Category Archives: Uncategorized

What fencing says about you


The general lack of fences or any kind of barrier between suburban American homes is breathtaking. After living in Johannesburg, where gravity-defying tall walls with razor wire, broken glass, and electrical wiring atop are the rule, this aspect of life in American middle-class suburbia is an amazing revelation.

When fences do exist, they are usually more decorative than obstacles to passage. If present, their function is largely to delineate property lines. Fences may also provide privacy if one lives on a busy road or junction, but this is atypical. Indeed, neighbours can frown upon fences being erected. We know of someone who still resents previous neighbours of hers for putting up a fence to keep in their dogs. Instead of fences for this purpose, many use “invisible fences” that administer gentle shocks when their collar-wearing pets meander beyond a certain perimeter.

No burglar bars on windows are another joy of middle-class suburban life here. Those residing in American cities are more likely to have such essentials of Johannesburg city or suburban life (and most other South African population centers, for that matter). But such home protection measures are unusual in the middle-class suburbs here. Having an alarm system—and then using it on a regular basis—is not the suburban norm here either. I’m learning too that some do not even regularly lock up their homes when no one is present. Wow!

The gathering and releasing of crime statistics to the public is controversial in South Africa. Released figures reflect broad trends in crime categories, and are viewed skeptically as inaccurate and misleading. In contrast, the extent of detail in the notification of criminal activity here in Northern Virginia fascinates and stuns me. From one local newspaper, I learnt that a backpack was stolen from a parked car on our block last week, while two streets away, tools were taken from an open garage. The neighbourhood papers also reveal titillating details like an after-hours argument between an employer and employee at a nearby restaurant that resulted in police being summoned. Imagine details such as these, of seemingly petty incidents, making it into South African crime reports…

My personal favourite anecdote about the remarkable rarity of crime in our local area comes from the afternoon my son called from school to say that the school bus could not drive into the neighbourhood because of police activity. It turns out someone had seen a person throwing something into a basement window three houses over and had reported this to the police. Five or so police cars drove into the suburb, and a police helicopter hovered overhead, to apprehend this criminal. We learned later that the window breaker was in fact the homeowner who had locked himself out of his own home! I was totally impressed at the swift response and speechless at its overwhelming nature.

In a sad reflection of people’s desperation in the strained economy, bank robberies occur with unexpected frequency in the area. However, the robbers are typically apprehended quickly.

I should reiterate that what I’m describing here is very much an American middle-class suburban experience. Life in working-class suburbs and in cities themselves is profoundly different. The United States is hardly without crime, it has appallingly high gun ownership, and it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. But it also has incredible policing. U.S. police are very well trained, and they have remarkably sophisticated technology at their disposal. Life for traditional criminals must be very difficult indeed.

So middle-class Americans in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., are fortunate with low overall rates of criminal activity. Yet I find a general skittishness and nervousness about any possible untoward or unexpected occurrence. In my experience, Americans in this part of Northern Virginia show a great sensitivity and suspiciousness about irregular behaviour. I don’t know if this can be attributed to our proximity to Washington and general security consciousness in the post–9/11 world.

I had a revealing personal experience of this a while ago: My visit to a self-service petrol or “gas” station to fill the car with petrol went a little awry, and I came away having spilt a little petrol on my trousers. My next stop was the post office. I did not realize how much I smelled of petrol, so I blithely stepped into the post office and joined the queue. A hushed silence came upon the others in line, with everyone anxiously looking around them. Two women notably dashed out of the store. Another softly ventured, “Can you smell that? What is that?” Others murmured their concern. I then realized the smell emanating from the spill was the source of the problem and said loudly, “No, it’s me! I spilt some petrol on myself!” Nervous laughter broke out, with a couple of people reassuringly offering that they too had similar incidents with air bubbles when pumping petrol. Most curiously, the envelope I mailed that day never arrived at its destination. I’ve often wondered if it was sidelined because it too may have smelled suspicious.

The free-flowing nature of American society masks many issues. The lack of fences is part of the narrative of openness and the expectation of transparency in the American soul. Minimal fencing also shows the enormous respect Americans have for private property. The present tax structure strongly encourages Americans to buy homes, so those fortunate enough to own their homes greatly value them. And they very much respect others’ property too.

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“S-c-h-o-o-l’s out…for…summer!”

Those iconic yellow school buses really do transport American children to and from school every day; they are not Hollywood fiction. But the buses are not currently lumbering through American communities to collect or discharge riders. The 2011–12 school year is over; the long summer vacation is underway.

