Sometimes the worst damages done in American public education to our young black men and women are committed by the educational incompetence of people who look like them. And this can be seen in Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest of Indianapolis’ 11 districts that is the worst collection of failure mills in the Midwest outside of Detroit.
Back in 2005, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz commented that IPS was the only district he researched in which all of its high schools were dropout factories. Little has changed since then. While the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) improved from 32 percent to 45 percent between 2005-2006 and 2011-2012, IPS’s five-year graduation rate declined from 41 percent to 40 percent over that time, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data. [The Indiana Department of Education reports an official graduation rate of 65 percent overall and 62 percent for black students.]
The failures of the district are borne hardest upon black children, who make up the vast majority of IPS’ enrollment. Although the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate has increased from 32 percent to 49 percent, few of them are getting the college-preparatory learning they need for success in traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships. Just 8.5 percent of IPS’ black middle-schoolers were provided Algebra 1, the key course for preparing kids for higher-level math courses in high school, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database.
Just 6.4 percent of IPS’ black high schoolers took trigonometry, statistics, and other forms of advanced math, while another 6.4 percent took physics, another college preparatory course. A mere 28 black students took calculus. Even fewer took Advanced Placement courses; just 23 black students took A.P. Math, while another 58 took A.P. Science. Only 10 black students were enrolled in the district’s International Baccalaureate program. [The numbers are equally abysmal for the district’s white students; just 6.6 percent white high schoolers took physics, for example.]
That’s just for the kids who actually get to stay in school: During 2011-2012, 1,794 young black men and women — or 10.7 percent of IPS’ black student population — were suspended at least once by the district. Another 1,751 black children in IPS — or another 10.5 percent of all black students — were suspended two or more times during the same period. Given that most suspensions in IPS, like in most districts, are for behaviors such as disruptive behavior that can often be addressed through better means (and are often indicators of underlying learning issues), this means that IPS is failing to address the needs of kids in its care.
Meanwhile the district meted out in-school suspensions — technically keeping kids in school, but not actually having them attend regular classes and get any learning — to 2,033 young black people, or another 12 percent of the black student population. Altogether, one-third of black children attending IPS were subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, and as a result, fell further behind in their studies. Even worse, one out of every two black children condemned to IPS’ special ed ghetto was subjected to some form of in-school or out-of-school suspension. [Sixty-eight special ed students were either placed in restraint or what prison inmates call solitary confinement.]
Presiding over IPS’ consistent condemning of the futures of black children are black men and women who have perpetuated the district’s unenviable status as a failure cluster. Until 2013, this included the notorious Eugene White, whose eight-year tenure overseeing the district was marked by craven nepotism, shuffling incompetence into school leadership jobs, and and few improvements in student achievement. He gained particular notoriety two years ago when he claimed that IPS was failing because it served special ed kids he called “blind, crippled, crazy”. It also includes Mary Busch, who, along with Michael D. Brown, ran IPS’ board for two decades (and let White off the hook for his nasty remarks) before they finally ended her reign of error last year.
IPS’ new leadership, including Supt. Lewis Ferrebee, is working hard to overhaul it. But the district’s dysfunction (along with its coterie of laggard teachers and school leaders) has so ingrained in its DNA that it may be best for folks in the Indiana Statehouse to just shut it down and abandon the traditional district model altogether.
Yet IPS isn’t the only district run by black school leaders who do the kind of damage to the futures of children that would lead most of us to go on protest marches if this were done by whites. Far too many black school leaders, teachers, and even politicians, are allowed to condemn the futures of the young people who we need to bring black communities into the economic and social mainstream in an increasingly knowledge-based world.
This can be seen in abject failure factories such as Camden, New Jersey, whose black leadership had been failing black kids for decades before Gov. Chris Christie finally ordered a state takeover last year. Under a string of black superintendents, including Annette D. Knox and Bessie LeFra Young (who skipped out on more than 180 days of work for two years and racked up $6,000 in travel reimbursements before being sent packing in 2012), the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate for its black students declined from 75 percent for its Class of 2006 to 61 percent for its Class of 2012. Keep this in mind: African-American men and women account for 77 percent of the district’s school leaders.
The rot isn’t just among the school leaders alone: The average Camden teacher was absent for 11.2 days during the 2008-2009 school year, according to an analysis by the Courier-Post, leading the district to spend $8,748 each day for 81 substitute teachers to fill in for absent teachers. Two years ago, the district hired an employment agency after recognizing that as many as 40 percent of classroom teachers were absent each day during the school year. This is especially shameful given that black teachers account for 43 percent of the instructors working in Camden classrooms.
