Thursday Reading List: Failing Infrastructure, Bilingualism, and Nativism

Reader: "I bet you can't find a way to incorporate the unbelievably cold weather into your daily education and justice reading list."

Me: "Challenge accepted."

With school resuming in the midst of a brutal cold snap, the announcement by Baltimore school officials [was reassuring] ... But at schools across the city, students and teachers were surprised to find flooded classrooms and indoor temperatures that were barely above freezing. Flooding from a burst pipe had rendered one classroom at Frederick Douglass unusable ... City Schools only closed four schools today, but social media indicates the cold conditions could be found across the city.

That's Fern Shen writing in Baltimore Brew, about the horrid conditions of classrooms in the Charm City. Maintaining the basic infrastructure of a school system is the sort of thing that routinely screws over vulnerable kids, and this is a particularly salient example. Whereas the day-to-day management of schools tends to sit within the purview of school district officials, the maintenance of facilities and infrastructure often is a shared responsibility among school systems, city governments, regional authorities, and state financing vehicles. More often than not, diffuse accountability breeds finger pointing, not problem solving, which seems to be the case here.

Speaking of which, Jonathan Mahler addresses similar themes in The New York Times Magazine, writing about the New York City subway:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains ... New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart.

I juxtapose these articles for many reasons: the idea that public goods must be publicly supported, the notion that democratized public systems are critical to international competitiveness, and to call out the predictable effects of financial neglect on infrastructure, to name a few.

Perhaps most salient, however, is the idea that there will always be privileged people who don't rely as heavily on public services. If you can afford to hail an Uber every time you need to get somewhere in NYC, you don't need the subway. Families that can afford private school may ignore the failing HVAC systems in public schools. More often than not, the people with the most privilege wield the most power over political decision-making, and hence the downward spiral of public services.

Public systems are never perfect, but evidence and experience demonstrate that the erosion of public investment takes the greatest toll on our most vulnerable citizens. Given the toxic environment in Washington, I hope that state, local, and civic leaders find a way to address some of these challenges in a way that reverses the tide.

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In other news, Conor Williams of The Atlantic examined trends in who enrolls at bilingual schools:

While the old bilingual-education programs served English-learning children separately, in some other wing of their schools, dual-immersion programs bring English-learning students into schools’ mainstream classrooms and convert their home languages into assets for the entire school community ... All of this is making dual-immersion programs easier to sell to a linguistically diverse range of families. In particular, interest from middle-class, English-dominant, cosmopolitan families is helping to drive these programs’ expansion ... But—and here’s the rub—if a two-way dual-immersion program helps generate middle-class interest in multilingualism, that dynamic could also undermine the program’s design and effectiveness. What happens when rising demand from privileged families starts pushing English learners out of these programs?

I love this piece, because it wrestles with the paradox of creating greater diversity and integration in public schools. I hear similar arguments from leaders of high-performing charter schools, who purposefully cater to low-income students who come from segregated traditional public schools, then get accused of perpetuating segregation themselves. Those schools have to wrestle with a tradeoff wherein cultivating integration leads to serving fewer children with significant academic needs. If there were myriad other great schools in the cities with high concentrations of poverty, this would be a moot point ... but ... yeah.

The conventional wisdom is that schools have to adjust their curricula to integrate, but dual-immersion language programs have identified a sweet spot, wherein the actual academic programming of their schools can simultaneously appeal to families from a variety of backgrounds. There is much to learn here, even with the inherent challenges.

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Finally today, Stephanie Saul of The New York Times looks at the reduction in foreign students enrolling in domestic universities:

The downturn follows a decade of explosive growth in foreign student enrollment, which now tops 1 million at United States colleges and educational training programs, and supplies $39 billion in revenue ... And since President Trump was elected, college administrators say, his rhetoric and more restrictive views on immigration have made the United States even less attractive to international students. The Trump administration is more closely scrutinizing visa applications, indefinitely banning travel from some countries and making it harder for foreign students to remain in the United States after graduation.

The international appeal of our colleges and universities has been an engine of both cultural and economic prosperity. The current president's reliance on appealing to white nationalism is not just a rhetorical ploy; it's taking a measurable toll on our most critical American institutions. 

Have a great day ...