Companion site:


Google search...


Daily Howler: Modern liberals don't care about low-income kids. We dropped out decades ago
Daily Howler logo
FAREWELL, GABRIELA! Modern liberals don’t care about low-income kids. We dropped out decades ago: // link // print // previous // next //

THE LATEST NEW PLAN FOR THE DISTRICT: D.C. superintendent of schools Clifford Janey has released a 120-page “master education plan” for the District’s school system. The plan was described in yesterday’s Post; we plan to review it by the end of the week. In our view, though, something basic is missing. Those who like to read ahead can try to figure out what it is.

Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Be sure to read each part of our current series, “Farewell, Gabriela:”

Part 1: A brilliant report in the L. A. Times begins with a child left behind. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06.)

Part 2: Thousands of kids are now quitting school—because of their school board’s “high standards.” (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/06.)

Part 3: A ninth-grade class needs fourth-grade work. How did they get left behind? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/06.)

Part 4: “Faddish” theories help produce an Era of Magical Thinking. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/06.)

In Part 5, we note the role we liberals play in this Era of Magical Thinking.

PART 5—DROPPED LIKE A ROCK: How did we ever reach this point, where thousands of kids are forced out of school because they can’t pass Algebra 1—a course for which most lacked the basic prerequisites, a course kids didn’t have to pass to get diplomas in the past? In part, we’ve reached this point through “faddish” theories, which have led to an Era of Magical Thinking (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/06). Bereft of any real ideas about the plight of low-income kids, we mutter incantations over their desks; as Moses commanded the waters to part, we command these children to pass. We weirdly order “higher standards” for kids who can’t come close to the standards we already have, and when they fail—as anyone could have predicted—we raise our new standards even higher! Result? As her school board sings “Farewell, Gabriela,” Gabriela Ocampo is out on the street—a brand new high school drop-out. Incredibly, she failed Algebra 1 six times in four years, then dropped out of her Los Angeles high school midway through her twelfth grade year. In his superlative Los Angeles Times report, Duke Helfand doesn’t fail to note where these failed efforts have left her:

HELFAND (1/30/06): After dropping out, Gabriela found a $7-an-hour job at a Subway sandwich shop in Encino. She needed little math because the cash register calculated change. But she discovered the cost of not earning a diploma.

"I don't want to be there no more," she said, her eyes watering from raw onions, shortly before she quit to enroll in a training program to become a medical assistant.

Will Gabriela need math as a medical assistant? If so, then Encino, we may have a problem. For the last four years, Gabriela wasted her time taking algebra—and failing it—six separate times. There’s no way to know if she’d be better off under previous rules, in which she may not have taken this course at all. But as Helfand notes at one point in his piece, the new “higher standards” in L.A.’s schools have “failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math.” Under the old rules, Gabriela would have had her diploma—and, perhaps, a bit more basic math. Better off? There’s no way to know. But her case reads like a horror story from the new Era of Magical Thinking. In Los Angeles, the school board commanded Gabriela to pass. But she just couldn’t manage—six times.

Which leads us to another factor in this strange new world—liberal indifference.

For those of you who are younger than 40, we’ll now tell a startling tale. Believe it or not, liberals once spent a lot of time worrying about low-income/minority children! The young will find this hard to believe, but we swear that our statement is accurate. Starting in the mid-1960s, a range of well-known, best-selling books were written about low-income schools—among them Jonathan Kozol’s brilliant Death at an Early Age and Herbert Kohl’s semi-puzzling but heartfelt 36 Children. It was a standard liberal concern—what should we do about the needs of black children? For ourselves, books like those were part of what brought us here to Baltimore in the first place. When we started teaching fifth grade in 1969, it was books like those, by Kozol and Kohl, which framed our (very meager) understanding.

But uh-oh! It soon became clear that it wouldn’t be easy to solve the problems of low-income schools. In the sixties, pleasing thoughts had prevailed; many liberals assumed that racist teachers were holding black kids back in school, and that basic good faith would solve the problems which obtained in their classrooms. (To his credit, Kozol never really said or implied this. Nor did he claim, in his award-winning book, that he had produced great academic outcomes in the Boston school where he taught.) But as time went by, it became fairly clear that the problems found in low-income schools wouldn’t be easy to solve at all. And everyone knows what happened then; liberals dropped low-income kids like a rock! As we all know if we think about it, we modern liberals don’t discuss the problems and pathologies of our low-income schools. Decades ago, we libs took a hike. We too sang, “Farewell, Gabriela.”

