My Thoughts on the Austin Music Census… and what I plan to do about it

For reasons that I don’t yet fully understand, I was appointed to the Austin Music Commission this past summer. No, really–you can check. Our first meeting as a new commission was a few weeks ago, and one of the tasks I set for myself was to read through the entirety of the Austin Music Census before that meeting and come with some goals for the city. Like every other resident of Austin, I read the press about the census, but also like every other resident of the city, I hadn’t read the actual document itself. If ever there was a TL;DR, this was it.

Having finally made it most of the way through, I think I’ve figured out exactly where I want to start. It can all be summed up in the phrase:

Austin, it’s time to stop being a dick and let the goddamn kids play on your goddamn lawn.

As I’m sure you’ve heard somewhere, Austin is a very young city. Our median age is 31.1 (at least, according to a Google search), which is five years younger than the national average. Of the 110 or so people moving here every day, you’d better believe that a lot of them are under 30.

If you go to any meeting involving local governance, though, you’d be hard pressed to see that population represented. Whenever I go to neighborhood meetings, I’m usually the youngest person there by about 25 years (at least). I don’t really have the data to support this, but I’d be unsurprised to find that the median voter age in city elections is around 65.

That, of course, is certainly not unusual when it comes to local politics. The problem in Austin is that a significant number of those older voters have essentially decided that their governing philosophy is “Hey, kids, get off my lawn!” I’ve been to many of those meetings, and I’ve heard a lot of anger about this or that thing being forced down somebody’s throats (which, quite frankly, it rarely is), and I can’t help but feel like the resentment is at least a little bit sourced in the fact that all these folks simply don’t like 20-somethings. They don’t like their strange tattoos, their fashion, their love of craft beer and locally-sourced produce, their weird music and the fact that they like to party all night–next door or elsewhere. They especially don’t seem to like that they usually rent their houses and tend to move every year.

Some of these grievances are probably reasonable and some aren’t–but the fact remains that as a result of having a city code that has essentially been written by folks whose only goal is to get kids to stop moving into their neighborhoods, our music industry is facing a couple serious problems.

First, let me point this out, from page 10 in the census:

Regulatory Inefficiencies Appear to be Creating Productivity Loss for both Venues and City Staff: Venue respondents found the City’s permitting system to be inefficient, cumbersome, and confusing. Respondents indicated both in survey data as well as focus groups and interviews that the process was very difficult to navigate and time consuming. Also, since there is no single department or point of contact at the City
that is designated to handle venue questions, many felt that there is a “no man’s land” problem of getting stuck in a system in which different departments or personnel may provide conflicting information to applicants, but there is no single point of escalation or path to resolution.

 

Here in Austin, complaining about city staff is pretty common. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Zucker Report–a report which was commissioned to evaluate the permitting departments at the city–some pretty damning things came out of it. It may be the case that this is the fault of bad city staffers, but I would like to put forward that this happens because Austin’s city code is confusing, complex, and contradictory. It is also all of those things entirely on purpose. If your goal is to get kids off your lawn, one way to do it is to write laws that are so complex that they’re next to impossible to follow, meaning that you can always find some violation if you want to shut down a party. Sick of living next to a thriving coffee bar with live music on Sundays? Just call city code and complain about their parking ratio. That’s probably a violation, and it will probably cost that bar owner thousands to fix, and could (hopefully!) put them out of business. Then it can be replaced with a nice quilting shop or something.

Another thing that folks complained about in the census was a lack of affordable housing for rent. This was especially true for musicians (and less so for venue owners and non-musician industry employees), many of whom are really, really poor. Everyone in this city knows we have an affordability crisis, but what we don’t know is that that crisis is largely due to the fact that central neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Clarksville, Tarrytown, and so on, have pretty successfully fought any increase in their housing stock for at least 20 years. This history of resisting densification has led to the extreme pace of gentrification we see on the East Side and has resulted in the utter dearth of available rental units since Austin’s population started exploding. As long as there are more renters than there are rental units, landlords will hold pretty much all the cards and be able to charge whatever the hell they want for rent.

