Expanding the base

MLive reports on the plans by Grand Rapids Public Schools to establish a Museum school. At first blush this looks a tad precious, a frou-frou sort of program while the district faces intense challenges on the educational performance front. However, looking more closely, one may see the outline of a two pronged approach. What makes the educational needle so difficult to thread in Grand Rapids is the relative diversity of the community as a whole, coupled with the concentration of minority and poverty-impacted families within GRPS proper. The strategic challenge for the district is how to avoid being known only as a provider for the poor, a school of last (and worst) resort. So two broad directions need to be taken.

First, GRPS needs to address the performance impact of poverty on the students. The correlation between poverty and lagging achievement has been long recognized. While schools can compensate for this impact to some extent, tht path is not only costly, but still subject to the external factors. Success here can be achieved, but it is of a slow variety.  In the meantime, hopeful parents look to charters as an alternative.  GRPS therefore needs to address the issues arising from poverty: safety, some fundamental achievement, better retention (which is to say, better hope).

But that is one side of the coin. Grand Rapids is more than minorities and poverty. Much more. If the district is to thrive, it needs to find ways  to make room for more middle class families. And just to be clear, the Census has been recording a vanishing of families with teens for decades. Retention, too may be subject to significant external factors (e.g.  size in the City versus house size in  the new suburbs). What makes an Initiative such as the Museum school so hopeful is that it appears to recognize another truth in educational reform, that students from poverty background do better in a more economically diverse classroom. Thus if one is to meet the challenge of the concentration of poverty, one ought to be looking at ways of adding more middle  class families to the mix.

The innovation programs far from being something of a frou-frou, are strategically working to broaden the base, and so diminish the impact of concentrated poverty. Moreover, one needs more programs that are not test-in.  Further, such programs along with neighborhood schools also need more expenditure of social capital by those “outside.” 

In a complex educational environment that includes varieties of schools, programs, and opportunities, GRPS needs to think about what it has that can contribute to the health of the entire community. it is not at all clear that schools and parents will easily match up by neighborhood. Within the urban area we are far more likely to see a number of programs that parents choose from or participate in. More options within the district are an essential for GRPS if it is to remain competitive and not simply fall into the school of last (and failed) resort. That would be a tragedy for the region.


Roughing up the journalists

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

Reading Max Fisher’s laundry list of confrontations between journalists and the police in Ferguson MO can leave one drained. Or in despair. We have entered the strange stage set of public political theatre. So police officers who have put on the regalia, the costume of the security State, no feel an obligation or perhaps a freedom to act out that role.

The weapons, the helmets, the vehicles and body armor are all signs of Authority. One is not to challenge them, certainly not in an age of Security. Yet fundamentally one must. One must challenge precisely because this is a theatre, a mock show. Challenge in order to save them from themselves, from the cloak of curses that seeps into them like oil (Ps 109.17). The cycle of violence keeps asking for escalation, because it is the substance, the purpose of Authority. Such a sign, is of course one that pushes out the republican truths of discourse and citizenship.

As long as we engage in our political Security Theatre, we render ourselves unable to see our neighbor. For some that is a flaw, the fear is that for others it is a feature.


What leadership looks like.

In what is surely news to the jaded world, the Washington Post reports that Raymond Burse, interim president of Kentucky State took a pay cut. A $90,000 pay cut, so that  the minimum wage employees could have their pay raised to $10.25. He buys more than gratitude, it builds solidarity in the institution. At a time of cynicism and increasing separation, this is a throwback to the older standards of solidarity by which all stand or fall in the organization.

Raymond Burse_2


The Long War

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy asks a useful question regarding WW I,

An equally important question and one with considerable contemporary relevance is: why did the war last so long?

The answer is not simply historical, the reasons extend to all sorts of conflict. Why do we keep on fighting? He outlines three lessons:

First, and most obviously, it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one. This is true not only of war, but our political conflicts (think partisanship) or even marital conflict. Once you’re in, the reasons all seem to line up to convince you to stay in.

Second, the long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the “first casualty” in war. Often it is not the “lie” but the bubble that prolongs the conflict. We lose sight of the impact of the conflict, sometimes because we are too removed (e.g. the turn to easy answers on immigration as in “just send them back.” As if.), and sometimes because of our own optimistic and finally self-referential self-talk. We opt for propaganda because it matches our political goals. This is the path that the philosopher Henry Frankfurt rightly labeled as bullshit.

