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I am currently in the process of reorganizing and updating this blog, but it is mostly a space for me to post commentary and reviews of articles and books of interest plus the occasional academic or professional musing. Topics you're likely to see include discussion of: anthropology, education (both research and teaching), public policy, race/ethnicity, class/socioeconomic status, gender, literacy/linguistics, and urban issues (primarily in the U.S. and Canada, but possibly elsewhere as well).

Come on in! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

5+ Personally Influential Books (Re: Public Affairs)

March 23, 2010

A question I liked from a recent internship application (with additional comments):

List five intellectual figures or books that have most influenced you and a single sentence for each stating how it has influenced your thinking on public affairs.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: I found this book to be a rallying cry for the power of youth to make change in the world as we follow three young characters thrust into a world spinning out of control and we watch them step up and take the world in new and better directions.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: My family and I have long considered this to be a kind of intellectual’s bible, an epic work that calls “thinkers” and “doers” to take a hard look at the ways in which we are sometimes complacent about systems that don’t work now and maybe never did. [I’m aware that some people really, really hate Ayn Rand, and I can understand that, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever met a thinker/doer-type who didn’t sometimes want to be Atlas shrugging, even if they wouldn’t phrase it that way.]

The Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson: In APM, Ferguson applies a critical analytic to both the concept and the implementation of third-world “development,” a model that I would like to use to deconstruct and demystify problematic policy discourses in North America.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: This is an elegantly worded adventure through the vagaries of the English language, revealing how we can get tangled up in communication, but I also think it convincingly demonstrates how easy it is to get lost when we have no direction in mind.

Candide by Voltaire: This classic text parodies the philosophies of those who presume that “everything is always for the best,” a refreshingly humorous way to confront the consequences of combining inaction with blind optimism. [For the record, I am someone with a significant amount of both faith and optimism, but I do not personally believe that it is sensible to live in a way that divorces faith from action or optimism from effort. We do not live in “the best of all possible worlds” and even if somehow we did, I think it would still be worthwhile to work to make it even better.]

BONUS! The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine: I consider this to be the new millennium’s best upgrade of Covey’s 7 Habits, because on these pages I found more effective tools with which to reshape my life’s roadmap in a way that better reflects my values, strengths, and goals.

~ALJ

EDKP: “Communities Working for Better Schools” Review

June 4, 2008

Communities Working for Better Schools

This article is basically the conference proceedings for a conference called “Communities Working for Better Schools,” which was held in 1997, so the text is somewhat old, but it doesn’t seem outdated in the sense that its content would no longer be useful or relevant for people interested in enhancing the school-family-community bond. Really, if the authors didn’t reference the 1990s throughout the text, it likely could have been written last year, because policies like state governments declaring schools “academically bankrupt” and taking them over were really the building blocks of what would later become No Child Left Behind. So, even having been written in the pre-NCLB era, this work can still have impact.

In terms of the actual content of the article, as someone coming primarily from the world of higher education, I was immediately struck by the way in which this article was calling for schools to basically be what higher education scholars call “engaged institutions,” i.e. institutions that are deeply committed to and connected with their local peoples and environments, usually in a way that acknowledges and works to address equity issues both within the institution and within the community. In particular, I would point to the clear list of recommendations at the end of the document (beginning on p. 23). These provide a handful of points that need to be addressed in order to facilitate positive school-family-community connections around school improvement/reform and I would be incredibly intrigued to see whether or not there are similar issues in university-community partnerships as well. The conference sounds like it was an amazing space for knowledge-sharing, knowledge-gathering, and knowledge-synthesis, not to mention the networking and skill-building opportunities afforded to participants.

With regard to the strengths and weaknesses of the text itself, I found that it was very good at presenting snapshots of programs that worked as well as how and why they worked, which would definitely be useful for others attempting to develop campaigns and programs along related paths. However, there are two areas in which I feel the document could improve, specifically the discussion of race and class and the chapter on community capacity-building.

I certainly support the notion that race and class need to be brought to the forefront and acknowledged as serious issues within the world of education, and school reform particularly, but most of the discussion presented here was about issues faced and brainstormed ideas for what needed to be done. I would have loved to see this section present cases (like the earlier program snapshots) where race and class were addressed in some way through school-community reform projects. By only discussing the problems and possible solutions without presenting concrete examples of projects that have worked, the text almost, by default, implies that there weren’t/aren’t any, which I hope isn’t the case, but if that is the case, it might have been best to state that upfront as the reason why everything was more based on problems and ideas in that chapter.

