Remote school works best for YOUR child? You have the RIGHT to continue!

Late spring polls—and the blessed waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the USA, at leasthave prompted headlines like this one from the Boston Globe:

“After a difficult academic year, the majority of Mass. parents want in-person school this fall

Boston Globe article headline with "the majority" highlighted by this bloggerThat unambiguous headline hides the whopping 31% of parents who disagreed with the sentiment. Almost a third of the 1,619 parents polled by MassINC Polling Group are NOT eager for mandatory, full-time, in person education just a few short months from now.

That’s more than three out of every ten people. In my childhood classrooms that averaged around 30 kids, that would have meant nine or 10 were attending against their families’ best instincts. I don’t think numbers this significant can be dismissed as a “trivial” minority over whose preferences the majority can ride roughshod with impunity.

An earlier Gallup poll restricted to 14 to 18 year old high school students in the same state of Massachusetts showed similar dissonance with an equally head-scratching headline:

Few Massachusetts Students Prefer Remote Learning

The data in that case also shows that most people, shown a few narrow options, prefer to travel the path of least resistance and do what they’ve always done. Half (50%) of the kids polled, if given these three choices, would attend “in person full-time.” Only 16% would choose “remote school full-time.”

Then again, 34% in the Gallup poll selected the third option: a hybrid “in person/remote” approach. That third of the student body can’t necessarily be described as “preferring” in person education. A more accurate headline would have been: Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning.Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning

Some of these students might’ve been reacting more to a lousy remote education experience—one they got stuck with during a worldwide crisis—rather than alternative learning in general. Even with widespread reports of low quality remote instruction in 2020, from this data, I see that half of the polled teens expressed an interest in at least some education outside of the traditional brick school building.

From yet another source, I offer a press release from National Parents Union including a third poll (poll data here) producing similar statistics. The NPU poll shows 56% of surveyed parents “value having a choice between in-person and remote” learning. Roughly half prefer in person classrooms, but 17-25% of parents depending upon geographic region would prefer a hybrid model.

As with the other polls, 20% of these respondents would prefer full-time remote learning in 2021-22.

The right to an education

Before I say anything more, let me be clear: I do believe that opening schools this fall looks likely to be safe enough for most. The decision to do so appears to be based upon a sound assessment of current conditions in the USA.

Families who want to send their children back to schools in person should absolutely have that option based upon currently available data.

American children have a right to an education. Maybe even a constitutional right to at least basic literacy. In no way am I looking to dictate the best way for other people’s children to learn.USA flag - 1

I grow frustrated by the outright dismissal of the reasonable preferences of a sizeable minority of parents and children who want continued access to remote learning options for those who prefer them.

If even “just” 16-20% of students would choose remote learning, that’s 4.8 to six students in my hypothetical classroom of 30. I find it interesting that 20% of respondents in the NPU poll (see question 14) also reported their pupils “learning more than they normally would” during remote classes than they felt they had attending school in person.

These are real outcomes from American students for whom remote education works well.

The 31% from the first poll of families who don’t want to send their kids back to traditional school buildings—for now, or perhaps forever—deserve to be heard and accommodated by the public system. They may not be the majority, but the group is large enough, and the stakes are high enough, that ignoring the needs of these families is a dereliction of a very reasonable duty of care.

Let’s face reality: it’s not as though our system has been offering an excellent education to every child who wants one up to this point. (An example: the fierce fighting over scarce seats at Boston’s best public schools.) We have a lot of room for innovation and improvement. The point at which 16-31% of participants in the system ask for an alternative seems like an ideal time to start.

Parents usually judge best what works for their own kids

Barring extreme dysfunction, parents know their own children best. While most moms and dads aren’t professional educators, they are experts on the subject of their offspring.

I have two kids, and only one of them was educated at home before the pandemic. 2020-21 was as much of a wild academic ride for us as it was for students everywhere!

I posted about my family’s educational choices here—Home education as a radical act—back in 2017. I was also grateful to take advantage of my son’s school’s outdoor classes during the pandemic.

