D.C.’s School Problem for Black Kids

Certainly Washington, D.C., is at the center of a rapidly growing metropolitan area. But the Nation’s Capital is itself a relatively small city. Just 680,000 live within the heart of…

Certainly Washington, D.C., is at the center of a rapidly growing metropolitan area. But the Nation’s Capital is itself a relatively small city. Just 680,000 live within the heart of the Beltway, of whom approximately 320,000 are Black and 280,000 are White. Or, to be clearer, it is two cities, one White and increasingly prosperous, the other Black.

Black Washington is not in any meaningful way in the same socio-economic category as White Washington, and that is clear by every economic and educational measure. Which makes all the discussions about D.C. Public Schools’ graduation fraud scandal even more important than it already appears.

While the unemployment rate for White Washington is just 1.5 percent—hardly measurable—that for the Black population is nearly nine times higher: 13 percent. The White unemployment rate has slightly decreased since the 2007 financial crisis; the Black unemployment rate has increased by three percent, a difference that is itself twice the current total White unemployment rate.

Eighty percent of the employed adult White civilian population work in middle class occupations: in management, business, science and the arts.  Just eight percent are employed in service occupations. In contrast, less than 40 percent of the employed adult Black civilian population work in middle class management, business, science and arts occupations, while a quarter of employed adult Black civilians work in service occupations.  White residents of the District are managers; many Black workers serve them in one way or another.

In Washington, D.C., nearly 90 percent of the District’s White residents have Bachelor’s or Graduate degrees, qualifications attained by just a quarter of Black residents 25 years of age and over.

As a result, the median household income for White residents of the District was $126,000 in 2015; the median household income for Black residents less than a third of that, $38,000.  (By way of comparison, the median household income for the United Stats is $55,000.  Nearly two-thirds of American households have incomes over the District median for Black households.) The poverty rate for White families in Washington, D.C., like the unemployment rate, is vanishingly small, just 1.4 percent, while nearly a quarter of Black families, 23 percent, are poor. 18 percent of Black households have incomes of less than $10,000; 26 percent of White households have incomes over $200,000.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has found that Washington’s White families have 81 times more wealth, on average, than Black families, and “a higher level of income inequality than any state in the country, with households in the top 20 percent of income having 29 times more income than the bottom 20 percent.  The bottom fifth of DC households had just two percent of total DC income in 2016, while the top fifth had a staggering 56 percent.” The Institute concludes that “race is at the heart of DC’s economic inequality.”

Poverty, like wealth, can be inherited.  According to the Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford University, a Black child born to Washington, D.C. area parents with incomes in the 25th (bottom) percentile, as an adult, is likely, on average, to have an income at the 32nd percentile, only 7 points higher, while a White child born to parents with incomes at the 25th (bottom) percentile, as an adult, is likely, on average, to have an income at the 43rd percentile, 18 points higher. The upward mobility chances of one of the few White children born into poverty in Washington are between two and three times those of one of the many Black children born into poverty in the city.

Wealth, like poverty, tends to be inherited.  This often comes from home ownership.  In Washington, D.C., due to, among other things, mid-twentieth-century federal policies, approximately half of the White population own their own homes, while only a third of the Black populations own their homes. The median value of those White owner-occupied houses is $739,000; that of Black owner-occupied units is $385,000. If these houses are passed along to the next generation, the children of White homeowners start with twice the wealth, from this source alone, as do the children of Black homeowners.

Certainly D.C. Public Schools is no longer the Superfund Site of American public education. But it still has miles to go before it can receive applause for properly education Black children.

In the nation’s capitol, the caste system that replaced slavery is characterized by a wealthy White, managerial caste and an impoverished, Black, service caste, with the former averaging incomes in the top 10 percent of the national income distribution, the latter averaging incomes far below that.  Black children born into poverty have less of a chance of rising out of poverty than White children; the relatively few Black children of upper middle class parents have a greater chance of falling to a lower class than their White peers.

In addition to inherited wealth, largely unavailable to Black residents of Washington, education is a proven route out of poverty. But this route is also closed to Washington’s Black children — often regardless of whether they attend a traditional district or charter school.

The average Black student attends a school in which 82 percent of the students are poor; the average White student attends a school in which only a quarter of the students are from poor families. The Brown University Dissimilarity Index measures whether one particular group is distributed across census tracts in the metropolitan area in the same way as another group. A high value indicates that the two groups tend to live in different tracts. A value of 60 (or above) is considered very high. The Black-White Dissimilarity Index for the District is 83 out of 100.

Before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, Washington had some fine schools for Black children. Segregation does not automatically lead to differentiated education achievement; after all, children in public charters schools generally do better than their peers in traditional districts despite stratification based on race. It’s just that the reality in traditional public schools is that segregation usually leads to worse outcomes for Black and other minority children.

In D.C.’s schools, 79 percent of fourth-grade White students whose family income is sufficient  to make them ineligible for the National Lunch program, test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 95 percent Basic or Above).  For all intents and purposes, all the district’s middle class White fourth grade students are taught to read at an acceptable level or beyond that: very well.  And the White students who are not from middle class families? There are too few White students eligible for the National Lunch Program in Washington for NAEP to report their test results.

