Saturday, December 27, 2014

Everyday Sociology: Who is Best Served by Service Learning?

Community engagement is one of my areas of interest. Teresa Irene Gonzales of Everyday Sociology posted a blog post about community engagement and service learning. More importantly, she discusses the importance of reciprocity -- that service learning should involve benefits for both community residents and faculty and staff. Too often, service learning (students generally participate for academic credit) is implemented as a one-sided project that leaves out the input / needs of the community residents.

Some colleges view community-engagement as a form of service and require students to clock-in service-learning hours via volunteerism. The belief is that students have useful skills and resources (particularly time) that may benefit a variety of communities. Through their work in various different types of communities, the students in turn gain work and educational experiences.

If implemented with only the university’s goals in mind, this process, however beneficial it may be to students, can unintentionally replicate social inequities and may place a further burden on the off-campus community group or agency that partners with the university.

Community-engagement often centers on low-income neighborhoods and residents that are within close proximity of the university. This perception of what is meant by “the community” inherently sets up a class-based dichotomy of the wealthy university (“the gown”) that has the resources (time, money, technical expertise) to help the poor communities (“the town”) that surround it.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Public Libraries Add Social Workers and Social Programs - New Social Worker

The New Social Worker published an article about the various ways in which public libraries are reaching out to vulnerable populations.

Public libraries have always been democratic, serving a cross-section of the population. After all, they are public, often easily accessible, and free.

As these populations have shifted to include more of the disadvantaged population, including people who are homeless, there is a small but growing trend for libraries to include social workers—not as patrons, but as helping professionals on staff.

It’s not surprising that libraries have become hubs for homeless people or even the equivalent of day shelters. In addition to their other assets, libraries have plenty of bathrooms and no security checks.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Nation: This Is What Happens When You Criticize Teach For America

The Nation released a report on the hidden weaknesses of Teach for America (TFA), the most popular and largest teacher recruitment program of its kind to address educational inequities in the nation's most distressed school districts. It spends millions of dollars annually to deflect criticism and uphold its program as the model for revamping urban education. Nonetheless, its opponents are staunch to fight back and reveal the ugly truth about TFA's practices. While TFA has become a resume-padding tool for college graduates seeking entry into top graduate and professional schools, it has dire consequences on at-risk students' learning and development.

Last year, Wendy Heller Chovnick, a former Teach For America manager, spoke out against her former organization in The Washington Post, decrying its “inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism.” In recent years, such criticism has centered on Teach For America’s intimate involvement in the education privatization movement and its five-week training, two-year teaching model, which critics claim offers recruits a transformative résumé-boosting experience but burdens schools with disruptive turnover cycles.

In the interview, Chovnick referenced the extent to which Teach For America manufactured its public image, explaining, “Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything. During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media.”

[UPDATE: January 11, 2015]: Why are school districts paying millions in "finder's fees" to an organization that places people without education degrees to teach in urban schools—even where applications from veteran teachers abound? Rachel M. Cohen, writing fellow at The American Prospect, explores another area of controversy in the Teach For America program: the start-up costs of hiring a TFA teacher, and the program’s impact on the retention of veteran teachers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rothstein on place, class, and race: "We have a segregated nation by design."

Joshua Holland of Moyers & Company interviewed Richard Rothstein, a research fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, on the ways in which a century of racist public policies led to the development of concentrated impoverished and racially segregated neighborhoods like Ferguson, Missouri. This polarization has led to deep-seated prejudices, a myth that culture (rather than structural policies) explains urban poverty, and the lack of empathy for the plight of poor African Americans.

Joshua Holland: Most people believe that Ferguson became so racially polarized because of “white flight” — white people fled the area because of personal prejudice against African-Americans. In your report, you argue that this misses a crucial point. What are we overlooking?

Richard Rothstein: The segregation that characterizes Ferguson, and that characterizes St. Louis, was the creation of purposeful public policy. We have a segregated nation by design.

...It was done primarily with two policies: First, public housing was segregated, purposely, by the federal government, so that what were previously somewhat integrated neighborhoods in urban areas were separated into separate black and white public housing projects.

And then, in the 1950s, as suburbs came to be developed, the federal government subsidized white residents of St. Louis to move to the suburbs, but effectively prohibited black residents from doing so. The federal government subsidized the construction of many, many subdivisions by requiring that bank loans for the builders be made on the condition that no homes be sold to blacks.

Because black housing was so restrictive, there were so few places where African-Americans could live in St. Louis. So what was left of St. Louis’ African-American community became overcrowded. City services were not readily available. The city was zoned so that the industrial or commercial areas were placed in black neighborhoods but not in white neighborhoods. So the industrial areas, where African-Americans lived, became slums.

And then white residents in places like Ferguson came to associate slum conditions with African-Americans, not realizing that this was not a characteristic of the people themselves, but rather it was a creation of public policy.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Chronicle of Higher Education: Make Admissions at Elite Colleges ‘Access Aware’

Raynard Kington, the president of Grinnell College, argues that elite, selective institutions with need-blind admissions should become more access-aware to increase the proportion of low-income students among their student enrollment. Here is an excerpt of his commentary from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Wealthy families, understandably, invest huge amounts of money to ensure that their children receive the best possible education starting at the kindergarten and even preschool levels. Students’ transcripts and college applications are in effect inventories of wealth-related facts: academic rigor of schools attended, grades achieved, course options, extracurricular pursuits, test scores, even involvement in "volunteer work," which admissions officers interpret as evidence of social commitment and leadership potential. Advantages in all of those areas make children from wealthy backgrounds more competitive from the start, without any need for outright consideration of family resources.

Most children from poor families—even households deeply committed to their children’s education—do not have a chance in this competition. Their families cannot make anywhere near the same investments, and it shows in their comparative performance, even when the children in question are every bit as gifted and able as their affluent counterparts.

So, what is the fix? Should we end the use of need-blind policies? In some cases, yes. Wealthy, elite institutions that are unable to admit appropriate numbers of students from poor families through a need-blind policy should instead become "access aware." In the lingo of college admissions, they should give students from poor families a "bump" when assessing their applications. It can clearly be done: Many institutions give comparable advantages to the children of alumni.