Similarly, the chapter on improving community capacity was one page long and really just gave half-sentence summaries of a few of the workshops that were presented to participants. I think it would have been immensely worthwhile to include descriptions of even just one exercise from a handful of workshops, so that readers could actually learn something about capacity-building from the text instead of just learning that other people got to learn about capacity-building. Including these examples would have made the document longer, certainly, but I think it would have enhanced the already useful nature of the text a good deal and it would have ensured that the capacity-building section matched the depth of the program-successes section.

Overall, despite its age, this was definitely a worthwhile read, both as a summary of a positive experience in the school-family-community reform network and as a resource for supporting related work, but there are a few points that I hope the authors have addressed in other articles since publishing this one. 4/5 stars.

~ALJ

EDKP: “Engines of Inequality” Review

May 5, 2008

Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities

This is a fascinating study, which seems to have gathered together data from a variety of sources in order to answer a number of questions about the state of postsecondary opportunities for low-income and minority students. In particular, the work that the Education Trust has done to highlight the distribution of financial aid should really receive more attention by institutions, organizations, and individual donors alike. The fact that these so-called “public flagship universities” are actually spending more money (on average) on students from high-income families than on students from low-income families is alarming. I do have a few questions/critiques, however.

It seems as if this research paper is part of a series of papers from this organization, so it is possible that these issues are addressed in other parts of the series, but even if that is the case, this paper would have been stronger if they had been addressed, even briefly. There seem to be two basic assumptions on which this research is based, seemingly without adequate support (or perhaps without enough *explicit* supportive evidence). The first is that these “public flagship universities” are somehow the best institutions (both subjectively and objectively) for low-income and minority students from their constituent states to attend (in every state, no less) and the second is that financial difficulty is the primary reason why low-income and minority students are not attending those institutions at the same rate that they are graduating from high schools in constituent states.

The first question is a complex one, I know, and I am sure that the U.S. News & World Report rankings are precisely the kind of ranking system that the authors would find fault with, but I do think it is important to at least acknowledge that it is problematic to compare the student access/success situation at a highly respected institution, like the University of California-Berkley (ranked 21 by USNWR), and a somewhat less respected institution, like the University of Arkansas (ranked 124 by USNWR), as if they are parallel institutions when they, likely, are not. In particular, if the access/success issue is extended beyond the college years, it seems very possible, perhaps even probable, that the opportunities and career outcomes available to graduates from those institutions would be different. Further, if we move into the second question that I raised, I think it would also be important to think about cultural, geographic, and other reasons why the major state universities might not be the best or preferred postsecondary educational space for some low-income and minority students, particularly right after high school.

With the presence of community colleges and Minority-Serving Institutions, especially Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) in the South and Tribal Colleges & Universities (TCUs) in the Midwest, the Prairies, and the Southwest, there may be other factors at play beyond financial difficulties. I know that a number of people in the African-American community place a high value on the kind of cultural, social, and inclusive academic strength available at places like Howard University, Spellman, Morehouse, Florida A&M University, and other HBCUs, as well as appreciating the prestige within the Black community that is conferred on HBCU graduates. Also, in the case of students attending most TCUs, some HBCUs, and many other community-based colleges, students may have enrolled at these local institutions in order to retain close ties to their families, communities, cultures, and lands. The fact that by virtually any standard, these students academic credentials would warrant admission to most of the top universities of the country (p.15) does not necessarily mean that they should attend those institutions or that they want to.

Even if we assume that the vast majority of students should attend the “public flagship university” in their state and that they want to do so but somehow end up not enrolling (access) or not staying (success), it is still incredibly important to establish why that is the case. The study states that: “Certainly, inadequate financial aid isn’t the only cause of lower access and success rates for low-income students and students of color at the flagships. However in this time of rapid escalation in college costs, it’s hard not to see a connection between how and on whom institutions spend their available aid dollars and who actually enrolls.” This seems like it should be a viable question. I can’t think of a particular study offhand, but either there already are studies that reveal why low-income or minority students don’t enroll in or graduate from major public universities (at projected levels) or there should be.

I do certainly find this study to be well-organized, immensely intriguing, and very worthwhile, particularly as a new window on the distribution of financial aid at the nation’s public universities. However, if the authors could provide more grounding for their basic assumptions about the worth of these institutions and the factors contributing to the lack of reasonable low-income and minority student enrollment and graduation rates, then I think the comprehensiveness and quality of the piece would definitely raise it from a 4-star rating to a 5-star rating.

~ALJ

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