cover of Dana Goldstein's "The Teacher Wars"As many reviewers have already said, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars is a super smart look at the history of the American education system, with a focus on the key stories and leaders we need to know in order to understand what’s happening now.

If there’s one thing I took away from the book (which is currently #8 on The New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list), it’s that none of the proposed solutions in our current (and heated) education debates are new. In fact, they’ve all been tried before. We are, as usual, repeating history.

I’ve been following Dana’s reporting on education (and feminism and criminal justice) ever since we were part of the same writing group in Brooklyn in 2012 (I even got to workshop early drafts of the book’s first chapter). When I was teaching writing and urban issues at American University, she was a guest speaker in my classes (students loved her).

I’ve been so excited to see her successes, and the timing of this book feels particularly symbolic: Last month, I left academia for a full-time job in the education reform movement (I’m a writer at Bellwether Education Partners). I’m so happy to have more time to delve into the issues she so smartly writes about, and to do so while on the clock, so to speak.

Last night she joined New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey and’s Jamelle Bouie to discuss the book, and while there were a ton of smart things I could highlight from the discussion, let me focus on one.

Dana’s book (and other writing over the years) describes the dichotomy where teachers are either seen as heroes (e.g., their work with the highest needs kids is a form of community service) or devils (e.g., they are failing our kids, our schools, and our communities). In the best case scenario, teachers are the “angel-magicians” who mentor vulnerable children, and in the worst case scenario, they are killing the American Dream.

Dana argues, and I would agree, that this dichotomy is damaging because it locks teachers into one camp or another without leaving room for improvement. Teachers aren’t viewed as professionals who can use training and mentorship to grow, but as a corps of do-gooders who either are or miserably fail to be saviors.

At the same time, as Dana said in a recent interview, “Because we have a relatively weak social safety net [in the United States], we’re really asking [teachers] to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids.” So there is a sense in which teachers are doing extraordinary work.

At yesterday’s event, I asked Dana how to dismantle the harmful dichotomy while still acknowledging the tremendous teachers who work in extremely challenging circumstances. How can we name and honor the teachers who are essentially being asked to double as social workers, “particularly in high-needs schools in poor areas, where children are often coming from unsteady home lives?”

Dana recalled public school teachers from her childhood (in racially integrated schools!) who were heroes for some kids, buying winter coats for those who couldn’t afford them, etc.

But she also talked about wanting teachers to have less of these cases per classroom. Ideally, Dana said last night, a teacher has only a few students that she needs to be a hero for, and the rest of the students just need “a great instructional leader.”

Obviously this means we need classrooms that are more integrated, both racially and economically.

Based on her research, Dana thinks we also need to systematically move the best teachers into the highest needs classrooms. Does this imply the Teach for America (TFA) model works as a solution? Not quite, argues Dana. She doesn’t want new or novice teachers who only work for a few years (a missionary-style model that Dana’s book traces as far back as the 1800s).

Her problem with the TFA-style model is the “churn and burn cycle,” where even if a classroom teacher is an all-star veteran, the constant turnover in the school around them can negatively impact student achievement.

This makes sense when you think about how kids need consistency to develop trust and build relationships. But Dana also added that part of the “churn and burn” problem is that the attention and energy of the adults in the school is “focused on recruitment not instruction.”

So how do we get the best teachers into the classrooms that need them the most?

Dana has reported on the Talent Transfer Initiative, an attempt to get the best teachers into the highest needs classrooms and to get them to stay there.

Last night, she also talked about polling that reveals the reasons teachers leave: No career ladder. Little or no recognition from adults (feedback, compliments, mentorship). Problem principals.

Tackle those issues and teachers might be willing to work in some of the most challenging schools.

To read more, including Dana’s 11 recommendations for improving American education, go buy the book.





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Oh, Bari Weiss. You’re being so glib and flippant, writing in shorthand as if we already agree with you, that I can’t tell if you’re being serious or if your Wall Street Journal piece from last week, “How to Survive—and Maybe Enjoy—PC University,” is just click bait. I have to suspect the latter since it’s not difficult to knock down your sloppy logic about the supposed problem of politically correct universities.

