Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How To Be Rich As Sh*t In America: Step One

1. Be born and raised in the right zip code.

Zip codes determine destiny. Rich kids get good educations, poor kids get poor ones. "This is because a large percentage of funding for public education comes not from the federal government, but from the property taxes collected in each school district," writes sociology professor Lisa Wade at Occidental College. She adds, "Money within New York, is also unequally distributed: $25,505 was spent per student in the richest neighborhoods, compared to $12,861 in the poorest."

Americans aren't all playing by the same set of rules. The higher the concentration of wealthy people in a neighborhood, city, or state, the better the education is in said area (in terms of resources and student/teacher ratios) because of higher property taxes. In contrast, the rest of the developed world - sans outliers Turkey and Israel - invests more equally in each student through centralized federal funding.

“The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students,” writes the New York Times. Such inequities in funding and resources calls into question the widespread belief that America is a place of equal opportunity.

When opportunities for advancement are hampered by circumstances of birth and upbringing we can't speak of achievement gaps in our public schools, only opportunity gaps - and a reinforcement of these gaps until funding priorities shift.

Research on the dropout crisis in the US has shown that America's playing field is about as flat as the world was once thought to be - that is to say, it's time to disabuse ourselves of another fallacy. All sorts of inequalities are baked into our system with the intention of engineering less equal outcomes. The neighborhood you grow up in will have a disproportionate impact on not just the quality of your education, your odds of graduating high school and your future economic opportunities, but your health and lifespan as well.

A meritocracy America isn't.

Recommended reading:  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Colleges: The New Debt Factories

This afternoon I was on the road when I flipped on the radio and heard the following:
"... has a reputation for doing things differently. Most classes are small seminars like this one. There are no majors. Students do a lot of independent projects. And grades aren’t as important as the long written evaluations professors give every student at the end of every semester. It’s no surprise, then, that professor James Horowitz is skeptical of any uniform college rating system, like the one being proposed by the Obama administration."
James Horowitz, I wondered. I don't remember him. But sweet - NPR's Marketplace program is showcasing, for whatever reason, the strengths of my old college, The Evergreen State College. I graduated from there in 2009 with a four-year degree. It is one of the last strongholds for affordable education in the nation.

I turned up the volume but my elation dissolved. Sarah Lawrence was the subject of this report, not my beloved Evergreen. But you could easily have been mistaken, as I was, because Evergreen and Sarah Lawrence are pedagogical twin flames. But what symmetries they share in pedagogy, they lack in cost.

An elite institution, Sarah Lawrence is ranked by The Chronicle of Higher Education as the most expensive college in the country, costing a stiff $63,200 per year (That's more than median US household income!). In contrast, Evergreen, costs a tenth of that. 

Nothing ignites a burning rage in me quite like the misconceptions folks boldly cling to when it comes to Evergreen, a place following the same basic educational programming and principles as one of the most expensive colleges in the country.

Wikipedia writes that Sarah Lawarance is "known for its rigorous academic standards, low student-to-faculty ratio, and highly individualized course of study." It is clear that both schools value "the ability to write and communicate effectively, to think analytically, and to accept and act on critique." They place high value on the ability to think - creatively, innovatively and critically. Basic requirements for 21st century living.

American society, it seems, respects money and the institutional prestige it buys more than the radical notion that an education should be affordable, and that opportunity should not be tied to debt. Education is a human right. And the one place getting that right right is Evergreen. Which I am incredibly proud of, and indebted to, metaphorically speaking of course.

Recently I received my Evergreen transcript and it was over 60 pages long - including not just teacher evaluations, but self evaluations and a summative evaluation reflecting on the entirety of my academic experience at Evergreen.

In contrast, my transcript from Green River Community College, a traditional two-year college, was only one page long, stamped with a single stingy numeric at the bottom of the page. 3.9 was supposed to sum up my academic performance.

You tell me which is of greater value. The old way or new way? And whatever way you choose, should you have to sacrifice an arm and a leg to get it (especially when that's not necessary)?

The Semimar II building on the Evergreen campus. A building I miss.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

US Government Caters To Economic Elite

The United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy, asserts two affluent universities, Princeton and Northwestern, in a recent study.

Finally, established authorities affirm what any thinking person has always known. You probably had a hunch, just no institutional endowment to prove it.

Business Insider and fancy schools: making yesterday's insights today's news!

The U.S. government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country's citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern universities has concluded.
The report, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens" (PDF), used extensive policy data collected between 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the U.S. political system.
After sifting through nearly 1,800 U.S. policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile), and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the U.S. is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says: "The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

Researchers concluded that U.S. government policies rarely align with the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favour special interests and lobbying organizations: "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. 

Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it."

The positions of powerful interest groups are "not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens," but the politics of average Americans and affluent Americans sometimes does overlap. This is merely a coincidence, the report says, with the interests of the average American being served almost exclusively when it also serves those of the richest 10%.

The theory of "biased pluralism" that the Princeton and Northwestern researchers believe the U.S. system fits holds that policy outcomes "tend to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations."

The study comes after McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a controversial piece of legislation passed in the Supreme Court that abolished campaign-contribution limits, and record low approval ratings for the U.S. Congress.

More on the vast inequities of patrimonial capitalism:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cairo & Alexandria


Read: Interview with Michelle Ryder on Go Overseas