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August 25, 2014 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle helps families start the new school year off right for our children by taking five key steps — from checking out the Common Core reading and math standards to finding out if your school uses Response-to-Intervention techniques to help kids with literacy.

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.


August 23, 2014 standard

If you want to understand why families must have the power they need and deserve to help their kids to succeed in life — and why school reformers must embrace all tactics needed to make this a reality — all you need to do is look at the events of the past week.

In Southern California, Parent Power activists are battling with the Los Angeles Unified School District after it decided last week to ignore the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law. Why did the nation’s second-largest school district and its superintendent, John Deasy, decide to oppose Parent Power after having been willing to embrace it over the past few years? L.A. Unified officially argues that the No Child waiver granted by the federal government to it and other districts under the California Office for Reform Education didn’t allow for the Parent Trigger law to be used.

But as Parent Revolution and others pointed out, the U.S. Department of Education specifically told the district that it must obey the law. More than likely, Deasy is doing the will of the district’s board and the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels affiliate in order to avoid another of the many battles he will likely face in the next few months over the union’s demand for pay raises. As a result, Parent Revolution and others are taking action — and this will likely include a lawsuit against L.A. Unified and Deasy to enforce the law as it should.

In North Carolina, Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled in a case brought by the National Education Association’s affiliate there that the Tar Heel State could not continue its newly-launched school voucher program. According to Hobgood, the voucher program was unconstitutional because it violates Article 1, sections 15 and 19 of the state’s own constitution, along with Article 9 and by granting $10 million taxpayer dollars to poor and minority families who pay taxes so they help their kids escape failure mills to better-performing private schools.

Yet a closer look at Hobgood’s decision shows he is wrongly interpreting the law. The two sections of Article 1 in the Tar Heel State constitution essentially declare that citizens have a right to education, that state government is supposed to safeguard it, and all citizens are protected by the state’s Equal Protection Clause. Essentially, those sections essentially grant the state the ability to structure public education as it sees fit so long as it provides all children with high-quality education. More importantly, while Article 9 requires the state to provide uniform education, it also doesn’t prevent the state from providing vouchers; in fact, the opening verbiage declares that the state must “encourage” education because “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind”.

The state is also granted the power under the constitution to grant responsibility for providing education to any local government or other entity it sees fit. [The fact that Judge Hobgood ignores the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Zelman, which supersedes any state ruling, is also glaring.] More than likely, the state will succeed in overturning Hobgood’s decision on appeal. But if not for Parent Power activists, who pressed to defend the lawsuit even after North Carolina’s attorney general declined to do so (at behest of state legislators who his agency serves), chances are school choice would have already been killed.

Meanwhile in Connecticut, Parent Power activist Gwen Samuel and the Connecticut Parents Union announced that she would file a motion asking a state court judge to grant an injunction restricting Gov. Dan Malloy from appointing Erin Benham, an apparatchik of the American Federation of Teachers’ Connecticut affiliate, to the state board of education. In her complaint, Samuel argues that Malloy’s move denies Nutmeg State families equal representation on the board overseeing the state agency that oversees public education. In the process, notes Samuel, Malloy is essentially is giving both the AFT affiliate and Benham (who is also a public employee) “undue influence” over the quality of education provided to all children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds.

Through her injunction, Samuel also points out how the AFT, along with the NEA’s Connecticut unit, has worked hard to deny families lead decision-making roles in American public education. This includes AFT Connecticut‘s effort three years ago to first stop passage of, then water down, the state’s Parent Trigger law, which included closed-door meetings with legislators that excluded what is now Connecticut Parents Union and other reform groups, as well as punishing then-State Rep. Jason Bartlett at the ballot box for daring to carry the legislation forward. [The details were revealed by Dropout Nation to the AFT's embarrassment.] Declares Samuel in a press release on the motion: “This is about constitutional rights being protected and equal representation for all education stakeholders.”

What all three events make clear is how American public education — and the coterie of teachers’ union officials, school board players, and traditional district bureaucrats — have long done all they can to keep families from being the lead decision-makers in education policymaking as they should be. And you can’t successfully advance Parent Power and school choice for children and their families without using every political avenue available.