So, as a newly appointed member of the Austin Music Commission, I plan on making simplifying and re-writing our city code my first priority. In the short term, I think we need to look into ways to help venue owners to navigate our city code and to help musicians and other young people find housing. In the long term, though, we need a city code that is transparent and easily understood by everyone, and that encourages music venues to stay open and to grow their business. We need a city code that makes it easy to build rental housing so that musicians (and other young people) can find housing they can afford.

In other words, we need to find ways to keep the kids on the lawn.

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Authorities Baffled as Austin Tallies 70th Drinking Water Death of 2015

At current rate, city is on pace to double last year’s total of 54.

by Marshall Escamilla

When Susan Alvarez, 23, died on Saturday from injuries sustained while using her tap, she became the 70th person to die as a result of Austin’s drinking water since January 1st of this year. Alvarez was going to boil some pasta last Wednesday evening, when she turned on the tap–only to have it explode in her face due to her failure to turn the knob to the left first.

Alvarez’ death is the 70th drinking-water related fatality that Austin has suffered this year. The city has been on a record-breaking pace since New Year’s day, when three people were hospitalized when a water main exploded in an apartment complex in Southeast Austin. Authorities are baffled as to what could be causing the spike this year.

“There’s just no pattern to it, and I’m not sure what we can do to stop it,” says Water Chief Art Acevedo, who’s been running Austin Water since 2004. “We’ve always known that drinking water is dangerous and people need to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves, but this is easily the worst I’ve seen. I quite frankly don’t know what to do about it.”

Acevedo says that a lot of the water-related fatalities are the result of residents making poor choices with their taps. “We all know that tap water is dangerous; people need to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they’re willing to play Russian Roulette with their tap today.”

For example, one of the recent fatalities involved a student who hurriedly turned his hot water on without looking. When the tap exploded backwards out his kitchen wall, the high-pressure spray of scalding water instantly killed three children who were playing in their front yard. A fourth suffered third degree burns and is still in intensive care.

“That’s one example of a person who should have been much more careful,” Acevedo says.

Nic Moe, with Water Zero ATX, a grass-roots group that advocates for policies to prevent drinking water-related deaths, has other ideas.

“The fact is that the way we’ve designed our water system really is dangerous,” he says. “More than anything else, the pressure in the system is just way too high–there’s no need for the tap to explode 1 out of every 25 times you turn it on. The city needs to adopt programs that right size our water mains right away. That’s already being tried in some parts of the city, and there’s been no detriment to water service and we can already see that the safety numbers in those areas are dramatically improved.”

Right sizing is a program in which the water pressure and size of water mains serving residential and commercial areas are scaled down in order to ensure slower water tap speeds. Moe points out that slowing the water coming out of the tap has a dramatic impact on safety, sometimes reducing water-tap fatalities by as much as 75%. “In fact,” he says, “in some areas where right-sizing has been tried, the fatality rate is down to zero.”

As promising as these experimental policies may be, not everyone is excited about them. Some residents are concerned that right-sizing would make it harder for them to get the water pressure they need to go about their daily lives. For instance, at the last Water Safety Commission meeting, one concerned resident mentioned that right-sizing in his neighborhood made it impossible for him to pressure-wash his front porch with his kitchen faucet.

“These are the kinds of things that really harm our quality of life here in Austin,” he said. “People just need to be more careful when they’re using their tap, and get off their damn cell phones!”

While right-sizing is being hotly debated in the Water Safety Commission and at City Council, it’s important that Austin residents do all they can to prevent fatalities when they’re using their water.

Every Education Article Written Ever

by Author Published in a Nationally Relevant Publication

 

It’s a bright and sunny (or cloudy or rainy or whatever) day as the first bell rings at Underprivileged School. Ms. Teacher’s class is starting their day, and there’s a lesson of some kind to be taught. At this point, an event occurs that would elicit some kind of expectation from the reader: either the teacher starts her class, causing us to expect all the students to sit quietly in rows, or maybe a student acts up, creating the expectation that he will be firmly rebuked and punished. Or, alternatively, we might expect the Ms. Teacher to ask her students to open their textbooks, or any of a countless number of things.

