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December 14, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle checks out a series of recent studies and explains why we must overhaul math instruction and curricula from preschool to high school.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.

December 12, 2014 standard

School reformers need to read more than just op-eds and magazine pieces on education policy. After all, as it has been discussed over the past two weeks alone, the nation’s education crisis feeds into the social, economic, and political issues facing our nation and world; this means we must break out of specialization and become interdisciplinary in our thinking. There’s also the fact that as parents and caregivers, we must continually practice what we preach to children every day: Read books and be lifelong learners.

This is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2014 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a look at how the legendary James Meredith’s march through Mississippi helped splinter the Civil Rights Movement of the last century; political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s treatise on modern government; and an analysis of how the Salvation Army and other religious groups transform civic society. There are also chronicles on reform from school choice pioneer Howard Fuller and former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein.

As with every edition of the Top Eight, the selections met five important criteria: Does it have a strong narrative or polemical power (also known as “is it well-written”)? Are the lessons relevant to the reform of American public education? Is the book thought-provoking (or does it offer new arguments or new thinking on familiar issues)? When research is involved in the narrative, does it stand up to scrutiny? And would you pay at least $14 to put it on your tablet (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?

Below are this year’s selections. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And just read, read, read.


Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick Aram Goudsouzian’s book on the 1966 March Against Fear, the last great protest of the 20th century Civil Rights Era. For one, it offers fascinating profiles in activist leadership. This includes Martin Luther King’s calm resolve in spite of sniping from Thurgood Marshall and other rivals; Stokely Carmichael’s penchant for fiery rhetoric and shoddy strategizing, the clever machine politicking of Charles Evers; the organizing genius of Ella Baker; and the near-messianic spirit of James Meredith, who originally organized the march before being shot on the first day of it. More importantly, in detailing how the Civil Rights Movement fell apart just a year after achieving such policy successes (including Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), Down the Crossroads offers important lessons on how movements can fall apart in the face of diverging priorities, clashes of egos, struggles in collaboration, and sparse financial and manpower resources. At a time in which the school reform movement is in transition, reformers of all stripes should read this book in order to learn how to keep history from repeating.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy: Francis Fukuyama is probably the greatest political scientist of his generation in part because he combines crisp writing with strong, prescient analysis on how politics can shape society. All of his talents are on full display in his latest polemic what makes for good government (and why it rarely becomes reality in much of the world). As Fukuyama details the evolution of American government and those in Africa and Asia, he shows how accountable is key to ensuring that citizens are protected from fiscal and social harm, he offers lessons to those reformers who doubt the importance of the No Child Left Behind Act and its strong accountability provisions. At the same time, by noting how the United States’ own system of checks and balances often leads to a “vetocracy” in which political interests can impede good ideas along with the bad (as well as how “intellectual rigidity” can lead to crises such as the global financial meltdown) Fukuyama also reminds reformers that we must also balance strong accountability with enough room for the kind of innovation and policies needed to ensure the common good in American public education. Your editor doesn’t agree with all of Fukuyama’s conclusions, especially on whether American-style democracy is workable in all nations. But Political Order and Political Decay deserves to be on your bookshelf.

No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior s Life from Black Power to Education Reform: From teaming up with the late Polly Williams and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist to launch the nation’s first school choice initiative, to his willingness to speak truth to traditionalists and reformers alike, the aforementioned Fuller deserves his place as one of the nation’s foremost school reformers. In discussing his evolution from civil rights activism in the 1960s to his role guiding the leadership of Black Alliance for Educational Options, Fuller shows how reformers can advance systemic reform for our children through strong grassroots activism, cannily navigating the corridors of policymaking, and agitating within institutions. At the same time, Fuller’s story shows reformers that they must recognize the interconnections between what happens inside our schools and what happens outside of them. Any reformer who hasn’t read this book yet should do so. Now.

Claiming Society for God: Religious Movements and Social Welfare: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick up Nancy J. Davis’ and Robert V. Robinson’s sociological study of how religious groups such as the Salvation Army and the Muslim Brotherhood succeed in becoming influential players in the societies in which they reside. The most important: Because it offers reformers a blueprint for how to sustain systemic reform. Davis and Robinson show how these groups gain credibility and support for their visions of what society and government should be by addressing the needs of the communities — especially those of poor and minority backgrounds — in which they work. This includes becoming the substitutes for the welfare state role played by governments in their respective countries, and engaging in the kind of grassroots activism that wins them critical support on the ground. For a school reform movement that needs to have a stronger grassroots presence in order to advance its efforts, Claiming Society for God is book that will help it get there.