Last June’s California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California has galvanized Parent Power activists and many reformers to take to the courts in order to advance systemic reform. In New York, both the New York City Parents Union and Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice have already filed their own Vergara suits, both of which will likely be consolidated into one at the request of the Empire State’s attorney general. Students Matter, the California-based outfit which helped finance Vergara, is now looking to undertake similar suits in the rest of the nation.

The AFT’s success in stamping out earlier Parent Power efforts, such as those in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, show why reformers and families must work together on placing parents at the forefront of education decision-making.

One would think that this would be celebrated by reformers. After all, it opens up another avenue by which the movement can advance systemic reform. Yet among some reformers, most-notably conservatives within the movement, the very idea of litigation is not welcomed at all. From the perspective of conservative reformers such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli (and to a lesser extent, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute), the fear is that civil litigation means that judges will be legislating from the bench, encroaching on decision-making that should only be done in the legislative arena. Proper reform, in their view, should only be done in statehouses.

Meanwhile for other reformers, the problem lies with the idea that families should be lead decision-makers in education. From where they sit, parents are ill-equipped to involve themselves in school operations, and, even worse, will end up fighting with other parents who may not agree on the same direction. From where they sit, what parents should only do is to escape failing schools and choose schools fit for their kids. This antipathy toward families in school decision-making explains why so many Beltway policy wonks and institution-oriented reformers such as charter school operators have been dismissive of Parent Trigger laws on the books in seven states and why they prefer a set vision of school choice as merely that of parents being consumers; that families may not always agree with the agenda they want to set is also part of the problem.

Both perspectives are misguided. Conservative reformers skeptical and opposed to using the courts for litigation fail to remember this simple fact: Courts are one of the three co-equal branches of government at federal and state levels. More importantly, it is the branch charged with interpreting the constitutionality of laws passed and executed by the legislative and executive branches. This means that the judiciary is charged with serving as the guard against legislators and other politicians more-concerned with favoring their comfortable interests than protecting the rights of the people who are afflicted. This includes children and the families who love and care for them.

By using the courts to take on policies and practices that have violated the constitutional rights of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — to high-quality education, reformers and Parent Power activists are embracing the examples set by civil rights activists of the last century, who successfully challenged Jim Crow segregation laws that harmed an earlier generation of black and brown children. At the same time, by working through the courts, which are charged by federal and state constitutions with interpreting laws (and thus, rejecting legislation that violates the principles contained within them), the school reform movement is holding executive branch officials and legislatures accountable.

This isn’t to say that using the courts alone is enough to advance reform. As Dropout Nation has noted in two pieces written this month, the judiciary branch doesn’t have the tools the actually enforce the rulings handed down; even when judges attempt to do so on their own, they (and, ultimately, plaintiffs) are vulnerable to being accused by recalcitrant politicians and their allies of engaging in judicial activism. As seen in the case of North Carolina’s voucher ruling, the fact that traditionalists can also avail themselves of the courts also means that reform efforts can be vulnerable to judicial rulings. This is why reformers must continually engage in all aspects of politics. All that said, reformers aren’t doing their best on behalf of all children if they do not avail themselves of the courts.

Meanwhile reformers reluctant to advocate for families to be lead decision-makers in education policymaking fail to keep in mind some inconvenient facts. The first? That you cannot sustain systemic reform if families aren’t at the head of the table of education decision-making. In fact, the most-successful school reform efforts have been driven by parents and other impromptu leaders who knew little about education until their concern for children (especially their own) led them to embrace reform. This includes Virginia Walden Ford, whose efforts in D.C. to expand school choice launched reform efforts there, and Samuel, who helped pass Connecticut’s Parent Trigger law as well as pass legislation that ended criminalizing families for violating Zip Code Education laws that keep them from providing their kids with the learning they deserve.

When families are given power, as seen in the success of parents who took over Adelanto’s Desert Trails Elementary, they become champions for reform and ultimately, for their kids.