You complain about course catalogs that include classes on transgender health disparities. God forbid. You really think it’s not worth anyone’s time to study the health and wellness of trans people? Is it not worth anyone’s time to take a class from a leading expert on transgender health who’s gotten awards from National Institutes of Health? Should we just ignore the fact that trans people have high rates of mental health issues and suicide and are less likely to have health insurance than heterosexual or LGB individuals? And even if trans people didn’t have poor health outcomes, do trans issues warrant no attention from academics and students?

And, in fact, I think it’s great that someone is a specialist in transgender health in the same way it’s great that someone is a specialist in Fermentation Science, Russian adultery novels, and the Science of Facial Reconstruction. You don’t seem outraged by those highly-specialized fields (perhaps because your outrage was just a cover for your transphobia). Shouldn’t we support broad-ranging intellectual curiosity?

You caution students from taking courses with titles they can’t understand, including a literature course on “Romantic Extremities.” A quick search clarified that the course is about the “romantic fascination with psychological, political, aesthetic, and geographical extremes.” Should no one bother reading Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jane Austen, or William Blake, all authors listed in the syllabus?

Sure, your list of recommended courses (“Econ. Latin. Great Books. Con Law. Plato. Austen. Milton. Dante. Nietzsche.”) is a great start for someone entering college. But why not supplement the study of canonical literature and social thought with courses that broaden your horizons? If you’re not careful, the above list might mean only reading words and works by white people. Do you really think white people are the only ones with valuable contributions to intellectual, social, and political history?

Hopefully you were just kidding and I’ve wasted my breath.

A few exciting updates:

  • My collection of poems entitled “Short-Shorts” was named a semi-finalist in the Gazing Grain Press Feminist Poetry Chapbook contest. I’d been feeling insecure about the work–it’s the most unusual thing I’ve ever written–but now that the collection of prose poems/flash nonfiction (or whatever you want to call it) has been honored in this way, I’m excited to keep sending it out. More information on the winners and the Press here.
  • I’ve become a contributor to the Washington City Paper. You can read my latest book review, about a former Washington Post reporter who covered D.C.’s crack epidemic while himself addicted to crack. This review is probably the first and last time I’ll ever get paid for a piece containing the words “blow job” (you’ll have to read the whole thing to find that), but an excerpt is below:

A new memoir by former WashingtonPost reporter Ruben Castaneda replays some of the lowest points in D.C.’s recent history: a time in the 1990s when cops couldn’t seem to do anything about gun violence, when drug-related turf wars led to scores of innocent victims and intimidation killings of witnesses, when my neighborhood of Edgewood was known as “Little Beirut,” and when some children in particularly stricken neighborhoods avoided gunfire by sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

Expect more from me in the City Paper over the next couple of months, and hopefully I’ll have more good news to share on the essay/poem front.



DC is supposedly the country’s #1 gay mecca, yet 4 gay bars closed in the city in the last year alone. Wondering what’s going on? Me too.

The header from the June issue of Washington City Paper

I wrote about it for the Washington City Paper and their annual gay-themed issue (banner above). Read the full article here.

My latest article is up at The Jewish Daily Forward. It’s a profile of a prominent community leader in the predominantly Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve been working on this piece for ages, and I’m so happy to finally have it see the light of day.

An excerpt:

Located on the main stretch of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach Avenue, among numerous Russian delis, Russian-language bookstores and a shuttered Russian travel agency, the Brighton Neighborhood Association stands out. Its window is one of the few on the block with signs predominantly in English, and it’s one of the few storefronts near the elevated tracks of the B and Q trains that doesn’t actually sell anything.

This doesn’t stop people — and definitely not elderly Russians — from strolling through the glass front door, unannounced, on a regular basis. Some mistake the office for a thrift store and start lifting up, one by one, the porcelain and enamel elephants, gifts from friends and other tchotchkes on the desk of Pat Singer, founder and executive director of BNA, a not-for-profit social service agency in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood that stretches for one mile along the Atlantic coast.

Singer has to break into her limited knowledge of Russian to shoo them away: “Not magazin, this office! Not for sale, nooo! Get your hands off my desk!”

The full article is online here. Also in print. Not sure where they are sold, to be honest. Try your local synagogue?

grafitti that reads "bronx" on a wall in brooklyn, ny

Photo licensed by Creative Commons. By bitchcakesny.

