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November 14, 2014 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at the child abuse scandal at the California School for the Deaf in Riverside and explains why overhauling how we train and manage teachers and school leaders is critical to stemming criminal and educational abuse.

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.

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Your editor wasn’t surprised that Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman handed in his walking papers yesterday. For one, running a state education agency, especially in an age in which states are the lead players in overhauling public education, may actually be harder (especially given the lack of resources for the complex tasks) than operating a traditional district. As Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week notes, just 21 states have the same chief state school officer they had in place two years ago when he started covering his beat. [Even more have changed over since 2007, when Dropout Nation began what was then irregular publication.]

Secondly, in the case of Huffman, there was also the fact that Volunteer State Gov. Bill Haslam, often a fair weather reformer when it comes to such matters as expanding school choice, was likely to back off on implementing Common Core reading and math standards in order to assuage movement conservatives opposed to them. If Haslam is already willing to give up on this important aspect of systemic reform, he will likely back away from the teacher quality reforms and other efforts Huffman was overseeing.

This isn’t to say that the former Teach For America executive’s efforts were always the most-sensible for kids. Dropout Nation has been particularly critical of Tennessee’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets allowed by the Obama Administration as part of its successful No Child waiver plan. Sure, Huffman, Haslam and other officials may think they mean well by focusing solely on growth instead of also looking at overall proficiency. But the consequence of this is simply condemning poor and minority kids to low expectations as well as letting districts and schools off the hook for providing high-quality education for all kids. For that, Huffman should offer an apology to Volunteer State children for even codifying such thinking into policy.

Yet at the same time, Huffman has done plenty of good in continuing the much-needed overhaul of Tennessee’s public education system, often battling traditionalists (including districts and the National Education Association’s Volunteer State affiliate) opposed to any effort to provide kids with high-quality education.

Huffman’s successful implementation of a new teacher evaluation system, which uses objective test score growth data to measure 35 percent of teacher performance, has not been welcomed by either the NEA or by other traditionalists because it promises to shine an even harsher light on the low quality of teaching that persists in the state, especially in schools and districts serving Tennessee’s poor and minority children. Yet in implementing the evaluation system — and in successfully convincing the legislature to increase the frequency of evaluations for tenured teachers from every five years to annual — Huffman has helped foster a culture in which teachers can be recognized for success in improving student achievement or held accountable for failing to do so. At the same time, the moves also hold districts in the state accountable for doing the proper job of measuring teacher performance and weeding out those who don’t belong in classrooms. There’s still plenty to do on this front. But these are important steps that deserve recognition.

Huffman’s moves on teacher compensation have also been in important. By consolidating salary scales from 21 steps to four Huffman helped the Volunteer State admit decades of evidence that show that there is no correlation between seniority and ability to improve student achievement. In eliminating all but two salary increases for attaining graduate degrees, Huffman also helped the state admit the fact that there is also no correlation between degree attainment and teacher performance in the classroom. Both moves allow districts to offer performance-based bonuses and other pay increases tied to what teachers actually contribute to improving the futures of children. Add in his efforts to create new paths for teachers who want to take on more-challenging roles, yet don’t want to move into classrooms (including creation of coaching positions for teachers to help their peers implement Common Core), and Huffman’s efforts on the teacher quality front have been substantial.

Then there is Huffman’s willingness to serve as a strong messenger for advancing systemic reform — even against powerful opponents in the legislature as well as district superintendents such as Williamson County’s Mike Looney (who managed to get a state law passed effectively exempting his district from the state’s accountability system). That fact is one reason why 15 legislators — including Rep. Mike Sparks — issued a letter earlier this year calling for Haslam to force Huffman out of the job. As current and former counterparts such as former Indiana and Florida education chief Tony Bennett can attest, this is often be hard for any chief state school officer to do. There’s nothing wrong with being polarizing and divisive on behalf of our children. In fact, no one can fight for brighter futures for our children without taking stands that force men and women to make choices they would rather avoid. And for this being divisive and courageous, Huffman deserves praise.

