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May 5, 2015 standard

A week after the tragedy in Baltimore, many are trying to spin the events as a feel-good story.  From the story about a Black mother grabbing her teenage son and pulling him out of the street, hitting him “upside the head” in traditional fashion, to the move by the state’s attorney to bring charges against several police officers for the killing of Freddie Gray, there are those who want to assure the public that what has happened in Charm City is “not about race”.

Wrong. It is all about race.

We are assured that Baltimore is different, because Baltimore has a Black mayor and a Black police chief and many Black police officers.  It also has an African-American CEO of the school district, whose previous position was as superintendent in Milwaukee.  Yeah, Milwaukee.

But W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out long ago that there can be Black officials and yet persistent institutional racism. The presence of Black leaders doesn’t even ensure good leadership that supports brighter futures for Black children and communities. Baltimore is a good enough illustration of this.

Maryland incarcerates 310 per 100,000 White residents of the state and four times that, 1,437 per 100,000 Black residents of the state.  This is not unusual. It is worse in Milwaukee.  As a matter of fact, it is business as usual in America: the mass incarceration of African-Americans, specifically young Black men, as a way of enforcing caste boundaries, impoverishing their families.  The drug laws are useful for this purpose, but so are traffic laws.  Both can result in summonses and then often enough bench warrants, which are particularly useful in perpetuating cycles of debt peonage. Summoned to appear in court for these sometimes minor violations, a man who believes that he will be fined more than he can afford, does not appear.  Not appearing in court, a warrant is issued, at which point, for lack of the price of the judge’s dinner, he becomes an outlaw, as Alice Goffman has shown in On the Run, her book about such matters.

There are armored cars on the streets in Baltimore, another American city under military occupation.  The officer in charge of the Maryland National Guard’s army units was a company commander in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation Desert Storm and also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, just to be clear.

But the yellow brick road out of poverty onto the sunny uplands of post-racial America runs through the schools, doesn’t it? What happens to Black children in Baltimore’s schools?

Just 13 percent of Baltimore’s Black eighth-graders read at or above grade level in reading. Just eight percent of eighth grade Black boys in the city read at or above grade level. Just seven percent of those young Black men in eighth grade eligible for National Lunch Programs in the city can read at grade level.

As the data shows, and as Dropout Nation has documented over the last two years, Baltimore schools are not teaching their Black children to read

Maryland certainly likes to perpetuate the myth that its schools are high quality. But it does have an exemplary accounting system for its schools.  It tells us that statewide, only 16 percent of classes in high poverty high schools are not taught by highly qualified teachers; in Baltimore it is 22 percent. What is more, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 35 percent of Baltimore teachers are absent more than ten days of the school year, an extraordinary and unacceptable level of teacher absenteeism.

The result of the failure of the Baltimore schools is a four-year cohort graduation rate for Black students in Baltimore of 70 percent, that is, a dropout rate of 30 percent. Half of those graduating go to college.  Just half of those who go to college are still there after the first year

Twice as many Black residents of Baltimore over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school as the average for Black residents of the state as a whole. Half as many have graduated from college. Eleven percent of Black men in Baltimore have graduated from college, as compared to 48 percent of White men in the city.

Ninety-three percent of poor male Black eighth-graders in Baltimore cannot read well enough to read Dropout Nation or the stories in The New York Times about the Black mother grabbing her teenage son and pulling him out of the street, hitting him “upside the head” in traditional fashion; people from the damaged neighborhoods and others from outside picking up trash, sweeping up broken glass; interviewees assuring commentators that “this is not about race.”

The interactions of the criminal justice and education systems work very well to police the boundaries of caste, to teach Black Americans, if not to read, to understand their place in these post-racial United States. Just look at Baltimore, or Ferguson, or Chicago, or New York.  Or Milwaukee.

April 28, 2015 standard

Let us pray for peace beyond understanding to the family of Freddie Gray. Please give them respite from their sorrow, let them know justice for his slaying, and allow for them to forgive the men who trespassed on his life.

Let us pray that all the people brutalized senselessly by both criminals and lawless police officers in Baltimore, as well as elsewhere, are able to gain the peace from fear they haven’t seen for a long long time.

Let us pray for those officers and teachers who do well by our children, let them shine as guiding lights for those with whom they serve. Let us also pray for the souls of those who don’t or worse, stand idly by. Let them change — or move out of the way.