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools: Along with former Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant, the aforementioned Klein is the most-successful reform-minded traditional district leader of this generation. Thanks to his book, reformers can now learn what it took for him and his onetime boss, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to improve student achievement for Big Apple children, as well as understand the obstacles to implementing systemic reform that remain. From vivid accounts of his battles with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local over simply conversing with teachers on the district’s staff, to conceding how his inattention to curricula may have limited the successes the Big Apple could have had in improving student achievement, to his battles to increase the array of school choices for kids and their families, Klein offers important examples of how institutional-oriented players can achieve the kind of changes that help more children attain the high-quality education they deserve.

The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Making and Breaking of Nations: Amid all the efforts over the past few years to weaken No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions, reformers should take time to read Jacob Soll’s exhaustive historical survey of what happens when nations weaken checks and balances in financial affairs. As he details how double-entry bookkeeping and other accounting innovations led to the rise of nation-states, as well as how retreats on checks and balances (as well as transparency) have led to crises such as the global financial meltdown of the last decade, Soll offers reformers new reasons why they must resist efforts to weaken accountability by traditional districts and even institutional players within their own ranks (including charter school operators and private schools that benefit financially from the expansion of choice). Soll also shows how inattention to the details of accountability (which can easily be seen in the education policy arena through the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit) can lead to disaster. Advocates for reforming traditional teacher compensation (including busted defined-benefit pensions) can also learn plenty from Soll’s book.

A Light Shines in Harlem: New York’s First Charter School and the Movement It Led: Mary C. Bounds story about the Sisulu-Walker charter school offers an eye-opening chronicle of how difficult it can be to take one aspect of systemic reform: Launching and sustaining schools that can provide our children with cultures of genius. There is plenty to learn from the steps (and missteps) financier-turned-educator Steve Klinsky and his teammates (including civil rights activist Wyatt Tee Walker) made when they took the arduous step of launching the Big Apple’s first charter school. This includes the importance of being passionate about building schools fit for the futures of children, as well as the willingness to change direction (in the form of moving away from Sisulu-Walker’s initial use of the low-quality Direct Instruction approach to teaching) when it is clear it won’t work. Particularly for Parent Power activists looking to launch their own schools and take over failing operations, this is a book they should read.

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone): Folks such as Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless have criticized Elizabeth Green’s book as an exercise in edu-tourism. DN Editor RiShawn Biddle offers a far more-substantial critique: That Green’s general disdain for the teacher training efforts of Doug Lemov (whose follow-up to Teach Like a Champion was a Top Eight selection in 2012), especially in dismissing its focus on matters such as classroom management, ignore the reality that it has proven empirically to be superior in effectiveness in improving student achievement than the approach developed by University of Michigan’s Deborah Ball (which Green champions). [Update: Green disagrees with DN’s comments, noting that she doesn’t disdain his approach and arguing that the review didn’t mention aspects of Lemov’s training that he is looking to improve. The editors stand by the assessment.] Yet Green’s book deserves to be on your bookshelf because it is an important chronicle of the struggles reformers and others have had in overhauling how America recruits and trains its teachers. Just as importantly, Green’s book is also a clarion call for bringing greater attention to developing alternative teacher training programs as well as reforming the nation’s low-quality ed schools.

As always, there are a number of books that are deserve praise, but didn’t make the cut. This Next Eight includes On the Rocketship, Richard Whitmire’s profile of the blended-learning charter school operator; The Bill of the Century, New York Times editorialist Clay Risen’s narrative on the politicking that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon’s account of how Jim Crow segregationists and companies teamed up to use criminal codes to put blacks into virtual slavery; Jonathan Darman’s LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, which details how the 1964 election season sowed the seeds of destruction and success for two legendary politicians; British politico Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, which profiles the legendary statesman’s leadership long-ranging impact on world affairs; Unreasonable Men, Michael Wolraich’s chronicle of how tensions between Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette led to the rise — and fall — of early 20th-century progressive politics; Teachers Versus the Public by Paul Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin West, which focuses on the divergent views of teachers and the people who pay their salaries; and Putting Education to Work, Mega Sweas’ profile of the Cristo Rey collection of Catholic schools.  

