Author: Michael Holzman

Pennsylvania’s Educational Caste System

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania was a center of the anti-slavery movement, part of the route of the Underground Railroad, among the principal destinations of the Great Migration…

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania was a center of the anti-slavery movement, part of the route of the Underground Railroad, among the principal destinations of the Great Migration of the descendants of enslaved Africans from the Jim Crow former slave states of the south.

But these days, the Keystone State can no longer be considered by Black people as a gateway to freedom. Especially when it comes to their children attaining a high-quality education.

Today, just 17 percent of African-American adults in Pennsylvania have attained a baccalaureate or advanced degree compared to 31 percent of White, non-Hispanic adults. In fact, the level of higher education attainment for Blacks in the Keystone state is lower than the 20 percent national average for all African American adults.

Fifteen percent of Pennsylvania’s Black residents leave school without a high school diploma. That is higher than the nine percent average for White residents and two percentage points greater than the 11 percent national average for all African Americans.

The consequences can be seen in the economy. A much higher percentage of White residents than Black residents are employed in managerial occupations.  A much higher percentage of Black residents than White are employed in service occupations. Black family incomes are both lower than those of White families in the state and lower than the national average for African-Americans.  The poverty rate for the 1.4 million Black residents of Pennsylvania is more than triple that for White Pennsylvanians.

These matters are all connected.  Adults, particularly Black adults, without a high school diploma have little chance for middle class careers, those without college degrees little chance of securing jobs in the professions. Children whose parents have not graduated from college have less of a chance to do well in school than those whose parents are well-educated.

By failing to close the gaps in both the amount and quality of educational opportunities between Black and White residents of Pennsylvania, its state and local officials ensure that Pennsylvania’s racially-based caste system will remain in place.

The educational and racial caste system begins early. Pennsylvania is ranked 30th for access to pre-kindergarten for 4-year olds by the National Institute for Early Education Research. High quality pre-kindergarten programs have positive effects that continue to be evident through the primary grades.

Perhaps in part because of limited access, Pennsylvania’s early childhood education system does not have the expected positive results in the primary grades for Black children, just 15 percent of whom are in the state’s prekindergarten classrooms.  While 49 percent of White, non-Hispanic, fourth-graders are taught to read at the level expected at that grade, only 17 percent of Pennsylvania’s African-American fourth graders read at grade level.

The Keystone State’s big-city districts especially lag far behind national averages in teaching fourth grade students to read.  While nationally 30 percent of urban children read at grade level in fourth grade, Pennsylvania’s urban schools successfully teach only 19 percent of their students to read proficiently in primary school, while the state’s suburban schools teach more than half of their students to read well—approximately the same proportion left functionally illiterate in fourth grade by the state’s urban schools.

While Pittsburgh’s Black and White kids sometimes end up in the same schools, they don’t get the same quality of education.

Much of the problem is located in Philadelphia, where just 10 percent of fourth grade African-American students are taught to read proficiently, and even fewer, eight percent, of Black children from lower income families are taught to read to grade level.  In Philadelphia, over 90 percent of Black children from lower income families do not reach grade level in reading and nearly two-thirds are functionally illiterate in fourth grade, as are more than half of Black children from middle class families.

Could more access to high quality prekindergarten classes improve this situation?  Most researchers believe it would.  Why, then, is it that 85 percent of Black children in the state are not given that opportunity?

If a Black child remains in a Pennsylvania public school beyond fourth grade, their chances of being ready for college and career will not improve at all.

By grade eight, the same proportion of White children reading at grade level in eighth grade as in fourth grade and a decline to 13 percent of Black students taught by their schools to read as well as expected in middle school. The state’s record for its White, non-Hispanic, students is better than the national average for the group (42 percent), while that for its Black students is worse than the national average of 16 percent, bringing the state’s racial gap to 34 percentage points greater than the national gap, which is in itself unacceptable, of 27 percentage points.

It is generally expected that education is an important aspect of cultural capital that is passed down within families.  But the attitude toward education in the home seems to be overwhelmed by racial disadvantage in Pennsylvania.

The schools in the state teach nearly a third, 30 percent, of White, non-Hispanic, students whose parents did not progress beyond high school to read at the level expected in eighth grade.  This is more than twice the percentage of the Black children of college graduates reading at grade level in middle school. The positive effects of higher education attainment level in the families of Black students in Pennsylvania appear to be overwhelmed by the lack of educational opportunities for Black students in the schools.

In Pennsylvania, it is the color of your skin, not just the education level of your parents, which counts.

While the opportunities for high-quality education in Philadelphia is almost non-existent.