By dismissing Parent Trigger laws and Parent Power efforts in general, reformers weaken much-needed support for the very overhauls they tout from the very people they need the most. This is because when families can shape the education provide to their children, they become champions of reform on the political level as well as fully engaged in helping their kids academically on a personal one. This can be seen in places such as  Adelanto, Calif., where efforts to use Parent Trigger laws have led to takeovers of failure mills and the removal of laggards on school boards. Even when families don’t use Parent Trigger laws to take full control of schools, the laws give them a much-needed negotiating tool to stand for their kids against those within districts and other school operations who don’t have their best interest at heart.

This isn’t to say parents are always going to make the best decisions all of the time. Nor does this mean that every parent wants to be fully engaged in school operations and curricular decisions. This is why intra-district choice, course selection, charters, vouchers, and voucher-like tax credits are as critical as Parent Trigger laws. But it is clear that families can make smart decisions for their kids and work well with others when provided the tools and the data needed to do so. So they deserve the right to be players and not just consumers in education.

For reformers and for families, embracing Parent Power is especially important. This is because NEA and AFT affiliates, along with other traditionalists who benefit from keeping American public education in its current state of academic decrepitude, have no interest in giving families real power in education decision-making. As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III noted in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, traditionalists have long enlisted families to further their goals and little else. This can be seen in the research of Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges on how districts mistreat urban and low-income families, in Karyn Lacey’s Blue-Chip Black on how suburban black families are denied information on college-preparatory courses their children need, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle between black families and the AFT’s Big Apple local in the late 1960s, and in how teachers’ union bosses try to dominate education policymaking through campaign donations in school district races and control of seats on state school boards.

It is politically and intellectually senseless for reformers to not stand by families and help them gain their rightful roles in education policymaking. More importantly, we must stand by families as lead decision-makers in education because it both the moral and responsible thing to do. After all, as the men and women charged by God with caring for and nurturing their children. From both a religious and ethical humanist perspective, denying parent power in education is purely immoral and unethical. There’s no way anyone can deny families the power in education endowed by their Creator and granted to them by law.

So reformers must stand by families and helping them take their rightful roles in education decision-making. This means taking to the courts as well as to the streets, statehouses, and Beltway corridors. Our children need their parents to have power to make education decision on their behalf. And that means holding no quarter in making that reality.


August 21, 2014 standard

Opponents of Common Core reading and math standards have spent the past couple of days crowing about survey results from polls conducted by Education Next and Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Organization. But your editor isn’t all that concerned about those results. For one, as great leaders such as Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan have always known, doing the right thing is never popular. This is especially true with implementing Common Core, which disturbs many of those opposed to the standards because they don’t believe that all children (especially those from poor and minority households) deserve high-quality education. More importantly, the success of the standards will ultimately be seen in their execution in classrooms and throughout American public education. And finally, given that opinion polls are only as good as the questions are asked (as well as how they are asked), who really knows whether either Education Next or PDK/Gallup’s results fully reflect public sentiment.

But your editor does care about data on how many of our children are getting the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula they need for success in adulthood. Which is why yesterday’s report from ACT on the readiness of high school graduates for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education is disturbing. Once again, we have been reminded that far too few of our children are getting the knowledge they need for lifelong success. And that should be far more disturbing to Common Core foes than their ideological, political, and personal opposition to the standards.

The fact that just 11 percent of black high school grads taking the ACT scored at college-ready levels — the lowest percentage for every racial subgroup taking the exam — in three or more categories is absolutely shocking. The numbers are even worse when you break down each category. Black children trailed in every category, with just 17 percent of them scoring at college-ready levels on the English portion of the exam, a mere 14 percent scoring at such levels on the math exam, and a rock-bottom 10 percent on the science component of ACT’s annual test.

This means that far too many black high school graduates didn’t get the college-preparatory learning they needed to be ready for either ACT or for success in college. Which, in turn, means that they will likely struggle mightily in higher education, ending up in remedial education courses that will lead them out of the door of colleges and into poverty.