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare. And not just warfare, but in most conflict. This is an extension of the propaganda, instrumental use of communication. Demonization is the necessary component of the bubble, it misrepresents.

Thus, to get out of the long wars, interpersonally, politically, and certainly internationally, it takes a commitment to truth. And that invariably appears as the harder task. Harder, but ultimately the only path for whatever salvation we seek.

 

 


Schools and the Middle Class

As noted on The Salon (a closed FB discussion site), the New York Times has an interesting article on the growth of inland cities with better housing values. Oklahoma City is the champion, but on the map is also our fair city, too.

One of the comments on the article reflects

If we could draw this new Middle Class to invest in our #GRMI Public Schools as parents and citizens, we will again have a truly vital city. Otherwise we are just another doughnut on a plate.

In fairness, the educational environment within the city is a mix of essentially four vehicles: the privates, principally religious (tho’ Stepping Stones); the charters; the schools of choice (most of the SE side, and the NE n of Knapp go elsewhere); and the GRPS schools. That doughnut on the plate is one of poverty, not a failure of schools. As Dustin Dwyer’s report on Congress School also revealed, the doughnut is also one of culture, that the middle class did not want to send children to what by all accounts was a school filled with energetic, focused, successful teachers.

The good news is that the leadership of GRPS understands the need for this middle class connection, and in fact has been doing some interesting things to remedy it. The remedy for a school and city with high concentrations of poverty is to find ways to inject social capital, in effect, to dilute the impact of that poverty. This is a bit on the long-term side, certainly with respect to today’s parents.

Near term, a better solution would be for schools throughout the region to think of collaborative strategies to maximize the opportunities for our kids. This also would have the impact of adding to the attractiveness of the region as a whole.

However, the best long-term solution for GRPS will lie not in its internal programs, but in the development of a diverse, broad-based economy. The role of the community college, skill-development programs, and that of regional transit cannot be emphasized enough.


Rise of the Plutocrat, chapter 1: Influence peddling

Arthur Levitt states it as baldly as possible:

I would hate to imagine what would happen if we applied the same kind of sliding scale to the many people who have received job offers by way of their familial relationships. If that happened, there aren’t many people in finance who would escape the accusation that their hiring was the byproduct of influence peddling.

Oh, the horror.

While one may sympathize with the overall thrust, the essay nonetheless presents a basic defense of hiring within one’s social class. This is deeply anti-meritocratic, as he notes

Lines on a résumé can’t substitute for certain qualities.

That would be contacts.

The overall point is this is one more story about the rise of the plutocrats (aka the One Percent). With the rise of great wealth, the earlier standards of meritocracy get pushed aside. Essays like this knowingly or not, are about the raising of the ladder.


God the Stranger?

John Suk bravely explores what a  post-theistic stance looks like.

the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
 God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in.
 So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

Suk is obviously moving into some deeply personal waters, a way of knowing but not knowing as it were. As with all pilgrims, the language must be his; it is not language that one disputes.

But this business about “God as stranger” did catch my ear as another pilgrim. Leaving behind the ordinary narratives of the status quo is unsettling to say the least, not least because one must surrender in order to find. In the midst of this seeking, perhaps some caution on the meme of God as stranger is in order.

First, there is the nature of that very word, “stranger.” Already at the outset we are in world of us and Him, Our Angel of the Jabbok so to speak. Sneaking into that concept is the hint of self, that I still get to define God, even if God is a stranger, or an empty place at my table. I’m still (subtly) in charge.

Of course, to say God is a stranger is also to say that God is a stranger in the world I experience, that the world can’t speak.

Is that really the case?

Abraham Heschel in Man is Not Alone starts with this world, and more specifically our sense of wonder. The world contains a surplus of meaning; things inevitably point to something other. And off in the corner of our eye, are these experiences of the indescribable, the ineffable. Wonder. This certainly is a  sunnier way of encountering the Unknown.

Another challenge to the stranger is  the idea of forgiveness/hope. How do we start over again, what we do “the day after”? As with the wonder that rises from the surplus of meaning in the world, is there a surplus of possibility for my life? For our life together? Can we do something different? The possibility of transformation is every bit as strange as that of the unknown God.

What I suspect Suk is reaching to is not an epistemological stance, nor an ethical one, but something more intimate. To speak of God as stranger is to whisper another, softer prayer, not that we may find, but that we may be found, and that being found  we may find ourselves beloved.


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