Student educational attainment in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, is divided by income as well as by race.  White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, read at grade level in eighth grade half as often as students from more prosperous White families in Pennsylvania. Black students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, read at grade level in eighth grade just under two-thirds as often in Pennsylvania as Black students from middle class families.

The gap between Black students from poorer families and White students from prosperous families is more than forty percentage points. The gap based on income among White students is approximately twenty points, among Black students it is just eight points. Family economic status matters much more for Pennsylvania’s White, non-Hispanic, students than it does for the state’s African-American students.  One explanation for this might be that, as in New York City, higher family income in Pennsylvania does not protect Black students from relegation to inferior, segregated, schools.

Racial disparities in Pennsylvania compound those of economic class.

The racial gap for students from lower income families is 15 points in Pennsylvania, as it is nationally, but that for students from middle class families is 38 points in Pennsylvania, 14 points greater than the national average. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in Pennsylvania is approximately five times as likely to be brought to grade level in eighth grade reading as a Black student from a low-income family.  A Black student from a comparatively prosperous family in Pennsylvania is not as likely to read at or above grade level in eighth grade as is a White student eligible for the National Lunch Program.

In Pennsylvania, it is the color of your skin, not just the color of your money, which counts.

As with fourth grade, in eighth grade the lack of educational opportunities for African-American students is especially acute in the urban districts.  More than 90 percent of Black students from lower income families in city schools are not taught to read at grade level in middle school and half are left functionally illiterate.  Even middle class Black students are denied a meaningful education in the state’s urban schools: Just 12 percent of them are taught to read at grade level in eighth grade.  It is not that the schools are unable to teach their students to read.

Twenty percent of lower income White students in city schools read proficiently in eighth grade, as do more than half of urban middle class White students.  And in suburban schools nearly a third of lower income and nearly two-thirds of middle class White students are taught to read proficiently.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera is one of the people responsible for the state’s failures to provide high-quality education to Black children. But he’s not the only one.

In Pennsylvania, it is the color of your skin, not just the location of your school, which counts.

The reality of the failure of the state’s education system is partially hidden behind the inflated results reported by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. In 2016, the state reported that 58 percent of eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced (grade) levels, while 11 read Below Basic. This doesn’t square with the National Assessment of Eduational Progress, which reports that only 40 percent of Keystone State eighth-graders were Proficient and above in reading while 22 percent scored Below Basic.

As we know by now, NAEP is considered “the gold standard” of education assessment.  The PSSA does not meet that standard.  The children of Pennsylvania are not well-served by an assessment system that conceals the deficiencies of their schools.

But Black children in Pennsylvania aren’t just punished with low-quality education. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh traditional forms of school discipline also damage their prospects.

A study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center has established that school discipline practices are a good indicator of the racial prejudices of the adults in the schools.  The researchers found that disciplinary actions by teachers and school administrators for subjective issues, “attitude” and such, were much more likely against African-American than White or Hispanic students, while those for actions that can be objectively assessed, such as violence, were more evenly distributed among the racial and ethnic groups.

As with crime statistics, which measure police and prosecutor activity, not simply the activities of those arrested, so school discipline data is a measure of the activities and attitudes of teachers and administrators, not just those of students.  This can be seen in Pennsylvania, where more than five times the percentage of Black students (17 percent) as White students (three percent) were given at least one out-of-school suspension.

It has been found that out-of-school suspensions, like expulsions, are an efficient way to discourage students from completing their educations.

What about graduation rates? The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate reported by Pennsylvania for the 2014-15 school year was 72 percent for Black students and 89 percent for White students. Given that only 13 percent of Black students and 47 percent of White students were reading at grade level in 2011, when they were in eighth grade, it appears that just nine percent of Black students in Pennsylvania who began their high school education four years earlier and less than half (42 percent) of White students received their diplomas while reading at eighth-grade proficiency or better.

The value of the state’s high school diplomas for college and career readiness has been measured by the College Board.  According to the College Board, in 2015 just 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s African-American SAT takers met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark.  Of course, only those students considering college take the SAT.

This is clear: Pennsylvania educates its White students, and does not educate its Black students, so that three times the former as the latter read at grade level in middle school. On average, just 9 percent of the Black students who begin high school in Pennsylvania, and less than half of the White students, graduate reading proficiently.

That is not a good record for White students.  It is a catastrophe for Black students.

Two-thirds of African-Americans in the state of Pennsylvania live in just three counties: Philadelphia, neighboring Delaware and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh). The responsibility for the catastrophic educational failure of the schools in the state can be attributed to the administrations of the districts in those counties, particularly Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The professed mission of the School District of Philadelphia is to provide to “every child in Philadelphia an excellent public school education and ensure all children graduate from high school ready to succeed, fully engaged as a citizen of our world.” The Board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools states in its mission statement that “We will hold ourselves accountable for preparing all children to achieve academic excellence and strength of character, so that they have the opportunity to succeed in all aspects of life.”