While Dropout Nation doesn’t place books written by contributors on this list, it would be remiss to not mention  The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It, Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s treatise on how the black children are harmed by the intersection of the nation’s education crisis and the drug war.

December 10, 2014 standard

There is well-deserved outrage over the decisions by two grand juries in St. Louis and New York City to not indict police officers Darren Wilson and Dan Pantaleo for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The good news is that many of the nation’s school reformers realize that it isn’t enough to transform education. Groups such 50Can Teach For America, and Parent Revolution, along with activists such as Derrell Bradford, Stacy Childress, Alex Hernandez, and James Shuls, realize that reformers must stand up and counted when it comes to addressing the intersection between American public education and our criminal justice systems.

Raising voices is a start. But I declared in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, reformers must also take action by working with criminal justice reform advocates to address how schools and courts end up damaging our children. One area in which reformers can play powerful roles lies in keeping kids out of the nation’s juvenile justice systems and overhauling how those already condemned to youth prisons are treated, educationally and otherwise.

The latest focus on our juvenile prisons comes courtesy of the Obama Administration, which issued guidance on Monday to state superintendents and attorneys general on how to stem the high numbers of children caught up in juvenile justice systems, as well as overhaul how teaching and curricula is provided to the 146,979 kids incarcerated in prisons and jails (including residential treatment centers) as of 2011, according to an analysis of federal and state data by the criminal justice reform-oriented Justice Policy Institute. Certainly there will be some reformers who will argue that the Dear Colleague guidance is another form of federal overreach as they did when the Obama Administration began work on reducing overuse of harsh school discipline. But the administration deserves credit for once again shining a light on how schools and criminal justice systems work together to condemn so many children to the worst America offers.

One aspect of the administration’s guidance has to do with the reality that far too many children from poor and minority households are more-likely to end up trapped in juvenile justice systems than kids from white and middle class backgrounds. This, of course, reflects what happens in American public education. Sixty percent of delinquency cases involving black children, along with 58 percent of American Indian, and 56 percent of Asian kids, were petitioned (or led to formal charges) in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; only one out of every two cases involving white kids led to formal charges.

The Obama Administration’s guidance comes both amid the uproar over the Ferguson and Garner grand jury verdicts, and as Justice Policy released its special report revealing that 46 states (along with the District of Columbia) spent $148,767 per child annually on juvenile incarceration in 2011. Based on those numbers, states (along with the federal government) actually spent $22 billion on imprisoning youth, more than four times the official number of $5.7 billion (which only accounts for kids in juvenile prisons, not those in residential treatment where most incarcerated youth will be placed). Concludes Justice Policy staffers Amanda Petteruti, Marc Schindler, and Jason Ziedenberg: “Policies that needlessly confine youth have an immediate cost for taxpayers and our communities.”

This is an understatement. Twenty-five percent of convicted juvenile delinquency offenders and seven percent of convicted status offenders (or children convicted of activities that would be legal if they were 18 or 21), were incarcerated in 2011. Another 64 percent of convicted juvenile delinquency offenders and 56 percent of those convicted of status offenders end up on probation, which can be just as onerous as prison time because probation usually lasts until a child reaches age 18 or 21 (and could lead to prison if they violate — quite likely given high recidivism rates — or if families fail to pay often-exorbitant monthly probation fees to courts). Given that only 4.6 percent of the 1.5 million juvenile arrests made in 2011 were for violent crimes such as murder, and property crimes accounted for just 23 percent of arrests, children end up in juvenile justice systems either for minor offenses that can be solved through better means or because of referrals by traditional districts and other school operators for matters they should be handling on their own.

This is especially troubling for three important reasons.

Children incarcerated in juvenile prisons such as the now-shuttered Al Price in Beaumont, Texas, often never get high-quality education. (Photo courtesy of the Beaumont Enterprise.)

