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August 28, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at a legendary magazine cover offering a reward for information to convict rogue cops, and explains why we should work hard to remove laggard and criminally-abusive teachers from classrooms.

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 27, 2015 standard

States should abandon their responsibility to provide high-quality education to all children, never take over failing traditional districts,and keep in place a model of education that no longer works for any child. That’s the only takeaway possible after reading a report released this week by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, one of many front groups for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers whose membership includes several of their vassals. Given that state takeovers weaken the influence of the Big Two teachers’ unions and their affiliates, that message isn’t exactly unexpected.

Yet the Alliance does have one point: That state takeover efforts have, in most cases, done little to reverse systemic educational failure of the targeted districts. One reason why? Because states themselves have continued the very traditional district bureaucracies — and the dysfunction inherent within them — that have led to the faltering. Moving away from the traditional district model, along with embracing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to restructure schools as they see fit, is the step that must be taken to transform education for the benefit of children.

The Alliance spends 24 pages attempting to argue that state takeovers of districts have somehow been more-damaging than the failures of the districts under school boards before then. Complaining that state takeovers of districts are only targeted against poor and minority communities, the Alliance declares those efforts are “undermining the financial health and stability” of districts, and have “dismantled connections” between schools and communities.”

The Alliance is also exorcised by the creation of state-operated school turnaround districts such as the Recovery School District in New Orleans and Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which have stepped in within the last decade to take over and overhaul failure mills previously under district management. From where Alliance sits, the presence of these districts are horrifying because they “[remove] the ability of local communities to govern their own schools.” The fact that these districts transform the schools into public charter schools — the bane of the existence of NEA and AFT — and essentially hand over the turnarounds to charter school operators is especially vexing.

There are several problems with the Alliance report. Let’s start with the most-obvious one: It’s a total mess, with misstatements of facts, citations of examples that aren’t tangential to the argument the Alliance and its backers are trying to make.

On one hand, the Alliance cites Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority as a takeover of a district (even though it only runs a smattering of schools formerly run by Detroit’s spectacularly-inept district), but ignores the state’s all-but-full takeover of the main district’s operations. The omission of Detroit from the discussion isn’t a surprise. The failures of the Detroit district have been long-documented by your editor. This includes a 54 percent decline in its enrollment between 1999-2000 and 2008-2009, and the fact that it was taken over by Wolverine State government for a second time after the school board was once again caught engaging in such spectacular episodes of graft and mismanagement such as the acquisition of five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $4 million more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building.

On the other hand, Alliance cites Chicago’s traditional district as an example, even though it admits that it isn’t a state takeover at all, but an example of mayoral control undertaken by the Second City’s mayor 20 years ago. This misstatement isn’t shocking; after all, the AFT and its Second City local have spent the past four years agitating to end mayoral control, including unsuccessfully spending $2.3 million on ousting current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But this sloppy work essentially renders the report unworthy of consideration from jump street. [Even if Chicago was germane to Alliance’s report, the fact that Chicago’s district has improved dramatically since mayoral control — including an 11 percentage point decline in the number of functionally-illiterate fourth-graders between 2003 and 2013 (according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress) and a 27-percent increase in graduation rates between 2005 and 2013 — would weaken its case.]

Another problem with the Alliance’s report is its failure acknowledge the reality that the districts they cite weren’t exactly exemplars of either high-quality education or were in good financial condition before taken over. Philadelphia, for example, was in an educational state of emergency by the time Pennsylvania’s state government took over the district in 2001; this included half of its original graduating Class of 2001 dropping out by the time the district handed out sheepskins. The traditional districts in Newark, N.J., and Jersey City were basket cases for decades before falling under state control. As for tearing apart connections between schools and communities?

When it comes to state-operated turnaround districts, Alliance fails to admit that most haven’t been around long enough to draw any conclusions (other than that they can serve as exemplars of what should happen to public education in the long run). Three of the five turnaround districts cited have just come into existence this year, while the proposed turnaround district for Georgia must still be approved by voters next year. But in the particular case of RSD, the evidence so far shows that it is doing well by the Crescent City’s poor and minority children.

