Saturday, March 28, 2009

This Just In: There’s No Such Thing as a Miracle Cure. Especially for Public Education. (Especially for Public Education!)

We’re not sure what the world needs at this particular point in history, but we’re almost certain what it doesn’t need is another story in the media extolling the KIPP program as the savior of public education (the examples are many so we’ll not single out any particular one). You’re probably familiar with the formula: a journalist drops in at a KIPP school (or at KIPP’s cousin in Houston, YES Prep) for a few hours, consults the voluminous clips on the Houston-born-and-raised charter schools, then knocks off a quick piece on the supposed wonders that KIPP has wrought with allegedly hard-to-educate “minority” and “inner city” students. It’s an easy space- or time-filler, and the kind of tale the media digs: a pre-scripted feel-good story with a foregone happy ending and nary a hint of ambivalence.

One journalist who’s actually probed beyond the conventional story line is Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s respected and knowledgeable education reporter, whose stories and blog entries, at least the ones we’ve read, still come down very (very) favorably for KIPP. Mathews has new book out on KIPP, Work Hard. Be Nice. (the KIPP slogan---it beats “Down With Ossified and Dogmatic Thought,” but just barely), which this week received a thorough going-over in Slate from Sarah Mosle, who casts a hard but not wholly critical eye at both the book and KIPP itself. (Yeah, we’re approaching this subject at a second-hand remove, at least, not having read Mathews’ book, but we’re invoking Blogger’s Prerogative, whatever that is.)

One thing that’s always bugged us a little about all these KIPP success stories, whether based on statistic or anecdote, is that the media invariably fail to acknowledge the obvious built-in advantages that charters have over their non-magnet public-school counterparts. We’re talking about two things: The fact that parents who seek to place their kids in charter schools, even if admittance itself is “random,” obviously have more wherewithal (mental, for sure, if not financial and moral) than parents who are unable or can’t be bothered to try to get theirs out of low-performing neighborhood schools (the ones trying to raise their rankings from “hellish” to “nightmarish”), or aren’t aware of the alternatives (or can’t get out of bed to fill out the application). The second advantage is that the charters contractually obligate students and parents to meet standards of behavior, effort and involvement---something that public schools generally can’t do (outside of grade requirements that must be met at magnets, or most magnets). If the charter’s imposed standards of time and effort aren’t met, the kid gets a one-way ticket back to his zoned school.

The danger in all this is that it risks turning many public schools into default holding pens for the discipline problems and chronic low-performers. You can see this happening in Houston at the middle-school level, where savvy working- and lower-middle-class Hispanic parents scramble to get their kids into KIPP or YES or anywhere but their sorry, gangsta-incubating zoned schools---where, just like at home, they have to take you in.

This doesn’t mean that KIPP’s success isn’t real, but it does means that it merits at least a small asterisk, and raises questions about whether that success can translate on a wider scale. Slate’s Mosle, a former Teach for America teacher, has the goods, and we’re going to break with tradition here and quote at length from her piece, the thesis of which she states at the outset, declaring that KIPP
… is not the proven, replicable model for eliminating the achievement gap in the inner city that Mathews imagines, and this distinction is crucial. KIPP may be something more important: a unique chance to test, once and for all, the alluring but suspect notion that there actually is an educational panacea for social inequality. As of yet, the evidence for such a thing doesn't exist.
After voicing that sobering heresy, Mosle points out that
… Mathews likens KIPP to a cult "without the dues or the weird robes." But by definition, a cult is a fringe movement. To date, no one—including such mighty players as the Gates Foundation—has figured out how to take an educational cult and make it the predominant religion within any urban system.

Mathews insists that KIPP has solved this riddle. It's true that perhaps no other model program has risen so far so fast, with such consistently strong test scores. KIPP now has 66 academies in 19 states. Still, 66 academies amount to just three schools, on average, per state. Houston has far and away the highest concentration with, currently, seven middle schools, three elementary schools, and one high school. But this is in a school system with 200,000 students, nearly 80 percent of whom qualify for reduced or free lunches. At the moment, like every other model program before it, KIPP serves only a tiny fraction of disadvantaged students within any given district. And as education researcher Richard Rothstein has rightly noted, comparing students from different schools, even within the same disadvantaged neighborhoods, is very difficult to do in a rigorous, scientific way. Just because KIPP uses a lottery for admissions, for example, does not tell us anything about the self-selecting nature of the pool from which this lottery is drawn. (Rothstein's own research—here and here—has shown that KIPP students come from families that are better off, or better educated, than their regular public school or special-education counterparts.)