Let us pray for our children in Baltimore, who like so many young men and women in America, have been condemned to poverty and prisons by American public education and criminal justice systems.

Most of all, let’s pray for our young black sons in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Pray that our young black men in Baltimore and elsewhere can be measured by the content of their character.

Pray that all who deal with them behold their genius and nurture it, instead of be frightened by what they think they are.

Pray that they see hope even in hopelessness, glory even in the midst of the fire, and possibility in the middle of the storm.

Pray for a day in which they don’t have to mourn for peers named Emmett, named Yusuf, named Trayvon, named Michael, named Tamir, and named Freddie.

And as we pray, we all take action, turning righteous indignation into positive change. Transform our schools and overhaul our justice systems. Build up every young man that we see. Help our children know their own names.

There are too many Baltimores, both in big cities and in our suburbias. Take the time now to do better by every Freddie and every child.

April 26, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at the testing opt-out efforts and explains how they represent the need for reformers to confront the mediocrity and failure of suburban districts. Contrary to the views of many suburban white families, the districts they defend are doing poorly by their kids as well as those from poor and minority households.

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.

April 24, 2015 standard

These days, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis doesn’t have much to be optimistic about. Certainly her arch-nemesis, Rahm Emanuel, is dealing with the fallout from allegations of corruption against now-sidelined Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett as well as having to address the Second City’s virtually-insolvent pensions. But scandals and financial problems are the costs politicians pay for winning re-election. The fact that Emanuel still oversees the nation’s third-largest city and its traditional district means that Lewis and the American Federation of Teachers local have failed in its four-year-long goal of ending systemic reform.

So how big was the loss suffered by Lewis, CTU, and AFT? Thanks to a final tally of campaign dollars spent against Emanuel’s re-election by the ailing local boss, the local itself, and AFT, it can be quantified in financial terms.

Illinois campaign finance document shows that CTU’s political action committee spent $158,967.14 on behalf of Emanuel challenger Jesus (Chuy) Garcia during the week of Election Day. This includes $126,709.00 for one collection of phone banks used to get the word out to likely voters, as well as another $7,773.34 for field canvassing and poll watching activities. This spend is on top of the $110,299.79 CTU spent on Garcia’s behalf the week running up to the recall election, and the $152,293 poured into Garcia’s campaign since the union backed his run for the top office late last year.

Altogether, the Chicago AFT local poured $421,559.93 into opposing Emanuel’s re-election. This, by the way, doesn’t include the money spent directly by the union on Garcia’s campaign (including expenditures for so-called representational activities that are almost always political in nature). It also doesn’t include the $16,000 Lewis’ mayoral exploratory committee tossed into Garcia’s campaign early on.

The good news for Lewis, such as it can be, is that CTU wasn’t the only branch of AFT that embarrassed itself spending plenty against Emanuel’s successful re-election. The AFT’s Big Apple local, United Federation of Teachers, dumped $20,000 into Garcia’s campaign right on Election Day. The donation came a couple of weeks after a $10,000 donation by New York State United Teachers, AFT’s virtually-busted state affiliate, and a $50,000 donation by the union’s Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Then there’s the national AFT’s own spend. By the time the union cut its losses and all but conceded that Emanuel would win re-election, AFT’s political action committee had poured $902,103.20 into Garcia’s campaign. This included $649,503.20 on behalf of Garcia during the month of March before the runoff. [This doesn’t include any spending out of the union’s main coffers or outside spending by its Solidarity Fund 527 operation.]

How big was AFT’s spend against Emanuel? To put this in context, AFT spent $169,703.20 more on Garcia’s losing campaign than it did on helping Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf oust predecessor Tom Corbett last November, and $33,253.20 more than it did on every campaign it subsidized in California (including Supt. Tom Torlakson’s victory over reformer Marshall Tuck). Unlike in Chicago, AFT’s victories in the Keystone and Golden states ensure the union’s efforts to preserve the array of policies and practices that are at the heart of its influence within those locales as well as the nation as a whole. And for less money and public effort to boot.