The percentage of New Orleans students performing at proficient levels (as measured by Louisiana’s battery of state tests) increased from 39 percent to 63 percent between 2007-2008 and 2013-2014, while the percentage of Crescent City kids attending failure mills declined from 51 percent to 13 percent between 2008-2009 and 2013-2014. Certainly RSD isn’t an unquestioned success. Far too many of its schools are warehouses of mediocrity instead of cultures of genius. Families also have a right to be upset that the implementation of these reforms happened with little of their input. But for Alliance (and ultimately, NEA and AFT) to argue that RSD hasn’t been successful for children in New Orleans is to engage in pure intellectual dishonesty.

The biggest problem of all with Alliance’s argument lies with its embrace of two myths: That of local control, the fantasy that traditional districts and the school boards are in charge of structuring education; and of the fallacy that communities have ever had real control of traditional district operations in the first place.

When it comes to local control, Alliance fails to acknowledge is that state constitutions, along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s century-old ruling in Hunter v. Pittsburgh, and federal education policy (including the No Child Left Behind Act), have long-ago established that state governments are charged with the role of providing education in one form or another, from deciding how schools should be financed to how it should be delivered to children and families. As local governments, districts are merely arms of their respective states, only given as much latitude to operate as state governments decide. This means that a state can intervene in the operations of a district — or even take them over — any time it wants.

As for the idea that communities have ever had real control over district operations? This has also been a mirage. One reason: NEA and AFT locals that have long been the most-influential players within school districts. Thanks to state laws governing collective bargaining and teacher performance management, hefty campaign donations from their coffers, and compulsory dues laws that force teachers to pay into locals regardless of their desire for membership, the Big Two have the leverage needed to stifle the will of families and other citizens. Another reason lies with the nature of traditional school district bureaucracies. School officials and teachers have long treated the families they serve, especially those from poor and minority households, with disdain. Add in the nature of bureaucracies in general to be byzantine, and thus, able to insulate those who run them from public account, essentially makes a mockery of voting. This can be seen in efforts by districts, both in big cities as well as in suburbia, to stifle intra-district choice (and the desires of families to choose schools fit for their kids) within their own boundaries.

Put simply, Alliance report is just another effort by NEA and AFT justify going back to an old order that has damaged poor and minority children decades before states stepped in to stop educational malpractice. The fact that the Alliance’s biggest backers have locals and state affiliates in all of the traditional and turnaround districts mentioned in the report — all of which have lost significant clout in the process — also ensures that the report fails to meet the smell test. Add in the reality that all but one of the members of the Alliance (including the Schott Foundation for Public Education‘s Opportunity to Learn Campaign and League of United Latin American Citizens)  are NEA and AFT dependents, and suddenly, it is clear that this group is just another bit of Big Two Astro-Turf.

Yet the Alliance report does hit upon an important reality: That state takeovers of traditional districts — from Jersey City to Philadelphia to Baltimore — have largely been a failure. This is because state education departments never dismantle the bureaucracies that, along with the intransigence of NEA and AFT locals, caused the dysfunctions in the first place. The traditional district model has long ago proven to be obsolete in an age in which the focus must be on providing high-quality teaching and curricula along with addressing particular learning needs in order to help all children attain lifelong success. That state education departments are ill-equipped to run day-to-day operations makes the already-marginal chances of success even less so. The very creation of RSD and other turnaround districts, which remove schools from control of failing districts, is tacit acknowledgement of the failure of earlier state takeovers.

Yet the solution lies not with the Alliance’s sophistic call for returning districts to control by elected-yet-unaccountable school boards. It lies with embracing what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education, which ditches the traditional district model altogether. Under such an approach, a district would only exist to provide buildings, deliver school lunch services, distribute funding, and serve transportation to an array of school operations.

This includes charter school operators as well as schools directly controlled by families in the communities they serve. The latter can be achieved by two means: The development of a school fund that families and communities can tap to launch their own schools, and the passage of Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over and overhaul failure mills within their communities. Both approaches would actually achieve the family and community control of schools that Alliance proclaims it desires by abandoning an outdated approach that has never allowed for families to be lead decisionmakers in education.

Perhaps if Alliance and its backers were actually interested in building brighter futures for all children, their claptrap would actually be worth considering. What they should acknowledge is this: The traditional district model has never worked for children and families, especially those black and brown, and it is time to move towards something better.

August 26, 2015 standard

I am not surprised by Dropout Nation‘s reports on how schools and districts handle (or mishandle) discipline. I am not surprised that too many schools have abdicated their discipline to police officers. I have lived through the experiences and the data. Harsh discipline data doesn’t tell everything. But it does shine light on what needs to be fixed in the classroom as well as in society.

