The Black Kids Are Shortchanged Everywhere

The Duval County school district serves the Jacksonville, Florida, area.  Jacksonville is much more typical of neighboring Georgia than of Florida.  It has a relatively small Hispanic population and a…

The Duval County school district serves the Jacksonville, Florida, area.  Jacksonville is much more typical of neighboring Georgia than of Florida.  It has a relatively small Hispanic population and a history of anti-Black racism dating back hundreds of years.  The district’s website proclaims recent good news:

Duval County Public Schools has emerged as a national leader in mathematics and reading outcomes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) . . . “If this were the Olympics, you would say we medaled in almost every event,” said Superintendent Dr. Patricia Willis. “These results, in addition to our record-high graduation rate, reflect the incredible efforts of our students, our teachers, the district and our community.” . . .  “The new NAEP results confirm that Duval County is one of the highest performing big city school districts in the nation,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council for Great City Schools.

Those newly released 2017 NAEP eighth-grade reading assessments show that while 42 percent of White students in the Duval County public schools can read at grade level (proficient or above), the school system teaches less than half that percentage, 18 percent, of the Black students in its care, to read proficiently at the crucial grade 8 level. Or, looking at that from the other side, well over three-quarters of the Black students in the Duval County Public Schools are not taught to read proficiently.  Of those, nearly 90 percent of the male Black students in Jacksonville are not taught to read proficiently and nearly half of those can hardly read at all. We can take that as an indication of the preparation for life that is provided for Black children by the Duval County Public Schools. It is a rather unusual Olympic medal quality performance.

A primary driver of these racial disparities in educational achievement is not difficult to discover.  Quite some time ago a large-scale research project in Texas demonstrated that disparities in the rate of school discipline actions were based on the racial attitudes of school personnel, rather than the actions of students.  In the Duval County schools the rate at which out-of-school suspensions are given is eight percent for Black students, three percent for White students, a more than two-to-one disparity, which is a good measure of racial prejudice in action.  That happens to be approximately the disparity in reading proficiency.  Of course, correlation does not indicate causation.

There are consequences to this failure of the Duval district to teach most of their Black children, and nearly all of their male Black children, to read easily.

The Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford University has studied intergenerational economic mobility by race and gender. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the average Black child in Jacksonville, whose household in the year 2000 had an income at or below the 25th percentile of all American households ($28,000, very poor) would probably have an income at the 31st percentile (just poor) by 2015, about $32,000.  The average White child in Jacksonville, living in a similarly deprived household in 2000, would have had an income at the 40th percentile in 2015, about $43,000: a nine point, $11,000, advantage for being White. While a Black child growing up in Jacksonville can expect to go up six steps on the economic mobility ladder (from very poor to merely poor), a White child can expect to go up fifteen steps, between two and three times as far and within hailing distance of the national median.

This comparative restriction of intergenerational economic mobility for Black residents of Jacksonville cannot be attributed solely to the fact that well over three-quarters of the Black students in the Duval County Public Schools are not taught to read proficiently, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Well, Jacksonville has a history of slavery, segregation and lynching.  We can look to the free state of Wisconsin for better news . . . can’t we? The answer is no.

The 2017 NAEP eight-grade reading assessment shows that while 33 percent of White students in the Milwaukee public schools can read at grade level (proficient or above), the school system teaches less than one-fifth of that percentage, six percent, of the Black students in its care to read proficiently at the crucial grade 8 level. Or, looking at that from the other side, well over 90 percent of the Black students in the Milwaukee public schools are not taught to read proficiently and of those, 96 percent of the male Black students in Milwaukee are not taught to read proficiently.  Nearly two-thirds of those can hardly read at all.  We can take that as an indication of the preparation for life that is provided for Black children by the Milwaukee Public Schools.  As to causation, the racial school discipline disparities in Milwaukee are similar to those in Jacksonville:  a Black student is more than twice as likely to be punished with an out-of-school suspension as is a White student.  In addition to being an indicator of adult racial attitudes, out-of-school suspensions are likely to lead to students falling behind in their studies and prematurely ending their educations:  dropping out.

No matter where you go, traditional districts are failing the descendants of enslaved Africans.

And as to consequences, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the average Black child in Milwaukee, whose household in the year 2000 had an income at or below the 25th percentile of all American households (very poor) would probably have an income at the 36th percentile (poor) by 2015, about $38,000.  The average White child in Milwaukee, living in a similarly deprived household in 2000, would have had an income at the 50th percentile in 2015, about $56,000: a fourteen point, $18,000, advantage for being White. While a Black child growing up in Milwaukee can expect to go up eleven steps on the economic mobility ladder (from very poor to merely poor), a White child can expect to go up twenty-five steps, more than twice as far and pretty close to the national median.  White children growing up in severe poverty in Milwaukee can expect to participate in the American dream of dramatic economic mobility; the Black children living in that city cannot even dream of it.

