For one to call Jamaica High School in New York City a dropout factory for most of the past couple of decades is an understatement. And this is especially true for the black students who have the misfortune to attend the school located in the city’s borough of Queens. Just 19 percent of black freshmen in the school’s original Class of 2003 — a mere 115 students — were promoted to senior year four years later. This reality hasn’t changed. Only 113 black freshmen — or another 19 percent — of the students in the Class of 2009 made it to senior year.
This is also true for Paul Robeson High School in the city’s Brooklyn borough. The high school’s four-year Promoting Power rate of 31 percent for black students in the Class of 2009 is eight points lower than it was six years earlier. Meanwhile Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan– which in the days before the development of robust school data was once considered one of the more-prestigious high schools during my days attending the Big Apple’s traditional public school system — is also a danger to the educational futures of black children. Just a fifth of its black students in the Class of 2009 were promoted to senior year, just better than its bottom-of-the-barrel promoting power rate of eight percent six years ago.
This reality should be more than enough to convince the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s New York City branch to support shutting down the schools and starting anew as Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to do. Instead, the NAACP once again proved its irrelevance in the reform of American public education by teaming up with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local to halt the shutdown of these three schools (and also oppose allowing charter schools to share space with traditional public schools in the city’s often half-empty school buildings). This effort, the second such lawsuit filed by the old-school civil rights group and the union in as many years, once again shows that when the NAACP has to choose between the interests of black children and its relationship with teachers unions, the former is almost always the loser.
As Dropout Nation has continuously pointed out, the NAACP, along with some other old-school civil rights groups, seem more determined to team up with the AFT and National Education Association — the prime defenders of the obsolete and woeful traditional public education practices that have perpetuated the nation’s dropout crisis — than support efforts to improve the educational and economic futures of the very black children about which it is supposed to be concerned. From the unsuccessful move last July by the organization, along with the National Urban League, to challenge the Obama administration’s school reform efforts, to Benjamin Todd Jealous‘ lackluster speech on education at the American Enterprise Institute four months later, the NAACP hasn’t exactly risen to the occasion at the national level (and only done so occasionally at the local level).
This year could have been different. At the national level, the NAACP has had several opportunities this year to make itself more-relevant in the discussion over the reform of American public education and actually take stands that would actually help overhaul schools and give black families the ability to seek out better options for their children. It could have embraced the kind of school choice and data quality measures that can help poor kids escape the worst American public education offers. It could have supported the passage of Parent Trigger laws that give families the ability to overhaul failure factories. And it even had resources that it could have used to move away from stale thinking courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What it has done instead is release a report that does little more than proclaim that standardized testing is the cause of the nation’s dropout crisis in spite of evidence to the contrary, while failing to address the systemic problems — from low quality of teaching to reverse seniority layoff rules that lead to the loss of high-quality teachers with less seniority (the ones who are often staffing the schools poor black and Latino kids attend). The NAACP has continued to advocate for integration as a school reform solution in spite of evidence that it doesn’t really work. And instead of pushing for more-robust accountability measures — including those measuring teacher and principal quality — the organization continues to just spin its wheels. What the NAACP is doing in New York City is just one more example of this. Meanwhile the NAACP is neglecting conversations on education that needs to go on throughout the entire black community — including whether we should continue traditional public school districts (many of them run by black men and women) that endanger the futures of our black children.
This isn’t to say that shutting down schools is the only solution. As your editor made clear in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, states and school districts must prhovide principals with robust school data and real authority to improve their teaching staffs and develop new practices that can improve student achievement. The Bloomberg administration also needs to do a better job of informing parents about school shutdowns and including families in the discussion about overhauling and shutting down schools. The city should also embrace the Parent Trigger concept and allow parents to take control of school turnarounds, including deciding whether to shut down schools altogether or bring in a KIPP to handle the overhaul efforts.
But given the reality that school turnarounds are rarely successful, it makes no sense to continue perpetuating cultures of academic failure that continue to subject children — especially black kids — to educational neglect and malpractice. Instead of focusing on school shutdowns, the NAACP’s New York branch should join Mayor Bloomberg in pushing for the overhaul of state laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms. And on the national level, the NAACP should realize that it is on the wrong side — rhetorically, morally and even historically – of the school reform debate. It should join common cause with the reformers and advocate for the kind of systemic overhaul that will help all children, especially our black children, succeed in school and in life. This may mean that the association will have to offend old-school members (including teachers in its ranks). But given that the NAACP is losing a younger generation of blacks — including singers such as John Legend and activists such as Derrell Bradford — who realize the importance of systemic school reform, it is time for the organization to finally kick obsolete thinking to the curb.
But this isn’t just true for the NAACP. Yesterday, the head of the National Urban League’s New York branch, Arva Rice, devoted an entire column in the Huntington Post to complaining that efforts to weaken and abolish rules requiring collective bargaining between governments and public sector unions, arguing that such moves hurt “our youth and their children”. Nowhere does it appear that Rice considered the consequences of collective bargaining (and other state laws that keep laggard teachers in the classroom) on the quality of education in the very traditional public schools those young people are forced to attend.
It’s time for old-school civil rights groups to embrace systemic reform and join cause with the school reform movement — and stop defending practices, laws and organizations that have contributed to an education crisis that condemns millions of young black men and women to poverty and prison.