For many, many years I technically violated our union contract by going out on the yard during lunch and after school. This is because supervision wasn’t part of our duties as teachers under our contract. Over that time, I deterred or broke up my share of altercations. In my classrooms, I also found that I can maintain order. Over time, I have learned this: A committed, caring teacher can discern a goof-ball from one with malicious intent; in fact such a teacher can soften the edges of those hardened young people because they relate to them more respectfully than adults even in their life, and they appreciate that.

The ability of a committed caring teacher extends into the classroom. When I started out, my first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Any parent knows that if you keep children occupied you reduce the opportunities for dumb things to happen. A classroom is no different. Schools can improve their discipline with better trained teachers and leadership creates an environment that encourages learning and deters disruptive behavior.

The 500 lb Silverback Gorilla in the room people don’t want to acknowledge is the dearth of prepared, qualified, and committed educators where they’re needed most. Teachers who only drop worksheets or lecture incessantly will invite mischief, or worse chaos. Teachers who do that tend to be the least qualified and least committed, and sadly those teachers end up where they shouldn’t be: in schools where committed, caring teachers who know how to manage classrooms are needed most. Harsh discipline can also be a function of how and why it’s meted out, as well as what you do after the harsh discipline. The problem begins before teachers go into classrooms. If you do a survey of education schools you’ll find very few that have a stand-alone course in classroom management.

Again, I am not surprised that too many schools abdicate their discipline to police officers. There are far too many schools that simply don’t have enough supervision during those non-classroom hours — from lunch time to recess — when incidents occur that might lead to discipline and worse. Especially incidents of police officers shooting students happen. I’ve also always thought that most of these tragic officer shootings are a function of their inexperience with young people. That is all the more reason not to have traditionally-trained police officers walking the corridors of schools.

There will still be situations where harsh discipline must happen. I’ve known students disciplined harshly for dumb stuff. At the same time, I’ve also known students who indeed needed to be removed from the school environment, and not allowed to return until they came with a parent. If the consequences for behavior are clear and consistent, what may seem as harsh from the outside will be accepted by the student and family. What the adults do in a school AFTER harsh discipline goes far to limiting repeat behavior. Acceptance, commitment, and support to those young people is necessary to counterbalance their burdens and manage the learning environment for everyone else.

That this sounds like what good parents do should be no surprise, and a bell-ringer: You’ve got to love these young people as your own children. If not, seriously consider another line of work.

August 25, 2015 standard

When it comes to discussions about what to do about traditional school discipline, they usually go like this. First comes more and more data showing that black children (as well as others from poor and minority households) are the ones most-likely to be targeted for out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school arrests, and referrals to juvenile courts. Then comes additional evidence beyond all doubt shows that overuse of harsh school discipline harms the futures of children, especially young black men and women. Lastly, despite all of this evidence, traditionalists and even some reformers continue to ignore the data and evidence (or worse, try to argue that it is meaningless), arguing that the problem lies either with the children or their families or even the man on the moon.

So you can expect the report released this week by University of Pennsylvania’s Center on the Study of Race and Equity in Education to start off this usual pattern of discussion once again. Which is unfortunate. Because the Penn State study should instead force reformers and traditionalists to agree at least on one thing: It’s time to ditch the overuse of harsh school discipline once and for all.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, more states and districts are taking some positive steps toward restricting how suspensions and other traditional discipline approaches are used in schools. In Illinois, legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner enacted Senate Bill 100, which requires schools and districts to only use out-of-school suspensions after restorative justice and other approaches have been used. Meanwhile a video released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union showing a Kenton County, Ky., school police officer handcuffing an eight-year-old kid in special ed once again cast light on how American public education has escalated overuse of harsh discipline by using law enforcement to deal with behavioral issues that should be handled by teachers and school leaders.

But as a series of recent reports have shown, far too many states and districts are damaging the futures of children with practices that range from educational malpractice to criminal abuse. As a Penn State University professor, David Ramey, detailed in a study published last month in Sociology of Education, black children are more-likely than white peers to be suspended, expelled, and even sent to jail for the same acts of misbehavior; white children, on the other hand, are more-likely to be referred to psychologists and other medical professionals. Considering that nearly all suspensions are meted out for minor issues such as disruptive behavior (and not because of acts of violence, drug abuse, or weapons possession), this almost always means that black children are being dealt harshly by adults in situations in which white peers are let off the hook.