Just as in Jacksonville.

Neither district is fulfilling its responsibility to educate all children.  The size of the racial gaps resulting from these failures are similar.  If disparities in school discipline rates are a valid measure of racism (which they are), that, too is similar.  And if the Equality of Opportunity Project’s calculations are correct, as they seem to be, the perhaps consequent restrictions on economic mobility for the Black residents of these two American cities will, similarly, continue from one generation to the next.

The Equality of Opportunity Project researchers point out that the Black/White racial economic disparities are not a result of factors under the control of Black Americans.  Rather, they are the result of factors, such as disparate incarceration rates and the school issues touched on above, that are under the control of the people running the criminal justice and school systems and other social, economic and political aspects of life in this country.  They are under the control of that governor, that mayor, this superintendent of schools, this judge and that chief of police in both Jacksonville and Milwaukee—and those in many other cities and towns in this great country.

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When Congressmen Lie About School Discipline Reform

If you want to get a better sense of the shoddiness of the arguments of opponents of school discipline reform, especially when it comes to the Department of Education’s guidance…

If you want to get a better sense of the shoddiness of the arguments of opponents of school discipline reform, especially when it comes to the Department of Education’s guidance on reducing the overuse of harsh school discipline, simply look at the traditional districts represented in Congress by Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, who this morning, complained that the four-year-old Dear Colleague letter made school leaders “afraid” to discipline children in their care.

Harris made this declaration during one of two hearings that touched on school discipline reform — a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for education programs. After several congressional leaders — most notably Rep. Barbara Lee of California — roasted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for continuing to weaken the department’s Office for Civil Rights and effectively abandoning the federal role in protecting the civil rights of poor and minority children, Harris essentially encouraged DeVos (along with the planned commission on school safety over which she will be chairing) to toss the school discipline reform measure into the ashbin. Why? Because the measure has forced the districts he represents to stop “disciplining people”.

Certainly you can expect the likes of Manhattan Institute wonk Max Eden (who, for some reason, was testifying at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on school safety convened a month after the Parkland Massacre) to make big hay of the Maryland Republican’s complaints. After all, it comes on the heels of Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio amplifying the accusations of Eden and other school discipline reform opponents that the Obama Administration-era guidance was responsible for Nickolas Cruz’s murder of 17 children and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. Rubio’s move (based on an argument disproved both by Dropout Nation and other outlets) resulted in DeVos placing review of the guidance under the school safety commission (which will consist of not one expert on school safety and will only include three of her fellow cabinet secretaries in the Trump regime).

The problem, as a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the districts to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database, is that none of Harris’ statements are true.

Take Harford County, the largest district in Harris’ district. It meted out one or more out-of-school suspensions to 1,339 children in regular classrooms, or 3.5 percent of the students, in 2013-2014. That is slightly more than the 3.3 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012, two years before the Obama Administration issued its guidance. It also arrested and referred 163 children to juvenile justice systems in 2013-2014, three times the 59 it arrested and referred two years earlier.

Another district represented by Harris, Wicomico County, meted out one or more suspensions to 9.5 percent of students (or 1,381 children) in 2013-2014. That was a three-fold increase over the 3.28 percentage suspension rate two years earlier. Dorchester County’s district meted out one or more suspensions to 11 percent of students in 2013-14, an increase over the 8.6 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012. There’s also Caroline County, which meted out one or more suspensions to five percent of students  in 2013-2014, an increase over the 4.5 percent rate two years earlier. In fact, Caroline County suspended 29 more students in 2013-14 than two years earlier.

Then there is Kent County, which is right on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In2013-2014, it meted out one or more suspensions to a whopping 14 percent of its students. That’s three times the 5.2 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012, two years before Obama’s school discipline guidance (and just after Maryland’s state board of education had investigated overuse of harsh discipline by districts it oversees). If anything, Kent County’s district became even more punitive: It arrested and referred 60 children in 2013-2014, a sixty-fold increase in the number of students sent onto the most-direct path to the school-to-prison pipeline two years earlier (which was none).

Maryland Congressman Andy Harris argues that the Obama Administration-era guidance against overusing harsh school discipline is stopping school districts he represents from correcting student behavior. The data proves, if anything, that those districts suspend far too many children, especially those Black and Brown.

Another district in Harris’ backyard, Worcester County, meted out one or more suspensions to 4.5 percent of children in 2013-2014, higher than the 3.1 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012, before the Obama Administration’s Dear Colleague guidance was issued. Talbot County meted out one or more suspensions to  4.75 percent of students one or more times in 2013-14, nearly double the 2.7 percent suspension rate two years earlier. Only Queen Anne’s County, one of the smallest districts represented by Harris, experienced something of a decline in out-of-school suspensions; one or more suspensions were meted out to 2.2 percent of its students in 2013-2014, only a slight drop over the 2.4 percent rate in 2011-2012.

