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When it comes to abject academic failure in the Midwest, few districts match up as well to the unenviable reputations of Detroit and Indianapolis Public Schools as the Normandy district outside St. Louis, whose alumni includes Michael Brown, the young man senselessly slain by a policeman in nearby Ferguson last month. Between 2010 and 2013, the district’s official four-year graduation rate has hovered around 60 percent, effectively making it a systemwide dropout factory; the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below and at Basic levels of proficiency as measured on Missouri’s battery of standardized tests declined by only two percentage points (from 77 percent to 75 percent) within that same period. Normandy has failed so miserably in providing high-quality education for kids that Missouri state officials took over the district in July, and in the past year, allowed more than 500 students to flee to better-performing school operations nearby. [The controversial school choice move, which has been fought by Normandy in courts and at the state board level, reached a fever pitch last month when a state court judge ruled that the transfers could continue.]

So it isn’t shocking that Normandy is blaming kids for a move last week by the principal of its middle school, GeNita Williams, to suspend 20 percent of of its kids. Why? Mostly on charges of disruptive behavior, the kind of issues high-quality teachers and school leaders can usually address through approaches that teach students to take responsibility and show how their misbehavior affects their schoolmates. Declared Williams in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: We will take drastic measures to ensure the school is a place where learning and teaching are occurring.”

But you can’t help kids learn if they aren’t in school. Especially when their misbehavior is often a consequence of the low quality teaching and curricula a district provides. This is clear in the case of Normandy. The academic data already shows that far too many kids in the district are struggling with literacy, a key factor in kids becoming discipline problems. Based on a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education, it is clear that Normandy has a long history of suspending far too many of its kids into the abyss.

Shutting down Normandy and allowing the kids to attend public and private schools would do more to keep them on the path to lifelong success than keeping the district alive.

Normandy meted out one out-of-school suspension to 479 kids during the 2011-2012 school year. That’s 9.8 percent of the 5,087 children enrolled in the school that year. This includes 9.6 percent of the 4,942 black kids who make up the vast majority of enrollment, as well as a lower 5.5 percent of the 73 white kids who also attended the district’s schools. Normandy meted out multiple out-of-suspensions to another 975 kids; this meant that 19.2 percent of the district’s students were suspended more than once. This includes 19 percent of black kids attending district schools and 21 percent of their white schoolmates.

Altogether, Normandy meted out-of-school suspensions to 29 percent of kids attending its schools. This means that a black or white child attending one of the district’s schools has a three-in-ten chance of being subjected to the second-harshest form of school discipline (after expulsions). This is a worse than the 28.3 percent out-of-school suspension rate for the much-larger (though equally as abysmal) St. Louis, and the 13.3 percent out-of-school suspension rate for the notoriously high-suspending (of black children) Ferguson-Florissant district.

This is just for the kids who attend Normandy’s abysmal regular classes. The district meted one out-of-school suspension to 18.4 percent of the 527 kids (nearly all black) condemned to its special education ghettos. It also meted out multiple out-of-school suspensions to another 41 percent of kids in special ed. The good news is that none of these kids were referred to law enforcement or arrested on district campuses. But given Normandy’s out-of-school suspension rate of 59.4 percent — a level far above that of St. Louis (11.2 percent) and Ferguson-Florissant (25 percent) — a kid stuck in its special ed ghettos would be better off anywhere but in that district.

Normandy can’t claim that its latest round of suspensions is some unusual event. After all, this is data from three school years ago. Nor can the district claim that it has a record of not overusing school discipline. Normandy meted out one or more out-of-school suspensions to 18.7 percent of kids attending its schools in 2009-2010. Three years earlier, in 2006-2007, Normandy meted out-of-school suspensions to a whopping 31.4 percent of its student body. And back in 2004-2005, the district meted out-of-school suspensions to another 18.7 percent of kids in its care.

On average, over the past seven years, Normandy has suspended 24.5 percent of children attending its schools. That’s more than 1,200 kids a year regardless of socioeconomic background. This is blatant and unacceptable educational malpractice by a district that should do better by the children it serves. By overusing suspensions and in doing so arbitrarily, Normandy’s staffers are letting themselves off the hook while creating cultures of victimization in their schools in which kids only see themselves as helpless automotons subject to the whims of those who run the district. The teachable moments — both for the adults and the kids — are lost forever.