When all the spending is put together, CTU, AFT, and the national union’s other affiliates spent a massive $1.4 million to back Garcia’s challenge against Emanuel. For all that money, they collectively garnered support from a mere two out of every five voters for their agenda. Because Emanuel no longer needs to fear threats by CTU and AFT, he can now pursue a more-aggressive reform agenda, likely for as long as he chooses to be Chicago mayor. Given the presence of reform-oriented Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner as well as a legislature that will usually do what Chicago’s mayor demands, and CTU (along with AFT and its Illini affiliate) have lost even more clout than necessary.

In the process, Lewis is now on the defensive. As Dropout Nation noted earlier this month, she now has to choose between continuing the union’s hardcore traditionalist stance that merely empowers Emanuel or take a more accomodationist that will alienate her and CTU from its base of supporters. Landing between rocks and hard places is what happens when a teachers’ union boss stokes the ire of its most-hardcore activists without achieving any tangible results. One can expect Lewis to eventually get the business end of this wrath among CTU activists against systemic reform.

As for AFT? Given the high cost of defeat, you can expect the union’s crafty president, Randi Weingarten, to turn back to the only-slightly-more-successful triangulation strategy she pushed until Lewis’ emergence as the darling of hardcore traditionalists. After all, Lewis’ hardcore traditionalist strategy has largely proven to be a failure everywhere it has been applied; it wasn’t even much of a factor in AFT’s success in Pennsylvania, where Wolf took advantage of predecessor Corbett’s widespread unpopularity and lackluster tenure as the Keystone State’s top executive. While Weingarten will continue to play a little bit to the passions of hardcore traditionalists, she will quietly go back to embracing watered-down versions of systemic reform efforts because it is the only approach that will likely keep the union from losing more influence.

More money alone doesn’t equal better results. This is true in American public education as a whole. And as seen this month in Chicago, it is even more so when it comes to efforts by AFT and NEA to oppose systemic reform.



April 23, 2015 standard

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on the efforts of suburban white families along with opponents of Common Core reading and math standards as well as affiliates of National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to push families into opting out of state standardized tests. As Alexander Russo and others have pointed out, there is slim evidence that families are actually heeding any of the messages. The fact that outcry in many states — notably New York — is driven by AFT and NEA (to neuter the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations) and Common Core foes (in order to stifle implementation of the standards) also makes the entire effort more of a traditionalist tantrum than real concern from families over supposed overemphasis on testing. And besides, reformers such as Andy Rotherham and Chris Stewart have devoted plenty of words to the issue, likely more than it deserves.

Yet reformers cannot simply dismiss the arguments for opting out by suburban families and cannot just dismiss the opt-out efforts. If anything, the opt-out efforts are another reminder to the school reform movement that they must continually make the strong case for advancing systemic reform. This means both reminding those opposed to reform why they must live up to their moral obligations to all of our children regardless of whether they gave birth to them or not — and explaining to them why transforming American public education will be beneficial to their own children, who deserve better than what they are provided now.

Prompting your editor’s consideration of the issue is a piece from Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, who proclaims this week that opt-out efforts are “testing education reform’s humility.” From where Smarick sits, reformers who argue against the opt-out efforts, including those pointing to how their efforts damage the futures of poor and minority children, are engaging in “condescension”. As far as he is concerned, reformers shouldn’t view the opposition to standardized testing from white suburban families and others “with skepticism or antipathy”, and that it is “untoward to suggest they don’t care about other kids or are insensitive to issues of race and income.”

Declares Smarick: “We could disparage them. But that would only serve to insult and incite. Or we could humbly listen, respectfully argue our case, and make the necessary course corrections.”

Certainly your editor can appreciate Smarick’s desire to ignore the racialist aspects of the opt-out efforts. Either out of naivete or discomfort, he and other conservative reformers want to believe that everyone is a person of good will. But for Smarick to not consider that racialism is as much an underlying force behind the opt-out efforts as organized efforts by teachers’ unions and (occasionally legitimate) concerns of suburban white families is to be intellectually unserious.

Racism is America’s Original Sin, one that pervades the political, economic, and social fabric of the nation. While state-sanctioned discrimination (and enslavement) is no longer tolerated, issues within and outside of education (along with actions such as last November’s New York City grand jury decision to not indict a police officer for the murder of Eric Garner) are constant reminders that racial bigotry have only become more-subtle and, because of social stigma, less explicit.