Meanwhile Huffman has done something that chief state school officers, regardless of their party or policy orientation, should always do: Be honest and responsive. When Dropout Nation noted last year that Tennessee excluded high numbers of ELL students and kids in special ed ghettos from the latest edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (including a 27 percent exclusion rate for eighth-graders in special ed on NAEP’s reading exam, and an 18 percent exclusion rate of 14 percent of eighth-grade special ed kids from NAEP’s math exam), Huffman didn’t offer an excuse. Instead, he explained the Volunteer State’s long and sordid history of how it would engage in this form of test-cheating, discussed how the state cut such exclusion levels by half under his watch, and pledged that the state would continue to reduce NAEP cheating. This stands starkly in contrast to responses from other states with high NAEP exclusion levels, many of whom didn’t even bother to respond or came up with excuses for their misbehavior.

One can imagine how much more Huffman could have done if Haslam was more-willing to use his political capital to continue reform. Haslam did nothing earlier this year when the Volunteer State’s legislature passed a law barring the use of test score growth data from the state’s Value-Added data system (the oldest in the country) in licensing decisions. Haslam’s move last month to launch a review of Common Core also undercut Huffman’s efforts to advance systemic reform. Because Haslam has been far more concerned with being liked and getting re-elected (even though he had almost no credible competition among either Republicans or Democrats), he has done little more than weaken Huffman and the state board of education, who have actually shown far greater backbone in withstanding traditionalist and movement conservative opposition.

Huffman’s resignation, along with the likelihood of Haslam appointing a less hard-charging state schools chief, bodes badly for children (especially my nephew and niece — this is personal) in the state. Your editor expects Haslam to fold like a tabloid newspaper on Common Core implementation within the next year. There’s also little chance that Haslam will push hard on other reforms (including expanding school choice) or even strongly defend the efforts Huffman has already undertaken.

But this turn of events is not shocking. As Dropout Nation has continually pointed out, any notion among reformers that one party is better on advancing systemic reform than the other is a fallacy; especially in southern states such as Tennessee (where school districts are often the biggest employers in their communities, the most-powerful political players, and the breeding grounds for so many politicians), Republican domination of statewide politics does not any advancements in overhauling public education. [This, by the way, is why conservative reformers need to temper their exuberance over last week’s Election Day victories; as seen in the case of Haslam, as well as Florida’s Rick Scott, being a Republican or a conservative doesn’t translate into being a reformer.]

For reformers, Huffman’s resignation and Haslam’s waywardness on reform is another reminder that their efforts must be bipartisan. This means cultivating supporters in both parties to sustain reform efforts, as well as build up strong grassroots support in order to keep politicians honest.

The good news, however, is that Huffman can now go back to the national stage and advance systemic reform as he has done for most of his career. He has set a fine example of school leadership that his soon-to-be former colleagues, along with future state school chiefs, should follow.

November 13, 2014 standard

Yesterday’s revelation by Washington Free Beacon of documents detailing how secretive progressive outfit Democracy Alliance coordinated its unsuccessful efforts to elect Democratic candidates during this year’s election cycle have certainly stirred discussion. After all, for all the carping of progressive groups (especially education traditionalists) this year over the role of David and Charles Koch in financing political campaigns, the report by Lachlan Markey show that they are also far too willing to leverage money in their campaigning — and even go around campaign finance laws to do so. This includes the Democracy Alliance members working with Catalist LLC, the data hub for the Democratic National Committee, to use the party’s donor and voter data to quietly coordinate their efforts.

Yet school reformers should pay great heed to Markey’s report as well as to the documents revealed. Why? Because they also offer a guide on how the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are co-opting progressive groups in order to defend their declining influence over education policy.

As Dropout Nation readers know by now, the NEA and AFT have long been key donors to progressive outfits willing to do their bidding. In 2013-2014 alone, the AFT gave $25,000 each to Progressive States Network, Progress Michigan, and Netroots Nation, while handing out another $60,000 to Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, which has campaigned against the expansion of charter schools and so-called “privatization” of American public education. In 2012-2013, NEA contributed $332,000 to Progress Now; $100,000 to Progressive States Action, an affiliate of the Progressive States Network; and and $30,000 to the Leadership Center for the Common Good Action Fund, one of the now-defunct ACORN’s many spinoffs.

But increasingly, the NEA and AFT are turning to Democracy Alliance for help. For good reason. As novelist Chuck Palahniuk would write, the first rule about membership in Democracy Alliance is that you don’t say you’re part of it. Such secrecy is especially helpful to the Big Two teachers’ unions, who are required by law to report their finances including contributions to political groups; they can donate to Democracy Alliance and its Committee of States, then team up with other progressive outfits with more stealth than they are used to having.