The first: Once a child lands in juvenile courts, they are unlikely to gain the kind of due process granted to adults. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling, In Re Gault, established that juveniles are entitled to legal counsel and due process the same way adults are. Yet as Seattle University School of Law Professor Janet Ainsworth noted in a 1996 report, 47 percent of accused juvenile offenders in three states went through court without any legal representation; a decade later, the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force reported that 40 percent of juvenile cases in Indiana were handled without defense counsel. Just 19 states allow alleged juvenile offenders to have their cases decided by jury trial in at least some situations, according to NJDC.

Because of the lack of due process and legal representation, children can end up being subjected to arbitrary and capricious behavior by judicial overlords — who often control juvenile jails and probation agencies alongside their own courts — whose decisions can end up causing more harm to kids than any possible good. Your editor detailed what could happen in a 2006 editorial series for the Indianapolis Star on scandal that enveloped the Circle City’s juvenile court. An even more-horrific example was revealed three years later, when then-Luzerne County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were charged with (and later, convicted of) racketeering and bribery charges for funneling $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars to cronies operating two private jails by incarcerating alleged youth offenders (many of whom were first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors such as spraying graffiti, writing prank notes, and truancy), often finding the kids guilty in less than two minutes, and denying them their rights to attorneys.

The second reason: Once a child ends up in juvenile prisons and jails, there is little likelihood that they will be safe from harm. Twelve percent of juvenile prisoners report being sexually assaulted by either another inmate or by prison staff, according to a Justice Department study. Last year, the Justice Department revealed that one out of every three children held in 13 juvenile jails and prisons — including the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in Ohio and the Illinois Youth Center Joliet — were sexually abused by guards, other employees, or fellow inmates. And in California, the problems of sexual abuse of children in juvenile prisons was brought to light once again last October when Cesar Navejar, who worked as an officer in Kern County’s juvenile jail, was accused of sexual battery on a child locked up there.

But the damage to kids in juvenile jails extends beyond molestation. Thirty-five percent of juvenile prisoners reported that they spent some time in solitary confinement, essentially being subjected to the kind of psychological abuse that has gotten prisons serving adults into trouble. Because juvenile prisons and jails are ill-equipped to deal with the underlying mental health issues of kids incarcerated in them, suicide ends up being common. The average age of children in juvenile prisons committing suicide between 1995 and 1999 was 15.7 years old, according to a 2009 report from the Justice Department; 72.7 percent of them were locked up for nonviolent offenses, while 65.8 percent had a history of mental illness, and 78.5 percent had a history of physical or emotional abuse. Given that 63 percent of kids incarcerated in juvenile prisons were convicted of nonviolent property, drug, and technical (read: probation) offenses, putting kids into juvenile prisons harms them physically and mentally in the present — and does little to help them change their behavior and become model citizens in the future.

Then there is the reality that most kids in juvenile jails and prisons are unlikely to be provided high-quality education. Just nine percent of children locked up in state juvenile prisons in 2009 graduated with either a high school diploma or lower-quality GED, according to the Justice Department; a mere four percent of inmates were either enrolled or accepted into a higher education program. When they are locked up in juvenile prisons, they are unlikely to get high-quality teaching and curricula; 26 percent of children locked up in juvenile prisons and jails for more than 90 days made any kind of academic progress, according to a report released earlier this year by the Southern Education Foundation. Meanwhile as lawsuits such as one filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center have revealed, few juvenile prisons and jails do much to provide kids with education in the first place.

The failures of public education in juvenile justice systems is especially problematic for kids who have been condemned to the nation’s special ed ghettos when they were attending traditional district schools. Thirty percent of incarcerated youth surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice were diagnosed as being special ed cases. University of Florida professor Joseph C. Gagnon and his team determined in a 2009 study that between 38 percent and 44 percent of juvenile inmates were taking special ed classes. As Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader of the Hechinger Report detailed this past October in a report on Mississippi’s juvenile prisons, the likelihood of a juvenile prison following up on an incarcerated child’s individualized education plan is slim to none.

Certainly the complex nature of juvenile justice systems can make it difficult for school reformers to even discuss, much less devote energy to it. As I noted four years ago, the complex behavioral and psychological issues alone are harder to grapple with than matters of teacher quality. Yet reformers must work hand-in-hand with advocates for overhauling juvenile justice systems. Why? Because far too many children are condemned to juvenile systems for problems that have as much to do with the failures of American public education as they do with bad parenting and a fraying civic society.