But then, the teacher does something unexpected.

In this paragraph, we learn about how tough things are at Underprivileged School. We learn that most of the students are on free or reduced lunch, and that a lot of them come to school behind grade level. We learn that the school itself has struggled to meet tough state standards, and that its test scores (until recently) were always abysmal. We meet Ms. Principal of Underprivileged School, who has been working at this school for x years and struggled with these problems the old-fashioned way, but nothing she tried was working.

And that’s why she knew something needed to change. Luckily, she had heard about an Earth-Shattering Idea.

 

This is the paragraph where we meet Mr. Educational Researcher. He is introduced as having some sort of quirk that vaguely reminds you that he’s an academic, and maybe behaves like one of your favorite professors in college. Perhaps he has an unkempt mop of gray curls that he keeps brushing out of his eyes. Or maybe he has a penchant for wearing tweed blazers in 90 degree heat. Or perhaps he speaks rapidly, changing subjects every two sentences, leaving the reporter gasping to keep up. Once the reader finds him sufficiently humanized, these descriptions can end.

Here we learn that Mr. Educational Researcher has come up with an Earth-Shattering Idea. The Earth-Shattering Idea occurred to Mr. Educational Researcher while he was conducting his research–mostly small-sample studies involving mostly white undergraduates who filled out surveys or completed puzzles in a lab somewhere. Whenever Mr. Educational Researcher discusses his Earth-Shattering Idea with his peers, he’s very careful to include words like “may imply” and “our results are suggestive.” If you read the “Results” section of his published papers, you’re likely to find lots of stuff about p-values and the like. Luckily we’re spared all of that.

In this paragraph, we’re given a cartoon version of Mr. Educational Researcher’s Earth-Shattering Idea. One that paints his results with the broadest possible brush, leaving out any discussion of context or shades of gray about his conclusions. If there is any controversy amongst his peers about the validity of his conclusions–whether it’s concern within peer reviewed journals about how he calculated his results, or how he gathered his sample, or problems replicating his results in experimental settings–it is ignored in this description. If there are any concerns at all that Earth-Shattering Idea will scale successfully in a school system as diverse and locally-controlled as schools are in the United States, those definitely aren’t mentioned. Instead, his results and conclusions are treated as though they are gospel truth, infallible in every way, and are going to Change Everything We Thought We Knew About Education.

At this point in the article, we go to Opposite School, a school that is as different from Underprivileged School as it is possible to be. Opposite School is either in an affluent, mostly white suburb, or is an elite private school. As far as this article is concerned, these are the same things. At Opposite School, we meet Mr. Principal of Affluent School, who is confronting the problems at his school using Earth-Shattering Idea.

We follow Mr. Principal of Affluent School as he goes about his business in his school, radiating an air of quiet confidence as he greets his students by their first name and asks them about things that are important to them. “How was the game last night, Bobby?” Or, “Hope that recital went well, Jane!” But never: “Is this Marijuana in your locker, Mr. Jones?”

We learn that Mr. Principal of Affluent School is working hard to implement Earth-Shattering Idea school wide. He leads regular Professional Development Meetings with his staff at which they discuss Earth-Shattering Idea, with teachers sharing their experiences. Some of them are experimenting with using Earth-Shattering Idea in one way, while some are experimenting with a different way. They all report their results and share what works and what doesn’t.

Back at Underprivileged School, we find that teachers are also implementing Earth-Shattering Idea with unmitigated success. Test scores that once were falling are now on the rise; attendance and behavior problems have also improved. There are real hopes that Earth-Shattering Idea might make a real difference for schools like Underprivileged School that are trying desperately to improve in the face ever-rising accountability standards with ever-harsher penalties for failure to comply.