Over 90 percent of public school students in the Washington, D.C. are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.  Almost all of these are Black. Educational opportunity in the District of Columbia’s traditional district (as well to a lesser extent, in its charters) are distributed by race and income.  It amounts to the same thing.

In fourth grade, 44 percent of the few Black students whose family income is sufficient  to make them ineligible for the National Lunch program test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 80 percent Basic or Above). Just 15 percent of Black fourth-graders whose family income is low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch program test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 44 percent Basic or Above).

Then in eighth grade, 82 percent of White students, nearly all of whom are ineligible for the National Lunch program, test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 96 percent Basic or Above). Just over a quarter, 27 percent, of Black eighth-grade students whose family income is sufficient  to make them ineligible for the National Lunch program test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 69 percent Basic or Above).  But only seven percent of Black students whose family income is low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch program test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 39 percent Basic or Above).

These numbers matter.  Literacy is essential for all other education; reading skills rarely change much between middle school and high school graduation (of which more below).

Between grades 4 and 8, the percentage of the relatively few middle class Black students in Washington testing above Basic in reading declined from 80 to 69 percent; the percentage of the much larger number of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program testing at or above Basic in reading declines from 44 to 39 percent. Between fourth- and eighth grades, the percentage of the relatively few middle class Black students in Washington testing at or above Proficient declines from 44 to 27 percent; the percentage of the much larger number of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program testing above Proficient declines from 15 to 7 percent. More time in the District’s schools results in lower rates of educational achievement for Black students.

The educational background of the parents of White students is not apparent in test results. Eighty-five percent of White eighth-graders whose parents graduated from college test as Proficient or Above in reading (and 97 percent Basic or Above).  On the other hand, the children of highly educated Black parents actually do worst than other middle class Black children, with just 15 percent of Black eighth-graders with some form of higher education scoring Proficient or Above in reading (and 52 percent Basic or Above).  The children of less well-educated Black parents do worse yet: just six percent of Black students whose parents only graduated from high school test at Proficient or Above in reading (and 34 percent at Basic or Above).

The District of Columbia school system claimed a 73 percent graduation rate in 2017. The Washington Post recently reported that “one in three graduates received their diplomas in violation of city policy. Wrote the Post:  “Those students had walked across graduation stages despite missing too many classes or improperly taking makeup classes. . . Even if all of the students regarded as “moderately off-track” receive diplomas, the graduation rate would stand at about 61 percent — 12 points below last year’s.”

Would even 61 percent of Washington, D.C. students graduate college and career ready? Not at all. In eighth grade, just 53 percent tested at or above Basic in reading, just 25 percent were Proficient or above. It is probably significant that in 2013 96 percent of students entering the Community College of the University of District Columbia required at least one remedial course; half needed remediation in four subjects. By 2017 it was reported that 98 percent of public school graduates needed remediation after enrolling in the University of District Columbia.

Given this education system, Washington, D.C., will likely remain two cities, one White and increasingly prosperous, the other Black, impoverished, in a context in which poverty is reproduced from one generation to the next. Simply allowing children incapable of succeeding in college and life to graduate isn’t going to help end this racial caste system.

Here’s a suggestion for the District of Columbia Public Schools:  Instead of faking graduation rates, teach your Black students to read.

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It’s Up to You, New York

For those of us who live in a rational, data-based world, it can no longer be argued that school discipline disparities can be attributed to the fictitious oddities of “the…

For those of us who live in a rational, data-based world, it can no longer be argued that school discipline disparities can be attributed to the fictitious oddities of “the Black family,” socio-economic conditions, cultural differences and the like.

Since the publication of the unchallenged, and unquestionable, report from the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, Breaking Schools’ Rules in 2011, we have known that after having accounted “for the factors most often associated with poor school performance . . . race was a predictive factor for whether a student would be disciplined, particularly for discretionary disciplinary actions.” And further: “High rates of disciplinary involvement among African-American students were driven chiefly by violations that are subject to the discretion of school employees . . . The data . . . provide compelling evidence to show that how a school uses suspension and expulsion is driven in large part by the decisions of officials at both the district and individual school level.”

In other words, school discipline disparities by race are a good indicator of racism in schools and systems.

Which brings us to New York City, the greatest city in the world, for some, and the home to the third most-segregated school system by at least one (widely-debated) study.  According to the just-released school discipline data from the U.S. Department of Education, male Black students are three and a half times as likely to be punished with one or more out-of-school suspensions as are male White students and female Black students are an astonishing eight times as likely to be punished in this way than female White students.

These disparities, by themselves, are prima facie indicators of endemic racist actions (not to speak of attitudes) in the New York City school system among “officials at both the district and individual school level.”  And they are not simply of academic interest, they cause lasting harm.  The Justice Center study also found that “Students who experienced suspension or expulsion, especially those who did so repeatedly, were more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school than students who were not involved in the disciplinary system.”