Corruption and denial of due process to children by juvenile justice officials such as now-convicted former Luzerne County judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella is far too commonplace.

As Dropout Nation has noted over the past few months, schools account for three out of every 10 status referrals to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the Justice Department. This includes 65 percent of truancy referrals, which account for 33 percent (or the single-largest share) of all status cases handled by juvenile courts. Given that juvenile court judges are incapable of handling matters that have to do with the failures of traditional districts to provide high-quality education and families not keeping their kids in classrooms, there is little reason why truancy cases are even be adjudicated.

The failures of traditional districts on the literacy front are another reason why so many kids are ensnared by juvenile justice systems. Forty-four percent of incarcerated children in state juvenile prisons were at least a grade level behind in reading. As Stanford University researchers Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles determined in a 2006 study, low literacy levels in first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems by third grade; essentially kids act out because they realize that they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it. This was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Thanks to low-quality literacy instruction and curricula (especially in the early grades), along with the lack of intensive identification and remediation of functionally-illiterate children, kids who would otherwise stay out of trouble in and out of schools end up on the path to incarceration.

The failure of districts to help illiterate children end up leading to another problem that ends up in juvenile justice systems: The overlabeling of children, especially young black and white men, as special ed cases. As Dropout Nation noted in reports on school districts in Ferguson, Mo. (where Michael Brown was slain), districts in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and Minneapolis, children in special ed ghettos are at least twice as likely to be arrested or referred to juvenile justice systems as peers in regular classrooms. Because districts fail to address literacy issues, and because teachers and other adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as special ed cases because they think they are destined to end up that way, far too many kids end up being put on the path to juvenile and adult prisons. That many special ed ghettos embrace many of the worst practices of those prisons — including use of seclusion (or solitary confinement) and restraints on kids — essentially conditions kids to being mistreated in juvenile justice.

Then there’s the role that state education departments fail to play in regulating schools and other educational programs operated in juvenile prisons and jails. Because education agencies often fail to fulfill their mandates to oversee juvenile correctional schools — as well as because of their struggles in developing robust data systems that can provide data on their performance (as well as allow them to get information from districts) — jails and prisons end up doing little for the kids in their academic care.  In fact, as a 2009 study by team led by Gagnon determined, more than half of principals running juvenile detention schools believe that kids in their care should not be expected to learn at grade level; which means that incarcerated children are being subjected to the soft bigotry of low expectations by those who should do better by them. The neglect of state education departments on this front is one reason why the Obama Administration’s guidance extends to them as well as to attorneys general.

The failures of our schools and juvenile justice systems spill out onto our streets — especially in the form of black kids essentially condemned to lives of incarceration. So overhauling juvenile justice systems must be a priority for school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates alike.

This starts with reformers and juvenile justice advocates, along with the rest of the criminal justice reform community, coming together to support reforms that can keep kids out of juvenile justice systems in the first place. This includes ending mandatory sentencing for all but the most-violent acts of delinquency, as well as backing laws requiring jury trials and legal counsel (in a manner similar to the guardian at litem system for kids going through child welfare systems) for all alleged juvenile offenders. These moves, along with greater oversight of juvenile incarceration (including putting operation of juvenile jails in the hands of city and county jail agencies and out of the hands of judges) should be undertaken.

Youth in detention are routinely searched, at some facilities six times a day is standard procedure. (Photo courtesy of Richard Ross)


Directly addressing the intersection between public education and juvenile justice systems, reformers should support juvenile justice reform overhauls being advanced by outfits such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation. Casey, in particular, has worked diligently in cities such as Indianapolis to reduce the numbers of kids referred by districts to juvenile courts. Crafting laws that require state education departments to keep better tabs on juvenile prison schools must also be a key priority.

Yet there will still be some kids who will be in juvenile prisons and jails because of violent offenses. This is why reformers must play powerful roles in overhauling the schools that serve our kids locked up in juvenile prisons and jails. This is where charter school operators such as KIPP can come in. Outfits such as the See Forever Foundation, which operates schools serving the District of Columbia’s juvenile jail (as well as other charters serving ex-dropouts) have shown that incarcerated kids can and should receive high-quality teaching and curricula. Online and blended learning players such as Rocketship should also help out on this front. Universities, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs can also help by providing kids in juvenile jails the postsecondary education they will need to avoid poverty and incarceration upon adulthood.