That Democracy Alliance is tied to many of the groups to which NEA and AFT already sustain through their coffers also assures them that they have (mostly) loyal allies at the table; particularly for the NEA, which has found that its contributions to nonprofits haven’t always led to reciprocal support for its agenda, the existence of Democracy Alliance is especially helpful. There’s also the fact that Democracy Alliance is a hub for some of the leading well-heeled progressive donors and political players in the nation. This includes Rob Stein, the founder of the organization, who was a longtime operative for former President Bill Clinton before becoming a seed investor in tech startups, and hedge fund legend George Soros, who is as much a bogeyman to conservatives as the Koch Brothers are to the left.

[Full disclosure: I am an alum of a Koch-backed nonprofit, the Institute for Humane Studies, and an adviser to Black Alliance for Education Options, which received money from Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Yes, I’m bipartisan like that.]

Over the past couple of years, NEA and AFT have become more-prominent players within Democracy Alliance. Last year, after AFT President Randi Weingarten joined Democracy Alliance as a partner, AFT began donating money to the outfit; it gave $60,000 to the outfit in 2013-2014, while also donating $30,000 to its Texas Future Project, which aimed to help Democratic candidates such as gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis win office. [That donation was part of AFT’s wider mobilizing effort in the Lone Star State.] Weingarten isn’t the only AFT leader or staffer tied with Democracy Alliance. Michelle Ringuette, the former Service Employees International Union operative who is now Weingarten’s assistant, also joined the outfit last year. Weingarten noted that the union would pour $233,000 into Democracy Alliance this year.

The role of the NEA is far more extensive. NEA Executive Director John Stocks (who is now working to coerce the union’s vassals to sign onto its so-called social justice agenda), has long been active in Democracy Alliance’s Committee on States, the hub for its activities on the state level, as well as a member of the organization’s board. This includes bringing in such players as Dave Horwich, a former Clinton Administration advance man who is now the mouthpiece for prime (and secretive) Democratic Party donor Fred Eychaner, to a Democracy Alliance event this year. In April, he replaced Taco Bell heir Robert McKay as chairman of the organization, making the NEA (along with the AFT) the driving force of its agenda. The union is also one of Democracy Alliance’s biggest funders, handing over $110,000 in 2012-2013 (including $25,000 to its Committee on States, the hub for the outfit’s activities on the state level). In fact, the union gave $634,278 to Democracy Alliance between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile the Big Two are amplifying their support for Democracy Alliance by backing the array of organizations that are part of the organization’s network of progressive activists. Among the organizations: The Nation, the bible of the progressive movement, which became a member of Democracy Alliance’s network within the past year; its affiliate, the Nation Institute, became a new AFT donor in 2013-2014, receiving $10,000 from the union. Another is Demos, the progressive think tank; it picked up $13,333 from AFT this past fiscal year. The results of AFT support (and likely, the affiliation with Democracy Alliance) can be seen in The Nation‘s report late last month on Teach For America’s public relations statement (and misstatement that it was surreptitiously tipped off by Obama Administration officials about a Freedom of Information Act request), as well as an essay criticizing reform in Politico written by Demos scholar (and former New York Times columnist) Bob Herbert. [Note that The Nation didn’t mention its ties with the AFT or Democracy Alliance in the report.]

There’s plenty for the NEA and AFT to learn from Democracy Alliance. One lesson lies in how to get around the campaign finance laws that often serve as firewalls of sorts between the advocacy activities of 501(c)3 nonprofits and explicit campaigning activities of political parties, Super-PACs, and 501(c)4 groups. Expect the two unions and their affiliates to spend plenty of time understanding how Democracy Alliance works those loopholes — and then take advantage of them in their own activities. Given that AFT President Weingarten has snapped up key progressive players such as Ringuette into the union’s fold, don’t be shocked if Democracy Alliance staffers end up working for the union or even for the NEA, both of which offer sweet compensation packages few outside of K Street can match.

The question for the Big Two is how are their ties to Democracy Alliance playing out for them where it counts: At the ballot box. As you already know, it didn’t work out so well. Davis, who was heavily backed by the group and the AFT, lost big in Texas to Republican Gregg Abbott. Other favored progressives also lost big elsewhere. The rank-and-file members for both unions, most of whom are forced to pay into their coffers, can easily argue that the money both unions have sunk into Democracy Alliance was wasted. Both would have been better off devoting the dollars to activities that actually help elevate the teaching profession they both claim to represent.