Just as importantly, Smarick and other conservative reformers keep making the error of thinking of racism in binary terms, that is, you can only argue that a policy or practice is racist if it explicitly targets a race or ethnicity, or if the person authoring or administrating it is explicitly and consciously racialist. As demonstrated in studies of the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline — including one by Stanford University professor Jennifer Eberhard and graduate student Jason Okonofua published this month in Psychological Science — the consequences of policies and practices can be as racialist as overt acts by those engaged in explicit racial discrimination.

This is a stubborn fact neither conservative reformers nor the rest of the movement can ignore. This is because school reformers, like all social reformers of past and present, have to constantly remember that their efforts often run counter to human nature. Sometimes people are capable of great good. Other times, even greater evil. Most of the time, though, humans, being imperfect creatures of the Creator, are naturally tribal, concerned first with the protection of our kin, then with the preservation of those who look like us and share our background. Those who do not look like us, don’t live in our neighborhoods, or aren’t even part of our social class are looked upon with either contempt or indifference. They are merely the other.

On a practical basis, this means that as many people are unconcerned about the futures of other people’s children as those who are, even when it is clear that the collective success and survival our children (and that of society and civilization in which they will be adults) is clearly at stake. Anything that challenges the primary concerns for one’s own — be it the recognition of the life and liberty of others, or social reforms that improve other communities alongside our own — will always be greeted with look askance and worse.

Yet as earlier generations of reformers outside of education have shown (and as the school reform movement has demonstrated), reforms and social improvements are possible. The very existence of modern civilization demonstrates this, as does the end of Jim Crow segregation and the peculiar institution that was American slavery. This results from strong, persistent efforts in activism, policymaking, and practice-developing. It doesn’t end when victory is won because all victories against human nature are temporary without it. And it involves calling people on the carpet for their immoral thinking as well as appealing to their nobler instincts (including their obligations as children of God and members of the family of mankind).

For reformers, this means that they must continually make the case for advancing systemic reform. Because of the baseness of human nature, no social improvement remains eternal. Because tribalism in all its forms is foremost in the human psyche, unifying people to do better for each other is always a challenge. Because it is easy for people to deny the humanity of others — including and especially children — there will always be a fight for equality and justice, especially when it comes to education.

So reformers must both be the conscience of men and women who should know better — and remind people that it is in their enlightened self-interests to both be concerned about providing high-quality education to their own children alongside those of other people.

As legendary social activists such as Salvation Army founder William Booth would say, reformers are moral scolds. There is nothing wrong with that. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was no more wrong for calling out white suburban parents over their opposition to Common Core than Martin Luther King was for calling White America on the carpet for perpetuating Jim Crow segregation five decades ago or Abraham Lincoln was for opposing slavery 100 years earlier.

Certainly you should make a case based on data and evidence. But evidence has never been enough to convince people to do the right thing. As civil rights activists and abolitionists of the past have shown, calling out immoral and intellectually dishonest thinking is a foremost obligation of every school reformer. Simply sidestepping that role, something for which Smarick implicitly argues under the guise of “humility” cannot ever be done. More importantly, the actions we take emanate from our moral concerns; so morality cannot be excluded from policy and practice. Calling things as they are (or as some with less backbone call it, demonizing) is a necessary part of highlighting that which is wrong, immoral, and should no longer be acceptable.

At the same time, reformers cannot simply shame people into embracing its tenets. This is what Smarick does get right, though not necessarily for the correct reasons. Moral scolding alone doesn’t work because of realities of human nature. The other? The fact that people will always be convinced of the rightfulness of their views even when they are demonstrably wrong. So is important for the movement to offer a positive vision that both builds brighter futures for other people’s children and appeals to the desire of families to do the best for their own kin. Or as some would say, enlighten people’s natural self-interest on behalf of the children whose futures we are aiding.

This means explaining how standardized tests provide critical data on how schools and the adults who work in them are serving their children as well as those from different backgrounds. It involves demonstrating over and over again how suburban districts are subjecting children from white middle class households to mediocre teaching and curricula while condemning kids black and brown to educational abuse and neglect. Finally, it includes honestly and sensitively addressing legitimate concerns about testing and the other solutions for which we advocate.

The school reform movement shouldn’t overstate the possible impact of opt-out efforts. At the same time, it shouldn’t consider any victory for systemic reform eternal. Constant activism — from moral scolding to appeals to goodwill — are key to sustaining the reforms we implement to help all children succeed.