The buses symbolize the fundamental principle that education should be accessible to all. Education is the great leveler in society, and access to local public school education is every American’s right. So local counties facilitate taking school-going children by bus to school each day and then bringing them home safely afterward. Lack of transport can never be the reason for children not attending school.

We live in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County Public Schools maintains the largest school bus fleet of any U.S. school system, although it is the eleventh largest school district in the United States. The FCPS operating budget is $2.2 billion per annum. Over 175,000 students are enrolled in the system, giving an average annual expenditure of $12,820 per student. Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest U.S. counties, allocated an impressive 53.5% of its 2011 fiscal budget to the school system. Its well-regarded schools are the reason many are drawn to living in the county.

Yet, within the county, the quality of schools varies. The provision of transport to and from school masks the very unequal access to good community-based schools due to school boundary lines. School district boundaries determine eligibility to attend particular schools. These boundaries are not immutable, but are not easy to change or appeal. Which entity can change the boundaries varies from state to state. In Virginia, county school boards have the authority.

That old mantra for retail success—“location, location, location”—also sums up American public school education. Where one lives determines the quality of local schools. The wealthiest communities, usually in the suburbs, have the best public schools, while inner cities, some post-industrial suburban neighbourhoods, and poorer rural areas typically have the worst public schools. Put differently, property values correlate directly to the quality of local public schools. The academic achievement gap between children from high and low-income families is, unfortunately, well recognized. Although this gap is not only because higher-income children have access to better schools, it does explain much of the phenomenon.  Degree of parental involvement; family type (e.g. single or two-parent home); and access to early childhood education, extra-curricular, and other literacy-enhancing activities are some of the other explanations that typically determine individual academic achievement.

Poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in theory receive the same education, but this ideal of equality remains elusive. Reform initiatives have sought to close the achievement gap by bringing competition, choice, and accountability into school systems. A significant change was the shift in the 1990s to include school choice. If a school was perceived as failing its students, those students could transfer to another school within the same school district, opt to attend an independently operated but tax-payer funded charter school, or receive a “voucher” to attend a private school (including faith-based schools). This resulted in an exponential growth in public charter schools, and the closing of failed neighbourhood schools.

Many aspects of the debate about closing the achievement gap and reforming the traditional American public school system resonate with this South African. The circumstances of the two countries are obviously different, yet there are huge similarities in the challenges. Discussions on turning around failing schools have particularly caught my attention, with the hopeful experience of post-Katrina New Orleans being especially instructive. The academic results of pre-Katrina New Orleans public school students on state tests were notoriously low. Test results have turned around in the last five years primarily because enrollment in charter schools has skyrocketed. In addition, decisions about schools, curriculum, hiring, and hours have been returned to parents and educators. A long-time veteran of Louisiana school reform suggests that “top-down efforts to reform a district don’t work; only by starting over school by school…[can] real improvement occur.”

Local and state jurisdiction over schooling is preferred in the United States; a federal role is always controversial. Indeed, many conservatives typically deny the federal government any role in education and urge the dismantling of the Department of Education.

National solutions to the conundrum of the achievement gap have varied through the years. President Barack Obama’s approach is encapsulated in “Race to the Top”. Obama has embraced new systems of evaluation: State applications for funding are scored on criteria such as satisfying performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing progress in raising achievement and closing gaps, prioritizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education, promoting charter schools, and computerization. The philosophy behind President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) policy was also standards-based educational reform. States had to develop assessments in basic skills—especially in reading and maths—under the assumption that having measurable goals would improve outcomes by exposing achievement gaps. Student achievement has to be measured and reported annually.  Obama’s Department of Education has offered states flexibility in meeting NCLB stipulations and waived requirements too.

“A Chance for Every Child”, the school reform vision of likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pushes a voucher-heavy approach. He suggests that the parents of poor and special-education students would be able to choose a public, charter, or private school in their state, using a specified amount of public funds to cover (some of) the cost. The unclear aspect is whether such school choice would be within school district boundaries or would extend beyond. If it were the latter, this would be a truly seismic change. It would break the cycle whereby children in poorer urban schools are unable to attend better suburban schools. Romney would also return accountability to the states: He suggests that states would no longer have to meet the greatly disliked federal achievement requirements of Bush’s NCLB law.

Many American school children are now joyfully belting out Alice Cooper’s timeless ode to summer holidays. Yet the l-o-n-g summer vacation actually penalizes those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those from poorer families are less likely to have the resources to spend on stimulating, enriching activities or extension programs. For many, the ten-week-long break is instead a period of stagnation and regression, and, for some in inner cities, perhaps even danger.