Just as importantly, NEA and AFT can’t even say that Democracy Alliance is totally in their corner. For one, the organization’s board includes Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is both a competitor with AFT in the healthcare field as well as a supporter of school reform efforts through locals in Southern California and elsewhere. There’s also Nick Hanauer, the bedding products heir and tech investor, who challenged the NEA’s Washington State local two years ago. Add in the Center for American Progress, a strong backer of school reform (as well as a wayward recipient of NEA and AFT money), and it is clear that there are plenty of progressives who realize that the efforts of the two unions to defend traditionalist policies and practices fail to serve their political priorities. They also know that aiding and abetting NEA and AFT also means supporting a public sector union version of corporate welfare — or protecting the rich, as they would say — at the expense of poor and minority children as well as their families.

For reformers, especially centrist and progressive Democrats within the movement (who end up working closely with Democracy Alliance-backed outfits even as they oppose their ties to the Big Two), it is important to keep tabs on how both the NEA and AFT are structuring their political activities. With Democracy Alliance becoming an increasingly important part of their influence-buying activities, reformers must be ready to counter with even greater political savvy than they usually display.

Featured photo: NEA Executive Director John Stocks.

November 12, 2014 standard

Three years ago, Dropout Nation noted the rampant and abysmally high levels of grade inflation among university school of education majors. As Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri noted in a series of studies he conducted that were the subject of the piece, the average ed school major often had grade point averages often two-thirds of a grade point or more greater than peers in math, science, economics, and even humanities courses. This is in spite of evidence over that ed school candidates often earn lower grade point averages in their basic university course subjects than their peers heading into other majors.

Considering the shoddy quality of ed school curricula and training compared to those of such subjects as economics and the hard sciences, Koedel’s study (along with reports such as former Teachers College President Arthur Levine’s 2006 survey showing that 54 percent of the nation’s teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements.) was a reminder of the reality that there is no correlation between the credentials teachers are granted and their ability to improve student achievement over time. In fact, success in ed school doesn’t even ensure that teachers will remain on in classrooms beyond their first year.

So it isn’t shocking that the National Council of Teacher Quality turned up more evidence of grade inflation at the nation’s ed schools in a report it released today. The findings should once again focus reformers on overhauling how we recruit and train teachers — including bypassing ed schools (if not shutting them down altogether).

As NCTQ researchers Hannah Putnam and Julie Greenberg (along with the organization’s president, Kate Walsh), point out, 295 of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. At these schools, the percentage of students earning honor’s level GPAs is at least 10 percentage points higher than that for all other majors. Even worse, 44 percent of ed school majors coming out of schools surveyed earned honors-level GPA’s, which is 14 points higher than the average honors rate for other majors. An average ed school major is 50 percent more likely to graduate with honors than their peers in business and other areas of study.

The numbers get even worse. At 34 out of 40 universities where the percentage of ed school majors earning honors-level GPAs is 20 percentage points higher than for business, psychology, and nursing counterparts, ed school students account for the top third of all honors recipients, a far higher distribution than for the three other fields of study. In fact, ed school majors account for a far high higher distribution of honors students than nearly every other major field of study on those campuses. As Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh put it, “no other popular major rivals teacher preparation for being consistently among the majors in the top third in terms of proportion of honors graduates.”

Why is the grade inflation so problematic? It’s because grades for ed school students, like test score growth data for kids in K-12, serve as a signal of how well they are prepared to work in classrooms upon graduation. A high grade point average, for example, tells an aspiring teacher that they have at least mastered the basics of working in classrooms and helping kids master their own studies. But this only works if the grades are realistic, and are obtained from successful mastery of coursework that actually prepares teachers for the challenges of working with the kids they are supposed to serve.

But as we have learned a long time ago, far too many ed schools do a poor job of providing aspiring teachers with the coursework and training they need to succeed in classrooms. This is a point upon which Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh further elaborate in their evaluation of ed school courses. Far too often, ed schools aren’t providing criterion-referenced assignments, ones in which aspiring teachers must learn a clear scope of knowledge about a subject and are provided high levels of critical feedback from professors in order for them to gain much-needed challenge for growth and mastery.