But the news isn’t any better for the rest of our children. Just 18 percent of American Indian high school grads scored at college-ready levels in three or more categories on ACT; only 17 percent of Native students performed at college ready levels in science while a mere 20 percent scored at such levels in math. Only 23 percent — or one in four — Latino high school grads were able to score at college-ready levels; just 21 percent of them performed at college-ready levels in science while only 29 percent demonstrated their college-readiness in mathematics.

As for white high school grads? The news isn’t all that good. Sure, 49 percent of them scored at college-ready levels in three or more subjects. But that means that one out of every two of them didn’t get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they needed. Just 52 percent of white high school grads scored at college-preparatory levels in math, while only 46 percent scored at such levels in science. And only 54 percent of white high school grads scored at college-ready levels in the reading portion of the ACT exam. Given that math and science mastery are the key gateways into the high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in this increasingly knowledge-based economy, this means many white children — along with black, Native, and Latino kids — are being locked out of middle-class futures. And that doesn’t bode well for either the nation or the communities in which they live and will likely stay.

It isn’t as if many of these high school graduates were just a question or two away from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmark. One out of every two high school grads missed the mark in math and science by three or more points; two out of every five missed the mark in reading by that much. Put in perspective, only one out of every 7 high school grads taking ACT missed the college-readiness mark by less than two points in reading and science, while one in 10 missed the goal by that much in math.

Meanwhile ACT’s trend data on college readiness should also give everyone pause. Between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of high school grads who demonstrated higher ed readiness in three or more categories tested barely budged for all groups. Black and Latino high school grads showed only sluggish growth, with percentages increasing respectively, by one percent and two percent between 2010 and 2014. The percentage of white high schoolers demonstrating college-readiness increased by a mere one percent in that same period. Even for Asian high schoolers, who have the highest performance levels on ACT, the percentage demonstrating college-readiness barely budget at 57 percent.

What about states that aren’t implementing or halted use of Common Core? In North Carolina, which halted implementation last month, just 30 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while a mere 33 percent scored at such levels on the math portion of the exam, and only 23 percent of Tar Heel State graduates scored at college-ready levels on the science portion; all high school grads in the state take ACT. In Missouri (where 76 percent of students take ACT), one out of every two high school grads scored at college-ready levels on ACT’s reading component, while only 45 percent and 42 percent of grads scored at college-ready levels on the math and science portions of the exam. [Given what we know about how few students in the Show Me State are being provided college-preparatory learning, the results aren't shocking.] And in South Carolina, which rolled back Common Core in June, (and where 58 percent of grads took ACT), only 41 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of the test, while just 39 percent and 33 percent of grads scored at such levels on the math and science components.

Meanwhile in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation has been defeated, the need for the standards can be easily seen in the scores for high school grads in that state. Just 37 percent of Bayou State grads scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while only 31 percent and 29 percent of grads reached such levels on the math and science portions. The need for comprehensive college-preparatory curricula standards is crystal clear for both the states that have halted Common Core implementation and those where politicians are fighting to roll them back.

Let’s be clear: As shocking as the ACT results are, they aren’t surprising. Just 37 percent of high school grads scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a one percent decline from levels in 2009. Just 16 percent of black high school graduates, along with 24 percent of Latino schoolmates, and 26 percent of Native peers scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, barely budging from levels four years earlier; white and Asian high school grads did little better, with 47 percent of each group scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels, little changed (for white kids) and a two percentage point decline (for Asians) in that time.

Young men of all backgrounds, in particular, are struggling mightily in college-and-career readiness. Only 33 percent of young men graduating high school in 2013 scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading, unchanged from levels in 2009. As a result, young men graduating high school trail their female peers by nine percentage points in 2013; while the gap shrunk by two percentage points between 2009 and 2013, that’s only because of a decline in the percentage of young women high school grads scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels. The problems are particularly acute for young black men. Just 13 percent of young black men graduating high schoool read at Proficient and Advanced levels, trailing their female schoolmates by five percentage points. But the gaps for young white men are even larger; the percentage of them scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels was 11 percentage points lower than that for their female peers.