But none of this should be surprising. As I mentioned earlier, Normandy has been failing to provide children with high-quality education for years now. With three-quarters of fourth-graders either functionally illiterate or barely able to read, it is little wonder why so many kids are acting out. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are struggling with reading in third grade are likely to become discipline problems by the end of their days in grammar school classes.

Normandy’s overuse of harsh school discipline is just the way the district is dealing with its failures to provide kids with good and great teaching as well as intensive reading remediation. It is also a sign of the district’s failures (and that of the state) to provide clear and objective rules that reserve out-of-school suspensions for only the most-serious acts of student misbehavior.

This isn’t just the fault of Normandy’s laggard school leaders and teachers alone. While Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (along with its outgoing commissioner, Chris Nicastro) deserve credit for addressing the district’s failures, it has so far done very little to make the takeover a success. This would include implementing a school discipline approach that is geared toward restorative justice as well as diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of student behavioral issues.

The most-important move of all would have been to just shut down Normandy altogether and let all the kids transfer out of the district. This is something that the state education department has fought since it took over the district. This includes convincing the state board of education to give Normandy status as an accredited operation when its performance didn’t merit it in order to stop the transfers. [That the move was also illegal was a key reason why a state court judge ruled in August to allow the transfers to continue.]  The fact that Gov. Jay Nixon threw an additional roadblock to kids leaving Normandy by vetoing a school choice bill is also inexcusable. Children should not be forced to stay in schools they must deal with the insult of harsh school discipline on top of the injury of educational neglect.

This isn’t to say that kids in Normandy schools should behave badly. Not at all. But in many ways, it is understandable that they may be a tad rowdy right now. A child may not be well-educated, but they can tell when the schools they attend aren’t serving them well. Perhaps what Normandy students are saying in action is that the district doesn’t deserve to stay in business.



September 15, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle explains how the late Lillian Gobitas Klose’s battle to end mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in the last century, as well as battles over school prayer today, show the need to transform American public education from traditional district bureaucracies to the public financing of high-quality traditional, parochial, charter, and private school options.

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.


September 13, 2014 standard

In Philadelphia, as in Milwaukee and Rochester, young people, especially young African American men, are caught between a school system that will not educate them and a criminalizing legal system that will not leave them alone.

Eighty percent of Philadelphia’s Black families have incomes below the average for White families in the city. The poverty rate for Black families in Philadelphia is two and a half times that of White families. At the other end of the income spectrum, more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s White families have incomes over $100,000 per year, as compared to just 10 percent of Black families. This may reflect the fact that 41 percent of White civilian employed adults work in the managerial group of occupations, compared to 26 percent of Black civilian employed adults. Thirty percent of employed Black adults work in service occupations, as compared to 17 percent of employed White adults: Whites manage, Blacks serve.

It is unlikely that there is much inter-generational family income or wealth upward mobility in Philadelphia’s Black community. There is, on the contrary, much inter-generational downward mobility in both income and wealth. Black Philadelphia does not participate in the same society as White Philadelphia. It is a caste apart.

There are two forces creating and enforcing the caste boundaries in Philadelphia: the criminal justice system and the school system.

The operations of the criminal justice system—chiefly the police, but going all the way up through prosecutors and courts—criminalize young adult African Americans by means of disparate enforcement of irrational drug laws and a form of debt peonage effected through fines for non-appearance, bench warrants and the like. The State of Pennsylvania incarcerates African Americans at nine times the rate at which White residents of the state are incarcerated. Statewide, nearly 30 percent of those incarcerations are for violations of drug laws. The drug laws are a primary vehicle for the enforcement of the lower caste position of the Black community: they are dramatically differentially enforced, even though it is well-established that the level of illicit drug use is similar in the Black and White communities.