None of this is a surprise to Dropout Nation readers or to honest scholars of school discipline reform. This is because the Obama Administration’s guidance was focused primarily on encouraging districts to reduce overuse of suspensions and other harsh discipline against poor and minority children as well as those condemned to special education ghettos. Even with the guidance, the U.S. Department of Education would only intervene when alerted about potential civil rights violations. Put simply, districts could ignore the administration so long as families and civil rights groups didn’t make a fuss. Which is clearly the case with the district’s represented by Harris on Capitol Hill.

This is a shame because the data the districts submit make a strong case for federal investigations — especially when one understands the long history of racial bigotry in the Eastern Shore of the Old Line State.

Kent County, for example, meted out-of-school suspensions to 21.4 percent of the 478 Black children attending its schools in 2013-2014, double the 11.4 percent suspension rate against Black children two years earlier; Black children account for a mere 22.4 percent of the student population. The rate of suspensions for Black children in Kent is double the 11.8 percent suspension rate for White children, who, by the way, make up 65.6 percent of students in the district.

Wicomico County meted out one or more out-of-school suspensions to 16.7 percent of Black children under its watch in 2013-2014, a five-fold increase over the 3.2 percent suspension rate in 2011-2012. In fact, Black children account for 78.8 percent of all children suspended by the district in 2013-2014 — or four out of ever five kids suspended one or more times that year — while White peers accounted for a mere 33.7 percent of students suspended. This is in spite of the fact that the district is almost equally divided between Black and White students (with the latter making up the majority).

The worst part is that Maryland’s state officials know this — and have done little in the last couple of years to address these problems. Thanks in part to a board of education dominated by conservative reformers such as Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute and former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn Jr. (the latter of whom presided over the think tank’s initial activism against the Obama-era guidance), the Old Line State only plans to intervene when suspension levels for poor, minority, and special ed-labeled children are three times higher than that of other peers. Which means districts such as Kent County could continue damaging the futures of our most-vulnerable children with absolute impunity. The state’s move last year to only allow districts to suspend kids for up to five school days (and all but banish suspensions for kids in preschool programs) does nothing to address this problem.

Contrary to the assertions of Harris — as well as those of opponents of school discipline reform such as Eden (who deserves no consideration), as well as Michael Petrilli and his crew at Fordham– the case can easily be made that the DeVos and the Department of Education should build on the Obama Administration guidance and go even further. This includes restoring rules allowing Office for Civil Rights investigators to look at years of past complaints against districts to determine patterns of discrimination, hiring more investigators to look into patterns of disparate impact, and even requiring states such as Maryland to implement stronger rules against overuse of harsh discipline.

When it comes to building brighter futures for all of our children, we need facts, not assertions based on nothing but talking points that betray the bigotries of those who state them.

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Beyond Graduation Rate Scandals

Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of…

Recent scandals in places like Washington, D.C. have prompted debates over high school graduation requirements. Many observers rightfully express concern that students who are unprepared for the next stage of their lives might receive meaningless diplomas. They propose that we strictly enforce requirements.

If we take this advice, presumably fewer people will walk across a stage to receive a diploma they didn’t earn. On the plus side, these changes will make our school systems more honest about what high schools have achieved; and they will better inform graduates about their preparation for higher education. Unfortunately, along the way we may reduce opportunities for many young people to get the help they need to succeed as independent adults. People can argue about who deserves to graduate, however, if we decide to keep more kids from graduating, we should also agree that kids who don’t graduate deserve more public support that will also prepares them for the rest of their lives.

Instead of making a more strictly-enforced sorting device that denies more young people access to a good future, future systems that increase our ability to document a young person’s suitability for further study or training ought to tell us about all young people.  We should learn what dropouts know and can do. That way we can help them all transition to the next stage in their education, training, or work.

Recent years have seen significant increases high school graduation rates. Today’s scandals indicate that some of this increase has more to do with lowering standards than to gains in learning. Many districts now award diplomas to 15 percent more of their students than they did a decade ago. When it comes to the next phase of their lives, however, do we really think the bottom 10 percent of graduates are that different from the top 10 percent of dropouts?  And if both groups need a lot more help to become self-sufficient adults, we ought to not use the diploma to judge who is worthy of our continued support.

Diplomas have different uses for different audiences.  For students, they are a motivation. To be crass, the diploma is a reward for sitting still for four years, behaving as expected, and for doing all the work to master basic material. For employers and higher education institutions, a diploma is expected to certify that a student is ready for the next stage in their learning and growth. For society, leaving high school is a proxy for adult-hood; and the diploma means that the new adult succeeded at being a teenager. But our current diplomas don’t necessarily fulfill each audience’s needs.