Do you have any doubt about this? If so, consider what happened in liberal and mainstream circles when Helfand published his lengthy piece about Gabriela Ocampo—and about the thousands of low-income kids being pushed from Los Angeles high schools.

What happened when Helfand’s report appeared? In liberal circles, nothing happened! Liberal journals didn’t discuss it, nor did liberal bloggers. Whatever one thinks of the L.A. school board’s new policies, Helfand’s report was quite remarkable—and it opened with a well-known former Democratic politician, L.A. superintendent Roy Romer, wringing his hands about the “cumulative failure” involved in the massive algebra drop-outs. But liberal bloggers and liberal journals didn’t say a word about this. In the modern world, conservatives talk about low-income kids—but we liberals no longer bother. We simply don’t care about low-income kids. We don’t waste our time on their problems.

How little do liberals and mainstream writers seem to care about low-income kids? Consider what happened when the Post’s Richard Cohen discussed Gabriela’s large problem.

“I am haunted by Gabriela Ocampo,” Cohen wrote, at the start of a February 16 column—a column which appeared on-line but not in the Post itself. But as Cohen wrote, it became fairly clear that he wasn’t all that “haunted” by Ocampo’s plight. He wrote a largely fatuous piece about his own alleged struggles with algebra—a piece in which he addressed Gabriela, apparently trying to buck up her spirits. “Gabriela, this is Richard,” he wrote. “There's life after algebra,” he sagely advised. And then he offered this foolish attempt to empathize with this low-income child—with a child who’d been left far behind:

COHEN (2/16/06): Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know—never mind want to know—how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later—or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note—or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.
Let’s be fair: If Gabriela were planning to become a Post columnist, this would constitute useful advice. But Gabriela looks ahead to a lifetime of “nickel and diming”—a lifetime of low-wage employment. The problem isn’t her lack of algebra; almost surely, the problem is her lack of a wide range of skills—and now, her lack of a high school diploma. But Cohen seemed almost totally clueless about the real problem which Helfand described. After all, Gabriela “won’t need algebra” at that Subway shop, either. But readers, that misses the point.

Cohen’s column produced some response on the liberal web, including a perfectly sensible post in which Kevin Drum showed that he grasped the basic question involved here:

DRUM (2/17/06): [S]etting this silliness aside, Cohen's serious point isn't really whether algebra is useful or not, it's whether it should be required to graduate from high school. That is, if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout? I don't really have an opinion about this, but it's a serious question.
But even after Cohen put this question onto the map, it was essentially impossible to find liberal writers spending time on Gabriela’s real plight. Simply put, younger liberals have never lived in a world when their peers spend time on matters like this. We mordantly chuckled when Matt Yglesias—a superlative young writer—tackled the Cohen column:
YGLESIAS (2/17/06): What I'll say in favor of Richard Cohen's algebra-bashing column is that I wound it witty, readable, and even rhetorically convincing. The trouble is that it's wrong. Not only is math important in general as P.Z. Myers points out, but in particular having an understanding of basic math is important to understanding the policy questions that political pundits address. Malcolm Gladwell's great article on social problems that have a power law distribution rather than a bell curve distribution doesn't really contain any math, but in an important sense it's all about math, and like many of his articles it totally couldn't have been written unless he had some competence in this area.

Less esoterically, there's simply no way you can write about the budget, or tax policy, or Social Security, or whether or not the health care system suffers from too much "adverse selection" unless you understand some math. You can't really write about anything sensibly unless you grasp the difference between a one percent change in something and a one percentage point change or whether or not 100 million dollars is a lot of money relative to the size of the federal budget or the American GDP. Sadly, Cohen is more-or-less correct to say that an inability to grasp these kinds of mathematical concepts does not, in practice, seem to impede one's career as a political journalist in contemporary America. But that says a lot more about the poor state of journalism than it does about the value of algebra.

If Gabriela were planning to “write about the budget, or tax policy, or Social Security, or whether or not the health care system suffers from too much "adverse selection,’” this would be a telling assessment. But Gabriela isn’t planning to read “Malcolm Gladwell's great article on social problems that have a power law distribution rather than a bell curve distribution.” Gabriela just quit a Subway shop, and she’s hoping to catch on as a medical assistant. Like Cohen, Yglesias moved past the giant problem here and began to think about people like himself. But this is what liberals have done now for decades. Simply put, Yglesias—a superb younger writer—has never lived at a time when his peers cared about the Gabrielas. The groaning silence which met Helfand’s piece was the latest case in point.