Half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation. The consequences of the shoddy quality of ed school coursework ends up being borne upon both teachers (in the form of high levels of college debt that can be difficult to pay off), by districts (who struggle to provide kids with high-quality teachers), and ultimately, by children and the communities in which they live.

None of NCTQ’s conclusions should be shocking. [Nor should the response from defenders of ed schools such as the American Federation of Teachers, which gave $69,333 to Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, a key player in defending the ed school lobby formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.] As Dropout Nation has pointed out over the past four years, ed schools remain stubbornly wielded to approaches that have long ago proven to be ineffective in recruiting and training aspiring teachers.

Ed school professors, many of whom have never taught in K-12 classrooms, insist on filling the heads of their students with pedagogy (or instructional theories) that favor their ideologies instead of focusing on teaching practices that actually work for kids, especially poor and minority children in urban settings. Ed schools also fail to weed out potential ed school candidates who won’t make the cut in the classroom by using techniques developed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee guru Martin Haberman and Teach For America, all of which focus on subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial self-starter ability, and empathy for all children regardless of background. Both failures are among the ultimate reasons why half of all teachers end up leaving the profession in five years.

Meanwhile the universities that run the ed schools are far too concerned with milking their cash cows instead of improving the quality of their instruction and coursework. This is clear in the fact that in many states, many ed schools are producing so many graduates for so few positions that most don’t go into teaching; in Michigan, Supt. Mike Flanagan noted three years ago that, two-thirds of the Wolverine State’s 7,500 ed school grads leave the state, either to work in districts in other states, or perhaps to go into other fields. What is quite likely is that savvy collegians have figured out that ed school courses are easy to take, so they gravitate to those fields with no intention of ever working in classrooms. Ed school deans with any pride should find this troubling.

Certainly the NCTQ report points to the need to continue developing alternative teacher preparation programs that are outside of the university campus. This includes further expansion of outfits such as Teach For America as well as Urban Teacher Residency United, which released a report earlier this week on how two of its most-successful residency programs can serve as models for teacher training. The efforts of outfits such as Relay Graduate School of Education, an ed school program run by a collection of charter school operators, should be expanded to the undergraduate level; an aspiring teacher can earn a major in math, science, or reading, while also taking summer courses with an independent ed school program that includes an internship with a charter or parochial school.

At the same time, states and the federal government must also be willing to do what the Carnegie Corporation did a century ago with the release of the Flexner Report on medical schools: Force the worst ed schools to shut down. One can easily argue that shutting down the worst-performing half of ed schools currently in operation — something that resulted from the Flexner Report — would definitely help improve the quality of teachers going into classrooms. Forcing those that remain to embrace the approaches being developed by Haberman, Teach For America and Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools (as well as new innovations in the field) would go a long way toward helping aspiring teachers become high-quality instructors.

But the need to move beyond the traditional ed school model extends beyond teacher training. As American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess points out this week, ed schools are still the go-to forums for education research. While think tanks such as the American Institutes for Research and Brookings Institution are increasingly big players in the field, ed schools are still dominant because of the patina of respectability given to them by their parent universities. Developing new models of education research activities similar to what is done by the Federalist Society on the legal front, a suggestion offered up by Hess, is definitely something to do. At the same time, it may be time for reformers (including charter school operators) to further expand the array of institutions outside of ed schools that can engage in research in new ways. This includes actually teaming up with charter school operators and traditional districts (some of which already conduct their own research) to conduct such activities in real time.

NCTQ’s latest report is another reminder that overhauling teacher training is as critical as ending near-lifetime employment to improving the quality of teaching for our kids. We owe our children better than this.

November 11, 2014 standard

Back in September, Dropout Nation took a hard look at Minneapolis Public Schools’ overuse of suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline, detailing how Supt. Bernadeia Johnson’s move to halt the overuse of suspensions and expulsions on kids in its early childhood education, kindergarten, and first grade classes only scratched the surface of the district’s problem. Your editor called upon Johnson to go further and address the underlying instructional, leadership, curricula and diagnosis issues that were the underlying reasons why so many kids were suspended in the first place.

Some good news came from Johnson last week when she announced that her central office staff would review any suspensions of black, American Indian, and other minority children for nonviolent offenses recommended by school leaders on the ground. This can be a sensible interim step in overhauling Minneapolis’ school discipline practices if done properly. Your editor would have recommend that the district also review suspension recommendations for white kids as well because it is both the right thing to do — no child, regardless of their background, should be subjected to harsh discipline that is inappropriate for the behavioral issue at hand — and because it would allay any concerns from white families about reverse discrimination. But it does make sense for the district to monitor what school leaders and teachers are doing on the ground on this front.

