, as compared to 87% of black students and 63% of Latino students. Post-secondary education attainment rates follow the familiar achievement gap even for those who complete high school. White adults aged 25-29 in 2001 were almost twice as likely as black adults in the same cohort and three times as likely as similar Latino adults to have completed four or more years of university. This gap, I would argue, is almost entirely due to the disparity in resources between schools in different areas.

You probably already know how school funding works. Just in case, here it is: money for public schools is raised primarily through property tax. In wealthy areas, this is enough. However, in low-income areas, even if citizens are taxed at a higher rate, the property tax is not enough. At this point, the government steps in with enough money to raise the poorer schools, not to the level of the rich schools, but to a basic "foundation level", or enough to provide a "sufficient basic education". (If you haven't already read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, you really, really should.) Add to this the fact that most public schools have no spending autonomy and you get a pretty bleak picture.

Listen. I went to "fancy" Boston public schools my whole pre-college life (woo magnet programs). Here's what I remember: crap out of date computers, sharing one of those desks with the arm attached with two other people, no toilet paper EVER, classes taught by five teachers over the course of the year, nasty out of date books and recesses spent out on concrete "lawns". (It is very much worth noting that I also remember a lot of amazing teachers and that all those schools (with the possible exception of Latin School) gave me a really excellent education. I'm not at all trying to paint an entirely negative picture of city schools.) To be totally honest, I didn't think all that much about this during school. I vaguely knew that schools like Brookline High and Newton North were nicer, but I think I kind of assumed that most schools were like mine, but with a campus. Then I came to college and heard about some of the schools my friends had gone to: schools with student kitchens, electives that sounded like college classes, climbing walls in the gym, theatres that would make a Broadway producer cry with envy. There is simply an enormous divide between what schools in cities and schools in suburbs are able to afford. There is also an enormous divide between the racial makeup of schools in cities and schools in suburbs. In short, schools are separate and schools are unequal.

No Child Left Behind is not going to help this because it doesn't address the underlying problem of inequitable funding. This problem is going to require a radical solution. While I would advocate a retrying of Milliken, that's pretty unrealistic. Also probably unrealistic is the idea of radically overhauling the current system of school funding in favor of one entirely centralized and equal. I think that the biggest challenge (and perhaps, the ultimate solution) is going to come from CFE v. State of New York.

I have more I want to say about this, but I'm tired as hell, so tune in tomorrow to hear more about why Brown didn't work.

more brown

Even in schools that are successfully integrated, racial disparities persist. One reason for this is tracking. In most schools, there are at least three or four tracks ranging from special education (when it's not mainstreamed) to honors or gifted programs. On a whole (once again, trying not to generalize too much), pupils of color are disproportionately represented in the lower tracks, and white students are disproportionately represented in the higher tracks. These tracks are not equally valued and do not lead to equal opportunities upon school completion. A student who took the vocational track in high school is not afforded the same options upon graduation as a student who took the college preparatory track. Obviously, for the most part, students are not assigned into tracks based on concious racist assumptions by teacher and administrators, but studies (which I could cite if I had my books from Multicultural Education, but they're in Noho, so deal) have shown that there is a degree of unconcious bias that factors into the tracking decisions.

The solution here, I think, is differentiated education. Obviously, not every single student can be taught in the same classroom. However, the vast majority can. Clearly it takes more work on the part of teachers, but it is a possibility. (There's a really good book about this, but once again, my shit's in Noho.) I will admit, I've been in classes where people have been at very different levels and it hasn't worked at. all., but I really believe there's a way to make it work - to challenge those who need challenging and offer assistance to those who need catching up while both groups take the same curriculum.

I'm not saying that either vocational education classes or APs should be abolished...I think both are decidedly good things. All I'm saying is give students choices on what they want to take and abolish the selection criteria attached to these classes. Press for full inclusion (obviously with special provisions) for students with special educational needs as much as possible. I think that this would go a long way toward achieving greater educational equity.

Of course, you'd still have to deal with the bigotry of soft expectactions, monocultural curriculum and the wildly uneven quality of teachers, but those are other topics for other times.

Tomorrow, theatre reviews!