It reasonably follows, then, that the decisions of district and individual school level personnel to discipline three to eight times the proportion of Black as White students likely results in disproportionate numbers of Black students being held back a grade or dropping out of school. That is one way racist attitudes and actions work to limit educational opportunities for Black students in New York City.

Another way is the “school choice” system with its apogee in the city’s selective high schools.

This year, as usual, enrollment in New York City’s selective high schools was bizarrely skewed by race, especially at the jewel of the system, Stuyvesant High School.  According to the New York City Department of Education’s own records, out of a total enrollment of 3,323 students across four grades at Stuyvesant, 23 are Black as compared to, say, 35 “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”  This is remarkable as the U.S. Census counts over two million Black residents in the city, but notes that there are too few Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders in the city to count.  [However, it is evident that there are at least 35.]

“We continue to pursue a set of initiatives to increase diversity at Specialized High Schools,” the city’s education department said in a statement. Sure.

What will new Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio actually do to build brighter futures for the Big Apple’s Black children? [Photo courtesy of the New York Times.]

Admission to Stuyvesant, and to most of the city’s other specialized high schools, is filtered by means of a test, oddly named the Specialized High School Admissions Test.  Oddly named, as it would be more aptly called the Black Student Elimination Test.  Without getting into the weeds about testing theory and all that, it does seem that there are validity issues with a test that year after year eliminates all but a dozen or fewer Black students from Stuyvesant’s freshman class.

If actions repeatedly result in outcomes at variance with professed goals, it is likely that those outcomes are the actual goals of the actions in question.

Stuyvesant is only one school out of the great sea of the New York City education system, but its diversity failure is a telling indicator of the actual nature of the system.  It is possible that Black students—sorry, all but a dozen Black students each year—do not get into the school for any number of reasons.  The overwhelming number of Black eighth grade students might so dislike the school’s Brutalist architecture that they don’t apply.  Or they might not wish to attend a school with so many more Native Hawaiians than Black students.  Or they could be woefully ill-prepared by their middle schools.

As there is little research concerning the attitudes of Black middle school students in regard to architecture or Native Hawaiians (although there is some anecdotal evidence concerning the latter from interviews with former President Obama, who attended a school with large numbers of Native Hawaiians), we might consider the quality of the city’s middle schools as causal, since Stuyvesant’s admissions data directs our attention there.

The Selective High School Admissions Test is effectively a mathematics test. The recently released 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress’s eighth-grade mathematics assessment reports that nearly two-thirds of New York City’s Black eighth graders eligible for the National School Lunch Program score at the below Basic level:  they can’t do middle school math.  Just over half of the City’s Black students from more prosperous families can’t do middle school math either.  Just 8 percent of the Black students from poor families and 15 percent of those from more prosperous families score at the proficient or above levels.  This compares to 26 percent of the National School Lunch Program eligible White students and 57 percent of those White students from more prosperous families who do math proficiently or better at grade 8 in New York City.

White students from families with below average incomes are much more effectively taught mathematics in the City’s middle schools than are (the relatively few) Blacks students from more prosperous families:

It seems that family income has surprisingly little effect on eighth-grade mathematical performance of New York City’s Black students. The difference between the percentage of National School Lunch Program eligible White students scoring Proficient and Above on the NAEP mathematics assessment and those from more prosperous families scoring at that level was 31 points.  For Black students it was 6 points.  Not everyone will agree, of course, but this does seem to indicate that Black students, regardless of family circumstances, attend middle schools with deficient mathematics instruction.

New York City happens, “happens,” to be one of the most segregated cities in the country and its schools are similarly racially segregated.  The Brown University Index of Dissimilarity measures whether one particular group is distributed in the same way as another group.  A high value indicates that the two are separated from one another.  A value of 60 or above is considered very high.  That between Black and White residents in New York City is over 80.  A consequence of this is that neighborhood schools are highly segregated by race.  In other words, Black students from both National School Lunch Program eligible and ineligible families are likely to attend the same schools, as indicated by the small gap in NAEP scores.  The city’s segregated schools do not have to vary in quality by, say, the percentage of Black students in the school, but the NAEP scores seem to indicate that they do.

The administrators of the New York City Schools—the Mayor, the Chancellor, their staffs and advisors—appear to know this, as is demonstrated by the city’s school choice program.  This elaborate sorting of students and schools would be unnecessary if all the city’s schools offered high quality education.  Its very existence is an admission by the city that the quality of schools differ so significantly as to justify this costly and cumbersome system.

They are right, of course, and they know this as they are responsible for those differences in quality, by the way in which they allocate resources, financial and human, in accordance with the racial make-up of each school’s population.  “Them that’s got shall have/Them that’s not shall lose.”

A consequence of the poor educational opportunities for Black children in New York City is the comparative lack of Black intergenerational economic mobility in the city.  According to Raj Chetty’s group at Stanford University, a White male child born into poverty in the city (in a family at the 25th percentile of income distribution) will, as an adult, on average reach the 56th income percentile.  The average male Black child born into poverty in New York City will as an adult reach only the 42nd percentile.  The income of the average male Black child born into an upper middle class family with an income at the 75th percentile will fall to the 52nd percentile as an adult, below that of a male White adult born into poverty.   (The average male White child from a similarly wealthy family will as an adult expect to have an income at the 68th percentile.)