Johnson deserves credit for taking another step. Of course, she’s not doing this just of her own accord. Thanks to an investigation by the Obama Administration as part of its efforts to halt overuse of suspensions and other harsh discipline — one that has been senselessly criticized by conservative reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (who doesn’t think that the disparate impact of overusing suspensions is a civil rights issue) as well as movement conservatives opposed to anything done by the administration on everything — the district is now being forced to deal with a problem it has long swept under the proverbial rug. [One of Petrilli’s staffers at Fordham, Jessica Poiner, rightfully chastised him for his less-than-thoughtful position.] Johnson’s move is an important validation of the Obama Administration’s sensible decision to address a civil rights issue (as it is constitutionally required to do) that is also a culprit of the nation’s education crisis.

But as your editor noted two months ago with the moratorium on suspensions of kids in the early grades, the review process isn’t enough. For one, the review will likely involve staffers who have been as much a culprit in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions in the first place; unless Johnson launches a division staffed by outsiders who can take a fresh look at how school leaders and teachers mete out discipline, the review process will just be a rubber stamp of status quo actions.

There’s also the fact that the review process doesn’t deal with another aspect of school discipline that is also a problem in Minneapolis: High numbers of referrals of black and Native kids to Hennepin County’s juvenile justice system, along with arrests by law enforcement. Two-point-six percent of Native kids attending the Twin City district’s schools, along with 1.3 percent of black peers, were either referred to juvenile courts or arrested, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s higher than the two-tenths of one percent of white kids, four-tenths of one percent of Asian and white schoolmates either referred or arrested. The good news is that none of these kids were arrested.

Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The juvenile court referrals and law enforcement arrests are especially high for black and Native kids condemned to Minneapolis’ special education ghettos. Eighteen-point-three percent of black kids in special ed, along with 11.1 percent of Native peers were either referred or arrested in 2011-2012. This was higher than the 2.4 percent of Latino and white students in special ed, along with 3.2 percent of Asian schoolmates referred or arrested. On average, 6.6 percent of Minneapolis’ special ed students were referred or arrested, a rate nine times higher than the eight-tenths of one percent average for kids in regular classrooms. Reviewing suspensions alone isn’t enough to address the totality of the district’s school discipline issues.

The more-important reason why the suspension reviews aren’t enough lies with the fact that the review process doesn’t address the cultural problems at the heart of Minneapolis’ problem in the first place. As Dropout Nation noted back in September, the district is dealing miserably with the underlying illiteracy that is the key culprit for student misbehavior. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. With only 47 percent of black third-graders and 45 percent of Native peers in Minneapolis reaching the North Star State’s (rather lowly-set) level of reading proficiency according to its 2012 exams, it is no surprise that those kids are acting out in school; they know that the schools that they attend will never provide them the reading remediation they desperately seek.

Certainly this is a problem resulting from shoddy reading curricula. But it is also a problem of low-quality teaching. As your editor continually argues, the consequences of laggard instruction are borne both in the struggles of kids in academics, in their perceptions (as well as that of school leaders) of the potential of black and Native children, and how their learning issues are dealt with through overuse of harsh school discipline. Johnson herself made light of this last week when she revealed that 13 of the district’s schools — all of whom serve mostly poor and minority kids — were staffed by the highest levels of laggard teachers. This included Bethune Elementary, where one or more suspensions were meted out to 20.6 percent of black kids attending the school, nearly double the district’s already high 13.1 percent average, as well as Anishinabe Academy, where 13.6 percent of Native students were suspended one or more times, slightly higher than the district average of 12.6 percent.

For Johnson and the district to end overuse of suspensions and other harsh school discipline, they will have to address literacy and instruction. This means intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. The district will also have to push hard, especially at the state capital as well as at the bargaining table with the American Federation of Teachers’ local (which has defended overuse of school discipline) in order to undertake steps to address low-quality teaching. Systemic reform, in short, is key to reducing overuse of suspensions for the long haul.

Johnson (along with the Obama Administration) deserves praise for tackling this problem head-on. But more needs to be done beyond suspension reviews to address discipline practices that condemn far too many Twin Cities children to the abyss.