The four-year graduation rate for Philadelphia’s Black students is just 61 percent; that for Pittsburgh’s can be estimated at 64 percent. Very few of these graduates are “career- and college-ready.”  Fewer than ten percent were able to read proficiently when in eighth grade; fewer met the College Board’s standard for college and career readiness. They are, instead, prepared to reproduce the trajectory of their parents’ generation, with little chance of upward socio-economic mobility and a good chance of a life of poverty.

Who is responsible?  These people are responsible: The School Reform Commission of Philadelphia, controlled by the governor of the state, is responsible for the failure of the Philadelphia schools to educate most of its African-America students; the Superintendent and Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Schools, for its failure to educate most of its African-American students. The state’s Secretary of Education and the state Board of Education; the state legislature and the governor are responsible for the race-based allocation of educational opportunities throughout Pennsylvania.

Most directly the governor and the two big-city district superintendents should be held accountable for failing to preparing all children so that they have the opportunity to succeed in life.

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Michigan’s Jim Crow Schools

Mississippi and Michigan are the states in the country with the lowest percentage of African-American students reading at or above grade level in eighth grade.  Mississippi teaches just 8 percent…

Mississippi and Michigan are the states in the country with the lowest percentage of African-American students reading at or above grade level in eighth grade.  Mississippi teaches just 8 percent of its Black students to read to national standards in middle school; Michigan teaches just 9 percent.  [The national average is for Black students is 15 percent.]

In both states, about half are functionally illiterate, tested at the “Below Basic” level by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As the percentage of students reading at grade level changes little between 8th and 12th grades, it means that more than 90 percent of Black students in these states are unlikely to graduate from high school college- and career-ready.

It would, of course, be unjust to say that in the 21st century the goal of educators in Michigan and Mississippi is to so limit educational opportunities for Black students that 90 percent cannot read at grade level in middle school, that half are functionally illiterate, that nearly a fifth of Black adults in Michigan and a quarter of those in Mississippi have not finished high school. But what can we say about institutions, and those in responsible positions in those institutions, that year after year fail to meet their responsibilities 90 percent of the time?

Mississippi, the quintessential post-Confederate state, has the nation’s highest percentage of descendants of enslaved Africans: 37 percent.  In Michigan, far to the north, only 14 percent of the population is Black, although there are many more African-Americans in Michigan, 1.4 million, than in Mississippi—1.1 million. Mississippi did not repeal its constitutionally mandated restrictions on voting by means of poll taxes and literacy tests until 1975 nor the requirement for segregated schools until 1978 (a quarter century after Brown).  Michigan has never had a poll tax or a literacy test for the franchise, nor de jure segregated schools.

While the Black population of Mississippi is fairly evenly distributed about the state, although especially dense in the plantation counties along the Mississippi river, that of Michigan is highly concentrated in its southeastern corner, primarily the formerly industrial cities of Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, with a Brown University segregation index for the Detroit metropolitan area of 80, on a scale where 60 is considered very high.

Despite their similarities, there are major differences in the ways that the two states distribute, or, rather, restrict, educational opportunities. In Michigan, over half of Black families and one-third of White families have incomes low enough to qualify their children for free- or reduced-price school lunches; in Mississippi, over one-third of White families and over two-thirds of Black families have qualifying incomes (or qualifying lack of incomes). Both states educate very few of their children, of either race, from low-income families. Each brings just seven percent of their African-American children from low-income families to reading proficiency in eighth grade.  Mississippi manages this marginally better than Michigan for its White students from comparatively poor families: 25 percent to 23 percent.

The picture is quite different among students from more prosperous families.  Mississippi does much better than Michigan for those among them who are descendants of enslaved African, educating just over a quarter to reading proficiency in eighth grade, which we should note is more than either state does for its impoverished White students. Michigan only manages to bring 12 percent of its students from the upper half of the Black family income distribution to grade level in reading in middle school.  Nearly four times that percentage of middle class White children in Michigan learn to read proficiently in eighth grade.

One interpretation of these results would be that while educational opportunity in Mississippi’s public schools is chiefly distributed by income for both Black and White students, while in Michigan, educational opportunities are chiefly distributed by race, with less regard to income. The gap between lower income Black and White students in each state is approximately the same, but the gap between higher income Black and White students is much larger in Michigan. More than twice the percentage of Black students from higher income families in Mississippi read at grade level are brought to grade level in reading than in Michigan.

Few of the Wolverine State’s black children graduate with the knowledge they need for lifelong success.