What is more, KIPP's approach is implicitly, but obviously, not designed to suit all students—or, for that matter, all parents or teachers. For decades, educators argued that disadvantaged children could succeed if only they received the same education as more advantaged, middle-class students. Many, if not most, of the nation's best public and private schools are decidedly progressive, with less emphasis on test scores and more on critical thinking skills, with rich arts, music, sports, and other extracurricular programs. Why shouldn't poorer children enjoy the same?

But KIPP is not the same. The program has usefully changed the debate by acknowledging the obvious: Kids who grow up poor, with no books or with functionally illiterate parents, in crime-ridden neighborhoods, with destructive peer influences and without access to basic medical care (such as glasses to help them read), need something significantly more than—and different from—kids who grow up with every economic and educational advantage on which to build. For one, the academic program at KIPP is relentless in its back-to-basics focus: a boot camp that runs nearly 10 hours a day, from 7:30 a.m.until 5 p.m., not including transportation and homework, and half a day every other Saturday.

... Parents or guardians, too, must be hardy souls at KIPP. They have to sign a contract saying they agree to KIPP's exacting schedule, which serves, intentionally or not, to eliminate kids from less involved or determined families. While KIPP does have outreach efforts to broaden its applicant pool, only the most determined parents are likely to respond to such overtures and sign KIPP's demanding contract. This dedication suggests a higher value on education within these families, and thus kids better able or willing to learn. And the weakest students, not surprisingly, get disproportionately winnowed. In KIPP's schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, the worst-performing kids have dropped out (or been expelled) in greater numbers in the higher grades; the result has been to inflate the schools' grade-to-grade improvement.
If you’re interested in this sort of thing, or just admire the stripping away of an artfully arranged veneer, you should read Mosle’s entire piece. It’s another reminder that if something’s sold as too good to be true it most certainly is, as Sir R. Allen Stanford may have remarked (in private).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pynchon at the Ship Channel: Another Unsolved Houston Mystery

Some weeks back, before we were forced to temporarily suspend blogurbatin’ here at Slampo’s Place due to a, um, conflict with the tax-collecting agency (and other crazy-making but passing vexations), we posted, in conjunction with the publication of a new biography of Donald Barthelme, a choice passage from an appreciation of Barthelme penned in the early 1990s by Sr. Thomas Pynchon. The Pynchon essay appeared as an introduction to a posthumous collection of Barthelme’s works and spoke rather poignantly, we thought, to what Pynchon described as his fellow scribbler’s long “love-hate affair” with Houston, where he was reared, grew to adulthood (a ’hood that included a stint as a critic on the long-since-expired newspaper out on the freeway, before it was out the freeway, the same publication whose other illustrious alumni include seminal local blogger Banjo Jones) and to which he returned, at least part time, before his death in 1989. We discerned a larger truth in Pynchon’s take on Barthelme’s “affair” with Houston, because we don’t know anyone with at least half a brain (arbitrary percentage) who’s lived here longer than, say, 5 years (arbitrary length of residency) who isn’t at least deeply ambivalent about the place (that is to say, has come to the realization that Houston has its charms, aside from the cheap cost of living [which, of course, stems from the town’s historical reliance on cheap labor], although these things are usually unadvertised and make themselves known over time, while also recognizing that Houston can be a colossal pain in the rear, not only on a grand damning metaphysical scale but in the mere day-to-day gettin’-along sense).

Anyhoo, it had occurred to us when we first read the Pynchon essay many years ago that Pynchon possessed more than a cursory knowledge of Houston, like he had spent some time here in the ’60s, visiting a girlfriend, perhaps, or maybe he had used Baghdad-on-the-Bayou as a port of call on his way down to Mexico, where he reportedly was known to hang. Whatever the case, his essay on Barthelme exhibited a pronounced knowingness about the town. Shortly after the above-mentioned post we received an email from our pal Il Pinguino, one of the city’s most accomplished belle letterists, mentioning that he had been told by a professor acquaintance that Pynchon had actually lived for a spell in Houston back in the ’60s. On further questioning, Il determined that the notion was set in proximate motion by Larry McMurtry and was mentioned in his recent non-fiction book, Books, a run-through of McMurtry’s days as a book dealer in Houston, the Bay Area, D.C. and now Archer City. (The prof also pointed out to Il that Buffalo Bayou is mentioned in one of the sing-alongs that punctuate Gravity’s Rainbow; this would have meant nothing to us when we read the book 35 years ago during the many slack hours in our seafaring days with Arthur Levy Boat Co. of Morgan City, La.)