Interesting article in The New York Times Magazine (an installment of Adam Davidson’s always-interesting economics column) about the Bronx economy and why it hasn’t prospered in recent years like parts of Brooklyn.

Why has Brooklyn gentrified and experienced “phenomenal economic growth” while the Bronx continues to be known for “unemployment and rampant prostitution”? Why do “nearly a third of [Bronx] residents over age 25 lack a high-school diploma”?

Davidson argues that housing stock has a lot to do with it:

Brooklyn and Queens were once collections of independent towns whose homegrown economies were rooted in Long Island agriculture, not Manhattan mercantilism. Local elites built expensive town houses on tree-lined streets. These neighborhoods fell on hard times during the 1970s, but their expensive stock was perfectly positioned for revitalization as the Manhattan boom of the past few decades pushed young professionals across the river. The Bronx, however, never developed its own economic drivers. It became, by the late 19th century, a haven for immigrants attracted to (but unable to afford) Manhattan. The borough developed far fewer wealthy areas, and many neighborhoods became devoted to less-gentrifiable housing units.

All this means that not only are upwardly mobile people not moving in, but the current residents make their money and largely do business transactions (a.k.a spend money and fuel the economy) in Manhattan, not the Bronx.

The Brownstoner blog adds a relevant statistic that Davidson left out:

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated 29 Historic Districts in Brooklyn and only 11 in the Bronx. Landmarking is largely responsible for preserving large swaths of attractive housing stock in Brooklyn during tougher times and for preventing the construction of “less-gentrifiable housing units.”

Obviously, improving the local economy should not rely on the investments of gentrifiers and inevitable displacement of low-income and working-class people. What about improving the lot for people who already live in the Bronx?

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is attempting to spur local jobs by building “an indoor mall that could bring 2,000 construction jobs and 1,700 permanent positions.” He’s also hoping to lure a developer to build a luxury hotel near Yankee Stadium so travelers crash there instead of in Manhattan.

One piece missing from this argument is that even Brooklyn’s economic development is piecemeal. Areas like East New York and Brownsville continue to struggle and aren’t seeing the median income level in their neighborhoods rise. Indeed, as Brownstoner points out, “Brooklyn’s recent boom has been a rising tide that has not lifted all boats.” Let’s hope that the Bronx model doesn’t replicate the disparities.

1.) Sam Taylor just finished an eleven-month tour in Iraq as a chaplain’s assistant with the U.S. army. While enlisted, she hid her transgender identity and even dealt with a fellow soldier who insisted that all ” ‘she-males’ would be rounded up and killed ” in a just world. Taylor is back home in North Carolina and beginning to resume the life she left behind, beginning to take estrogen, coming out to the men she served alongside. When speaking to the Chapel Hill News in a recent article, she wouldn’t comment on how estrogen was changing her body:

“I feel that, because there are so many stories and jokes and ideas about what happens to a trans woman’s body … and because that journey is often so visible to the outside world, non-trans people often feel that they are no longer bounded by standards of politeness when it comes to questions about a trans person’s body,” she said.

2.) The AP did an important story about LGBT homeless youth, a community left behind by politics and budget cuts. The article has photos and stories from homeless youth in Detroit and New York City. It paints a grim picture of the dearth of services, but a strong picture of resilience and self-made community. The good news is that the Obama administration is hosting a “national conference on housing and homelessness in America’s LGBT communities” today in Detroit.

Baresco Escobar, 19, from Fairfax, Va., an aspiring entertainer who identifies himself as bisexual, visits a local fast food hangout in Manhattan's Union Square popular with youth from the LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender community, Thursday, March 1, 2012, in New York. When he leaves in the late evening, Escobar goes to the far end of Brooklyn to sleep in an abandoned house with dozens of other homeless kids, covering bare floors with blankets and cuddling for warmth. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

3.) UH-OH: “The [Utah] Legislature gave final passage Tuesday to a bill that would let schools skip teaching sex education and prohibit instruction in the use of contraception.” Schools in Utah already allow parents to opt-out of having their kids attend sex-education classes, but under this new bill, schools can choose to skip the topic altogether, and if they do teach, they must cover abstinence only.

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