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May 20, 2016 standard

How hard is the New York City government trying to increase inequality and inter-generational poverty? Very hard indeed and quite successfully, thank you.

They are doing this by means of the schools.  They,” rather than “it,” because this situation is the result of decisions by individuals, decisions made everyday in dozens if not hundreds of meetings, expressed in hundreds, if not thousands, of documents.  It is the responsibility of those individuals (you know who you are), not of abstractions like “institutional racism,” “budgetary constraints,” “and bureaucracy”. They may say they are not intentionally increasing inequality, but if, over time, their actions do so that effect is best understood as identical with the objective intention.

As you might recall, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education  that “Segregation . . . deprive[s] [Black children] of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.” The benefits in question, not to put too fine a point on it, are those of a good education: higher incomes, longer lives, a better start in life for themselves and their children.

There is a difference between families choosing schools that aren’t integrated of their own accord – charter schools, for instance – and being forced by traditional districts to attend schools that are deliberately segregated. But as we already know, most children and families do not choose the schools they attend, and have little political power within school districts to even have choice. Especially in New York City. Just 7.9 percent of children in New York attend charter schools; the rest are in the district. So when we talk about segregation in New York City, we are talking about what people who run the New York City Department of Education are doing to restrict opportunities for high-quality education to Black and Latino children.

In its new report, Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA finds that New York is the most segregated state for Black students, much more segregated than, for example, Mississippi.  Two-thirds of the state’s Black students are in schools that are 90 percent of more non-White and non-Latino. This is astounding because black children account for just 18 percent of students in the Empire State, compared to 50 percent of students in Mississippi, where fewer than half of Black students are in those extremely segregated schools. Latino students in New York State are nearly as isolated from their White, non-Hispanic, peers, with 57 percent in extremely segregated schools.  The Civil Rights Project report also points to the increasing economic segregation of Black and Latino students, nationally; today the average Black and Latino student attends a school where two-thirds of the students are from low-income families.

The Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America project has also recently released a report, this bringing the issues for New York City into sharper focus.  According to High School Graduation in New York City: Is Neighborhood Still Destiny?, there is a 34 percent disparity in high school graduation rates between the best- and worst-performing of the city’s 59 community districts. Or, to be specific: Ninety-five percent of the high school students graduate on time in the wealthy Manhattan Community Districts 1 and 2, where virtually no Black or Latino families live. In the nearly all-black and Latino neighborhoods of Brownsville and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn, and Morris Heights, Fordham South, and the ironically named Mount Hope in the Bronx, only 61 percent of high school students graduate on time.

Using hundreds of statistical indicators, the authors of this report find that there is a direct relationship between on-time high school graduation in New York City and family income and education levels. Rich kids with highly educated parents graduate on time; poor kids with poorly educated parents don’t. Children from economically impoverished families are doubly disadvantaged: poverty at home and inferior, less well-funded, schools down the street. “In Queens, for example, a poor school gets 29 percent less money than a wealthy school nearby,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

Admittedly, in some ways, New York City’s traditional public schools are better than they were two decades ago. But that’s not saying much. For black and Latino children, who went to schools that were worse than those in the rest of the city, that’s saying nothing at all.

This situation is aggravated, not alleviated, by the city’s secondary school choice program. Faced with a scarcity situation—not enough good schools—“the city,” that is, those people who make decisions for others, put in place a system that in the final analysis distributes those scarce good schools by parental income and education. Families, the SSRC report finds, choose high schools on the basis of discussions with their friends and neighbors. Because of the city’s segregation and the lack of high-quality data on school performance, poor families tend to get their information from other poor families, and miss out on getting into the best-performing schools that wealthier families learn about through their well-heeled social networks.

There is also the crucial matter is the “tax” on families required by the city’s secondary high school “choice” system. [It hardly deserves the name, actually.] It requires as much as a working week or two of family time to struggle through the required paperwork and other hoops.  This is not anything like something an average family in the Bronx or central Brooklyn can afford. And as we know, access to good schools in New York City is grotesquely even more inequitable in regard to the city’s few “selective” high schools.

There are solutions to this problem. Here is one proposed by those who don’t want to anything: If “those children” simply had better educated, wealthier, parents and lived in neighborhoods with very good preschools, elementary and middle schools, they wouldn’t have a problem, would they?