There are certainly other factors at play here.  Racism is not limited to the schools.  There is the criminal justice system with its astonishing racial disparities.  There are racial disparities in higher education and in employment.  But, while some may disagree, the racism in the schools does have strong effects on the later lives of Black students.

Here’s a modest proposal:  Eliminate the Selective High School Admissions Test and fill the selective high schools by admitting the equivalent percentage of students from each middle school.  If the number of grade 9 students in the selective high schools is, say, 10 percent of the total number of grade 9 students in the system, admit the top 10 percent of each middle school’s students. In short order there will be a shift of upper middle class White and Asian families to schools with records of badly preparing their students, so that their children will more easily make the 10 percent cut-off, followed immediately by political pressure from those families to increase the allocation of resources to those schools. Soon, quality differences across the system will lessen

This may take legislation in Albany.  However, legislation in Albany does seem to occur from time to time.  It is not unheard of.  It could occur to produce better educational opportunities for New York City’s Black children.

There are other ways to increase educational and life opportunities for New York City’s Black students.  Maintaining the status quo is not one of them.

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The Black Kids Are Shortchanged Everywhere

The Duval County school district serves the Jacksonville, Florida, area.  Jacksonville is much more typical of neighboring Georgia than of Florida.  It has a relatively small Hispanic population and a…

The Duval County school district serves the Jacksonville, Florida, area.  Jacksonville is much more typical of neighboring Georgia than of Florida.  It has a relatively small Hispanic population and a history of anti-Black racism dating back hundreds of years.  The district’s website proclaims recent good news:

Duval County Public Schools has emerged as a national leader in mathematics and reading outcomes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) . . . “If this were the Olympics, you would say we medaled in almost every event,” said Superintendent Dr. Patricia Willis. “These results, in addition to our record-high graduation rate, reflect the incredible efforts of our students, our teachers, the district and our community.” . . .  “The new NAEP results confirm that Duval County is one of the highest performing big city school districts in the nation,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council for Great City Schools.

Those newly released 2017 NAEP eighth-grade reading assessments show that while 42 percent of White students in the Duval County public schools can read at grade level (proficient or above), the school system teaches less than half that percentage, 18 percent, of the Black students in its care, to read proficiently at the crucial grade 8 level. Or, looking at that from the other side, well over three-quarters of the Black students in the Duval County Public Schools are not taught to read proficiently.  Of those, nearly 90 percent of the male Black students in Jacksonville are not taught to read proficiently and nearly half of those can hardly read at all. We can take that as an indication of the preparation for life that is provided for Black children by the Duval County Public Schools. It is a rather unusual Olympic medal quality performance.

A primary driver of these racial disparities in educational achievement is not difficult to discover.  Quite some time ago a large-scale research project in Texas demonstrated that disparities in the rate of school discipline actions were based on the racial attitudes of school personnel, rather than the actions of students.  In the Duval County schools the rate at which out-of-school suspensions are given is eight percent for Black students, three percent for White students, a more than two-to-one disparity, which is a good measure of racial prejudice in action.  That happens to be approximately the disparity in reading proficiency.  Of course, correlation does not indicate causation.

There are consequences to this failure of the Duval district to teach most of their Black children, and nearly all of their male Black children, to read easily.

The Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford University has studied intergenerational economic mobility by race and gender. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the average Black child in Jacksonville, whose household in the year 2000 had an income at or below the 25th percentile of all American households ($28,000, very poor) would probably have an income at the 31st percentile (just poor) by 2015, about $32,000.  The average White child in Jacksonville, living in a similarly deprived household in 2000, would have had an income at the 40th percentile in 2015, about $43,000: a nine point, $11,000, advantage for being White. While a Black child growing up in Jacksonville can expect to go up six steps on the economic mobility ladder (from very poor to merely poor), a White child can expect to go up fifteen steps, between two and three times as far and within hailing distance of the national median.

This comparative restriction of intergenerational economic mobility for Black residents of Jacksonville cannot be attributed solely to the fact that well over three-quarters of the Black students in the Duval County Public Schools are not taught to read proficiently, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Well, Jacksonville has a history of slavery, segregation and lynching.  We can look to the free state of Wisconsin for better news . . . can’t we? The answer is no.

The 2017 NAEP eight-grade reading assessment shows that while 33 percent of White students in the Milwaukee public schools can read at grade level (proficient or above), the school system teaches less than one-fifth of that percentage, six percent, of the Black students in its care to read proficiently at the crucial grade 8 level. Or, looking at that from the other side, well over 90 percent of the Black students in the Milwaukee public schools are not taught to read proficiently and of those, 96 percent of the male Black students in Milwaukee are not taught to read proficiently.  Nearly two-thirds of those can hardly read at all.  We can take that as an indication of the preparation for life that is provided for Black children by the Milwaukee Public Schools.  As to causation, the racial school discipline disparities in Milwaukee are similar to those in Jacksonville:  a Black student is more than twice as likely to be punished with an out-of-school suspension as is a White student.  In addition to being an indicator of adult racial attitudes, out-of-school suspensions are likely to lead to students falling behind in their studies and prematurely ending their educations:  dropping out.