The reforms spurred by the No Child Left Behind in 2001 have reduced the percentage of high school grads who are functionally illiterate. But the demands of the knowledge-based economy means that the greater focus must be on providing kids with college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching) they need to be successful in a world in which what they do with their minds is more-important than what they do with their hands. Yet until the implementation of Common Core, few kids were being provided this learning.

Just 13 percent of American high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds were taking comprehensive college-preparatory courses while the rest were taking less-rigorous curricula, according to NAEP’s 2009 high school transcript study. A quarter of all grads taking NAEP were subjected to curriculum that didn’t even include algebra or any kind of rigor. The importance of comprehensive college-preparatory curricula can be seen in this year’s ACT results: One out of every two high school grads who took what ACT defines as a core curriculum (including three years of math and science), scored at college-readiness levels on the reading and math portions of the exam.

This is a problem that begins long before kids reach high school. As Dropout Nation noted last year, just one out of every five eighth-graders in seven states that mandate all kids take Algebra 1 actually did so. Even worse, most students haven’t been getting the literacy and math curricula and instruction they need to take on college-preparatory work once they enter high school. Thanks in part to the gatekeeping of gifted-and-talented programs and the overlabeling of kids, especially young black men as special ed cases — all of which are legacies of the racialist policies of American public education’s past — many kids are kept from getting the learning they need and deserve. This is especially true for kids from poor and minority backgrounds As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation determined in a 2007 study,  3.4 million children from low-income households were among the top-performers in their schools, yet were unlikely to get the college-prep curricula necessary to continue their success into high school and beyond.

What is clear from the ACT results, as well as from other data, is this simple reality: We cannot continue providing our children with substandard curricula and standards unfit for them to build better lives in adulthood. Patricia Levesque is correct when she argued yesterday that we cannot continue to perpetuate the failures of American public education on another generation. This is why implementing Common Core, along with other reforms, is critical to helping all kids succeed. And why those opposed to implementing the standards should hold their heads low in shame for their immoral denial of high-quality education for children better-deserving than the worst they get.

Featured photo courtesy of Chloe Crane Leroux.


August 19, 2014 standard

The good news for reformers, and ultimately, for the children of Louisiana, is that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards has been kiboshed by a state court judge. But reformers, especially Common Core supporters, must keep in mind that there is hard work ahead to make the promise of the standards a reality for all kids, especially those in the Bayou State long stuck with the worst American public education offers.

Earlier this evening, Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez handed down a preliminary injunction in Navis Hill v. Jindal, preventing the governor from enforcing the executive order issued in June ending Common Core implementation. Writing that Jindal provided no evidence for justifying his move, Hernandez also determined that the governor offered no basis for his claim that Supt. John White and other state education officials illegally contracted with the PARCC consortium to implement tests aligned with the test. Hernandez then noted that Jindal’s move was causing havoc within the Bayou State’s districts, charter schools, and private schools because of the consequences for kids, families, and teachers (the last of which gain bonuses based on performance improvements measured by the exams).

Most importantly, Hernandez noted that Jindal didn’t have any constitutional authority to even interfere with Common Core implementation because the state legislature (at Jindal’s behest) has authorized the state education department to proceed. In the process, Hernandez also laid out Jindal’s flip-flopping on Common Core, showing how he supported implementing the standards before he decided to oppose them. Wrote Hernandez: “The Louisiana Constitution is clear… [the state legislature and education department] supervise and control the public elementary and secondary schools in the state.”

For Jindal, who has already declared that he would appeal Hernandez’s ruling, this is the latest loss he has suffered in his anti-Common Core tirade. Earlier this year, state legislators refused to go along with his effort to halt implementation of the standards, only offering a compromise measure that would allow the Bayou State to amend aspects of the standards it desired. [Jindal rejected that measure.] Last week, his amended motion in Navis Hill asking for the court to cancel the state’s memorandum with PARCC was tossed out of court. Then on Monday, a suit filed against White and the state board of education by a group of legislators allied with Jindal on opposing the standards was also thrown out of court.