Another solution would be to eliminate education scarcity. This includes making all New York City traditional public schools equally good, and making those in neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty more than equally good. How could that be done and who could do it?  It has been done in some places, for example, in the United Kingdom and much of Europe through various national government policies.  Canada has done this through its decentralized systems of traditional public schools and school choice. Montgomery County, Md., had some success doing this some years ago by more-effectively allocating resources – especially high-quality teachers. In some cases budget categories were reallocated: landscaping funding was reduced; early childhood education funding was increased. Outcomes were then closely examined and the resource mix adjusted.

Good schools for all children may be costly, but not nearly as costly, in a wider sense, than the present situation in New York City, with good schools only for those who can afford them.

May 16, 2016 standard

On this episode of On the Road, RiShawn Biddle joins Steven Evangelista of Harlem Link Charter School, Shawn Hardnett of NewSchools Venture Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew Steinberg, and Mastery Charter School’s Scott Gordon in a discussion at NewSchools’ annual conference on the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh school discipline.

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

April 27, 2016 standard

Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.

Since the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.

These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.

Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave.  They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program.  This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.

To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.

Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion.  They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.

The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.

What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice.  The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.

There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.

March 15, 2016 standard

Listen to Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle chat with Roland Martin on his show about why black families are embracing the expansion of charter schools, vouchers and other forms of school choice.

February 25, 2016 standard

Just when you thought that the latest controversy involving Success Academy was about to die down, it fans even more flames with its latest effort to blame the media. But in the process of arguing the New York Times fails to cover incidents of teachers engaging in educational and physical abuse of children in their care, the charter school operator (along with today’s report in the Times on how Success addressed the incident) once again reminds us of how it has failed to adequately address the abuses of Charlotte Dial, the teacher whose actions were revealed by the paper two weeks ago.

Since the revelation by the Times of Dial snatching and ripping the class work of the then-six year old daughter of Nadya Miranda for not answering a question to her satisfaction, then ranting that “there’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper”, Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, have worked overtime with its allies among school reformers to argue that the newspaper has some kind of vendetta against it. On Tuesday, Success upped the ante by issuing an 11-page letter to the paper’s editor in charge of Big Apple education news coverage, Amy Virshup, complaining that the Times has focused undue attention on the operator while ignoring criminal and educational abuse of children by teachers working within New York City’s traditional district.

In the letter, Moskowitz argues that the Timeshas done little more than provide “feel-good” stories on district schools while ignoring incidents such as the arrest of Mark Valentinetti, a teacher who worked at P.S. 83 in the Bronx, for slapping of his students, as well as the return of teacher Richard Parlini to the classrooms of another district school in spite of being previously removed for spanking his students. Declares Moskowitz: “the so-called “paper of record” has to date devoted none of its considerable resources to cover these stories, let alone investigate this systemic pattern of abuses.”

Let’s give Moskowitz and her public relations staff some credit: It didn’t violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as her previous effort last year against PBS NewsHour. Just as importantly, the letter is another reminder of the need to overhaul teacher dismissal rules and end near-lifetime employment laws that protect laggard and criminally-abusive teachers. Oddly enough, this is an issue on which the Times, along with the Daily News and the New York Post, has covered for the past few years. There are far too many criminally-abusive teachers like those cited in the letter working in classrooms and they shouldn’t be there. [If Success Academy was setting a good example on its own, its commentary on educational malpractice would come off as anything but hypocritical.]

Yet Moskowitz hasn’t proven her argument that the Times is somehow biased against the schools Success operates. For one, the paper has shed plenty of light on educational abuses throughout the district. One simple search on the paper’s own Web site reveals stories on the city’s test-cheating scandal, which has led to the firing of now-former John Dewey High School Principal Kathleen Elvin as well as the suicide of another principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, who ran Teachers College Community School. The Times also covered the arrest of a school leader, John DiFiore, on charges of criminally-abusing a 14-year-old student in his care. The Times also took aim at the district’s continuing failure to do well by children trapped in its special education ghettos, as well as its failure to disclose a third of violent incidents that happened in its school buildings.