However, it should be noted that while among White residents of Mississippi, almost two-thirds have incomes high enough to make students from those families ineligible for the National Lunch Program. Just one-third of Black families have incomes sufficient to make their students ineligible for the National Lunch Program. In other words, dividing educational resources by economic class in Mississippi results in increased opportunities for two-thirds of those from White families and decreased opportunities for two-thirds of those from Black families.

At the classroom level, out-of-school suspensions in both states are inflicted on a racial basis.  Schools in Mississippi give Black students more than one-out-of-school suspension three times as often as they do to White students; Michigan does this four times as often to Black as White students, resulting in nearly a fifth of Michigan’s Black students being kept out of the classroom at some point in their school careers. Research has shown that out-of-school suspensions have an efficient negative effect on student learning and frequently lead to the need to repeat grades and, eventually, to leaving school without a diploma.

Mississippi reports a graduation rate for its Black students of 77 percent, for its White students, 83 percent, a six-percentage point racial difference, considerably less than the 13 percent national difference.  Michigan reports a graduation rate for its Black students of 68 percent, for its White students, 83 percent, close to a 15 percent racial difference.  This is bad enough.  But if we look at the basic skill of reading mastered by these students when they were in eighth grade, we can conclude that just nine percent of Black students in Michigan and eight percent of Black students in Mississippi graduate able to read at least at the level desired for middle school students. This means that 59 percent of Black students in Michigan are graduating without the necessary skills for college and a career.

The failure of Michigan to adequately educate its Black residents can be traced to the inequitable support of schools they attend.  Support for public education in Michigan is directly related to the racial make-up of the schools in each district. In the schools of Ann Arbor—where the University of Michigan is located—the schools are more than 90 percent White. The median family income is considerably higher than the state average, as are teacher salaries. The pupil-to-teacher ratio is lower (better) than the state average.

In Detroit, with a student enrollment that is 80 percent Black and a median family income just above half of the state average, teachers are paid less than the state average and the pupil-to-teacher ratio is considerably higher. Nearly 200,000 of Michigan’s 280,000 Black public school students are in the districts of the Detroit metropolitan area and nearby Flint.  The Detroit public schools are under state control and therefore the state government—the legislature and the governor—are directly responsible for how they educate, or fail to educate, their students. The decisions leading to these disparities are not “institutional” or “structural.”  They are the decisions of the governor and the legislature of the state of Michigan to give few educational opportunities to the descendants of enslaved Africans, children for whose education they are individually and collectively responsible.

[Some will mention Michigan’s charter schools and the successes the high-quality operators have had in improving student achievement. But the state allows too many low-quality charters to remain open despite lagging performance. Fourteen percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes; while just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education.]

The only districts in Mississippi with large numbers of Black students are the public schools in the state capitol, Jackson, enrolling 28,000 Black students and those in Desoto County, in the far northwest corner of the state, near Memphis, which enroll 11,000.  According to NAEP, none of the eighth-graders attending Mississippi’s big-city schools read at grade level or above.

Private schools have little effect on the educational opportunities of Black students from low-income families in either Mississippi or Michigan. Private school tuition in Mississippi for a family with two children, one in elementary school and one in high school, would amount to nearly a third of the family income of the average Black family in the state. Similarly, an average Black family in Michigan, with two children, one in elementary school and one in high school, would have to find nearly 40 percent of its income to pay for their private school tuition.

Michigan and Mississippi have separate paths to limiting educational opportunities for the descendants of enslaved Africans.  That followed by Michigan is the racially targeted unequal distribution of educational resources.  That followed by Mississippi is economically focused disparities in education quality in the context of centuries of Black poverty. They both work equally well to perpetuate the status of descendants of enslaved Africans as three-fifths of an American.

College graduation is increasingly important for employment and other economic and social factors.

In Michigan, college graduation rates for both Black and White adults are lower than national averages: 29 percent of White residents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher and 17 percent of Black residents, compared to the national averages of 32 percent and 20 percent, respectively.  The college graduation rate for Black residents of Michigan is almost exactly three-fifths of the White college graduation rate in the state. In large part because of the state’s failure to educate its African-American students, while the median family income of White residents is $68,300, that of Black residents is just over half of that: $37,100. The poverty rate for Black families in Michigan is three and a half times that for White families.

In Mississippi, the state’s percentage of Black adults with Bachelor’s degrees (14 percent) is also three-fifths of the percentage of White adults with Bachelor’s degrees or higher (24 percent). The unemployment rate for African-Americans in the state is more than twice that for White residents.  The median family incomes of both White and Black Mississippi residents are also considerably below national averages.  That of White residents is $62,200, that of Black residents is, again, just over half that: $32,500, hardly different from the ratio in Michigan. The poverty rate for Mississippi’s Black families is three times that for White families.