None of this is surprising. After all, John Wallace of University of Pittsburgh showed in a 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. As both the American Psychological Association and Russell Skiba of Indiana University have determined, young black men are also viewed by teachers and school leaders as being older, less-innocent, and greater troublemakers than white counterparts. Just as importantly, data on school discipline bears out what Vanderbilt University scholar Daniel J. Reschly’s determined eight years ago on the matter of overlabeling of kids as special ed: Adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as troublemakers because they think they are destined to end up that way.

Which makes Penn’s latest evidence of overuse of suspensions against black children not shocking at all. But the data should outrage all of us anyway.

Culling through federal Office for Civil Rights data for 3,022 districts in 13 southern states, researchers Edward J. Smith and Shaun R. Harper determined that black kids were far more-likely to be suspended at more-disproportionate levels than white peers. Black children accounted for 48 percent of all children suspended one or more times in 2011-2012 even though they made up just 24 percent of enrollment. Black children accounted for all of the children suspended in 84 districts, and accounted for 75 percent or more of kids suspended in another 346 districts.

The overuse of harsh discipline is especially tough on young black men. They accounted for 65 percent of all young men suspended in the 13 southern states surveyed. Mississippi had the highest level of suspensions for young black men, with them accounting for seven out of every 10 young men suspended. But Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama weren’t far behind, with young black men accounting for three out of every five young male students suspended. Meanwhile young black women were also harshly disciplined by schools and districts; they accounted for 45 percent of all young women suspended. Mississippi also topped the states for the highest level, with young black women accounting for eight out of every 10 young women suspended. In Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama, young black women accounted for seven out of every 10 young women suspended.

What becomes clear from the Penn study is that young black children are placed on the school-to-prison pipeline more-often than children from any other socioeconomic background. Other data that has accumulated over the past three decades also shows these facts: That harsh school discipline almost never leads to improvements in behavior or in school cultures. That the underlying learning issues behind children misbehaving in school — especially low levels of literacy and the lack of intensive reading remediation to help kids struggling with reading — are often ignored. That the traditional system of recruiting and training teachers has filled far too many classrooms (and principal’s offices) with men and women lacking the subject-matter competency, empathy for children, leadership ability, and training in classroom management needed to not revert to tossing kids out of schools. And that reducing overuse of suspensions and expulsions improves school cultures for everyone as well as helps keeps kids often-targeted by traditional discipline practice on the path to graduation.

Perhaps the Penn study can rally all of us, be we reformer or traditionalist, to push for both traditional districts and charter school operators to stop overusing suspensions and expulsions. Maybe the Penn State study will lead all of us to support the Obama Administration’s crackdown on disparate use of those failed practices — and even extend it to all school operators. Possibly, it can lead to the embrace of practices such as those developed by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte that help kids improve behaviorally and academically. Surely, we can all agree that schools should lovingly discipline children the way parents who love their children do at home — which almost never involves kicking kids out of the house, subjecting them to solitary confinement, putting them in some form of bondage, or having them shot or shackled by cops. We may actually highlight the barbarity of these practices as a way to advance the reforms of teacher training and school systems that will help stem the nation’s education crisis.

But as your editor has noted, it’s more than likely that traditionalists and reformers will simply ignore the data and evidence, and complain that any effort to end or reduce overuse of harsh school discipline is merely some form of meddling. Education Next Editor Paul Peterson has already done his part with a screed in National Review complaining about the Obama Administration’s efforts on this front. Considering that Education Next has ran other pieces opposing any effort to stem overuse of suspensions (and Peterson’s defense of the magazine’s racially odious, indefensible American Gothic-inspire cover), Peterson’s piece isn’t shocking. Yet his response, along with similar views from others, does raise the question about some of those who call themselves reformers — as well as about the men and women who work in our traditional districts. If they are willing to defend failed school discipline policies that harm children in and out of schools, should they be trusted to do the right thing for kids on any matter of policy or practice?

August 24, 2015 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle discusses how the battle to reform American public education is a war for the lives, futures, and souls of every child — and offers eight mindsets reformers must embrace for long-term success.

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.