A Black resident of Pennsylvania, particularly a young adult male, is at great risk of a five year jail sentence, extendable by another five years or more, for behaviors that are not illegal in, say, Colorado, behaviors that are ignored in White neighborhoods of Philadelphia. As Alice Goffman has brilliantly shown, the Philadelphia police operate like a foreign army in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, sweeping in, brutalizing Black males from early adolescence, making legal employment nearly impossible and removing as many as 20 percent of the young adult Black population from the community to prison or, directly or not, to the cemetery.

The School District of Philadelphia is the partner of the criminal justice system in this endeavor. Approximately three-quarters of all in-school and out-of-school suspensions and arrests are of Black students. It is not only the students who are gone from the classrooms: 35 percent of the district’s teachers are absent ten days or more each year and just 38 percent meet all state licensing and certification requirements. These are both highly unusual metrics. Pittsburgh, for example, has a teacher absentee percentage of 21 percent and 93 percent of its teachers meet state requirements.

The district has a long history of conflicts between teachers and administrators, from elementary schools where principals lock themselves in their offices rather than meet with teachers to prolonged wars between the teachers’ union and the district administration. Spending on support services has trailed inflation. Non-teaching staff, such as counselors and librarians, have been severely cut. Many schools have been closed.

Charter schools should be a way out for Philadelphia students. Charter school enrollment has increased 80 percent for general education students and an astonishing 137 percent for special education students in the last four years. But as Editor RiShawn Biddle will point out next week, students are not benefitting so far, and that is a result of Pennsylvania’s faulty approach to authorizing schools.

The budgetary issues and administrative policies of the state and district are both complex and controversial, but there is little dispute over the ability of the Philadelphia school district to teach its students how to read. It can’t. In Philadelphia only a quarter of White students and 12 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade in 2013. Matters are even worse in regard to students from lower income families (those eligible for the National Lunch Program). Just 19 percent of White students in Philadelphia in this category and 9 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade (as compared to 28 percent and 12 percent of each group nationally). Black students in Philadelphia whose parents had some education after high school match the national average for Black students, 21 percent, and those whose families have incomes too high to be eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch  exceed it at 30 percent Proficient or above. Perhaps these children learn to read at home.

A consequence of these and other failures of the school system is an estimated high school graduation rate of 45 percent for Black students and 63 percent for White students in the 2011-12 school year, both far below national averages. In Philadelphia as in Milwaukee, Rochester and similar educational disaster areas, if those students attended schools in suburban districts they would have much better educational opportunities. If they went to school in neighboring Delaware County, they could expect graduation rates of 66 percent for Black students and 88 percent for White students. In nearby Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the Black graduation rate is 82 percent.

The Philadelphia public schools do not educate any group of their students as well as national averages for each group. They fail to come anywhere near to providing the quality of education given to students in nearby districts. Although family income and parental education levels have some effect on student achievement, this simply defines the task of the schools. The extent of these failures in Philadelphia is too great to be attributed to anything other than the quality of the schools themselves.

Further education outcomes for Black residents of Philadelphia are consistent with this record. In addition to its distinguished arts and music schools, Philadelphia has two major national research universities: the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. Not all Black students attending these universities are from Philadelphia and not all Black students from Philadelphia who go to college go to Penn or Temple, but a rough estimate of how well—or how poorly—the Philadelphia school district prepares its students for college and career can be gained by looking at their records.

In the fall of 2012 the University of Pennsylvania admitted 2,453 first-time undergraduate, degree-seeking students, 8 percent of whom were Black. Just 73 of those were male African Americans. Temple University admitted 4,132 first-time students, 10 percent of whom were Black. Just 139 of those were male African Americans. The major local two-year institution, the Community College of Philadelphia, admitted 4,067 students in 2012, 1,838 of whom were Black; 743 of those were men. That year, 49 Black students received Associate’s degrees from the Community College, 17 were men. The University of Pennsylvania together with Temple University awarded 8,502 Bachelor’s degrees to students within 150 percent of normal time to completion: 598 were Black, 202 of those were men. This output, as it were, is just 14 percent of the estimated postsecondary “input” of high school graduates. Fewer than half of Philadelphia’s Black students graduate from high school four years after grade 9; just 14 percent of those graduate with an Associate’s degree three years later or a Bachelor’s degree within six years of receiving a high school diploma.