Among both graduates and dropouts, there is a wide range in students’ knowledge and skills. Some of these new graduates may be academically closer to the better prepared dropouts than they are other graduates. Admittedly, this is more likely due to a generally poor state preparation than it is to large numbers of dropouts with strong skills.

But there are many dropouts who were doing fine in high school before things went poorly; just as there are many graduates who skated through high school with very low grades in classes that expected little of them.  If we learn more about both types of students, we can help them both.

Most of the debates over high graduation standards focus on attendance. Students were given credit for classes even though they had more absences than allowed in district policy. Technically, they should have failed their courses, which would have meant they didn’t earn enough credit to graduate.

In addition to “seat time”, diplomas signal mastery of content and the student’s ability to persevere and follow rules. But when a young person lacks a diploma, we don’t know why. Some didn’t attend class enough to pass. Others misbehaved. Others, attended and behaved, but didn’t learn the material well enough to pass. Labeling a person as a dropout doesn’t tell us which of these challenges tripped them up, only that they did not achieve all three.

Instead of focusing on what they lack, for both graduates and dropouts, it would help if we could better understand and certify what they have accomplished and what they are able to do. It is helpful to know if they could behave, if they persevered enough to attend regularly, and what they learned and are able to do.  And as we identify these strengths and assets, we can match them to services and programs where they are most likely to succeed. Ideally, more young people can be encouraged to do all the challenging work required in the next step, and we can counsel them to the most appropriate opportunities – where they can gain the skills and knowledge they need for whatever it is they want to do next.

There are some who argue that if we give a diploma away too easily, we “aren’t doing them any favors.”  I think I disagree. As long as many opportunities for further study or other support are tied to high school completion, and so many young people need more study and help, then a diploma may constitute a favor.  As we argue about where we draw the line between dropout and graduate, if we don’t invest enough in dropouts, we ought to revisit what it means to draw the line at all.

Giving fewer young people a diploma will increase our confidence that most of the remaining graduates are prepared, but it could also swell the ranks of the dropouts, who are less willing or able to continue their studies or prepare for well-paying work.

There’s a lot of handwringing about the graduation scandal at D.C. Public Schools. But there is little discussion about the underlying problem of the failures of American public education.

Instead of a slow-moving tragedy, recent debates could be helpful if they drive discussions about how we prepare all young people for the workforce or for further study and career training.

Far too many high school graduates and dropouts are not prepared to succeed after they leave high school. There are remarkable exceptions, including charter networks with strong records preparing more young people to earn college degrees. We should explore how to use similar strategies and tools to help more young people, regardless of where they are, transition successfully.

As it stands, American higher education (which includes traditional colleges as well as workforce training programs run by community colleges), and the kinds of jobs that include training, are all more likely to be available to high school graduates than they are to dropouts. Many programs explicitly target dropouts, and some of these opportunities are open to both graduates and dropouts.  But many young people who dropout decide not to try, or they don’t know how to pursue the most beneficial pathways. Compounding these individual tragedies, as a society, we are too comfortable with dropouts’ subsequent self-limiting decisions.

Unless we change our attitudes toward dropouts, efforts to deny diplomas to more young people are likely to reduce their access to further training – as well as the accompanying public investments in their futures.

We should certainly use this current debate to push for changes that clarify what it takes to earn a diploma. But we should also expand what we do as a society to prepare all these young people to succeed – even if they don’t graduate.

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Betsy DeVos’ Callous and Incompetent Management

Over the past week, Elizabeth Prince DeVos has continued to make the case for last week’s Dropout Nation call for her resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her dismal performance…

Over the past week, Elizabeth Prince DeVos has continued to make the case for last week’s Dropout Nation call for her resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her dismal performance Sunday night on 60 Minutes (including an inability to articulate the case for expanding public charter schools and other forms of family choice in education) demonstrates that she remains as willfully ignorant about education policy issues as she was during her confirmation hearing last year.

Meanwhile DeVos’ lack of soft skills required of any political officeholder — along with her failure to hire a strong communications team who can help her prepare for public events — was also on full display last week when she criticized teachers and American public education for not being innovative during a speech before innovation-minded teachers and school leaders at SXSW’s annual education conference. A smarter politician would have tossed out the speech and actually held a listening session in which those teachers could speak to their experiences and efforts. But then, Betsy has spent most of her tenure avoiding hard questions. For good reason: She would struggle to answer them.

Yet as reformers, we can’t spend nearly as much time on DeVos’ public failures. This is because they rarely have much effect on the futures of children, especially those from poor, minority, immigrant, and non-traditionally-gendered communities over whose civil rights the U.S. Department of Education (and ultimately, the federal government) is charged with protecting. Certainly DeVos’ presence worries school choice activists who rightly fear that her presence (and that of the Trump Administration) will weaken support for expanding opportunity. But that’s an issue that can be handled by actively opposing DeVos while also advancing choice.