No matter where you go, traditional districts are failing the descendants of enslaved Africans.

And as to consequences, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the average Black child in Milwaukee, whose household in the year 2000 had an income at or below the 25th percentile of all American households (very poor) would probably have an income at the 36th percentile (poor) by 2015, about $38,000.  The average White child in Milwaukee, living in a similarly deprived household in 2000, would have had an income at the 50th percentile in 2015, about $56,000: a fourteen point, $18,000, advantage for being White. While a Black child growing up in Milwaukee can expect to go up eleven steps on the economic mobility ladder (from very poor to merely poor), a White child can expect to go up twenty-five steps, more than twice as far and pretty close to the national median.  White children growing up in severe poverty in Milwaukee can expect to participate in the American dream of dramatic economic mobility; the Black children living in that city cannot even dream of it.

Just as in Jacksonville.

Neither district is fulfilling its responsibility to educate all children.  The size of the racial gaps resulting from these failures are similar.  If disparities in school discipline rates are a valid measure of racism (which they are), that, too is similar.  And if the Equality of Opportunity Project’s calculations are correct, as they seem to be, the perhaps consequent restrictions on economic mobility for the Black residents of these two American cities will, similarly, continue from one generation to the next.

The Equality of Opportunity Project researchers point out that the Black/White racial economic disparities are not a result of factors under the control of Black Americans.  Rather, they are the result of factors, such as disparate incarceration rates and the school issues touched on above, that are under the control of the people running the criminal justice and school systems and other social, economic and political aspects of life in this country.  They are under the control of that governor, that mayor, this superintendent of schools, this judge and that chief of police in both Jacksonville and Milwaukee—and those in many other cities and towns in this great country.

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When Congressmen Lie About School Discipline Reform

If you want to get a better sense of the shoddiness of the arguments of opponents of school discipline reform, especially when it comes to the Department of Education’s guidance…

If you want to get a better sense of the shoddiness of the arguments of opponents of school discipline reform, especially when it comes to the Department of Education’s guidance on reducing the overuse of harsh school discipline, simply look at the traditional districts represented in Congress by Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, who this morning, complained that the four-year-old Dear Colleague letter made school leaders “afraid” to discipline children in their care.

Harris made this declaration during one of two hearings that touched on school discipline reform — a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for education programs. After several congressional leaders — most notably Rep. Barbara Lee of California — roasted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for continuing to weaken the department’s Office for Civil Rights and effectively abandoning the federal role in protecting the civil rights of poor and minority children, Harris essentially encouraged DeVos (along with the planned commission on school safety over which she will be chairing) to toss the school discipline reform measure into the ashbin. Why? Because the measure has forced the districts he represents to stop “disciplining people”.

Certainly you can expect the likes of Manhattan Institute wonk Max Eden (who, for some reason, was testifying at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on school safety convened a month after the Parkland Massacre) to make big hay of the Maryland Republican’s complaints. After all, it comes on the heels of Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio amplifying the accusations of Eden and other school discipline reform opponents that the Obama Administration-era guidance was responsible for Nickolas Cruz’s murder of 17 children and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. Rubio’s move (based on an argument disproved both by Dropout Nation and other outlets) resulted in DeVos placing review of the guidance under the school safety commission (which will consist of not one expert on school safety and will only include three of her fellow cabinet secretaries in the Trump regime).

The problem, as a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the districts to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database, is that none of Harris’ statements are true.

Take Harford County, the largest district in Harris’ district. It meted out one or more out-of-school suspensions to 1,339 children in regular classrooms, or 3.5 percent of the students, in 2013-2014. That is slightly more than the 3.3 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012, two years before the Obama Administration issued its guidance. It also arrested and referred 163 children to juvenile justice systems in 2013-2014, three times the 59 it arrested and referred two years earlier.

Another district represented by Harris, Wicomico County, meted out one or more suspensions to 9.5 percent of students (or 1,381 children) in 2013-2014. That was a three-fold increase over the 3.28 percentage suspension rate two years earlier. Dorchester County’s district meted out one or more suspensions to 11 percent of students in 2013-14, an increase over the 8.6 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012. There’s also Caroline County, which meted out one or more suspensions to five percent of students  in 2013-2014, an increase over the 4.5 percent rate two years earlier. In fact, Caroline County suspended 29 more students in 2013-14 than two years earlier.

Then there is Kent County, which is right on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In2013-2014, it meted out one or more suspensions to a whopping 14 percent of its students. That’s three times the 5.2 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012, two years before Obama’s school discipline guidance (and just after Maryland’s state board of education had investigated overuse of harsh discipline by districts it oversees). If anything, Kent County’s district became even more punitive: It arrested and referred 60 children in 2013-2014, a sixty-fold increase in the number of students sent onto the most-direct path to the school-to-prison pipeline two years earlier (which was none).