There are also the black-run districts which subject far too many black children to the harshest school discipline — even when the leaders know the damage this does to their futures.
Two years ago, the Pontiac district in Michigan was cited as the worst district for suspending black kids, according to analysis of federal data by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Things haven’t improved much more based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis. Fifteen percent of Pontiac’s black students were suspended at least in 2011-2012, while another 17.6 percent were suspended more than once. [Eight tenths of one percent of its students were subjected to in-school suspensions] Altogether, a black child attending Pontiac has a one-in-three chance of being suspended during a school year. Considering that 77 percent of Pontiac’s school leadership is black (as are 36 percent of its teachers), this is shameful. But it isn’t shocking: These are the very school leaders whose mismanagement — including former Assistant Supt. Jumanne Sledge (now in prison for diverting $236,000 in district funds to pay for his lifestyle) has nearly led Pontiac to fiscal ruin.
Four of the 10 districts ranked by the Civil Rights Project as having the highest suspension levels for black children are run by black school leaders and largely staffed by black teachers. Besides Pontiac, this includes East Jasper Consolidated in Mississippi, Bloom Township in Illinois, and Oak Park City in Michigan. Combined, these four districts meted out in-school and out-of-school suspensions to 43 percent of the black children they serve. And as with nearly all districts, the suspensions were for
Aiding and abetting these school leaders, along with other traditionalists such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, are some old-school civil rights activists and black politicians, often more-interested in sustaining their limited vision and pocketbooks than helping black children succeed.
These days, that group includes Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic party apparatchik who is now heading up the AFT’s front group against centrist Democrat reformers. There’s also Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who has long ago proven that he will never show up for advancing systemic reform. Instead, in exchange for $50,000 in donations from the AFT into the coffers of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson have supported the notoriously-bellicose Chicago local’s efforts against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reforms, including the decision two years ago to lay off 365 low-performing teachers. Let’s also not forget the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which continually debases its once-proud legacy as a school reformer. This includes its efforts in New York City and elsewhere against charter schools, as well as the resolution it passed in 2011 against the expansion of school choice beneficial to black children.
Meanwhile there are well-meaning black leaders in education who engage in equally senseless arguments defending harmful traditionalist practices because they are more-interested in protecting brethren who commit educational malpractice than about the very children for which they should show the greatest concern. The otherwise-sensible Andre Perry, dean of Davenport University’s school of urban education, took to the pages of the Washington Post last week to argue that efforts to end near-lifetime employment laws and overhaul other teacher dismissal policies would hurt black communities because laggard black teachers could lose their jobs, and thus, districts would have less-diverse teaching pools serving our kids. Forget that Perry ignores the reality that black teachers make up larger portion of instructors in charter schools (where they don’t get near-lifetime employment) than in traditional districts that do. The fact that he refuses to acknowledge the evidence — including research by outfits such as TNTP as well as reporting by the Los Angeles Times — on how tenure and other policies (including Last In-First Out layoff rules) harms the academic achievement of black children is absolutely stunning.
Now let’s be clear: There are plenty of black men and women, from classroom teachers to politicians, fighting hard every day to transform American public education for our children. This includes such folks as former Memphis school board leader Kenneth Whalum; former IPS principal (and current Chicago Public Schools principal) Jeffery White; Black Alliance for Educational Options cofounder Howard Fuller and the outfit’s chief executive, Kenneth Campbell. It also includes a generation of new civil rights leaders such as Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff, and outgoing Georgia legislator Alisha Thomas Morgan. One of the less-acknowledged benefits of the emergence of the school reform movement is that it has helped bring to prominence new and longtime black leaders who realize that the path to black economic and social empowerment begins with overhauling the schools that have damaged generations of children and communities for far too long.
At the same time, we must acknowledge these realities: That far too many black school leaders, men and women who aren’t fit to check coats at Ruth’s Chris steakhouses, are as much responsible as their white brethren for the policies and practices (including overuse of suspensions) that have condemned our sons and daughters to the abyss. That these leaders often come to the protection of laggard black teachers whose incompetence does harm to our kids every day they sit in their classrooms. That far too many old-school black politicians and civil rights leaders, both because of their own avarice as well as an unwillingness to acknowledge new evidence on addressing the nation’s education crisis, fight against the very reforms that will help our kids attain the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory learning they need and deserve. In the process, they perpetuate the educational genocide that has wrecked havoc on our children and communities, and have hobbled efforts to end the racialist policies.
These leaders who should stand for our children deserve to be called out for their failure to do right by them. We cannot let our own people be as much a cause of the debasement of our children as those whose skins aren’t brown. As champions for our black sons and daughters, this must be done. The future of Black America may well depend on it.