What DeVos is doing in terms of operating the agency itself is of even greater concern, especially amid news this week about waylaying key civil servants who run operations below the appointed staff.

The latest news came yesterday as Politico reported that DeVos ‘reassigned’ the director of the Department of Education’s budget office, along with at least one other employee, as part of her effort to effectively eliminate that division. Apparently angered that the budget office and its boss, Erica Navarro, have defied and opposed her her reorganization efforts, DeVos moved Navarro over to the Office for Civil Rights (whose operations have been weakened by DeVos and the Trump Administration) in spite of opposition from the Office of Management and Budget and its director, Mick Mulvaney (who normally never has a problem with eliminating some branch of the federal government).

While Navarro and her former deputy, Craig Stanton, are moved out of the budget office, DeVos also moved to eliminate it altogether. The cost analysis branch will now reside in the department’s student aid division — a curious move given that the role of determining the agency’s spending needs has nothing to do with Pell Grants and Perkins Loans — while other functions are being moved into other divisions. Save for any move by Congress to prevent this reshuffling, DeVos will essentially eliminate an important division charged with helping her develop budgets for congressional approval. Which, in turn, will allow her to propose more reductions in spending as well as push for such efforts as voucherizing $500 million in Title 1 dollars; after all, the budget office staff, expert in understanding what can and cannot be done under federal law, were likely an even greater obstacle to her goals than congressional leaders, traditionalists and civil rights-oriented school reformers.

That same day, news came out that DeVos had reassigned the director of the agency’s student privacy enforcement unit, Kathleen Styles, to another job, leaving the office without a permanent supervisor. The office is charged with ensuring that school operators and higher education institutions aren’t violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The move came four months after the office ruled against the scandal-plagued Agora Cyber Charter School in a complaint from families of its students over illegal sharing of student data with K-12 Inc., and other contractors. Some are worried that DeVos will weaken enforcement of privacy laws to help out key players in the charter school movement.

As you would expect, DeVos didn’t leave out Office for Civil Rights in her dismantling effort. Besides demoting Navarro by putting her under notorious acting boss Candice Jackson, DeVos moved Sandra Battle, who oversaw the division’s enforcement of civil rights laws, out of the office. Jackson, an opponent of civil rights enforcement and laws, will now be directly in charge. This likely means even fewer investigations into overuses of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline — especially since the Obama Administration’s guidance is now being considered by a White House committee led by DeVos on supposedly improving school safety in the aftermath of the Parkland Massacre (and has become the target of Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and conservatives who want to conveniently blame anything other than lax gun laws).

This latest move comes after DeVos eliminated 16 investigators and other staff at OCR as part of an employee buyout last year. [Among the staffers bought out: The Department of Education’s in-house security staff, who were replaced by U.S. Marshals (who DeVos prefers and who walk around with her even within the Department of Education’s headquarters); the Marshals, who could be helping protect the nation instead of making DeVos feel safe, will cost taxpayers $15 million by the end of this fiscal year.] With DeVos proposing to eliminate another 34 positions in 2018-2019, the education secretary is ensuring fewer investigations into violations of civil rights — including alleged efforts by districts to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police wrongly identify, suspend, arrest, and deport undocumented immigrant children under the guise of being gang members.

None of these moves are shocking. As Dropout Nation noted back in January, DeVos and her team are going to use every tool available in their collaboration in the Trump Administration’s low-grade ethnic cleansing against poor, minority and immigrant communities. This has already been previewed in the 2018-2019 budget proposals to Congress as well as in moves made last year. But while the budget plans — including eliminations of the elimination of the $65 million-a-year Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native education programs and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative — won’t pass muster on Capitol Hill, DeVos and the administration can take other actions that effectively decimate those programs. This week’s news about staff reassignments, along with the move to eliminate the budget division, are the next of many steps to achieve those goals.

At the same time, in eliminating the budget office and putting many of its functions under divisions that don’t actually handle fiscal analysis, DeVos and her team (including the folks sitting on the reorganization committee charged with making the department more efficient) also demonstrate abject incompetence. Expertise can sometimes be overrated, especially in anticipating what can happen in an unknowable future. But in navigating the politics of advancing a political agenda, such knowledge is critical in achieving any goals. If DeVos truly wants to expand school choice, getting rid of her budget experts made no sense at all. But this lack of thoughtfulness isn’t shocking: As we saw on 60 Minutes, DeVos still hasn’t spent time learning the ins and outs of her job.

DeVos and her team have long ago proven that, like the rest of the Trump Administration, they will do nothing well, do things incompetently, act without integrity and operate with intent to harm the poor and minority communities it is supposed to serve. Reformers and other champions of children will have to fight even harder on behalf of children who deserve much better.


Featured photo courtesy of CBS News.