I mention the different choices made on behalf of my two children because I’m not a rabid proponent of homeschooling at all costs. My sociable younger son is enrolled in school because he prefers learning in a group, and evidence suggests the system works… for him.

My other kid has definitely found his groove, but even my homeschooler didn’t love the shape of every part of learning through a pandemic. That child, too, is eager to return to some classrooms for some subjects; my kid can’t wait to have choices again.

Home education allows for remote learning

This rambling? preamble has served to get me to the following point:

Families who aren’t well-served by the public system are entitled to remove their kids from it. Aside from expensive private institutions, home education is a legal right in all 50 states. Remote classes—many taught by trained professional educators—can be a part of homeschooling.

The internet began offering amazing online opportunities to homeschooling families many years ago, and the pandemic actually increased and enhanced the quality of the choices found thereon.

  • You don’t have to be a trained teacher to do a fine job teaching your own child.
  • You can purchase ready-made curricula for a term or a year, by grade level, or for individual subjects.
  • If your kid excels in one area while struggling with another, you can tailor everything to his or her needs on your own, or with targeted help by hiring tutors or joining group classes.

Here’s a post about a particular online foreign language program that worked out well for my kids: YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids. I’m also a fan of the affordable online courses offered by Royal Fireworks Press.

Roughly 2.5 million American students were learning from home before the pandemic; by March of 2021, that number doubled to 4.5 – 5 million. (Homeschool statistics from NHERI) Plenty of families rejected their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and took the plunge at the time; all of us can make that choice today based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half of disruption.

If you know that returning full time to a classroom isn’t the best decision for your child, I encourage you to try home education… if you believe it might be a good fit. Making this choice now doesn’t commit you or your child to this course forever; many kids transition in and out of homeschooling every year.

The NHERI link I gave above offers more detail on the subject of the success of home educated students, but the short version I believe everyone deserves to know can be summarized thusly:

  • Homeschoolers as a group perform better on standardized tests than those educated in public schools— 65-80th percentile for the home educated vs. 50th percentile for public institutions (Ray, 2015)
  • Homeschoolers as a group “succeed and perform statistically significantly better than those who attended institutional schools (Ray, 2017)” as functioning adults
  • “87% of peer-reviewed studies on social, emotional, and psychological development show homeschool students perform statistically significantly better than those in conventional schools (Ray, 2017)”

Oh yes, and, add to those points: selective colleges are generally very accepting of well-prepared home educated applicants because they also tend to perform as well as institutionally-educated enrollees at the university level.

Beyond these general facts gathered prior to the ravages of the coronavirus over the 2020-21 school year, it is worth acknowledging that a child who doesn’t feel safe at school is less likely to learn well. A parent who fears for her offspring’s health and safety is likely to perform less well in her own work. These are not insignificant issues; these feelings deserve to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Where state governments or boards of education dismiss out of hand the wishes of 20-30% of their enrolled families, I offer the option of parent-led home education, not as a prescription, but as a valid choice available for those who want it.

Though I’m not a home education focused blogger, per se, I’m happy to answer any specific questions that I can, or to provide links to specific types of resources that have worked for my family, if asked. Ask away in the comments!

If one fifth of students learned more during the pandemic, it seems obvious to me that public schools have an obligation to understand why that happened, retain that advantage going forward, and incorporate remote options for that sizeable chunk of their constituents.

Masks may be liberty-preserving alternative to mandatory vaccines or vax passports

There may be an alternative to mandatory vaccines and the inherent privacy and security concerns of either paper or electronic vaccine passports: allow people to opt out, but normalize the use of masks in densely populated, public, indoor settings when conditions suggest caution is demanded.

In the United States, this requirement should be tied directly to CDC reported rates of dangerous, communicable diseases with wastewater surveillance informing decisions. Medical research should be funded to track the effectiveness of masks against flu and anything else that’s feasible, not just COVID-19.