In the process, Jindal has destroyed what was until recently a strong legacy on advancing systemic reform during his seven years in office. He also ended up losing allies among reformers and school choice activists, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options (who helped back the Navis Hill suit). By engaging in his political jihad — which has included attempting to destroy the career and reputation of White and state board president Chas Roemer — Jindal has exposed for national display his longstanding penchant of being petty and vindictive in dealing with opponents and otherwise allies. And reformers at the national level are angry with Jindal because his antics have wounded efforts to overhaul how states govern public education (especially in Arizona and Indiana), weakening arguments for placing control of policymaking into gubernatorial hands.

Meanwhile Jindal hasn’t even succeeded in his goal of boosting his likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination: The Bayou State governor is attracting support from only two percent of Republicans and one percent of independents in this month’s McClatchy-Marist University Poll, trailing 10 other likely candidates, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (both Common Core supporters) and Common Core foes such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his colleague in Wisconsin, Scott Walker (who is facing a tough re-election bid).

As your editor noted last month, Jindal’s gambit hasn’t won over movement conservatives otherwise uninterested in education because they know that Jindal has flip-flopped his position on Common Core, and thus, see him as just another cheap-suit politician, Meanwhile Jindal has gained no ground with moderate Republicans and independents, who just don’t see him as a compelling representative of the party. And the antics of late are concerning to those movement conservatives who are already complaining about what they consider to be acts of executive overreach by President Barack Obama; Jindal’s behavior rightfully makes him unsuited for the presidency in their minds.

All in all, Jindal’s future political prospects are likely done. This isn’t to say that Jindal won’t continue his vindictive ways. School choice activists should expect the governor to do nothing on their behalf next year when it comes to the budget for the state’s voucher program. This means they must continue building the already-strong support for expanding choice and continuing the program, including reaching out to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican nominee and Jindal’s probable successor in the governor’s office.

Jindal’s defeat is good news for Bayou State children — and for those working hard to address its longstanding failure to provide all kids with high-quality education. The challenges are definitely tremendous: Thirty-two percent of Bayou State eighth-graders read Below Basic, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 10 percentage points greater than the national average; only 24 percent of eighth-graders in the state read at Proficient and Advanced levels (read: have been successfully prepared for success in higher education and career), trailing the national average by 12 percentage points. The average Bayou State eighth-grader is a grade level behind his peer nationwide.

But implementing Common Core successfully will be no easy task. There’s Jindal, who will stand in the way of successful implementation (if he cannot stop the effort altogether) by using his budgetary authority. Reformers and Common Core supporters will have to hold his feet to the fire, using every tactic available to keep the dollars flowing and put Jindal into the corner where he belongs.

Beyond Jindal, Common Core supporters must work closely with districts, charter schools, and teachers to ensure that implementation is a success. This starts with ensuring that curricula (including materials used in classrooms) are aligned with the standards. As seen in other states, this can be tricky, especially if teachers use inappropriate or even explicitly political texts in ways that can lead to Common Core foes claiming that the standards are a tool for political indoctrination. Presenting successful approaches used by high-quality teachers in other states in using original texts in their work is key. The move this week by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch, which reviews curricula and other materials, will also help. [That it took so long for Common Core supporters to address this issue is shameful, by the way, and is one reason why opponents have garnered support.]

Another key move lies with setting high test proficiency cut scores on the PARCC tests. This is important for two reasons. The first? Setting high expectations is key to reaping the promise of implementing Common Core and, ultimately, helping our children get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they deserve. Secondly, high cut scores are necessary because families, communities, and policymakers must know the truth about how well school operators and those who work within them are providing our Bayou State kids with high-quality education. Working with White on communicating these expectations and realities to the public — especially to suburban districts which have long-perpetuated the myth that they are providing high-quality education to the kids they serve — is crucial.

Common Core supporters and reformers have scored an important victory against halting Common Core implementation, both in Louisiana and in the nation as a whole. In the process, they have all but mortally wounded a shameless, immoral politician and helped all children get opportunities for high-quality education. Now it is time to get to the hard work of implementation so the promise for kids becomes reality.