At this point there might be a quote from Mr. Educational Researcher about something or other. We might also learn that Mr. Principal of Affluent School is friends with Ms. Principal of Underprivileged School, and that they do something charming together on a regular basis like meet for lunch, or play bridge. The fact that they are friends helps us feel like their two schools really are part of the same system working towards common goals, and helps alleviate our anxieties that education might be another example of the separate-but-economically-unequal society we live in.

Things that certainly aren’t mentioned at this point in the article: the number of teachers who quit teaching every year because the workloads are too intense and the pay too low; the school-to-prison pipeline; the fact that public schools’ funding model means that the poorest students also attend the poorest schools, thereby guaranteeing that class differences persist for yet another generation; the fact that no teaching methods have been tested in large numbers in actual schools with actual students; and so on, and so on. These things are probably ignored because they are thorny problems without easy solutions–if they have solutions at all.

At this point in the article, the author might give some nod to the uncertainty surrounding Earth-Shattering Idea. They might say that it’s still an experimental idea, and no one knows if it’s actually going to work–even though the rest of the article is devoted to explaining how it’s pretty much guaranteed to work 100% of the time. But then the author might mention how our schools are failing, and we have to try something. That’s why it’s so good to know that, somewhere, somebody is daring to innovate.

And then there’s a snappy conclusion that ties it all together.

Author of this article is an Education and Public Policy Reporter for Nationally Relevant Publication. She spends most of her time talking to politicians and businesspeople, with the rest of it spent talking to researchers. She doesn’t get to go into classrooms nearly as often as she’d like.

Want to fight gentrification? Go to West Austin.

Gentrification has been in the news a lot in Austin lately. The Jumpolin saga touched a lot of nerves, and then there was the report that ranked Austin as the most economically segregated city in the nation. Just yesterday, a number of businesses in East Austin woke up to find some pretty nasty stickers affixed to their shop windows.

I’ve lived in Austin for 12 years, and the gentrification of the East Side has been part of the Austin conversation the entire time I’ve lived here. On some level, I get why people are upset about it. What I don’t get, though, is why West Austin is–and as far as I can tell, always has been–missing from that conversation.

Let’s look at that economic segregation report. If you actually read the report, you’ll find this nice little nugget:

Economic segregation is driven by the choices made by more advantaged groups. The creative class is more segregated than either the working class or service class. College grads are more segregated than those who did not finish high school. The wealthy are more segregated than the poor—indeed they are the most segregated of all groups, and by a considerable margin.

In other words, Austin’s Economic segregation can be attributed to the rich choosing to live in areas where they will be surrounded exclusively by other rich people. You can see this really clearly by looking at a map of Austin, broken down by median family income.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 11.43.23 AMYou see the big swath of dark blue? That is where the rich people live. They live there in neighborhoods that are frequently gated and at the end of long private drives. They live there in neighborhoods that are entirely inaccessible by transit, so if you are employed as one of the help, you’d better be making enough to have a car of your own.

Of course, the wealthy have lived apart from the rest of the city in West Austin for a long time, dating back at least to the ’20s. It’s a little-discussed fact that Clarksville (where the present median list price for a home is $1.23M) was a historically black neighborhood, founded by a freed slave. At least, that’s what it was until the city forcibly removed all people of color from that area as best they could. At the same time, neighborhoods like Hyde Park were developed that explicitly excluded people of color.

Austin isn’t at all unique in having a chapter like this in its history–in fact, nearly every US city has some dark race-related policy in its archives somewhere. But I’m bringing this up because those neighborhoods that were forcibly made into all-white, all-wealthy parts of town still very much are. It seems as though this fact is so deep in the background of our city’s understanding of itself that we pretty much take it for granted. In all the raging against the way the East Side has been changing, there’s been little to no mention of the neighborhoods that East Side residents were intentionally excluded from in the first place.

Meanwhile, residents of those wealthy neighborhoods continue to organize and agitate for the right to make their neighborhoods more exclusive. They’ve pretty successfully stymied development, fought affordable housing in their areas, and put gates on public streets. Each of these efforts is made for some sort of theoretically valid reason (cut-through traffic, losing neighborhood “character”), and is frequently cloaked in social-justice like language, but the end result is to make the wealthier parts of town more off-limits to everyone else.