Maryland Congressman Andy Harris argues that the Obama Administration-era guidance against overusing harsh school discipline is stopping school districts he represents from correcting student behavior. The data proves, if anything, that those districts suspend far too many children, especially those Black and Brown.

Another district in Harris’ backyard, Worcester County, meted out one or more suspensions to 4.5 percent of children in 2013-2014, higher than the 3.1 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012, before the Obama Administration’s Dear Colleague guidance was issued. Talbot County meted out one or more suspensions to  4.75 percent of students one or more times in 2013-14, nearly double the 2.7 percent suspension rate two years earlier. Only Queen Anne’s County, one of the smallest districts represented by Harris, experienced something of a decline in out-of-school suspensions; one or more suspensions were meted out to 2.2 percent of its students in 2013-2014, only a slight drop over the 2.4 percent rate in 2011-2012.

None of this is a surprise to Dropout Nation readers or to honest scholars of school discipline reform. This is because the Obama Administration’s guidance was focused primarily on encouraging districts to reduce overuse of suspensions and other harsh discipline against poor and minority children as well as those condemned to special education ghettos. Even with the guidance, the U.S. Department of Education would only intervene when alerted about potential civil rights violations. Put simply, districts could ignore the administration so long as families and civil rights groups didn’t make a fuss. Which is clearly the case with the district’s represented by Harris on Capitol Hill.

This is a shame because the data the districts submit make a strong case for federal investigations — especially when one understands the long history of racial bigotry in the Eastern Shore of the Old Line State.

Kent County, for example, meted out-of-school suspensions to 21.4 percent of the 478 Black children attending its schools in 2013-2014, double the 11.4 percent suspension rate against Black children two years earlier; Black children account for a mere 22.4 percent of the student population. The rate of suspensions for Black children in Kent is double the 11.8 percent suspension rate for White children, who, by the way, make up 65.6 percent of students in the district.

Wicomico County meted out one or more out-of-school suspensions to 16.7 percent of Black children under its watch in 2013-2014, a five-fold increase over the 3.2 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012. In fact, Black children account for 78.8 percent of all children suspended by the district in 2013-2014 — or four out of ever five kids suspended one or more times that year — while White peers accounted for a mere 33.7 percent of students suspended. This is in spite of the fact that the district is almost equally divided between Black and White students (with the latter making up the majority).

The worst part is that Maryland’s state officials know this — and have done little in the last couple of years to address these problems. Thanks in part to a board of education dominated by conservative reformers such as Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute and former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn Jr. (the latter of whom presided over the think tank’s initial activism against the Obama-era guidance), the Old Line State only plans to intervene when suspension levels for poor, minority, and special ed-labeled children are three times higher than that of other peers. Which means districts such as Kent County could continue damaging the futures of our most-vulnerable children with absolute impunity. The state’s move last year to only allow districts to suspend kids for up to five school days (and all but banish suspensions for kids in preschool programs) does nothing to address this problem.

Contrary to the assertions of Harris — as well as those of opponents of school discipline reform such as Eden (who deserves no consideration), as well as Michael Petrilli and his crew at Fordham– the case can easily be made that the DeVos and the Department of Education should build on the Obama Administration guidance and go even further. This includes restoring rules allowing Office for Civil Rights investigators to look at years of past complaints against districts to determine patterns of discrimination, hiring more investigators to look into patterns of disparate impact, and even requiring states such as Maryland to implement stronger rules against overuse of harsh discipline.

When it comes to building brighter futures for all of our children, we need facts, not assertions based on nothing but talking points that betray the bigotries of those who state them.

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Beyond Graduation Rate Scandals

Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of…

Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of their lives might receive meaningless diplomas. They propose that we strictly enforce requirements.

If we take this advice, presumably fewer people will walk across a stage to receive a diploma they didn’t earn. On the plus side, these changes will make our school systems more honest about what high schools have achieved; and they will better inform graduates about their preparation for higher education. Unfortunately, along the way we may reduce opportunities for many young people to get the help they need to succeed as independent adults. People can argue about who deserves to graduate, however, if we decide to keep more kids from graduating, we should also agree that kids who don’t graduate deserve more public support that will also prepares them for the rest of their lives.

Instead of making a more strictly-enforced sorting device that denies more young people access to a good future, future systems that increase our ability to document a young person’s suitability for further study or training ought to tell us about all young people.  We should learn what dropouts know and can do. That way we can help them all transition to the next stage in their education, training, or work.

Recent years have seen significant increases high school graduation rates. Today’s scandals indicate that some of this increase has more to do with lowering standards than to gains in learning. Many districts now award diplomas to 15 percent more of their students than they did a decade ago. When it comes to the next phase of their lives, however, do we really think the bottom 10 percent of graduates are that different from the top 10 percent of dropouts?  And if both groups need a lot more help to become self-sufficient adults, we ought to not use the diploma to judge who is worthy of our continued support.

