Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hometown News, Why it Matters

By Jason Smith, PhD student in Public Sociology, George Mason University. His thesis work dealt with colorblind and color-conscious ideology in contemporary Hollywood films. Overarching research interests are issues of race/ethnicity, media representation, and media policy.

Why is it so hard to have an informed citizenry in the US?  Long championed as pivotal to the functioning of the public sphere, news media (and the field of journalism in general) serve communities in their need to know the current state of affairs.  Yet local news media is in a state of flux.  At worst the number of newspapers covering local events are increasingly on the decline, and at best new websites offering local coverage are sporadic and struggle to maintain their operations. 
If you take a look at the news media you find two big issues.  First, its in TROUBLE.  Meaning that supporting “good” journalism is hard to do without funds to pay reporters and invest in resources.  Second, its becoming a new medium for entertainment-type content.  Whereby the contributions of journalism as a field are continually being diminished as they become more catered to “infotainment” practices.
To bring this into better perspective, it was recently reported that parent-company Comcast has been pressuring CNBC to make budget cuts which would impact programming.
Although this is a muddled story, the role of advertising and entertainment on news production can be seen in a recent example by Nikki Usher looking at news blogs serving the LGBT communities.  As she comments, it would seem logical for advertisers to support online gay news sites (since the gay community has been specifically targeted in the past by advertisers), but this often is not the case: instead these sites are too politically and culturally specific in their content and are not “entertainment-focused enough” to entice advertisers to invest in them.  As Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism stated in their annual State of the Media report, “no one has yet cracked the code for how to produce local news effectively at a sustainable level.”
This brings up an interesting question: Can local news exist in the current economic environment? 
Or perhaps we should ask: Does local news even matter?
I believe that by answering the second question it can inform how we approach the first, and by doing so, make a case for the value and need to invest in local news. 
In a classic study by sociologist Morris Janowitz from the early 1950s on the role of the community press in an urban setting, he focused on communication being both product and shaper of its social environment - a reflection and determinate of social attitudes and interaction.  Community presses served neighborhood residents and their leaders as ways to inform and build social bonds.  But the most important aspect of these presses in Janowitz’s study was that agency held larger preference over structure – meaning that communities had the ability to act as “political organs” in relation to outside institutions.
Local news media are vital to community and shared consensus.  Although the ability to actively fund and sustain them is a current work in progress for those invested in news media production, many alternatives exist.  But in order to maintain a call for (re)investing in local news, it requires us to discover that it operates as a part of establishing a sociological imagination for individuals and collective groups – the ability to link personal concerns to the larger concerns of groups.