We checked out Books from our fine Houston Public Library System---it is, by the way, an oddly flat and joyless tome, but perhaps only in light of our stereotyped expectations of the eccentrics who trade in the antiquarian book racket---and sure enough, the Pynchon-in-Houston tale is told therein by McMurtry, albeit in a curious, tossed-off manner. We have returned the book, not wishing to fall into arrears with another public agency, but if we remember correctly the highly inconclusive story went something like this: McMurtry writes he "may" missed his chance to meet the publicity-shy (which is a whole different thing than “reclusive,” the usual adjective applied to Pynchon) writer, who was "said" to be living "somewhere near the Ship Channel" when McMurtry was teaching at Rice in the mid-'60s (McMurtry’s Rice-area residence being the site of an infamous 1964 visit by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they wended their way to the New York World’s Fair on their psychedelic bus, a visit immortalized by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, during which an acid-addled Prankster whom Wolfe called “Stark Naked” streaked nude from the bus and maternally pressed her “skinny breast” to McMurtry’s young son, future distinguished singer-songwriter James, whom Ms. Naked had mistaken for her own spawn*).

So where were we? Yeah, this story of McMurtry’s: He also relates that that Pynchon was "said" to need work and that he had sent Pynchon a "note" mentioning that he might be able to arrange something for him in the local grove of academia, but Pynchon replied with a "note" of his own declining the offer (and thank Baby Jesus for that). Why they didn’t get together for aperitifs is left unexplained, but it couldn’t have been that difficult, since the distance between West U and the Ship Channel is not that great, at least miles-wise. McMurtry apparently did not keep the note from Pynchon, the auction of which today might finance the purchase of a sizable lot of used books. Then again, McMurtry rounds out the story by saying it's possible that neither note was actually sent. Hmmm. Maybe it was all a dream, or he misremembers.

That was pretty much it---no explanation of why Pynchon might have been living by the Ship Channel, or where, or what year(s) specifically this might have been. If it was in ’64 or ’65, then Pynchon wouldn’t exactly have been a struggling unknown, as V. had been published in 1963 and won that year’s Faulkner Prize. Next up, in 1966, would be The Crying of Lot 49---is it possible that Pynchon wrote some of the small classic American treatise on paranoia while holed up in some sailor-man’s boarding house on Navigation?

We are a Pynchon fan, not a Pynchon obsessive (we plan to get around to reading the 1,000-plus-page Against the Day one day, most certainly if we find our self with a lot of time on our hands while pulling a prison stretch for tax evasion), so it’s possible that the Pynchon-in-Houston story has been well-hashed over on the Pynchon mailing list, or elsewhere that obsessives electronically gather to obsess, and we simply were unaware of it. The only other mention we can find of a Pynchon-Houston connection, and it’s a fleeting and obscure one, is in this tongue-in-cheek (we think it is, anyway) essay that appeared in Harper’s in 2001 and links Barthelme to the bizarre “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” attack on his fellow former Houstonian, Dan Rather, on a New York City street in 1986.** This mention predates the McMurtry book but appeared long after Pynchon’s essay on Barthelme, so who knows:
Donald Barthelme is one of my literary heroes. Thomas Pynchon—no stranger to Houston, I might add—described Barthelme, lovingly, as “perhaps a species of anarchist curse.”
(The author of this piece, Paul Limbert Allman, appears not to have written much else in the way of paranoiac literary/crime theory but seems to be or was a writer of books for young adults, including one whose description sounds downright Pynchonesque. Hmmm.)

Other wispy emanations suggest that Pynchon is “no stranger” to Houston: the epigraph from 1990's Vineland comes from a song by the late Houston bluesman Johnny “Clyde” Copeland (“Every dog has its day, and a good dog just might have two”) and, as the authoritative PynchonWiki puts it, the author is “known to be a fan of Roky Erickson.” Maybe Pynchon saw ’em both, back in the day. The mind reels with possibility … it do!

Our own theory is that Pynchon, a Navy veteran who has always seemed deeply knowledgeable in the ways of the water, may have hung his hat here briefly while working as a deckhand or as a crew member of some vessel, perhaps an ocean-going one or one that plied the Ship Channel (as the late Sterling Morrison*** did some 20 years later), possibly to get away from the encroaching fame his first novel was bringing, or possibly to woodshed and write (and what better place to hide away than the east side of Houston in the 1960s!). We wonder whether Pynchon, who supposedly underwent orthodontic work in the 1960s, may have visited our Uncle Ansley the dentist, who made a modest living for many years fixing the teeth of longshoremen and seafarers out of his small office on Broadway.****

True or not, the Pynchon-in-Houston mystery nicely reflects the elusive nature of both the man and his work, and if he even lived here for just one cold, lonely month, that seals the deal: This is one World Class city! (We expect the first 3-day “Pynchon Festival” to get under way at Discovery Green by 2012, at the latest. BYOB.)

*"Everything connects," or so declares this Pynchon obsessive, whom we knew slightly back in '70 or '71 before he got a high lottery number, joined the Army and was sent to Korea, where he pulled duty in a typing pool, we believe.

**Everything connects!

***Everything etc!

****Everyth ...