Recently, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was charged with misconduct in office, a felony, for his role in the Flint water crisis.  It is an interesting precedent. The officials – governors, legislators, members of state and local boards of education and others—who have been responsible for restricting educational opportunities for Black residents of these states could act differently. They could provide the resources needed to close the gaps between the education now provided to their Black students and that provided to their White students.

Michigan’s political leaders could improve educational opportunities for all students.  They have not.  They do not.  It is not because they cannot. It is because they will not.

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The Confederacy of Illiteracy

The Great Migration of the early 20th century colonized some northern cities by descendants of enslaved Africans in search of better living conditions than those they had endured in the…

The Great Migration of the early 20th century colonized some northern cities by descendants of enslaved Africans in search of better living conditions than those they had endured in the former slave states of the south.  Some were successful in this endeavor, for a time.

Over the past couple of generations conditions for many African-Americans living in northern cities—from Buffalo to Cleveland—have worsened.  The realization that the promise of equality that was the “pull” of the migration (Jim Crow constituting the “push”), the realization that that promise was false, has focused attention on the failure of public education in those cities, the rise of mass incarceration, and the maintenance, if not strengthening, of segregation.

While contemplating the hypocrisy of responsible officials in, say, New York City, with their increasingly tiresome expressions of astonishment that their neighborhoods and schools have been segregated into inequality we should not forget the persistence of similar conditions in some of the core states of the Confederacy.

Old times are truly not forgotten in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. In those states an average of just 15 percent of Black adults are allowed to attain enough education for a Bachelor’s degree or better, compared to an average of 26 percent for White residents of those states.  South Carolina is the champion in this matter, supporting 31 percent of its White adults in gaining that amount of education, but only the regional average of 15 percent for its Black residents.  At the other end of the educational attainment scale, the region leaves an average of 22 percent of its Black adults without any education qualifications whatsoever, but only 14 percent of its White adults are without high school diplomas.  The national averages for these measures are 30 percent for college graduates, 14 percent for those without high school diplomas.

In other words, these states educate White residents to U.S. national averages, leaving their Black residents in an educational condition not found elsewhere among the developed countries of the world.

Just like old times.

As a consequence, or, perhaps, just another part of the same effort at maintaining the status quo pro ante, the average Black family income in these states is just over $34,000, that of White families nearly $64,000.  Here the champion is Louisiana, with a $35,000 spread, the $68,000 White family income more than double that of Black families in the state. Hence the contrast, for example, between the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and that city’s Garden District.  The average poverty rate of White individuals in these states, 13 percent, is actually lower than the national average (16 percent), and, of course, less than half that of the 32 percent for Black “citizens”.  The poverty rate of South Carolina’s Black residents is three times that of their White neighbors.

Income is largely determined by education, at least among people who work for a living, rather than inheriting, say, real estate fortunes.  Given the racial disparities in educational attainment in these states, the racial disparities in income follow directly.  But how do these racial disparities in educational attainment come about?

A good way to accomplish this is to limit reading ability.  If a person is unable to read at, say, the level expected of middle school students in eighth grade, they are unlikely to learn much in their remaining school years, unlikely to earn a meaningful high school diploma (of which more below), unlikely to go to and graduate from college or to earn an income above the poverty level (see above).

Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina do well at this task.  The usual measure used for such comparisons is the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ eighth-grade results.  These bi-annual tests are reported out by the U.S. Department of Education as Below Basic (or functionally illiterate), Basic (reads with difficulty), Proficient (meets grade level expectations) and Advanced (hurrah!).  The NAEP reports include outcomes by race and whether or not a student’s family income makes them eligible for the National Lunch Program.

The dividing line between “eligible” and “ineligible” is a family income of about $44,000.  In Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, about two-thirds of Black students and one-third of White students have family incomes low enough to make them eligible for the National Lunch Program. That is something to keep in mind as we look at reading achievement scores in these states.

First, the overall percentage of Black students in these states who read well enough in eighth grade to be assessed by NAEP as “Proficient or Above” is 11 percent.  That is, nearly 90 percent either read eighth grade material with difficulty or not really at all.  Thirty-four percent of White students in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina are assessed as “Proficient or Above” when they are tested on eighth grade reading. As a matter of interest, the national percentage for all students in public schools is 33 percent. The schools in these states manage to teach only one-third the percentage of their Black students to read at the national average for all students or as they do for their White students.  The champion here is Mississippi, which teaches necessary reading skills to four times the percentage of White students as Black students.