Ongoing investigation of the role aerosols—and inadequate ventilationplay in spreading common diseases demands equal attention and funding.

I, for one, would not return to an office as of May 2021 without a mask on my face if the space didn’t promise four to six air changes every hour or a fully vaccinated cohort of coworkers! This Wired story is a must read for those who’d like to understand the origins of medicine’s deeply flawed 5 μ myth defining “airborne” pathogens.

While our coronavirus memories are fresh, we owe it to future generations to prepare better for the next global outbreak. It is as inevitable as SARS-CoV-2 was. Fumbling our collective response, however, is not preordained.

We’ve learned a lot during the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ample real world evidence is now available suggesting that even simple homemade cloth coverings reduce the risk of infection from at least this one airborne virus. Flu also virtually disappeared during the 2020-21 season, though that could be as readily attributed to social distance and isolation as opposed to masks.

In the absence of the worldwide supply chain disruptions common early in this pandemic, more definitively effective surgical and N95 masks are easily obtained and affordable. Employers with public storefronts should have boxes of them deployed in the workplace in the same way food service companies provide gloves to their workers.

Unfolded ProGear N95 mask sitting in front box of 50 it came in

As with gloves and hairnets in restaurant kitchens, masks should be the immediate, hygienic response to entering the personal space of unknown persons with unknown vaccination status while any community is in the throes of an infectious agent.

Massachusetts’s governor is quoted in a May 7th Boston Globe opinion piece as saying, “some people have ‘very legitimate reasons to be nervous about a government-run program that’s going to put a shot in their arm.’” The same piece goes on to report, “Attorney General Maura Healey… this week repeated her call for public employees to be vaccinated as a condition of their jobs.”

Requiring every public employee in a customer facing position to wear a face mask at work unless s/he chooses to offer verifiable proof of vaccination seems like a cheap, simple, practical solution to me. As every scientifically literate, law-abiding citizen of the United States now knows, wearing a mask is no more difficult* than wearing pants.

Rome, the power house of the ancient world, believed trousers were ridiculous, barbaric garments. Quite literally, Romans, like the Greeks before them, saw pants as uncivilized clothing fit only for uncouth Goths and Vandals. The entire Western world, and most people around the globe, now don trousers without compunction. Masking one’s face requires no greater degree of adaptation!

Most of us could decide which we prefer at work: to wear a mask, or to accept vaccination. Crucially, the public at large ends up protected either way.Redacted official CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

I think it is likely that I, personally, will never want to fly again without a face covering, if only because I’m so well aware of my own tendency to touch my face and even bite my nails when experiencing anxiety. It’s a terrible habit I’ve never been able to break, but a comfortable face shield or mask would remove almost all of that risk to my health.

There will always be liars and attempted cheats, of course. Responses to those caught committing public health fraud should be proportionate and focused on preventing harm to the community.

Perhaps being fitted with a device designed like the ankle bracelets employed for house arrest for a period of time would work, offering a visible warning to strangers while broadcasting via Bluetooth? a message alerting those in the vicinity of the need to increase social distance. This could be a system that works with individual’s cell phones, or a device required for public occupancy of spaces meeting certain size or density limits rather like the requirement to install smoke alarms and fire sprinklers before opening a hotel or nightclub for business.

The primary solution is to normalize the continued use of masks in dense situations where we crowd together with unknown persons. The secondary need is for public spaces to meet reasonable, updated standards for safety in light of our current understanding of risk in the post-COVID-19 world.

Once COVID-19 vaccines are fully approved by the FDA, I do believe that employees who work specifically with the most vulnerable population should be required to accept vaccination or leave those particular roles.

Aides in nursing homes should not be able to opt out of coronavirus vaccines, nor the flu vaccine in normal years, nor should nurses serving the immune-compromised. Prison guards—who work with populations literally unable to escape from unvaccinated sources of exposure—are another obvious group whose personal choices should not be allowed to endanger the lives or health of others.