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Why Student Protest Should Not Be Punished

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on today’s National Student Walkout mostly because there has been plenty of coverage and commentary from other corners. Yet I find myself writing briefly…

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on today’s National Student Walkout mostly because there has been plenty of coverage and commentary from other corners. Yet I find myself writing briefly about the protests by high school students on behalf of gun control laws spurred by last month’s massacre of 17 students and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., because the event inadvertently intersects with an issue school reformers continue to deal with badly: The debate over stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline.

Ever since the walkout was announced, there has been an array of responses from traditional districts and other school operators. Some, notably the Mooresville district in Indiana, have actively encouraged the protests and, as in the case of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (who oversees the Big Apple’s traditional district) are participating in it. Others are merely offering spaces on campuses where protests can be held without leaving school grounds (and thus, keeping the students safe without infringing on their First Amendment rights).

Yet there are other districts who have decided that the response to nonviolent student protest is political and educational reprisal. This includes the Bentonville district, which serves the city that is home to retail giant Wal-Mart, which threatened to mete out three-day suspensions for engaging in the protests, and the Needville Independent School District in Texas (whose threat was met with protests from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, who noted that it also violated the district’s discipline guidelines). Another district, Bexley City, is planning to put all students protestors from its high school on detention for their action.

So you shouldn’t be surprised that conservative and centrist Democrat school reformers — who have generally been all too supportive of the overuse of harsh school discipline — were also supportive of the actions being taken by Bentonville and other districts. Robert Pondiscio, the vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (and, like his boss, Mike Petrilli, a longstanding opponent of school discipline reform), was particularly bellicose in his defense of suspending protestors, declaring that children should be punished for their own good. Why? Because the only way they can gain a “teachable moment” about protests and civil disobedience (especially those of civil rights leaders of the last century) is to suffer some form of punishment. The kids can’t just be allowed to actually exercise free speech.

There are a lot of problems with Pondiscio’s overall argument. The first? That schools aren’t allowed to explicitly or even covertly punish children for engaging in protests and other forms of free speech. This was first established by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago in Tinker v. De Moines Independent Community School District and even before then in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (which first recognized the First Amendment rights of students by declaring that they couldn’t be forced by districts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance against their religious and social consciences).

Districts can discipline students for incidental violations of school policies that result during the protests (as well as for disrupting classroom instruction and walking off campus). But they cannot directly punish youth for their protest rallies and cannot level punishments beyond what is already prescribed in discipline codes. Which is why most districts are wisely treading cautiously on this front.

This leads to the second problem: Pondiscio and others are essentially arguing that school leaders should harshly punish students for minor infractions, even when the actions don’t actually harm other children. This is particularly clear with the National Student Walkout and other political protests organized by youth. Considering the vast number of students who are participating in the walkouts — as well as the numbers of their peers who support them — school leaders cannot honestly argue that these actions are somehow damaging children.

Just as importantly, given that the protests will not lead to a tangible loss of time for instruction and learning, meting out suspensions and detentions is overkill. If anything, school leaders who suspend protesting students are actually doing more damage to children by meting out detentions and suspensions that keep them out of school (and thus, from learning) for hours and days at a time.

Students such as those at Bowie High School in Prince George’s County, Md., are learning plenty without suffering reprisals from school leaders engaging in arbitrary action. (Photo courtesy of Bowie Living.)

In advocating for arbitrary and capricious punishment based on the whims of school leaders, Pondiscio and others are exacerbating one of the problems that have led to school discipline reform efforts in the first place. Three decades of research that shows that teachers and school leaders often punish children, especially those Black and Brown, with little in the way of reason or nuance. This includes University of Pittsburgh Professor John Wallace’s 2008 study showing that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be referred dean’s offices — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended — for the same offenses than white peers, and a 2015 study by Adam Wright of University of California, Santa Barbara determining that beliefs among White teachers that Black children are unruly and poorly-behaved explain why they are more-likely to be referred for discipline and suspended than their White peers.

In the context of National Student Walkout — and as exemplified in protests led by minority youth in St. Louis and other locales — you can imagine principals and deans of discipline punishing Black students more-harshly than their White peers for exercising their First Amendment rights.

In arguing that National Student Walkout participants should be disciplined, Pondiscio and others are arguing is that children should not actually learn civic engagement, and ultimately, not take up their rightful roles as future leaders of American society. As men and women dedicated to helping our children be successful in school and in life, this line of thinking should be especially offensive. Certainly our children should read original texts to learn about the origins of the issues that still plague this nation. But classroom learning isn’t enough.

They must be participants in the political processes that can be used to either bend the arc of history towards progress or suppress the liberties of Black, Latino, and immigrant communities. Which is what the students participating in National School Walkout are doing. While your editor may not necessarily agree with all of their policy solutions (and note that much of their proposals ignore the consequences of the War on Drugs in perpetuating gun-related homicides), I also believe that our youth, our future adults and leaders, have a right and moral obligation to be engaged in the real world. This applies even to those youth whose activism may be objectionable to me as well as to their fellow students.