So when people like PODER protest the gentrification of East Austin, I certainly get it. In the rising real estate values of their neighborhoods they see another Clarksville brewing. Not to mention the fact that their neighborhoods are filling up with hipsters, and that’s got to be annoying. But to focus exclusively on the East Side is to miss at least half the picture.

What the hell is any of this for?

It is my understanding that we, as a society, decide to have laws to serve one of two purposes. Either a law is written to attempt to protect citizens and their property from random acts of violence (what I suppose some theorists might call “a monopoly on the means of violence”), or it is written to protect citizens from the negative consequences of their fellow citizens’ actions (in Economics speak, “negative externalities”).

An example of the first is murder. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong, sure, but it’s also illegal because none of us would want to live in a society in which anyone can be murdered with impunity. Just ask people in Ferguson. An example of the second is speeding: the act of speeding may not inflict harm on either the driver doing the speeding or on anyone around him at the time, however, if everyone drove as fast as they could, our roads would be much more dangerous and we’d all suffer as a result.

As I learn more and more about Austin’s–and, really, every other city’s–building codes and zoning restrictions, I’m increasingly starting to wonder which of these purposes these rules serve. If you look at Austin’s 100-page “Zoning Guide” (a handy PDF published by the city), you’ll find that the city has very specific laws governing how far your property is from the curb, how far it is from your neighbor’s house, what the allowed square footage of the lot is, how much of the lot can be covered by buildings (of course, only certain things count as buildings, while other things that you might think of as buildings don’t)… and on, and on, and on. The level of granularity and complexity in the building code is kind of astonishing, and as I read it, I can’t help but wonder: what the hell is any of this for?

I’m sure that anyone wanting to support the existence of a building code (and by this I mean anyone who wants to defend it for reasons other than wanting not to bite the hand that feeds) could make the argument that it falls into the second category, namely, that it protects us from the negative consequences of our neighbors’ actions. But, the thing is that every city in the nation–and Austin is no exception–has at least one part of town that was constructed before it adopted any building codes. These neighborhoods are usually thought of as the most charming, desirable parts of town to live in, and not only because they’re close to downtown. Part of their charm is in their non-compliance, the fact that they were built at a time before people constructed every building to excruciatingly exacting standards.

Right now, the city of Austin is going through the process of rewriting its Land Development Code, and that’s probably a good thing. The current state of affairs is far too complex to no good purpose, and that’s really bad for everyone.

How Whiplash Changed My Life: A Music Educator’s Manifesto

Whiplash is a film about a lot of things. It’s about the experience of being profoundly driven to excellence at all costs. It’s also a film about that voice that all musicians have in their heads, our inner Fletcher. You know, the guy who, despite all the compliments we get from ignoramuses and our parents, knows that we actually suck. He catches all our mistakes and lets us know that we made them in the meanest way possible.

All this is true, and all of this is part of why I loved this movie so much. But it’s not the reason why Whiplash changed my life. Whiplash changed my life because it is also a movie about education.

The most famous pedagogical scene in the movie is probably the “rushing or dragging” scene, which is certainly awesome. But as awesome as it is, I thought the two most important educational scenes in that film came much later. One of them is embedded below:

This is, in a sense, Fletcher’s “Philosophy of Teaching”–a document that every teacher has to submit when applying to grad school or almost any job. And as philosophies go, it’s actually not all that unusual. This idea–that praise can be harmful to the growth and development of young people–is shared by a broad range of educators, including Alfie Kohn, whose original article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job” was an early popularizer of research that had been done over the previous decade on the harmful effects of praise. Since then, this line of thinking has shown up in opinion pieces and books that all support the basic idea that being too positive does irreparable damage to our kids.