The actual conditions of employment for such positions demand a workforce that doesn’t subject other people to unnecessary risk so easily mitigated by inoculation. Case in point: the unvaccinated Kentucky health care worker who caused the death of three elderly residents of the nursing home where s/he worked. To pretend otherwise makes a mockery of both human decency and common sense.

In another example: a recent study published in JAMA showed that 46% of organ transplant patients produced zero antibodies after a complete 2 shot course of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine. It’s unreasonable that such individuals should be unknowingly subjected to the ministrations—however well-intentioned—of unvaccinated health care workers, certainly not without the immune-compromised patient’s being informed of their relative risk and given the opportunity to offer fully informed consent to taking said risk.

Face masks could also offer an effective solution for the conflict between public school vaccination requirements and anti-vaxxer parents currently allowed in some states to claim religious or other non-medical exemptions for their children.

Further research might prove that masks are not effective against every disease against which we have mandatory childhood vaccinations, but face coverings could potentially eliminate the friction between parent choice and community health in the context of the vital public good which is free, universal education.

Where freedom is the prize—and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable childhood infectious disease remain rare in America—I’d argue that the value of face masks as an alternative to mandatory injections is well worth exploring.Disposable surgical mask

Western medical science was patently wrong, before COVID-19, when it declaimed that face coverings offered no protection from infectious disease. We still aren’t sure if they protect the wearer so much as those in the vicinity of a masked, sick individual, but we do have substantial evidence that widespread adoption of masks can protect populations during a deadly outbreak.

Perhaps most importantly, where even the most well-vetted, safest vaccine or medication carries some tiny risk of harm to its recipient, wearing an appropriate, well-fitting mask correctly has virtually zero chance of injuring anyone. Low cost interventions with few side effects are ideal public health measures.

Asian nations which had internalized the historical lessons of earlier epidemics had it right; many** normalized face coverings during flu season. Now we know better, too. Science proves its inherent value when we incorporate new data into our body of knowledge, especially when we recognize data challenging existing beliefs and ingrained patterns of behavior.

This BMJ editorial (PDF) highlights the danger of clinging to false understandings. This opinion piece by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci is well worth a read on the subject of organizations lurching only slowly toward acceptance of new information challenging medical and scientific preconceptions.

Before the next pandemic, we should take great pains to study when, where, and how cheap, medically risk-free facial coverings work to effectively control the spread of disease. How many thousands fewer would have died if we’d deployed masks as a solution worldwide in days instead of months in 2020?

This is not merely a political issue. It is a matter of public health. Where solutions exist that preserve both life and liberty, we owe it to democracy—and humanity—to explore every possible compromise.

Per the CDC, roughly 1000 flu cases were diagnosed during the pandemic 2020-21 season vs. more than 65,000 cases in the more typical 2019-20 season.

* As with trousers, some are the wrong size, and some are more comfortable on a particular body than others. Trial and error may be required to find the perfect fit for a given individual. Compared with the effort necessary to remediate infecting a susceptible individual with a life-threatening disease, this process is, at worst, a trivial inconvenience.

Per the Boston Globe: One of the major senior care operators in the state of Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion before COVID-19, though the quote perversely suggests that the organization was more interested in shaming staff members as opposed to protecting elderly residents:

“A year before the pandemic, Hebrew SeniorLife required flu shots for the first time for staff. Administrators achieved 100 percent compliance by imposing what seemed at the time an onerous condition: Holdouts would be required to wear masks 24/7 during flu season.

‘That was totally embarrassing then, but not now,” Woolf said. “We don’t have that hammer anymore.’”

In my opinion, after legitimate scientific studies were conducted to confirm that mask use by unvaccinated staff protects vulnerable patients to an equivalent level as vaccinated staff with faces uncovered, this could be a sufficient and highly appropriate alternative to mandatory shots in some cases.

Voluntary residential situations for children under age 18 should probably be held to a higher standard, in my opinion, and strictly require vaccinations for all but medically exempt participants. Absent direct parental supervision, it seems unreasonable to subject anyone else’s child to unnecessary risk due to personal choices that contradict the best current medical advice.