My Like/Hate Relationship With Facebook

By Mary Chayko, Professor of Sociology, The College of Saint Elizabeth, and author of Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Connectedness and Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age, both with SUNY Press. She can be found online at MaryChayko.com and on Twitter @MaryChayko
I came late to the social media party.  My colleagues, students, friends and family were perplexed that I, an internet researcher, wasn’t on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social media sites. I admit that there was an irony to my studying and writing about the impact of technology on society but not using social media myself.  But what few understood was that my decision not to join Facebook was very much a political act – until it became one I couldn’t make anymore.
As a sociologist, I recognize that as individuals we are required to contribute to the social institutions of which we are a part. We give time, energy and expertise to our workplaces, schools, churches, families. We turn over large portions of our paychecks to our governments. Some give their lives in military service, or suffer valiantly when their loved ones do so. In turn, we trust and hope that these institutions will be there for us, even protect us, when we need them. It’s a social contract.
Though we tend not to think about it very often, we also give these social institutions large amounts of data about our habits and our selves. Whenever we make a purchase, do our banking, fill out a form, pay our taxes, or surf the Net, we are submitting information about ourselves that we then lose control over.  Computerized technology has permitted this to become a widespread, almost continuous practice.
I understand, though I don’t enjoy, the need for certain institutions to gather some of this data. But I usually have no idea what is being done with it or with whom it can be shared, or when, or under what circumstances. I recognize (although my research indicates that many people don’t) that the electronic mining for and tracking of my data results in my being profiled as a certain kind of citizen, consumer, worker, person. Essentially, I have been easily and electronically turned into a commodity to be sold to just the right advertiser or targeted for someone’s criminal eye or political tyranny.
I avoided Facebook for years in order to avoid submitting any more data, let alone my most personal information, to any more social institutions, let alone huge, commercial, faceless ones (though I guess I’m well acquainted with Mark Zuckerberg’s face by now).  I was making a deliberate statement -- one that’s still being made, incidentally, by many non-Facebookers whom I respect -- that no entity should have that kind of comprehensive access to my personal, social, and political identity. I was determined to resist this kind of commodification wherever possible. But in the end, Facebook won.  I could no more avoid it and remain socially connected in my field (and to my gaggle of relentlessly Facebooking cousins)  than I could avoid my face-to-face connections at work or at home. Or, I suppose, I didn’t want to anymore.
Anyway, as it turns out, I was already all over Facebook (and Twitter). I was tagged in family photos, listed in groups, mentioned in posts and tweets, referenced regarding my work.  Google was already documenting much of what I did (and I wouldn’t be very searchable, or have much of a career, if it didn’t). So I joined Facebook, then Twitter, and then developed a professional website, to gain more control over how I am portrayed online – to do my own “impression management,” for you students of Erving Goffman. I had originally hoped to control my data profile by limiting my exposure on social media, but its ubiquity simply wore that idea down. In its place grew the realization that I needed to do more to shape that profile myself.
My cousins wore me down, too. I have dozens of extended family members across the country, and I knew that I had been foregoing opportunities for social interaction with them by not being on Facebook, but I didn’t understand how important those interactions would be to them (and, eventually, to me). I had gotten used to being out of contact with them. At last year’s (in-person) family reunion, though, I was sent the message loud and clear: they were hanging out together online, and they wanted me there, and I was even being kind of rude by refusing to do so. I got it. So I joined Facebook to better connect with them as well. Yes, I compromised my privacy and politics in doing so, but those are probably not the stupidest things I’ve ever done or will do for love.
I’m paying a price, though, make no mistake about it, and you are too. It’s easy to spend too many precious hours online and deter energy from more productive activities. (Of course, time spent online counts as research for me, so I’m okay there.) It’s tempting to over-share – they’ve set it up that way – and it’s important to remember that anything you put online can be tracked and reproduced anywhere, at any time in the future, so it’s not the place for secrets or intimacies. We’re documenting so much about our lives that we’re changing the way we live in response. And it can feel overwhelming to keep up with the massive amounts of information that Facebook and Twitter feed us. This can result in anxiety, a sense of constant clutter in our lives (and brains), and even despair. (Research suggests that if you are interested in meaningful interaction with each friend or follower, keep your lists to about 150 or fewer, as the level and quality of interaction tends  to degrade at about that point.)
There are more dangers and risks in online and social media participation than this article can convey (they’re detailed in my books, however -- available at most traditional and online booksellers!). Still, I’m glad I joined the “party.” The allure and charm and significance of online social interaction and sharing are undeniable, which is the biggest theme in my work.  We may need to make difficult compromises along the way, and cede more control of personal data than makes us comfortable.  But we may be better able to understand one another, guide our careers, and shape our online identities. And we can get closer to our cousins.

Why Funding Still Matters in Public Education!

By Bruce Baker, Rutgers University (original version appeared a the National Education Policy Center website http://nepc.colorado.edu/author/baker-bruce-d