While I’d certainly agree with a lot of these ideas, hearing them come from Fletcher–a manipulative, abusive monster–really made me realize how much these ideas have been co-opted in the realm of music education to support a terrible pedagogical model. While I will admit that there is literally no one in this country who teaches the way Fletcher does in Whiplash, the kinds of teaching behaviors he exemplifies aren’t quite as far out as you’d imagine. In a world in which achievement at music competitions is the one and only measure of a director’s success, it’s totally common to hear stories of band directors who fly into fits of rage when the music isn’t up to their exacting standards.

And while it’s undoubtedly true that these types of teachers produce results, I think it’s important to ask at what cost? This brings me to the second scene I wanted to talk about here. In it (and, boy, do I wish there was a clip on YouTube) Niemann watches a video of himself as a child, playing drums and beaming with pride, excitement, and joy at the sheer fun of playing music. From where he stood, having just gotten kicked out of music school after tackling his band director, the loss of this joy is as painful as anything else he’s experienced.

It’s a commonly understood phenomenon that school music programs experience considerable attrition. And while much academic ink has been spilled trying to discern the cause, so deeply imbedded is the idea of success-as-achievement in our educational institutions that hardly anyone is asking the question: what about joy? Could it be that kids quit orchestra or band because they simply don’t find it to be any fun?

When I started as a music teacher, one of my most deeply held beliefs was the idea that harnessing the inherent joy and interest that all kids have for music is the single most powerful tool an educator has. Over time, it’s become a somewhat timidly-held belief; such is the power that the cultural milieu can have. However, this film reminded me of it.

This film reminded me why I strive to be as encouraging of my students as it is possible to be. I strive to ensure that I’m enjoying myself when I’m making music with my students and that they’re enjoying themselves, too. This film reminded me why I dance around the room when the kids are playing. It reminded me why I play their games and learn their language; why I invent silly nicknames for them and let them call me silly nicknames too. It also reminded me why I let them pick the songs we learn; why I let them add their own ideas to the music when they have them; and most of all why I don’t really concern myself all that much with their achievement as measured by trophies and competitions.

Three Takeaways from The Smartest Kids in the World…

Over the break, I read Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World. If you haven’t yet read the book, go read it and then come back, and we can have a discussion about it. If you don’t want to, then perhaps I can summarize the book by saying: using PISA scores, the US education system ranks quite low in comparison to those in a number of other countries. The author went to those countries (and talked to American teens who did the same in a study abroad program) to see what’s going on in those schools that makes such a difference.

As with any book about education, I took a lot of things away from this read. But, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to limit it to three.

Takeaway #1: The problem with PISA

Much of the book’s central argument–including figuring out which kids are “smart”–emerges out of data from PISA scores. The PISA test is given to 15-year-olds in countries around the world, and as a professional educator I will go on record saying that, as a measure of broader understanding of important academic concepts, it’s a pretty good test. The questions are connected to real-world issues and not purely abstract, it’s not multiple choice so there are no tiny bubbles to fill, and you really have to know stuff in order to answer the questions correctly.

As a measure of how these skills are being taught, I’d say: yeah, it’s pretty good. If I wanted to know how my students were doing this is the kind of test I would give them, for both reading and math.

Lots of folks, though, have written about the problem of poverty as it influences PISA test scores–and, as it turns out, they influence them quite a bit. I don’t have much to add to that conversation, other than to say that I don’t know how one could listen to This American Life’s story about Harper High School and still think that teachers and schools are the biggest problem in the lives of impoverished American teens–and not something else, over which teachers and administrators have very little control.

It’s for this reason, among many others, that I find it supremely annoying whenever Ripley uses the word “smart” when she really means “scoring highly on the PISA test.” Every time I read a sentence that referred to kids in Korea as being “smart,” I cringed inwardly.

Another point I’d like to bring up has to do with population. Finland, a nation which is referred to as an “educational utopia,” has a population of about 5 million people, which makes it about half as large as the Chicago metro area. Poland, another country held up as being particularly “smart,” has a population of 38.9 million, which is about the same as the state of California. And so on.