Diplomas have different uses for different audiences.  For students, they are a motivation. To be crass, the diploma is a reward for sitting still for four years, behaving as expected, and for doing all the work to master basic material. For employers and higher education institutions, a diploma is expected to certify that a student is ready for the next stage in their learning and growth. For society, leaving high school is a proxy for adult-hood; and the diploma means that the new adult succeeded at being a teenager. But our current diplomas don’t necessarily fulfill each audience’s needs.

Among both graduates and dropouts, there is a wide range in students’ knowledge and skills. Some of these new graduates may be academically closer to the better prepared dropouts than they are other graduates. Admittedly, this is more likely due to a generally poor state preparation than it is to large numbers of dropouts with strong skills.

But there are many dropouts who were doing fine in high school before things went poorly; just as there are many graduates who skated through high school with very low grades in classes that expected little of them.  If we learn more about both types of students, we can help them both.

Most of the debates over high graduation standards focus on attendance. Students were given credit for classes even though they had more absences than allowed in district policy. Technically, they should have failed their courses, which would have meant they didn’t earn enough credit to graduate.

In addition to “seat time”, diplomas signal mastery of content and the student’s ability to persevere and follow rules. But when a young person lacks a diploma, we don’t know why. Some didn’t attend class enough to pass. Others misbehaved. Others, attended and behaved, but didn’t learn the material well enough to pass. Labeling a person as a dropout doesn’t tell us which of these challenges tripped them up, only that they did not achieve all three.

Instead of focusing on what they lack, for both graduates and dropouts, it would help if we could better understand and certify what they have accomplished and what they are able to do. It is helpful to know if they could behave, if they persevered enough to attend regularly, and what they learned and are able to do.  And as we identify these strengths and assets, we can match them to services and programs where they are most likely to succeed. Ideally, more young people can be encouraged to do all the challenging work required in the next step, and we can counsel them to the most appropriate opportunities – where they can gain the skills and knowledge they need for whatever it is they want to do next.

There are some who argue that if we give a diploma away too easily, we “aren’t doing them any favors.”  I think I disagree. As long as many opportunities for further study or other support are tied to high school completion, and so many young people need more study and help, then a diploma may constitute a favor.  As we argue about where we draw the line between dropout and graduate, if we don’t invest enough in dropouts, we ought to revisit what it means to draw the line at all.

Giving fewer young people a diploma will increase our confidence that most of the remaining graduates are prepared, but it could also swell the ranks of the dropouts, who are less willing or able to continue their studies or prepare for well-paying work.

There’s a lot of handwringing about the graduation scandal at D.C. Public Schools. But there is little discussion about the underlying problem of the failures of American public education.

Instead of a slow-moving tragedy, recent debates could be helpful if they drive discussions about how we prepare all young people for the workforce or for further study and career training.

Far too many high school graduates and dropouts are not prepared to succeed after they leave high school. There are remarkable exceptions, including charter networks with strong records preparing more young people to earn college degrees. We should explore how to use similar strategies and tools to help more young people, regardless of where they are, transition successfully.

As it stands, American higher education (which includes traditional colleges as well as workforce training programs run by community colleges), and the kinds of jobs that include training, are all more likely to be available to high school graduates than they are to dropouts. Many programs explicitly target dropouts, and some of these opportunities are open to both graduates and dropouts.  But many young people who dropout decide not to try, or they don’t know how to pursue the most beneficial pathways. Compounding these individual tragedies, as a society, we are too comfortable with dropouts’ subsequent self-limiting decisions.

Unless we change our attitudes toward dropouts, efforts to deny diplomas to more young people are likely to reduce their access to further training – as well as the accompanying public investments in their futures.

We should certainly use this current debate to push for changes that clarify what it takes to earn a diploma. But we should also expand what we do as a society to prepare all these young people to succeed – even if they don’t graduate.

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Betsy DeVos’ Callous and Incompetent Management

Over the past week, Elizabeth Prince DeVos has continued to make the case for last week’s Dropout Nation call for her resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her dismal performance…

Over the past week, Elizabeth Prince DeVos has continued to make the case for last week’s Dropout Nation call for her resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her dismal performance Sunday night on 60 Minutes (including an inability to articulate the case for expanding public charter schools and other forms of family choice in education) demonstrates that she remains as willfully ignorant about education policy issues as she was during her confirmation hearing last year.

Meanwhile DeVos’ lack of soft skills required of any political officeholder — along with her failure to hire a strong communications team who can help her prepare for public events — was also on full display last week when she criticized teachers and American public education for not being innovative during a speech before innovation-minded teachers and school leaders at SXSW’s annual education conference. A smarter politician would have tossed out the speech and actually held a listening session in which those teachers could speak to their experiences and efforts. But then, Betsy has spent most of her tenure avoiding hard questions. For good reason: She would struggle to answer them.

Yet as reformers, we can’t spend nearly as much time on DeVos’ public failures. This is because they rarely have much effect on the futures of children, especially those from poor, minority, immigrant, and non-traditionally-gendered communities over whose civil rights the U.S. Department of Education (and ultimately, the federal government) is charged with protecting. Certainly DeVos’ presence worries school choice activists who rightly fear that her presence (and that of the Trump Administration) will weaken support for expanding opportunity. But that’s an issue that can be handled by actively opposing DeVos while also advancing choice.