Finally, Pondiscio and his allies are basing their argument in part on a romanticized notion of “civil disobedience”, especially the protests conducted by the Civil Rights activists of the last century. Contrary to their notions, the reality is that the collegians who fueled the Freedom Rides and the Birmingham youth in the Children’s Campaign were arrested, jailed, beaten and hosed down with water canons on the technical grounds of violating laws and injunctions against protests. In reality, these activists were punished by Jim Crow state and local governments who opposed the fight against state-sanctioned bigotry and denial of equal opportunity through the use of police departments and courts (as well as through their support of the Klu Klux Klan organizations).

If the Bull Connors of the time weren’t using laws to engage in suppression of freedom and equality, the civil rights protests wouldn’t be called civil disobedience; they would have just been the rightful (and peaceful) protests against government actions protected by the Bill of Rights. As with other peaceful protests throughout American history by activists who weren’t actively opposed by governments, the protests of those activists would have been just as meaningful even without the threats to their lives. Put simply, Pondiscio and company are being ahistorical and intellectually dishonest to boot.

Instead of encouraging school leaders and teachers to overuse harsh school discipline against actions that harm no one — and perpetuating the woeful state of affairs in far too many districts — we should push them to limit suspensions and other discipline to the few acts of misbehavior (including weapons possession and assault) that truly harm the lives of other people. And we should stand by our youth as they take their rightful places in the world as well as learn how to be citizens and leaders in their communities and the nation as a whole.

Featured photo courtesy of the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation.

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Parkland Shooting Doesn’t Justify More Cops and Harsh Discipline

Tragedy has a way of bringing out demagoguery. This has been especially true in the weeks since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz went on a murderous rampage in Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High…

Tragedy has a way of bringing out demagoguery. This has been especially true in the weeks since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz went on a murderous rampage in Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and took the lives of 17 young men and women who should be sitting in classrooms today. This includes the Occupant of the White House and others calling for laws allowing teachers and other adults in schools to carry firearms into classrooms, an idea that ignores the obstacles to that being effective under any circumstances and would increase the violence to which Black and Brown children are already subjected.

Once of the demagogic arguments emerging from the Parkland massacre is one being perpetuated is the idea that Cruz’s rampage would have been stemmed if not for efforts encouraged by the Obama Administration to stem the overuse of harsh school discipline — including the presence of cops patrolling the corridors of public schools.

As argued by less-reputable outlets and conservative writers such as Breitbart and Ann Coulter as well as supposedly respectable types such as Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden (based mostly off a clip job of a Washington Post article) and (with a little more reason) David French of National Review, if the Broward district, as part of its PROMISE school discipline reform initiative, didn’t team up with the county’s sheriff to reduce the number of students being arrested for minor offenses, Cruz would have been arrested and kept from doing harm to his former schoolmates.

Particularly for Eden, the Parkland massacre is another way to oppose school discipline reforms happening throughout the country, as well as overturn the Obama Administration-era guidance advising districts to not overuse suspensions and other discipline, especially against poor and minority children. Of course, this isn’t shocking; Eden will engage in any kind of sophistry and data fudging to advance his cause.

The problem, as you can expect, is that this line of argument doesn’t stand up to these rather demonstrable facts.

The first, as the Washington Post notes, is that Broward did plenty when it came to Cruz and his issues. This includes twice transferring him to an alternative high school, Cross Creek, after his behavioral issues became too difficult for teachers and school leaders to handle, as well as referring the young man to Florida’s child welfare agency after a fight during the 2016-2017 school year; the child welfare agency determined that he was of little risk to himself or to those around him.

Some would say that Cruz’s case illustrates the crucial need for schools to provide mental health care, a subject of earlier Dropout Nation commentaries, as well as the general social need to do better in providing community mental health care. Others may say it demonstrates the failure of social service agencies in identifying those who endanger others as well as themselves. Both may be true. At the same time, based on the evidence, the real issue seems to lie with state laws that make it all too easy for anyone to obtain a firearm.

The second: That Broward County still arrests and refers thousands of children to juvenile and criminal justice systems. Twenty-two hundred sixty-eight students were arrested or referred during the 2015-2016 school year, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. While that number is two-thirds lower than arrests and incidents in 2009-2010, the numbers have remained constant since 2011-2012.

The presence of cops in schools hasn’t led to greater safety for children. This is because crime in schools has been in decline for three decades. What their presence has done is caused harm, physical and otherwise, to youth such as Noe Nino de Rivera.