I’ve heard it over and over again from reform pundits. Funding equity? Been there done that. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. It’s all about teacher quality! The bottom line is that equitable and adequate financing of schools is a NECESSARY UNDERLYING CONDITION FOR EVERYTHING ELSE!
I’m sick of hearing, from pundits who’ve never run a number themselves and have merely passed along copies of the meaningless NCES Table showing national average spending in high poverty districts slightly greater than that for lower poverty ones. 
I’m sick of the various iterations of the “we’ve tripled spending and gotten nothing for it” argument and accompanying bogus graphs.  And further, the implication put forward by pundits that these graphs and table taken together mean that we’ve put our effort into the finance side for kids in low-income schools, but it’s their damn lazy overpaid teachers who just aren’t cutting it.
I’m intrigued by those pundits who would point out that perhaps outcomes of low-income children have improved over the past few decades and that the improvement is entirely attributable to increased accountability measures (when the same pundits have argued previously that the massive increases in funding led to no improvement. Perhaps there has been improvement, and perhaps there has been some increase in funding on average… and perhaps that’s the connection? More insights on achievement gap closure and shifting resources here!).
I’m also sick of those who would so absurdly argue that districts serving low-income and minority children really have more than enough money to deliver good programs, but they’ve squandered it all on useless stuff like cheerleading and ceramics.
Anyway, the goal of this post is  to point out some of the inexcusable inequalities that persist in K-12 education, inequalities that have real consequences for kids. Let’s take a look, for example, at two states that have persistently large achievement gaps between low-income and non-low income students – Illinois and Connecticut. These two states have somewhat different patterns of overall funding disparity, but suffice it to say, both states have their winners and losers, and the differences between them are ugly and unacceptable.
Let’s start with Connecticut. Below is a graph of Connecticut school district “need and cost adjusted current spending per pupil” and standardized test outcomes on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). Expenditures are adjusted for differences on labor market competitive wages and for shares of children qualifying for free or reduced price lunch and for children with limited English language proficiency (based on estimates reported here). I’ve used essentially the same methods I discussed in this previous post.
What we see here is that resources – after adjustment for needs and costs – vary widely. Heck, they vary quite substantially even without these adjustments! What we also see is that we’ve got some really high flyers, like Weston, New Canaan and Westport, and we’ve got some that, well, are a bit behind in both equitable resources and outcomes (Bridgeport and New Britain in particular). To be blunt, THIS MATTERS!  But the pundits still say, “but they really have enough anyway. Why put anything else into those rat-holes?”
Let’s break it down a bit further. Here are the characteristics of a few of the most advantaged and most disadvantaged districts in the above figure.
But of course, all we need to do is reshuffle the deck chairs  in Bridgeport and New Britain – fire their bottom 5% – heck let’s go for 20% teachers – pay the new ones based on test scores… and all will be fixed! Those deficits in average salaries might be a bit problematic. And even the nominal (no adjustments) spending figures fall well short of their advantaged neighbors. But bring on those reform-type fixes, and throw in some funding cuts while you’re at it! I’m sure… absolutely sure that the only reason those salaries are low is because they’ve wasted too much money on administrators and reducing class size… which we all know doesn’t accomplish anything???? But wait, here are the elementary class sizes?
Well, there goes that ridiculous reformy assumption. Class sizes are actually larger in these higher need districts! and Salaries lower. Damn cheerleading costs! Killing us! Perhaps it’s even going into  junk like band and art which are obviously a waste of time and money on these kids!
Well, here are the staffing structures of the schools, with staffing positions reported per 100 pupils.
Hmmm… disadvantaged districts have far fewer total positions per child, and if we click and blow up the graph, we can see some striking discrepancies! Those high need districts have far more special education and bilingual education teachers (squeezing out other options, from their smaller pot!). Those high need districts have only about half the access to teachers in physical education assignments or art, much less access to Band (little or none to Orchestra), and significantly less access to math teachers!
But, okay… this Connecticut thing is a freakin’ anomaly, right?  These kind of disparities – savage inequalities - are surely a thing of the past. This is, after all, THE POST-FUNDING EQUITY ERA? Been there and done that!
Let’s do the same walk through for a few Illinois districts. First, here are the graphs of need and cost adjusted (based on a cost model used in my previous post and related working paper) operating expenditures and outcomes -
For unified K-12 districts

Here are the basic stats on these districts

  In this case, imagine trying to recruit and retain teachers of comparable quality in JS Morton to those in New Trier at $20k less on average, or in Aurora East compared to Barrington, at nearly $20k less. Ahh…you say… Baker… you’re making way too much of the funding issue. First, we know their wasting it all on small class size and cheerleading. Second, Baker… you’re missing the point that if we fire the bad teachers and pay the good teachers based on student test scores, those New Trier teachers will be banging down the door to get into J S Morton! That’s real reform dammit! And we know it works (even though we don’t have an ounce of freakin’ evidence to that effect!).
Clearly, if schools in Aurora East and JS Morton are slated for closure under NCLB (I’ve not checked this actually), it’s not because of poverty. It’s not for lack of resources… Clearly it’s their lazy, overpaid teachers who refuse to pull all-nighters with their kids to beat those odds????? To get those kids into calculus and trig classes presently filled with empty seats (and their own overpaid under-worked teachers!)
So, here’s what the staffing ratios look like.
First, those advantaged districts just have a lot more teacher assignments (position assignments) than the disadvantaged ones. And they especially have far more assignments in advanced math, advanced science, Library/Media, Art and music. There’s not a whole lot of squandering on extras going on in JS Morton and Aurora East. Like CT though, the disadvantaged districts do have bilingual education and special education teachers!  The staffing disparities are baffling – Savage in fact!