We can look a little more deeply into this.  Among the two-thirds of Black students in these states whose family incomes are below the National Lunch Program cut-off, on average just nine percent are taught to read fluently, as compared to 25 percent of the one-third of White students from families with those low incomes. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina have a tight range of these scores for White students from relatively impoverished families: 24 percent to 26 percent.  Despite that, Mississippi is the clear winner, with an 18 percent point spread between the seven percent of its Black students and 25 percent of its White students scoring at the Proficient or Above levels.

Among the one-third of Black students from more prosperous families, 22 percent are brought to the level expected of eighth graders, compared to 41 percent of the two-thirds of White students from prosperous families.  Here, it is South Carolina that is the definite winner in the inequality competition with a 23 percent point spread, based on a remarkable 46 percent record with its White students from comparatively prosperous families.  Perhaps these racial differences among students from families with similar incomes have something to do with differing qualities of education on offer.  Just a thought.

The final step in the public schools toward educational attainment typical of that in developed countries is high school graduation. For the nation as a whole, the graduation rate for Black students is 75 percent, that for White students 88 percent.

Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina report that an average of 78 percent of their Black students graduate, as do 86 percent of their White students.  This is remarkable, considering that only 11 percent of their Black students and 34 percent of their White students could read at grade level in middle school and just 15 percent of the former and 26 percent of the latter turn out to be well enough prepared to continue on to a college degree.

The regional outlier in these matters is Georgia.  That state, with a similar history of slavery, Civil War devastation, Jim Crow and “massive resistance” to school integration, exhibits socio-economic and education indicators remarkably close to national averages.  Educational attainment for Black adults (23 percent B.A. or above) is slightly higher than the national average of 20 percent.  Median income for Black families is about the same as the national average for Black families and the poverty rate is lower.

Sixteen percent of Georgia’s Black students in eighth grade are brought to grade level in reading, compared to the national average of 15 percent for Black students, and the percentage of Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program reading at grade level (12 percent) is identical to the national average for eligible Black students.  The percentage of African-American students who are ineligible for the National Lunch Program, those from middle class families is 31 percent. That is quite a bit higher than the national average for this group of 26 percent.

It is probably not great praise to observe that Georgia does not do worse than most states in attempting to overcome the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow, but Georgia’s record is certainly notable in contrast to the disgrace of its neighbors.  It shows what can be done and the challenges that remain.

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New York’s Jim Crow Schools

There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race.  This…

There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race.  This is, of course, a Marxist position, one clung to by the Communist Party of the United States to its dying day.

But the basis of American society, as even some Communists admitted, is division by race. This was embodied in the original wording of the Constitution, with its three-fifths rule for counting enslaved Africans and their descendants. It dominated debates in the Senate until the imposition of the “gag” rule, barring discussion of slavery; led to the Civil War, and as Jim Crow, determined social structures and social relations in much of the country until the 1960s.

Despite Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation, de jure Jim Crow did not vanish; it was transformed into “Jim Crow by another name,” primarily through the operation of schools and prisons. The stronghold of what Michelle Alexander branded as “The New Jim Crow” is the “black belt” of counties in the former Confederacy, running from Norfolk Virginia to, say, Waco, Texas, with satellites in various urban centers, especially in the line from Louisville, Kentucky to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and New York.

Among the northern urban centers, New York City, because of its size and cultural and political significance, is of particular importance. New York City has an African American population of 2,089,000, a larger number than any other city in the country, more than in many states. How well do the New York public schools perform their task of educating all children, including Black children?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the standard by which education is measured in the United States.  Among NAEP’s many assessments, that for reading is particularly crucial as an indicator, particularly reading at grade 8, when the schools have had sufficient time to overcome many issues arising from home and community.

Results for grade 8 reading for New York City show that 46 percent of White students are Proficient and above (compared to 42 percent nationally) as are 15 percent of Black students (compared to 15 percent nationally).  Forty-four percent of Black students in the city’s public schools and 15 percent of White students were at the Below Basic (difficulty reading) level in 2015.

New York City’s public schools educate three times the percentage of their White students as their Black students to read at grade level in the crucial grade 8 year.  And they leave nearly half of Black middle school students unable to read easily, therefore unlikely to graduate from high school “college and career ready,” unlikely to qualify for or to obtain middle class jobs and incomes.

The failure of the New York City public schools to educate Black students is particularly troubling for male Black students, only 9 percent of whom are at Proficient or above in grade 8 reading in 2015.  Which means, of course, that 91 percent are not.

Student educational attainment in New York is also sharply divided by income.  Thirty-six percent of White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, in the New York public schools reach the Proficient and above levels in grade 8 reading. Other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level 57 percent of the time by eighth grade.  Among Black students, 13 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the Proficient level, while 18 percent of those from more prosperous families do so.  A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in New York is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in grade 8 reading than a Black student from a low-income family.