Meanwhile juvenile justice advocates should support reformers in transforming American public education. After all, if we ensure that all kids are reading proficiently and on the path to lifelong success, we keep them out of juvenile justice systems. This includes high-level reforms such as implementing Common Core reading and math standards; implementing techniques such as Response to Intervention (which can keep kids from landing in special ed ghettos and help them get reading remediation); building school data systems that can help all schools inside and outside juvenile justice systems serve children well; and expanding school choice and Parent Power, especially for poor and minority families affected most by the dysfunctions of public education and criminal justice.

We must keep our children out of juvenile justice systems and help them, along with those already trapped in them, get the high-quality education they need and deserve. Reformers can’t stand on the sidelines any longer on this matter.

Featured photo courtesy of Richard Ross. Check out his Juvenile in Justice series.

December 9, 2014 standard

As a child, my father taught me how protest, civil disobedience and labor unions were used so farmers would stop spraying our families with pesticides while they worked the fields. We had heroes: They included Cesar, Martin, and J.F.K.

I became a freshman in high school in the fall of 1988. I remember wondering why the next Martin or Cesar never showed up and if I’d ever see another compelling civil rights activist in my lifetime. Instead of taking messages to the streets, activists tried to take to the airwaves, but their messages were lost in an increasingly noisy, short attention-spanned, media industry that was undergoing its own radical transformation and on a public that grew weary of talk about race.

I have spent the past few days processing the New York City grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer for killing Eric Garner. I didn’t have a single coherent thought. Just anger and two rap lyrics from albums that were released my freshman year of high school. The first, from NWA: They have the authority to kill a minority. The second, from Chuck D and Public Enemy: Five O said, “Freeze” an’ I got numb Can I tell ‘em that I really never had a gun?

It wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talking about the relationship between minority communities and the criminal justice system when I was a kid. It was Chuck D and Ice Cube – 26 years ago. I grew up questioning a justice system that didn’t seem to work for black and brown communities. Chuck D and Ice Cube appeared prophetic when the Rodney King riots broke out just a few weeks before I graduated from high school.

Another institution that didn’t seem to work for us was our schools. My high school had 900 freshman — and only 330 seniors on the path to graduation. No one could say where the other 570 kids went; there was no high school with three times as many graduating seniors than freshmen. As we walked around campus listening to our Walkman radios, our eyes told us that most of us wouldn’t make it to graduation.

Beyond the obvious human rights implications, Eric Garner’s case matters because millions of people are watching to see whether the system works for them or is stacked against them. Every time we interact with our justice system, our public schools, our medical system, our churches and other public institutions, it either confirms or denies a narrative about our relationship with society.

Because if a society works against me and my loved ones, I behave differently. I stiffen. I resist. I despair. I resent. I protect.

We had Dr. King in the 1960s, Chuck D in the 1980s, and now Eric Garner in 2014. A good friend pointed out in disbelief that an unarmed man had to die on video in order to spur the latest call-to-action around civil rights. Why does an innocent man need to die for us to generate a sense of urgency? I also wonder if the Eric Garners of the world will be our leaders going forward exactly because social media is too difficult to ignore.

I need to stop waiting for the next Dr. King, and forget about finding the next Chuck D. This goes for you, too. Because we are the leaders — and the leaders are now us.

I kind of hoped that our society would mature to the point where some of our current racial issues would get resolved. Maybe this is because society began to work very well for me and it was easier not to talk race or civil rights. But we also made this mistake in education reform when we thought everything would work itself out if we just ran good schools. We are realizing in education that running good schools is not enough. We need to match and exceed the political will of those who steal the possible when it comes to children’s education. I think the same is true for civil rights. We just have to fight.

We have a chance to battle demons in 2014 that we brushed away in 1988. My friend Marc Porter Magee recently quoted Winston Churchill’s aphorism that “The United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all possible alternatives.” It sure is taking a long time to exhaust all the alternatives. I’m marking my calendar for 2040. We have a lot do between now and then.

December 7, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at the protests over Eric Garner and Ferguson, and explains how school reformers and advocates for ending police corruption can come together to transform public education and criminal justice.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.