In fact, I must be making this stuff up right. After all, THIS IS THE POST-FUNDING DISPARITY ERA? This kind of stuff is just pulled from the chapters of an old Kozol book!  Teachers matter. Not funding. We all know that (except perhaps the various researchers who’ve actually explored the relationship between school funding reforms and student outcomes, only to find that it does matter).
Clearly, this matters. These funding disparities are substantial. And while these examples are selected from the extremes of the distributions, these districts have plenty of company at the extremes, and these districts fall along a clearly patterned continuum. And, with enough data and enough space, I could keep going and going here. CT and IL are not unique – though IL is clearly among the worst in the nation. New York anyone?
Utica is quite possibly one of the most financially screwed local public school districts in the nation (Poughkeepsie isn’t far behind)!
        Arguably, there are entire states – like Tennessee and Arizona that are approaching (if they’ve not already surpassed) the conditions of districts like Utica, JS Morton, Bridgeport or New Britain.
Until we take these disparities seriously and stop counting on miracles and superman to give us a free ride, we’re not likely to make real progress on the “Scarsdale-Harlem” achievement gap.
Treating teachers like garbage, cutting state funding, basing teacher salaries on student test scores will do nothing to correct these disparities, and will likely only make them worse. Nor can we expect to close the gap by simply replacing the current underfunded schools with comparably underfunded schools under new management (or simply paying parents of kids in these districts a discount rate to just go somewhere else, and never follow up on the kids).  This reformer goo is a dangerous distraction from the real issues!
This is not the post-funding equity era; funding still matters. Good education is expensive and worth it!

Occupy Your Education: The Best Classrooms in America

by Corey Dolgon, Editor, This Week in Sociology
Professor of SociologyStonehill College

A few weeks ago we had an “Occupy Stonehill” teach-in at Stonehill College, a relatively small, liberal arts college South of Boston. Over 80 students and a handful of staff and faculty attended. The conversation was lively and informative and thoughtful and sincere. In some ways it was a model for serious scholarship and debate within the context of a compassionate and collegial space. It reminded me of the things I love best about teaching and, in particular, teaching at an institution of higher learning.

It also reminded me of an experience I had during my first professional teaching gig ever back in 1994. I had been teaching in a program at Long Island University—Southampton and the administration had outsourced the custodial unit claiming to cut costs and improve ‘cleanliness.” Very quickly, however, it became clear that the administration wanted to bust the union and to deflect criticism of overtly racist labor policies that had denied promotional opportunities for non-white workers. The custodial unit was the ONLY primarily non-white unit as 14 of 19 janitors were either African American or Native American (the College was across the street from a Native American (Shinnecock) reservation.
Over the next 16 months, custodians organized (along with students, some faculty and some community activists) to have the college rehire the custodians directly and get rid of the management company that had taken the new contract. Eventually, they succeeded in not only forcing the college to terminate the contract and hire back the custodians as Southampton College employees (restoring TIAA Cref benefits, free tuition benefits, etc.) but the movement resulted in two custodians of color getting promoted; the custodians themselves organizing to bring in a new more powerful union affiliation with the TEAMSTERS; students organizing to pressure administration to offer a course on activism; and even off campus, protests inspired the local community’s Ant-Bias Task Force becoming more militant and demanding changes in local schools and local government. As one faculty suggested during a demonstration, the custodians in particular and the “movement” in general had become some of the most effective educators on campus and in the community. (You can read more about this event in my book, The End of the Hamptons.) 
That may have been a nice rhetorical statement and certainly honored the custodians and their struggle with an appropriate and symbolic nod. But was it true? During a sit-in at the provost’s office, the provost himself defended himself against student demonstrators explaining how he wasn’t a racist and felt attached by people who were calling him a racist. One student replied that no one she knew had called the provost himself a racist, but that the group was arguing the college itself had practiced racism and job segregation and those policies and practices that resulted in racial discrimination were a form of institutional racism that the provost had a moral and legal obligation to address—not support.  The Provost was silent.
Topics ranging from local history and politics; social movement and collective behavior theory; race, ethnicity and other identity construction; organizational behavior, labor, and media studies; and on and on were all on the agenda of a movement that challenged campus and community power and privilege. Such struggles required a vast knowledge base and analytical set of tools in which the experts were those who had been struggling with such power dynamics and institutional forms of stratification and inequality for over 30 years. And t was in the struggle to change some of these dynamics that not only students but a whole community learned about the history and politics of race and class in the region. And they also learned some of the ways to change those dynamics and make a better world. How many of us can say our classrooms do THAT on a regular basis?
All this to say that I believe for those of us educators (and particularly sociologists) the current OCCUPY WALL STREET and related groups and movements offer a unique opportunity to teach about the ways in which a sociological imagination connects the lessons in our classroom to the world outside our classrooms— even if it’s only as far as the cafeteria across the quad or the rest rooms down the hall. In theory, occupy [fill in the blank] is at its very heart a movement about reclaiming space to rethink basic questions, motives and intentions to understand the conditions we live in, how did we get here, and how might we rethink the future of our surrounding institutions, policies, and knowledge production to improve all people’s lives as opposed to benefitting just the few who have the lionshare of power. If this be the philosophical message of the movement, then I would argue we should OCCUPY Everything!—that would be a kind of sociological imagination for everyone I think.