Then there’s the Times‘s two year-long coverage of the crimes of Sean Shaynak, a former teacher at the prestigious Brooklyn Tech, who pled guilty in December to abducting and showing nude photos of himself to one of the students in his care. In 2014 alone, the Old Gray Lady wrote two extensive profiles on how Shaynak managed to get hired by the district spite of a record that included having been charged (though not convicted) of beating up the son of one of his neighbors. [Both profiles, by the way, were cowritten by Kate Taylor, the reporter who is the source of Moskowitz’s ire.]

Moskowitz cites none of these stories in her letter decrying the Times‘ coverage. In fact, she seems to go out of her way not to do so. Apparently the school operator complaining about fairness doesn’t believe in extending such courtesy itself. Lucky for Success that it is a school operator, not a media outlet that subjects itself to the traditional rules of objective journalism.

One can argue that the Times could spend more time covering every incident of abuse by teachers. I wouldn’t disagree one bit. But media outlets, as entities that have deal with limited space (and even smaller budgets), have to make choices on coverage. Let’s also keep in mind that the Times is also covering other issues that also affect children beyond classroom walls. This includes reports on abuse and killing of inmates at Riker’s Island and Clinton Correctional, two major prisons that house many parents of children who attend traditional district and public charter schools. Again, Moskowitz’s argument about the Times‘ coverage has no merit.

But while Moskowitz cites examples of educational and criminal abuse of children by teachers in traditional districts, she downplays Dial’s own abuse as well as the school operator’s refusal to deal with it properly by kicking her out of its classrooms. As far as Moskowitz is concerned, firing Dial would have been nothing more than the pursuit of “better PR” at the expense of what Success considers to be a model teacher “dedicated to teaching and improving”.

But in simply suspending Dial and returning her to the classroom, Moskowitz has done little more than tolerate the kind of educational malpractice that happens far too often in traditional districts. In fact, one can argue it is even worse because Success isn’t governed by collective bargaining agreements or by state laws governing tenure and dismissal, and therefore, can more-easily rid its schools of laggard and abusive teachers. Moskowitz has actually behaved worse in this situation than your average district superintendent.

What Success has done instead is engage in a crisis management strategy geared toward protecting Dial and its own practices from scrutiny. This becomes clear from the Times‘ latest story on the teacher’s malpractice, which features an interview with Nadya Miranda, the mother of the harmed girl. As the Times reports, after Success finally showed the video to Miranda, she was asked by Success staffers to sign on to an e-mail it drafted telling the paper that she didn’t want the video released to the public. When Miranda confronted Moskowitz during a meeting about the video a week later, Miranda said the school leader told her curtly that “you had enough to say”. Miranda, along with several other parents, walked out of the meeting, then pulled her daughter from the school. The fact that Miranda and her children are homeless, and thus, struggling with other issues, makes Dial’s malpractice even more unacceptable.

Anyone who has paid attention to Success’ crisis management tactics over the past few months shouldn’t be surprised — nor should anyone else. Through actions such as Moskowitz’s unauthorized release of school discipline data on the son of Faida Geidi, Success has proven more interested in defending the outfit than in doing right by the children and families it serves. That its board members, including CNN anchor-turned-reform advocate Campbell Brown have used their own media outlets to defend Success from criticism makes clear that the organization will not address its issues even when a media outlet shines light on them.

These issues are deeply-ingrained. As former Success teachers and school leaders such as Jessica Reid Sliwerski have noted in the Times first story on Dial’s misdeed, the practice of ripping papers and embarrassing children for their learning struggles has been common practice within the operator for some time, and has been taught in professional development courses it has held. Moskowitz, in particular, is unwilling to consider that Dial’s “model” is damaging children in the operator’s care, an issue pointed out by Miranda in her interview. Add in Success’ long-documented overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline, and it becomes clear that the operator approaches teaching poor and minority children from a Poverty Myth thinking similar to that of far too many traditionalists.

Firing Dial would have been a tacit admission by Success that all isn’t well within it. Such humility isn’t possible, either for the institution, its founder, and its allies. For traditionalists looking to halt the expansion of school choice in both New York City and the rest of the nation, Success’ unwillingness to address the damage its educational malpractice does to futures of children gives them the ammunition they need to continue their own.