White students in Philadelphia, following the same path, were much more than twice as likely to reach the same goal. Of course they were also twice as likely to be taught to read at grade level by the time they were in eighth grade.

If the schools of Philadelphia functioned as well for African American children as the not very impressive way they function for White children (or as well as the suburban schools function for Black children) and if drug law enforcement were equitable, life in and for the city’s Black community would be quite different.

However, the values of the Pennsylvania state government run in the other direction. It has begun building a new $400 million prison outside Philadelphia.

September 10, 2014 standard

First, the New York State Education Department is to be congratulated on moving to a policy of truth in testing and honesty in reporting. The new state tests align with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard in American testing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good tests. But at least they are honest.

That is the good news. Some of the rest of the news follows.

For any state, achievement on the eighth-grade reading test is a key indicator of the success, or lack of it, of the schools. By grade 8 the schools have had many years to work with their students and reading is the central skill for which schools are responsible. This year’s New York State tests show that 29 percent of New York City’s eighth-graders were reading at or above grade level. That is, 71 percent had not learned to read well enough to read, say, the articles about education in The New York Times. And just 19 percent of black and Latino students (the latter of whom may be of any race) had been taught to read at grade level.

We can also look at the results divided between those students whose family incomes are low enough to make them eligible for free or reduced price lunches and those whose families have higher incomes. Fifty-one percent of eighth-graders from higher income households were taught to read at grade level, while just 24 percent of peers from poorer homes were taught to read at proficiency. These results do no vary much between third and eighth grade.

In Manhattan’s higher-income Community School District 2, 30 percent of the district’s black and Latino students read at grade level in grade 8. In lower-income District 7 in the Bronx, just eight percent of black and Latino students were able to do so.

This brings up three important questions. The first: What is going to happen to the other 92 percent of black and Latino in the Bronx who can’t read at grade level? Two: If reading skills are only dependent on family income what value is added by the New York City Department of Education? And finally, how long is this disgraceful situation going to continue?


If you want to know why Gov. Andrew Cuomo should move to push for expanding school choice, both in New York City and throughout the rest of the Empire State, all you have to do is look at the latest results from last year’s battery of standardized tests. There’s no way anyone in New York State can morally or intellectually justify trapping our children, especially those from poor and minority households, in the worst public education offers.

Plenty has already been said about the Families for Excellent Schools’ report determining that not a single black or Latino child in 90 Big Apple’s schools passed any of the state’s tests. There’s also Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s brief today on the low levels of reading proficiency for black and Latino kids in the city’s traditional district None of this should be a surprise. The school reform efforts of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors were successful in reducing the percentage of kids mired in functional illiteracy. But as with Houston and San Diego, both of which have been successful in addressing basic literacy, New York City is struggling in this latest stage of reform, one in which how well kids are prepared for success in higher education and careers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy is far more critical.

Meanwhile districts in the rest of the Empire State, many of which have avoided even the most-basic efforts at systemic reform, are doing even worse in improving achievement for the children in their care.

In Buffalo, just 14 percent of eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels (called Levels 3 and 4) on this year’s state tests. Even worse, 54 percent of the district’s eighth-graders were functionally illiterate, reading only at Level 1 (or Below Basic) on the exam. Particularly for black and Latino kids who make up the vast majority of Buffalo’s student population, sitting in one of the district’s classrooms means falling behind; just seven percent of black kids in third-through-eighth grade, along with eight percent of their Latino peers, read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Put bluntly: Just 667 black and Latino kids out of 9,734 read at or above grade level. For young men of all backgrounds, Buffalo’s schools are also a gateway to economic and social abyss; a mere nine percent of young men of all backgrounds — that’s 628 out of 7,129 young men — read proficiently on the tests, versus an almost as abysmal 14 percent of their young women peers.

Another faltering district is Rochester, the subject of Holzman’s This is Dropout Nation analysis last month. A mere six percent of eighth-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 70 percent were functionally illiterate. Put bluntly, almost none of Flower City’s eighth-graders will likely achieve success in higher education and in career once they leave high school in four years. Just four percent of black and Latino third-through-eighth-graders — a mere 427 out of 11,095 black and Latino kids — read at Proficient and Advanced levels. And just four percent of the district’s young men — a mere 293 out of 6,640– read at or above grade level versus a just as atrocious seven percent of young women peers.