What has changed is that Broward is less likely to have children arrested and referred for incidents that can be handled within schools. Crimes that should be handled by cops such as battery, sexual assault, drug possession and weapons possession accounted for 64.4 percent of arrests and referrals in 2015-2016 versus 47.4 percent in 2009-2010. Other incidents traditionally handled by schools are, well, being handled by them. This includes fighting, which now accounts for 8.9 percent of referrals versus 27.6 percent of them six years ago.

This has resulted in Broward reducing the number of children put on the path to prison overall, an effort that, by the way, predate the implementation of the district’s PROMISE program; referrals declined by 64 percent between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. This is especially true when it comes to poor and minority children who made up the majority of children arrested and referred according to data submitted by Broward to the federal government.

The number of Black children in regular classrooms arrested and referred, for example, declined by two-thirds between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014 (from 3,835 to 1,011), while the rate of arrest and referral declined from 3.8 percent to 1 percent in that same period. [The percentage of White children arrested and referred declined from 1.3 percent to four-tenths of one percent in that same period, with a two-thirds decline in the numbers (from 920 to 267) in that time period.] Overall, the number of Broward children in regular classrooms arrested and referred declined by 70.5 percent (from 6,050 to 1,786) in that period.

Which leads to a third fact: For all that Broward is doing, it is still condemning far too many children to juvenile and criminal justice systems. “Disruption on campus”, a catch-all term that covers plenty of non-violent and minor behaviors now account for 18.7 percent of referrals versus a mere 7.9 percent in 2009-2010. This is way too high. Black children still account for 57.8 of students arrested and referred despite accounting for just 39.6 percent of enrollment. Given that Cruz himself was considered a White student, he was far less likely than his Black former peers to be arrested or referred to law enforcement.

This problem extends to other forms of harsh discipline. While Broward meted out one or more suspensions by 61.6 percent between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, the number of suspensions meted out against Black children increased by 43.6 percent (from 1,490 to 2,139). Even worse, Black students account for 62.6 percent of out-of-school suspensions meted out in 2013-2014, versus 16.7 percent of suspensions four years earlier.

Finally, contrary to the assertions of these demagogues (as well as the views of many opponents of reforming school discipline), the reality is that the presence of cops in schools does nothing to make them safer. The body of research was clear even before the Parkland massacre, in which a Broward County sheriff’s deputy patrolling the premises didn’t take on Cruz when he began shooting up the school.

As Dropout Nation detailed over the past few years, more districts, especially those in big cities, are launching their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Districts are also bringing in more cops from police departments. The number of cops in schools increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007; today, 43 percent of America’s schools (including 42 percent of high schools and another 23 percent of elementary schools where children younger than 12 are supposed to be learning) are patrolled by some form of law enforcement.

Yet as the Justice Policy Institute notes in a report released in 2011, there is no evidence that increased presence of law enforcement in schools leads to safer schools. If anything, the presence of cops in schools all but ensures that children will be arrested and referred to juvenile and criminal justice systems. As University of Florida Professor Jason Nance determined in a 2016 study, the increased presence of police in schools always leads to more children and teens being arrested, even after controlling for demographics and levels of crime in surrounding communities. Those arrests, in turn, are often for minor infractions that are better-handled by teachers and school leaders. In Birmingham, Ala., for example, 86 percent of students arrested in 2009-2010 were picked up for disruptive behavior and other issues that would usually be handled in schools.

Even worse, poor and minority children, along with those condemned to the nation’s special education ghettos, are the ones most-likely to be targeted by cops. Black children, for example, were 2.2 times more-likely to be arrested or referred to juvenile and criminal justice systems than White peers in 2013-2014, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education; youth in special ed accounted for 26 percent of arrests and referrals in 2012-2013, according to Center for Public Integrity in its analysis. Meanwhile in South Carolina, Black children accounted for 70.9 percent of the arrests and referrals to juvenile justice for the catch-all of “disturbing schools” in 2014-2015, according to the American Civil Liberties Union; this is despite the fact that Black children make up little more than a third of all children in the state’s public education system.

Meanwhile the presence of cops also leads to children being assaulted and abused by them. From the 110 incidents of pepper-spraying of children by cops patrolling the schools of the Birmingham, Ala., district , to the permanent injuring of Noe Nino de Rivera, a 17-year-old junior Cedar Creek High School in Bastrop County, Texas, who ended up in a coma for a full year after an officer tased him, there are far too many instances of cops harming children. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ detailed in its own analysis, school cops are often poorly trained to address problems in schools, and therefore, unfit to handle minor issues that teachers and school leaders can address in less-physically harmful ways.  We need fewer cops in schools, not more.

Put simply, contrary to what conservatives and opponents of school discipline reform want to think, rare mass shootings such as the Parkland Massacre won’t be solved by the presence of more cops and harsher discipline. Of course, if those folks (especially Coulter and Eden) actually cared about children, they wouldn’t suggest this in the first place. Or use tragedy as grist for their mills of demagoguery.

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