These population numbers are particularly relevant because of the fact that the US, even in this era of NCLB, doesn’t really have a national education system. What we have is a collection of schools that are all locally administered, accountable to locally elected school boards and standards set by state legislatures. While many of our school systems are similar to one another, they are also different in a lot of important ways–so comparing the countless schools in our sprawling public system to those of much smaller countries and “ranking” them is patently absurd.

Takeaway #2: Popular books about psychology, education, and public policy oughta be better…

At the end of the book, Ripley appends a summary of survey results from students from other countries who studied abroad in the US and US students who studied abroad elsewhere that conform much more to the standards that one might apply to a scholarly article. Findings are shown without too much comment, and while explanations are offered, they include many important hedge words and alternative explanations.

In my opinion, this section of the book was the most interesting part. The findings are provocative but not presented as definitive–because, of course, they aren’t. Having this section appended to a book that was written in a very different format reminded me how much I hate it when authors of popular books about any subject with which I’m at all familiar overstate their case or misrepresent research to support their arguments.

For instance, at the end of this book, Ripley presents two findings from her survey that are certainly interesting. The first is that foreign students studying in the US and US students studying abroad seem to agree that sports are more important in American schools than elsewhere. The second is that schools abroad are “harder” than US schools.

In the research article-style appendix, each of the findings include important hedges. About sports, she’s careful to include the fact that it’s not at all clear that increased emphasis on sports has any negative impact on academic performance. About schools being harder, she mentions that “harder” may refer to expectations of behavior and conformity to teachers’ strict behavior demands–not necessarily the difficulty of the academic material covered in class. This second explanation is particularly interesting as students in the survey are talking about schools in countries that outperform the US on PISA as well as students in countries that don’t.

Of course, in the rest of the book, these hedges aren’t at all present. The fact that US schools are easier than those in other countries is presented as though it refers exclusively to academic content; the fact that sports are so important in schools is presented as a key reason why American schools seem to under-perform academically. While I might agree to a certain extent on the second point, and maybe even on the first, in both cases Ripley is overstating her case.

This of course, happens all the time. Some authors, like Malcolm Gladwell, do it in order to better “tell a story,” whatever that means. Others, like Leonard Sax, whose books about gender made the educational must-read circuit a few years ago, do so in a way that is patently dishonest. I think it’s terribly unfortunate that popular writers wield so much influence while at the same time feeling so unaccountable for ensuring that the information they hawk is at all accurate.

Takeaway #3: Pay Teachers More…

One thing that is presented in the book as a major problem is the lack of teacher preparation and “prestige” associated with the teaching profession. Though she mentions it, almost in passing, Ripley spends very little time talking about teacher pay. She spends a lot of time talking about preparation. In Finland, for example, teachers are always taken from the top third of their college classes; their preparation programs are rigorous and extremely challenging.

That’s all great, and I’d be inclined to agree that Education departments at Universities need some sort of reform. However, when it comes to the “getting the best and brightest,” teaching really has a major, structural problem. Amanda Ripley tries to address this in her blog, but I really don’t think she does so very effectively.

There are lots of points I could respond to in her post, which I may do at some point in the future. But I’m going to focus on this: for the most part, people who become teachers do so not to get paid a lot of money. But there comes a point in every young teacher’s career where a number of factors start to wear on them. And one of them is definitely money. Starting salaries for teachers and other educated professionals are divergent, yes, but not necessarily that divergent. The problem is that, if you become a teacher, you have to accept the fact that you’re probably never going to make much more than you did in your first year. In most public schools in Texas, that’s generally the case. And I know for at least one of my colleagues–a brilliant, talented, and committed educator–that was a major factor that drove him from the profession.

There are, of course, lots of other factors. Administrative interference; the constant hopping onto whatever is the next new trend in education; the difficulty of controlling classroom behavior (apparently, that ranks as the #1 reason why young teachers leave the profession); the difficulty of reaching kids who show no interest in being reached in the first place. But, I will maintain: if you want the best and the brightest to go into the teaching profession, you need to pay them at least as much as they could get elsewhere.