two recommendations and a note

I’d like to take a minute to make a couple of reading recommendations and to offer an explanation. First, I can’t recommend this Jacobin piece by Allie Gross highly enough. It’s an exhaustively researched piece of investigative journalism, and totally damning of Detroit’s charter school and the profiteers who have created them.

Second, I’d like to recommend this Gabriel Rossman piece on the incredible aggravations of peer review, and where they come from. My recommendation, I assure you, has nothing to do with recent events in my day-to-day life as an academic, trying to build a career like anyone else, buffeted by the whims of a system that is set up to make accountability and transparency impossible. Nothing at all!

Finally: please forgive me for what an awful correspondent I can be. I’m temperamentally bad at responding to correspondence, because a) I find it incredibly difficult to face up to praise and support, and b) because I think to myself “I need to reply to this email” and then put it into the filing cabinet of my mind and then push that filing cabinet into the sea. It’s not intentional. I just think “I’m gonna answer that email!” and then it’s three months later and it’s weird for me to just write back.

But I’m also just crazy busy right now. I’m not complaining; I know you’re busy, too. But just to give you a flavor of where I’m at right now:

  • I’m dissertating. So far this summer I’ve written two draft chapters (which will need extensive revision, of course) and am just sitting down to start a third.
  • I’m collecting research and interviews for my dissertation.
  • I’m rating exams for Purdue’s Oral English Proficiency Test.
  • I’m trying to send out an article in the next couple weeks, as the incredibly slow turnaround times of academic publishing means that if I want to get any credit  for a new article on the job market in a few months, I need to send stuff out yesterday.
  • I’m prepping for an oral English skills “boot camp” for the computer science program coming up in a couple weeks.
  • I’m doing editing for a project out of the Education department.
  • I’m taking a class in advanced qualitative research methods just for fun, to the confusion of pretty much all of my peers and professors.
  • I’m prepping for a major assessment project for our introductory composition program this fall.
  • I’m trying to see if I can learn enough to create a database website for a not-for-profit, academic resource I would like to start.
  • I’m writing a review for an online journal.
  • I’m getting ready for an exciting writing opportunity I’ll share with you all soon.

So those are my excuses. Which, you know. Everybody’s got one. Just please know that if you’ve written to me I intend to write you back. It just might take some time.


  1. The term “database website” is a bit strange, but if what you mean is a dynamic website with a relational database back-end, the best framework for beginners is probably Ruby on Rails.

    Obviously you would need to learn Ruby, but it is a fairly simple language. The framework itself is wonderful, and very well-suited for your use case. You could literally get a quick and dirty site running in a weekend.

    Let us know how it goes, and if you set up a github repository for the thing, I could help review your code when I have spare time.

    1. Yeah sorry that was poorly worded. I mean that I want to start a simply website that takes in information from people who submit it, and displays that information through a search feature, which you could query according to academic field, publisher, etc. And thanks!

      1. Rails should be perfect for that. Definitely use a relational database also.

        I don’t know how liberal your school is with giving away computing resources, domain names, etc., but Amazon Web Services has a free tier for most of its products. You can get cloud storage (S3), virtual hosts for your rails server (EC2), and a database to back it (RDS) for free or basically nothing provided you do not exceed a maximum usage threshold.

        There are some similar, more user-friendly services like Heroku, but it will be difficult to surpass the prices and power of Amazon’s products.

  2. I haven’t read all the piece about Detroit; I found the New Orleans piece interesting and well-written but not really at all damning. I think if the authors sent it to the principals, they would say, “yeah, you’re absolutely right, we need more exploration and engagement in our classrooms.”

    More importantly, this is why you need a comparison group. What are the schools like that these kids would have been in, had KIPP not come to NOLA? I had several friends who taught in New Orleans pre-2001, and from whom I’d hear constant stories of violence (both between students and between teachers and students) and near-chaos.

    Even from my own kids’ experience in affluent suburban schools, what makes them upset and disengaged when they come home is not whether they were bored and regimented at school; it’s whether people (teachers or kids) are calling them names and making them feel bad. Admittedly, the stakes are lower for my kids in a lot of ways than for most students in New Orleans, and I myself have a higher tolerance for goofiness and craziness in the classroom than would suit me for working at a KIPP school, even if I still had the wherewithal for 70 hour weeks. The best school I worked at proved that you could be effective with a largely low-income urban student body with a lot more noise and exploration and freedom than most KIPP schools offer. But the idea that “boring” is as bad as school can get is just absurdly naive.

    1. 1. Read the Detroit piece. It’s the definition of damning.
      2. The population of New Orleans has changed. Since Katrina, New Orleans has gotten richer, whiter, and better educated. The most powerful predictors of student outcomes are parental income, race, and parental education level.
      3. Procedure matters. These are examples of unaccountable elites attempting to steal control of local schools without local input or local accountability.
      4. Outcomes at schools like the KIPP system, which are based on unusual levels of funding, effort, administrative and institutional attention, political backing, and high-turnover, high-burnout staff investment, are not scalable. Scale and ability effects are not important things in education policy; they are the important things in education policy.

      1. I agree with most of your points. And I also agree that New Orleans’ social changes are largely what made possible an (incomplete, flawed, partial) improvement in the city’s schools. You just can’t run these charter schools without a bunch of young people who want to work like demons for you for a few years. And the need for young people to work like demons for you makes it really hard to scale up, and politically problematic to hold up as an answer.

        But, on the other hand, you absolutely need to read these Roland Fryer articles about the turnaround effort he is trying to run in Houston public (non-charter) schools, using charter methods. (He finds that the overall suite of charter methods are reasonably effective, but intensive tutoring makes the biggest difference by far, which is also the most expensive intervention, FWIW.) I think the methods are more scalable than people often think.

        1. Also, the idea that these incredibly corrupt urban school systems were democratically accountable *before* charter schools moved in is also very, very naive. Work with a big-city school construction authority for a little while and you’ll see money being hoovered up into a bunch of well-paid pockets without any change in the disgusting physical conditions of classrooms. It’s absolutely maddening.

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