** Routine wearing of masks was imported to Japan from Western nations who’d adopted them as one response to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Unlike we Americans, Japanese culture never dropped them as a reasonable personal response to being contagious after the urgency of the Great Influenza subsided.

This Huffington Post article suggests that the Chinese adopted protective face coverings even earlier: “In 1910 and 1911, citizens were encouraged to wear masks to combat the pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria.”

The article goes on to point out that other Asian nations picked up the habit of covering faces during outbreaks due specifically to the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. I’ve read that Koreans, in particular, actually viewed masks in a somewhat negative light as a foreign, Japanese import before the first SARS crisis.

Anglo-Saxon ideals aren’t the primary basis of U.S. government

As if her anti-Semitic claim that PG&E and Jewish bankers started California’s 2018 wildfires with space lasers wasn’t proof enough—whether due to mental illness or plain simple-mindedness—that Georgia’s elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is unfit for office, her latest antics show that she lacks even basic education on the history of the government of the United States of America.

Together with Paul Gosar, R-AZ, the befuddled Congresswoman Greene was reported to be forming an “America First Caucus” to  promote nativist policies. Reps. Barry Moore, R-AL, Louie Gohmert, R-TX, and moral powerhouse Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-FL all publicly lent support to this morass of historical confusion.

In a quick search on the day this news broke, I failed to find the complete seven page document referenced, so I can speak only to public claims reported in several major American newspapers. Ms. Greene, it should be noted, backpedaled furiously after this news spread, joining colleagues in statements suggesting they hadn’t even read the mission statement in question before endorsing it.

I wonder how these lazy politicians justify cashing their paychecks? This isn’t a difference of opinion, but a dereliction of duty and evidence of a near total lack of qualification for their sworn duty to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.Reproduction of the oath of office by which new United States congresspeople are sworn in

Teaching U.S. history to my own home educated teen in recent years, I was reminded that our Founding Fathers were influenced by Native American forms of government when crafting the U.S. Constitution. Here’s an entire article on the subject from The History Channel’s website. The Founders obviously didn’t seek to duplicate any indigenous government, but remarks by Benjamin Franklin* amongst others prove they were aware of, and even relatively positively disposed toward, adopting the best notions they knew of—from any source—to form their “more perfect union.”

According to the Boston Globe, “the [“America First Caucus”] document describes the United States as a place with ‘uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.’”

High school aged children are aware of the Iroquois Confederacy’s influence on the work of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Does the America First Caucus reject those former leaders as patriotic Americans, too? Is Trump the only man any of them will stand behind?USA flag - 1

I’m concerned by this new Caucus’ interest in Anglo-Saxon values in particular. The term Anglo-Saxon is out of date if meant as a reference to the British people, and the simple fact of the American Revolutionary War strongly implies to those of us with critical thinking skills that the Founding Fathers were not interested in maintaining an English form of government where colonies were taxed by the Crown without political representation.

Does the America First Caucus seek to emulate those tumultuous years in Britain between the end of Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror (a.k.a., William the Bastard)? Per the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

“[T]he various peoples commonly grouped together as Anglo-Saxons were not politically unified until the 9th century, and their reign over England was interrupted by 26 years of Danish rule that began in 1016 with the accession of Canute.”

Here’s a BBC overview explaining Anglo-Saxon Government written for children. Very little of it reminds me of American government with the exception of trials being conducted with community representation.

Speaking only for myself—but probably reflecting the will of most emotionally stable Americans—I would prefer not to live through centuries of incessant warring by disparate groups. I’m not really keen to be ruled over by Denmark, either, though I’d take orders from the current Danish government before submitting to the purported leadership of a reality-averse reactionary like Representative Greene.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania appears to be cut from the same flawed cloth. On April 27th, The Boston Globe reported that he said the following though the emphasis is mine at a Young America’s Foundation event:

“We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but, candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum

Without a doubt, the forebears of most current American citizens arrived in the New World and did not find the trappings of European society to which they would have naturally deferred. The fact that those men could not, due to religious and cultural bigotry, recognize the humanity of those they encountered—let alone their technical and cultural achievements—was their own failing, not that of the indigenous peoples they subsequently massacred.