But it isn’t just big city districts doing poorly. Consider the notoriously-inept Roosevelt Union Free district in Nassau County near the Big Apple. Just 12 percent of the district’s eight-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 48 percent — that is one in two –read at Level 1 or Below Basic proficiency. Only 11 percent of Roosevelt’s black third-through-eighth graders — or just 112 out of 1,136 kids — read at or above grade level. Meanwhile a mere seven percent of young men in the district (that’s 49 out of 665 of them) read at Proficient and Advanced levels, versus 13 percent of young women in third-through-eighth grade.

When only a handful of children are reading well enough to succeed in school and in life, it is more than a tragedy. It is an economic and social calamity that weakens not only the Empire State, but the nation as a whole. Certainly this calls for systemic reforms, especially in how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers, as well as in furthering the implementation of Common Core’s reading and math standards. For the latter, as well as for honest reporting on how poorly districts are providing education to our kids, Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King deserve high praise. And the Vergara suits filed by the New York City Parents Union and Partnership for Educational Justice (both of whom are now fighting each other over who will lead the charge on revamping tenure and teacher dismissal laws) are also critical to this transformation.

At the same time, children cannot wait for Albany to knock districts and ed schools into getting their acts together.   Especially since politically, they are often unwilling to do so. Our kids deserve better than the worst. And this is where expanding school choice comes in.

Education Commissioner John King and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have an opportunity to help our children in New York escape failure mills that doom their futures. Photo courtesy of the Times Union.

One key step the Empire State could take is allowing for intra-district choice, allowing kids to transfer from failing districts to better-performing traditional school operators. King already took a key step toward this last year when he allowed kids attending two failing Buffalo high school, Lafayette and East, to transfer to programs provided by operated by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Making that a reality for all kids in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse would both help kids gain high-quality education as well as end Zip Code Education policies that trap our most-vulnerable kids in schools unfit for their lives.

Expanding the array of high-quality charter schools would also help. New York State has already increased its cap on charter school expansion from 200 to 460 as part of its successful bid for funding through the federal Race to the Top competition. Ditching the cap altogether would certainly help kids in parts of New York City such as Queens where the lack of options leaves kids trapped in shoddy traditional district schools. It will even help kids in aging suburban communities such as Roosevelt that are performing as badly as many urban districts, but are hidden in pain sight. Adding another university as a high-quality charter authorizer would also help; there’s no reason why the City University of New York system or Bard College (the latter of which is operating traditional public schools focused on helping kids attain college-prep learning) couldn’t do the job.

Meanwhile the state should also launch a voucher initiative (along with a voucher-like tax credit effort) that will allow poor and minority kids to escape failing districts and attend higher-quality Catholic and parochial schools. This will be harder for Cuomo to do, largely because the state’s legislative leadership (especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) are often more-concerned with doing the bidding of the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State and Big Apple units as well as obeying suburban districts. This is where reformers on the ground must come in. As Dropout Nation noted last year (and as New York’s Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability detailed in a report it released on expanding choice), advocates can launch a suit along the lines of the successful school funding lawsuit against the state led by the now-defunct Campaign for Fiscal Equity that could force the state to launch voucher programs targeting failure clusters that trap kids into despair.

All these efforts are merely steps toward what truly needs to be done in New York: Putting the state in full charge of financing public education as it is constitutionally and morally required to do. The Empire State provides just 40 percent of the $59 billion spent in 2012 on education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, below the 45 percent national average. As a result, districts can often justify resisting efforts to expand choice (both within their boundaries and even operations, as well as within the state as a whole) by perpetuating the Myth of Local Control. If the state took over full funding and then voucherized those dollars so they follow the child, families can then choose high-quality schools that fit what their kids need.

The Empire State cannot continue to live up to its motto of excelsior so long as generations of children are being condemned to the abyss. Expanding choice, along with implementing other critical reforms, is key to helping our kids escape academic prisons and avoid the ones run by the state’s criminal justice system in adulthood.