Notice, however, the different sizes of the gaps between students from relatively poor and relatively prosperous families among Black and White students. It is 21 percentage points among White students, five among Black students.  Or, White students from more prosperous families are 58 percent more likely to read at grade level than White students from less well-off families, while with Black students it is 38 percent.  NAEP’s records for New York City assessments of this type go back only to 2003, but if we analyze those, we find that the family income differences for White students are pretty steady, over time, but for Black students they are narrowing, from 13 percentage points in 2007 to 5 percentage points in 2015.  The reading ability of New York City’s Black middle class students is declining, according to NAEP, while that of Black students from lower income families is remaining relatively flat.

How can this be interpreted? New York is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as are its schools.  While since the (Lyndon) Johnson administration formal housing segregation has been illegal, in New York City even middle class Black professionals are ghettoized. Therefore, their children go to the same schools as do the children of the poorest, single parent, families.  In theory, this should not matter.  In theory, all schools would provide educations of equal—high—quality to all students.  Now, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn I want you to look at . . .

If we are done with that, it is obvious that all but 15 percent of Black children (and 9 percent of male Black children) in New York City are being provided with inferior educational opportunities because they are Black.  And of those, comparatively successful students, many are the children of school teachers and other highly educated parents, in effect, home schooled: the home environment making up for the deficiencies of the school (rather than the idealized opposite).

The racism of the New York City public school system is more or less overt, as witness the unspeakable racial imbalance of the system’s selective high schools, which year after year admit so few Black students that those could be accounted for by the number of children of Black United Nations diplomats. The outcome of all this is that the 65 percent of Black students entering grade 9 in New York City who were given diplomas four years later include about 40 percent who could not read at grade level when they were in grade 8 and probably could not read eighth grade material when they were given diplomas. More than one-third of the system’s Black students do not graduate from high school, two-thirds or more of those who do are far from “college and career ready.”

If a system fails in its professed purpose—say, educating children—more often than chance would indicate, and continues to do so over time, it is probable that it is, in fact, achieving its actual purpose, in this case, perpetuating racism.

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Charters Highlight Inequity

There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools…

There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.

The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.

A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools.  That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.

There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools.  There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.

However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other.  This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school.  Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.

In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City.  Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.

So far, so good.

Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results.  First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty.  That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present.  Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents).  Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.

The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities.  They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches.  Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.

However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools.  Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively.  In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between  every four and five years for the local traditional schools.

The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification.  Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees.  The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond.  In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.

Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?

One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive.  There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..

The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.

The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools.  There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children.  It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.

Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success.  In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries.  We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.

Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.

Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.

What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.

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More Meaningless Diplomas

During the first part of Dropout Nation‘s study of the value of high school diplomas, we looked at graduation rates and eighth grade reading proficiency for Chicago, New York and…

During the first part of Dropout Nation‘s study of the value of high school diplomas, we looked at graduation rates and eighth grade reading proficiency for Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. We will now look at five more districts: Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, in the north, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida, in the south.  As none of these had statistically significant Asian enrollments, we will consider only Black, Latino and White students.

Black student graduation rates are reported by these districts to the U.S. Department of Education as 64 percent in Cleveland, 77 percent in Detroit and 55 percent in Milwaukee; 87 percent in Charlotte and 71 percent in Duval County.  Latino students are reported as graduating at a rate of 61 percent in Cleveland, 81 percent in Detroit and 59 percent in Milwaukee; 80 percent in Charlotte and 74 percent in Duval County, while White students are reported as graduating at a rate of 82 percent in Cleveland, 62 percent in Detroit and 68 percent in Milwaukee; 94 percent in Charlotte and 81 percent in Duval County.

The difference between White graduation rates, on the one hand, and Black and Latino rates, on the other, is rather small, as these things go nationally, varying from about 20 points for Cleveland to about 10 points for the others, except for Detroit, where the difference is inverted—higher Black and Latino than White graduation rates. Charlotte’s graduation rate for Black students is higher than that for White students in the other districts.  Detroit’s graduation rate for White students is lower than that for Black students in all the other districts except Milwaukee.  All of these districts graduate most of their Black, Latino and White students.  Charlotte’s success in this matter is quite notable.

We can now assess the degree to which those districts are successful in actually educating those students, providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary for college and career preparation. Here, again, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ assessment of eighth-grade reading proficiency will be the yardstick.