Modern scholarship now points toward the birth of human civilization in the central Andes (i.e., in the Americas) being of equal moment to the traditional European scholars’ foci of technological and social evolution: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China’s Yellow River basin.

Being too shortsighted to notice the contributions of indigenous Americans is evidence of a lack of mental power—or intellectual rigor—on the part of the observer, not evidence of shortcomings on the part of the targeted society. Conservative culture warriors would do well to make a more careful study of the history they claim to venerate before blundering so ineptly into statements of rank ignorance.

I recognize the many contributions of Western Civilization to the formation of the United States of America. Disregarding great work—whether philosophy, art, or technical innovation—is folly, but so is ignoring the hybrid vigor of multiculturalism that led to the success that still brings scores of refugees from around the world here today in hopes of earning their own piece of our prosperity.

When I was a child, the “melting pot” analogy was falling out of favor due to a greater emphasis on appreciating diverse cultures over demands for cultural hegemony. I still recall a teacher offering the “tossed salad” metaphor to take its place. I reject that notion, too.

Tossed salad sees disparate ingredients jumbled together with no interaction between them until they’re masticated by an outside force. Shared governance and geography might be the salad dressing, then, but greens, carrots, and tomatoes have little influence over each other. They just happen to share a bowl. Separate but equal as policy failed America during that experiment in our past.

Thermal Cooker with stew-filled primary pot insertedHere’s my offering: America is more akin to a pot of stew than a melting pot or a tossed salad.

Every one of us goes into the pot—simmering required, it must be said, perhaps making my metaphor even more apt. Time and cohabitation rub our edges off, softening us from strict segregation and stark differences. Some chunks blur into pleasant similarity; others maintain more distinction, lending texture and complexity to the totality. The mass blends into richness and depth, and the whole ends up much greater than the sum of its parts.

There would be no gravy without every contribution; there could be no stew without admixture and synthesis.

When I consider the meaning of a term like America First, my mind goes to first principles. Our founders spelled out their impetus in splitting from the British Empire in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Its 56 signatories did not specify that only American men, men of European descent, or Christian men exclusively were who counted; all men, they declared, are created equal, endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights for which patriots went to war, fought, and died. That foundational document should guide any America First Caucus crafted by people informed by the history of the United States.

Rep. Gaetz is currently under investigation for paying to have sex with underage girls, underscoring the lie that the Republican Party as a group in any way deserves its claim to the title of a “Moral” Majority.

* Letter From Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 20 March 1751:

“It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.”

We supplemented our studies with the fairly light, quite mainstream Great Courses High School Level Early American History videos. One doesn’t need to delve into the works of Howard Zinn or any left-leaning sources to discover the framers’ interest in our nation’s indigenous peoples’ best practices, which they then combined with European ideas from philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu to craft the foundations of our own democratic republic.

Elite public schools SHOULD consider zip code + academic performance

Fourteen families in Boston recently brought suit against the Boston Public School district, alleging that the COVID-19 era adoption of zip code as a determining factor for admission to the city’s elite “exam schools” was a proxy for race.

I’m delighted that these parents lost their suit in federal court, though I’m sorry that the young scholars represented fear for their futures due to the state’s failure to supply appropriate educational opportunities.Boston Globe online edition with Civil Rights suit article circled

My reasoning? Human beings may tend to sort themselves by distinguishing characteristics—skin color or “race” amongst them—but, in spite of its history as a racist city, there are no formal color-based barriers to residence in any Boston neighborhood today. People who would like to improve their children’s odds of admission to the exam schools are free to live in neighborhoods with larger quotas assigned to them.