Featured photo courtesy of Getty Images.


Two hundred forty-nine black high school children in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri took advanced math subjects such as trigonometry, statistics, and pre-calculus during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s a mere 9.3 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s 2,868 young black men and women in the district’s high schools. How bad is it? The percentage of black kids taking these college preparatory math courses is lower than the already-abysmal 13 percent of white high school peers (or 67 out of 527 white children) in those classes. What this means is that far too many kids of all backgrounds in Ferguson-Florissant schools — especially young black men and women who are from poor homes — are not getting the high-quality education they need and deserve for success in adulthood.

But this isn’t shocking. Ferguson-Florissant is like other districts, both in Missouri, and the rest of the nation, in failing to provide all children (especially those from poor and minority households) with college-preparatory curricula. If anything, the district exemplifies the need to advance systemic reform to help all children attain the knowledge they need for higher ed completion and ultimately, to make it into the middle class.

As you know, as part of Dropout Nation’s coverage of Ferguson in the aftermath of the senseless slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown, your editor took a look last week at Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions, noting how it was far more likely for black kids in the district to be suspended than be victims of violent crime in their communities. But the district’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012, a mere five points lower than the state average, gave pause. Not because it was a conundrum: It has long been shown that districts and other school operators can goose graduation rates by pushing out the kids they didn’t want to educate into nearby districts. Not even because Ferguson-Florissant has gone through turmoil over its suspension and then, firing of Art McCoy, the district’s first black superintendent.

No, the high graduation rate became interesting because it raised another question: Whether Ferguson-Florissant was actually providing kids with the college-preparatory learning they needed for lifelong success. As seen with districts such as Houston, it isn’t enough to get kids to the point of graduation. So DN took a look at Ferguson-Florissant’s data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database. And the answers, though not shocking, were still astonishing.

The good news, sort of speak, is that Ferguson-Florissant is providing a plurality of middle-schoolers with introductory algebra, a key college-preparatory course for our children. Some 625 black seventh and eighth-grade children in the district, or 40 percent of the 1,575 black middle-schoolers there, took Algebra 1 during the 2011-2012 school year. Forty-six percent of Ferguson’s white middle-schoolers — or 115 of the 251 white children served by the district — also took the math course.

But Ferguson-Florissant falls down on the job once kids get into high school. Just 432 black high-schoolers, or 15 percent of them, took Algebra II in 2011-2012; a mere 16 percent of white peers (84 of them) took the college prep course. Only 18 percent of black high-schoolers took geometry, lower than the paltry 21 percent of white peers taking the course. Meanwhile a mere 19 black high school students and 14 white peers took calculus in that same year, resulting in, respectively, just six-tenths percent of black high schoolers and three percent of white peers taking the course.

Matters get worse when you look at how few kids in Ferguson-Florissant are being provided science courses. Especially young black men and women, scientific illiteracy means losing out economically and socially in the increasingly knowledge-based world. Just 24 percent of Ferguson’s black high-schoolers took biology in 2011-2012, slightly lower than the 27 percent rate for white high school peers. But only 7.3 percent of black high school students took chemistry, a key college prep course; 14 percent of white peers took chemistry that year. And just 2.1 percent of black high schoolers — that’s 63 young black men and women — took physics; 5.5 percent of white high school students (5.5 percent of them), took physics that year.

One could surmise that perhaps Ferguson-Florissant isn’t providing its own math and science courses because they are directing them to Advanced Placement courses that are also key to preparation for success in higher education and career. This isn’t true. Just 1.4 percent of black high schoolers (40 kids) and three percent of white peers took A.P. math. Just 10 black high school students and two of their white school mates took AP Science. All in all, just 4.2 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s black high schoolers and 11 percent of their white peers were taking A.P. courses. Which means that most of the kids were languishing in low-quality courses that weren’t preparing them for success in outside of the schoolhouse doors. Since the district doesn’t offer International Baccalaureate courses, not one kid was taking them.