At eighth grade, 19 percent of Cleveland’s White students read at or above grade level (“Proficient” and “Advanced”), as compared to 12 percent of the district’s Latino students and just 8 percent of the district’s Black students. Too few of Detroit’s White students to measure tested at or above grade level, but 16 percent of the district’s Latino students and a quite astonishing 5 percent of the district’s Black students did so.  Charlotte’s results were 25 percent for Latino, 18 percent for Black, and 59 percent for White students scoring “Proficient” or above on eighth grade reading.  In Duval County, the district’s schools also taught just 18 percent of Black students to read proficiently by eighth grade, as compared to 30 percent of their Latino students and 41 percent of their White students.  Milwaukee did not report data for the most recent year.  In 2013 the district reported 7 percent of Black students, 19 percent of Latino students, and 29 percent of White students reading proficiently at eighth grade.

High schoolers in Cleveland’s district such as those at John Adams High are more-likely to graduate than to read at grade level.

Only Charlotte taught most of any group to read proficiently by eighth grade, 59 percent of its White students.  This was three times the level of the district’s Black students. Yet Charlotte’s results (and those of Duval County) compare well with those of Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, which had results so bad for their Black students that chance effects may have accounted for any success in the districts’ reading efforts for them.

Now, with this information in hand, we can arrive at some kind of judgment of how well-educated are students receiving diplomas from these cities.

Comparing NAEP Eighth grade Reading Proficiency for the Charlotte groups, we found the following: NAEP Eighth grade Reading percent at or above grade level: 18 percent for Black students; 25 percent for Latino students; 59 percent for White students. And these for high school graduation rates: 87 percent for Black students; 80 percent for Latino students; 94 percent for White students. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios:  4.8 for Black students; 3.2 for Latino students; 1.6 for White students.

Close to twice the percentage of White students, more than three times the percentage of Latino students and nearly five times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Charlotte schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.

For Cleveland, we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: eight percent for Black students; 12 percent for Latino peers; 19 percent for White students. The high school graduation rates? Sixty-four percent for Black students; 61 percent for Latino peers; and 82 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: 8.0 for Black students; 5.1 for Latino students; and 4.3 for White students.

More than four times the percentage of White students, five times the percentage of Latino students and eight times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Cleveland schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.

For Detroit, we found the following for the two groups for which we have NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level:  Five percent for Black students and 16 percent for Latino peers. The high school graduation rates:  Seventy-seven percent for Black students and 81 percent for Latino peers. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we get these ratios: For Black students, it’s 15.4, and for Latino peers, 5.1.

More than five times the percentage of Latino students and more than fifteen times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Detroit schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.

For Duval County , we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Eighteen percent for Black students; 30 percent for Latino peers; and 41 percent for White students. And this for high school graduation rates:  Seventy-one percent for Black students; 74 percent for Latino students; and 81 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: For Black students, 3.9; Latino students, 2.5; and 1.99 for White peers.

Twice the percentage of White students, two and a half times the percentage of Latino students and four times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Duval County schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.

Finally for Milwaukee, we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Seven percent for Black students; 19 percent for Latino peers; and 29 percent for White students. This for high school graduation rates:  Fifty-five percent for Black students; 59 percent for Latino peers; and 68 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: Black students, 7.9; Latino students, 3.1; and 2.3 for White students.

More than twice the percentage of White students, three times the percentage of Latino students and eight times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Milwaukee schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.

On average, then, these districts graduate about two and a half times the percentage of White students than are reading at grade level in middle school, while they graduate nearly four times that of Latino students and eight times that of Black students.  Unless remarkable gains are made in reading proficiency in the schools of these cities between grades 8 and 12, there is only a one in eight chance that their Black high school graduates read at grade level, one in four that their Latino graduates do so and less than fifty-fifty that their White diploma recipients can read proficiently. (And given national data, it is unlikely that there are enough gains, if any, between grades 8 and 12 to make a difference.) Of course, those students who are not given diplomas will face bleak futures indeed.

Given the NAEP data on reading proficiency, there is a reasonable assumption that most graduates from the Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Duval County and Milwaukee, like those from the Chicago, New York and Philadelphia systems, and, in particular, their Black and Latino students, initially enroll in community colleges. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, just 29 percent of White, 30 percent of Latino and 20 percent of Black students graduated within 150 percent of normal time in two-year postsecondary institutions. Or, in other words, 80 percent of Black, and 70 percent of Latino and White students who attempted an Associates degree were not prepared to succeed.

In Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Duval County and Milwaukee, as in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, the vast majority of Black and Latino are either not graduating or are being handed diplomas that mean little. Those diplomas falsely represent preparation for adult life, for further education and training. They are false promises.

The federal government has recently taken a firm line with private vocational schools that give out worthless diplomas.  It might be appropriate for the U.S. Department of Education to do something similar with districts that give diplomas to their students whom they have qualified for little beyond remedial education.

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