Why do low-income kids continue to suffer? In part, because liberals dropped them like a rock when it turned out that their groaning problems wouldn’t be easily solved. As a result, their problems are addressed by our second-tier minds—by second-tier minds which have now created an Era of Magical Thinking. How are we going to help Gabriela? Simple! We’ll simply command that she pass!

Manifestly, modern liberals don’t care about low-income kids. As we noted last fall, Kozol writes a new book about low-income schools every couple of years or so—and that is just about it from us liberals. Indeed, in his most recent book, The Shame of the Nation, Kozol ventured inside those Los Angeles high schools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/14/05). Here was an early passage about one massive school:

KOZOL (page 175): Fremont High School in Los Angeles enrolls almost 5,000 students on a three-track schedule, with about 3,300 in attendance at a given time. “The campus sprawls across a city block, between San Pedro Street and Avalon Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles,” the Los Angeles Times observes. A “neighborhood fortress, its perimeter protected by an eight-foot steel fence topped by spikes,” the windows of the school are “shielded from gunfire by thick screens.” According to teachers at the school, the average ninth grade student reads at fourth or fifth grade level. Nearly a third read at third grade level or below. About two thirds of the ninth grade students drop out prior to twelfth grade.
Of course, more of those kids will be dropping out now—now that the school board has commanded kids “at third grade level or below” to just suck it up and pass algebra. But then, a few pages later, Kozol had described the realm maintained by that high-minded school board. He refers to a vibrant student named Mireya:
KOZOL (page 177): Fremont High School, as court papers document, has “15 fewer bathrooms than the law requires.” Of the limited number of bathrooms that are working in the school, “only one or two...are open and unlocked for girls to use.” Long lines of girls are “waiting to use the bathrooms,” which are generally “unclean” and “lack basic supplies,” including toilet paper...The rats observed by children in their elementary schools proliferate at Fremont High as well. “Rats in eleven classrooms,” maintenance records of the school report. “Rat droppings” are recorded “in the bins and drawers” of the high school’s kitchen. “Hamburger buns” are being “are being eaten off [the] bread-delivery truck,” school records note.

No matter how many times I read these tawdry details in court filings and depositions, I’m always surprised again to learn how often these unsanitary physical conditions are permitted to continue in a public school even after media accounts describe them vividly. But hearing of these conditions in Mireya’s words was even more unsettling, in part because this student was so fragile-seeming and because the need even to speak of these indignities in front of me and all the other students seemed like an additional indignity.

For the record, the Baltimore schools in which I taught were not overrun by rats; for the most part, the bathrooms were working just fine. Almost without exception, the people who administered and taught in those schools were quite sympathetic to the children. Indeed, we remember, to this day, the inspiration we took from some of those teachers—from Dorothy Riddick, for example, overheard one day convincing her children that “Yes, Mrs. Riddick will fuss.” But systems which can’t even speak to these issues aren’t likely to find impressive approaches to the larger problems of Fremont High, the problems which begin down below:
KOZOL (page 184): Many of the students blamed themselves for problems in the school...and there were several who believed that the school might soon improve, or had already started to improve, because, as one boy wrote, a “stricked” new principal had been appointed recently. I was saddened to read these papers after talking with the students so long, because their writing skills would give no hint of the lucidity of thinking many demonstrated in our conversation.
“The years in which [these students] were in elementary school were the same period in which the tough accountability agenda had been gathering momentum,” Kozol wrote. “Yet very few could write a sentence at the fourth or fifth grade level.” These students will not pass Algebra 1 and 2 because a school board commands them to do so. The disaster described here begins down below. It can’t be addressed by demanding that Gabriela pass—by commanding her six different times.

What improvements may emerge down below? It will take our best minds to answer that question. And oh yes: When Kozol’s book appeared last year, liberal journals and the liberal web stood completely silent, as always. Modern liberals don’t care about low-income kids. We dropped them long ago, like a rock. We leave their interests to the GOP—and to the Los Angeles school board.

TOMORROW—EPILOG: What should these kids be studying?