What all this means is that most of the kids graduating from Ferguson-Florissant aren’t getting any form of college-preparatory curricula. Sixty-seven percent of Ferguson’s graduates were admitted to higher ed institutions, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a rate slightly lower than the Show Me State’s 71 percent average. But there’s little chance that most of the kids will graduate in six years with associate, baccalaureate, and technical school credentials. Just 35 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s vocational school graduates land jobs, a rate far lower than the 53 percent for all such students statewide.

Especially for the black children, who make up most of the district’s student population, the lack of high-quality education means being locked out of the economic and social mainstream, which doesn’t bode well for either Ferguson or the rest of the St. Louis region. You can say that Ferguson-Florissant’s decision this week to not open its doors to serve kids — a move done in response to the protests and militarized policing being done in the city — is terrible. But even when the district’s doors are open, it isn’t serving children well.

There are three reasons why Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide kids with college-preparatory learning matters so greatly, both for the people who live in there as well as for the rest of the nation.

For one, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson points out (and as Dropout Nation has illustrated in its Why Systemic Reform collection), far too many black children from poor households (along with those from Latino, Asian, and white backgrounds) are being left behind economically and socially. This is because they are not being provided the college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching, and cultures of genius) they must have in order to gain high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based world. Particularly in Ferguson, where the median household income of $36,121 in 2012 is $9,101 less than the average for Missouri and $14,896 less than the national average (and even in Florissant, whose median income of $49,612 keeps it in the ranks of middle-class communities in Missouri), the shoddiness of the traditional schools serving it will condemn its economy and society to long-term failure.

There’s also the fact that Ferguson-Florissant’s failures to provide kids with college-preparatory curricula exemplifies the failure of the Show Me State to do well by all children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. The move last month by the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — along with the mishandling of the outrage surrounding Michael Brown’s slaying, and Brown’s alleged murder itself — shows that the state’s political leaders are uninterested in building brighter futures for poor and minority kids. The fact that so few white kids in Ferguson are getting college-prep learning makes one wonder if state and district leaders even care about children that look like them. No one in the Show-Me State can morally justify denying all kids college-preparatory learning.

Your editor suggests to reformers and Common Core supporters on the ground that they take to the courts to hold the state responsible for its constitutional obligation to provide kids in Ferguson and elsewhere with high-quality education. At the same time, they must team up with community leaders and families on the ground to build political support for reviving the standards. As Education Next‘s latest survey shows, 60 percent of black people queried were supportive of Common Core implementation in their states; rallying black and Latino families and communities is critical to making this effort work.

Finally, Ferguson-Florissant’s shoddy curricula (and likely, laggard teaching) also makes the strong case for expanding school choice in both St. Louis and the entire state as a whole. Doing so has been a struggle. The state’s move last year to allow kids from the failing Normandy district to attend schools in other districts has been fought hard by both officials in that district (who don’t want to lose the state dollars that come with those kids) and by counterparts in districts such as Francis Howell (who don’t want those kids and don’t want to have school choice become a reality for their kids either). Normandy beat back efforts to keep choice going for more kids in June when it successfully convinced the state’s board of education to ignore its unaccredited status and keep kids trapped in its failure mills. While Ferguson-Florissant is technically functioning well according to state law, this data makes clear that kids forced to attend its schools should also have the ability to escape.

Bringing high-quality charter school operators, launching voucher programs, and even passing a Parent Trigger law allowing families to take over failing schools in their community are key steps. Requiring all districts in the state to allow families to choose college-preparatory courses instead of them having to go through gatekeepers who often don’t want those kids to get into those classes is also important. The most-critical step of all: The Show Me State taking full responsibility for funding schools. Because the state only provides 42 percent of the $10 billion spent on public education in 2012 (the latest year available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), traditional districts can justify opposing any form of choice and Parent Power, both to families outside of their boundaries and even to those who live within them. By taking full control of school funding, Missouri can voucherize those dollars, expanding school options for every kid.

Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide all children with college-preparatory learning is almost as shameful as the slaughtering of Brown’s life. The children there — and all kids everywhere — deserve curricula fit for their futures.