Even at the height of segregation, I’m not aware of any rule that ever prevented wealthier, more powerful groups from moving to areas with lower median income. Most efforts prevented the richest “undesirables” from inhabiting homes viewed as the exclusive domain of the then current “better classes” such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs.)NZ Botanic Garden Curator's House - 1

According to the Boston Globe, when the traditional entrance examinations were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, BPS adopted the following policy for admission to its three elite institutions including the storied Boston Latin:

“…students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.”

Quoted from article by James Vaznis updated April 15, 2021, 10:21 p.m. (emphasis mine)

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but nothing prevents families from moving to the suddenly more advantageous zip codes. Given that these people must live somewhere with a higher median income, affordability—by definition—can’t be a barrier. Preferring to live in a racially, ethnically, or fiscally homogeneous enclave is a choice; sometimes our choices have consequences we may not enjoy.

Richer families can afford private schools. The least well off families in higher income zip codes have the most reason to dislike the change in admissions criteria. Frankly, though, the truly objectionable reality of this case is that all students aren’t equally able to access high quality classrooms. Now that’s a worthy reason to bring a lawsuit. Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

But because of the tight link in the United States between home-ownership and wealth, those lower-middle income families are more likely to be renters. Renters can move more readily than people who own their own home. I’d call that yet another benefit to factoring zip code into BPS’ admissions criteria.

The fact that lower median household wealth correlates directly with skin color in America is an embarrassment to our nation. There is no evidence save the easily debunked rantings of white supremacists for any rational basis to this truth; it’s wholly a byproduct of long-standing cronyism and widespread, systemic bias on the part of both individuals and institutions.

In spite of the fairly obvious reality of systemic racism, the BPS admissions policy in question does not in any explicit way prefer to admit children with more, larger, and more pigmented melanosomes* over those with less. It does explicitly tie income to admission, but offering enhanced opportunities to the brightest, hardest working children in a city because they were born with the extra burden of poverty seems eminently reasonable to me.

According to the Census.gov analysis I pointed to earlier regarding household wealth, education is firmly linked to better financial outcomes.

“Higher education is associated with more wealth. Households in which the most educated member held a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth of $163,700, compared with $38,900 for households where the most educated member had a high school diploma.”

—2019 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau report and detailed tables on household wealth in 2015

I say, let’s give more children from our poorest districts the chance to prove their mettle. Let’s offer better tools to help our least advantaged young people outgrow poverty, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our society as whole. There’s no evidence that education is a zero sum game though admission to Harvard may be.

This new—and, remember, temporary!—policy is admitting the best students from Boston’s public elementary schools into their best public high schools at a rate proportionate to how many children live in given neighborhoods. Those kids may not perform better than the second or third best students at another school in more expensive zones of the district, but so what? They remain kids who show up to class, work hard to please their teachers, and follow the rules. Great students are gaining those coveted admission slots.Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10

BPS is hardly admitting disinterested, failing students from poor schools at the expense of dutiful scholars from richer ones. The real issue is that a few kids enjoy exceptionally excellent free public education while the rest are left to endure in lower quality institutions due to the vagaries of circumstance.

Without extra household funds, the poorest kids in Boston can’t afford private tutoring. Their parents—the financial data from the Census suggests—are less likely to have been highly educated; they’re likely less able to assist their kids with their toughest assignments. In spite of that, these children excel academically at the school their limited circumstances proscribed prescribed for them. I’d argue that their success is the most deserving of acknowledgement and reward on the part of the school system because of how hard won it is.

Policies such as this one finally offer an incentive to encourage our cities to integrate. Integration benefits all of us, not just poor children or students of color. The wildly uneven quality of public schools has driven real estate bubbles and worsened multiple types of segregation, directly leading to many of the upheavals and protests that roiled America over the past year.

I applaud Boston Public Schools for taking this step toward becoming an agent of change in this dynamic. Now they—and the rest of us—should work on offering an equivalent caliber of education to those rarefied, elite “exam schools” to every child who wants it.

* Melanin is responsible for pigmentation of human skin, hair, and eyes; melanosomes are the cells in the body that synthesize the melanin responsible for darker skin tones

Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.