What DeVos is doing in terms of operating the agency itself is of even greater concern, especially amid news this week about waylaying key civil servants who run operations below the appointed staff.

The latest news came yesterday as Politico reported that DeVos ‘reassigned’ the director of the Department of Education’s budget office, along with at least one other employee, as part of her effort to effectively eliminate that division. Apparently angered that the budget office and its boss, Erica Navarro, have defied and opposed her her reorganization efforts, DeVos moved Navarro over to the Office for Civil Rights (whose operations have been weakened by DeVos and the Trump Administration) in spite of opposition from the Office of Management and Budget and its director, Mick Mulvaney (who normally never has a problem with eliminating some branch of the federal government).

While Navarro and her former deputy, Craig Stanton, are moved out of the budget office, DeVos also moved to eliminate it altogether. The cost analysis branch will now reside in the department’s student aid division — a curious move given that the role of determining the agency’s spending needs has nothing to do with Pell Grants and Perkins Loans — while other functions are being moved into other divisions. Save for any move by Congress to prevent this reshuffling, DeVos will essentially eliminate an important division charged with helping her develop budgets for congressional approval. Which, in turn, will allow her to propose more reductions in spending as well as push for such efforts as voucherizing $500 million in Title 1 dollars; after all, the budget office staff, expert in understanding what can and cannot be done under federal law, were likely an even greater obstacle to her goals than congressional leaders, traditionalists and civil rights-oriented school reformers.

That same day, news came out that DeVos had reassigned the director of the agency’s student privacy enforcement unit, Kathleen Styles, to another job, leaving the office without a permanent supervisor. The office is charged with ensuring that school operators and higher education institutions aren’t violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The move came four months after the office ruled against the scandal-plagued Agora Cyber Charter School in a complaint from families of its students over illegal sharing of student data with K-12 Inc., and other contractors. Some are worried that DeVos will weaken enforcement of privacy laws to help out key players in the charter school movement.

As you would expect, DeVos didn’t leave out Office for Civil Rights in her dismantling effort. Besides demoting Navarro by putting her under notorious acting boss Candice Jackson, DeVos moved Sandra Battle, who oversaw the division’s enforcement of civil rights laws, out of the office. Jackson, an opponent of civil rights enforcement and laws, will now be directly in charge. This likely means even fewer investigations into overuses of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline — especially since the Obama Administration’s guidance is now being considered by a White House committee led by DeVos on supposedly improving school safety in the aftermath of the Parkland Massacre (and has become the target of Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and conservatives who want to conveniently blame anything other than lax gun laws).

This latest move comes after DeVos eliminated 16 investigators and other staff at OCR as part of an employee buyout last year. [Among the staffers bought out: The Department of Education’s in-house security staff, who were replaced by U.S. Marshals (who DeVos prefers and who walk around with her even within the Department of Education’s headquarters); the Marshals, who could be helping protect the nation instead of making DeVos feel safe, will cost taxpayers $15 million by the end of this fiscal year.] With DeVos proposing to eliminate another 34 positions in 2018-2019, the education secretary is ensuring fewer investigations into violations of civil rights — including alleged efforts by districts to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police wrongly identify, suspend, arrest, and deport undocumented immigrant children under the guise of being gang members.

None of these moves are shocking. As Dropout Nation noted back in January, DeVos and her team are going to use every tool available in their collaboration in the Trump Administration’s low-grade ethnic cleansing against poor, minority and immigrant communities. This has already been previewed in the 2018-2019 budget proposals to Congress as well as in moves made last year. But while the budget plans — including eliminations of the elimination of the $65 million-a-year Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native education programs and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative — won’t pass muster on Capitol Hill, DeVos and the administration can take other actions that effectively decimate those programs. This week’s news about staff reassignments, along with the move to eliminate the budget division, are the next of many steps to achieve those goals.

At the same time, in eliminating the budget office and putting many of its functions under divisions that don’t actually handle fiscal analysis, DeVos and her team (including the folks sitting on the reorganization committee charged with making the department more efficient) also demonstrate abject incompetence. Expertise can sometimes be overrated, especially in anticipating what can happen in an unknowable future. But in navigating the politics of advancing a political agenda, such knowledge is critical in achieving any goals. If DeVos truly wants to expand school choice, getting rid of her budget experts made no sense at all. But this lack of thoughtfulness isn’t shocking: As we saw on 60 Minutes, DeVos still hasn’t spent time learning the ins and outs of her job.

DeVos and her team have long ago proven that, like the rest of the Trump Administration, they will do nothing well, do things incompetently, act without integrity and operate with intent to harm the poor and minority communities it is supposed to serve. Reformers and other champions of children will have to fight even harder on behalf of children who deserve much better.

 

Featured photo courtesy of CBS News.

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We Need Oscar Micheauxs for School Reform

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