Author: RiShawn Biddle

Max Eden’s Shoddy Anti-School Discipline Reform Punditry

Your editor usually doesn’t write immediate follow-ups on commentaries. But yesterday’s Dropout Nation takedown of use of faulty data by Manhattan Institute pundit Max Eden and other opponents of reforming school…

Your editor usually doesn’t write immediate follow-ups on commentaries. But yesterday’s Dropout Nation takedown of use of faulty data by Manhattan Institute pundit Max Eden and other opponents of reforming school discipline generated plenty of discussion both in social media and in e-mails. Thanks to those discussions, the flaws in the studies used by Eden and his counterparts, most-notably Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal, have been exposed.

As you would expect — and has become his wont — Eden dodged the report and questions raised by other reformers and education policy scholars. Save for arguing that Oakland Unified School District, whose ban on suspensions for disruptive behavior and other minor infractions was mentioned in his piece, supposedly fell behind academically because of that effort, Eden offered little defense of either his US News & World Report op-ed or his overall arguments.

But while Eden said little, what he did say revealed even more sloppiness in his arguments and thinking. Which given that he and other foes of school discipline reform are helping the Trump Administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos justify their plans to ditch the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of poor and minority children, is worrisome.

In the case of Oakland, Eden declared that research from Stanford University’s Sean Reardon showing that the district’s improvement in student achievement of 4.3 years over a five-year period trailed behind the overall state average made his “case” for his conclusion. The problem? For one, Reardon’s research, which focused solely on how districts improve academic progress for children from third grade to the end of middle school (as well as how poverty affects achievement), never looked at the impact of school discipline policy (or even overuse of suspensions) on achievement. Put simply, there’s no way that Eden can use Reardon’s data to reach or support his conclusions.

It gets worse. As it turns out, Eden probably didn’t mean to mention Reardon’s study, but Boston University grad student Dominic Zarecki’s study of Los Angeles Unified School District’s implementation of a ban on suspensions for minor infractions, the white paper at the heart of Eden’s US News op-ed. The study does mention that it did an analysis of Oakland Unified academic achievement after implementation of its school discipline reform effort to compare results with that of L.A. Unified. Zarecki does note that it found that Oakland Unified trailed the rest of the state in improving student achievement by the 2015-2016 school year, arguing that it proves his study’s declaration that suspension bans damage achievement.

But Zarecki also admits that “we cannot conduct a full difference-in-difference analysis for Oakland because we lack data to measure the change in academic growth”. Zarecki also concedes that Oakland would likely have “had a relatively low growth rate even without the suspension ban”, which, given its decades-long struggles on the education front, goes without saying. As Brian Stanley, executive director of the Oakland Education Fund, noted yesterday, the district “has had fairly low academic growth for a long time.” [Stanley, by the way, offers a rather insightful and data-driven account of Oakland’s school discipline reform efforts that opponents and supporters of school discipline reform should check out.]

This oversight could be considered if Zarecki provided his analysis of Oakland Unified (which is likely based on two years of school-level data instead of at least four years student-level data) in an appendix to the main study. He did not, which means there is no real way for to understand how Zarecki reached this particular conclusion.

It isn’t shocking that Dominic Zarecki’s shoddy research is being championed by Max Eden and other foes of school discipline reform. That’s just what they do.

Of course, this is one of the many flaws Dropout Nation and others have identified. Another is that Zarecki’s study focuses not on increases and decreases in actual achievement and out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, but on differences in differences, essentially looking at growth over the short time frames being measured. The problem with so-called difference-to-difference research design is that it can inflate what would otherwise be minor increases and decreases in standard deviations during the time periods measured. Especially when measuring two-year periods instead of four years and beyond (which would tell more about the success or failure of any implementation or program).

Put simply, Zarecki’s study, already flawed because of its focus on school level data, lack of granularity and other issues, likely yielded inflated results. Zarecki himself admits this when he notes that the two additional analyses he used to check his work didn’t yield similar conclusions.

Given that Zarecki’s study is really more of a class paper that hasn’t been peer reviewed and probably hasn’t been looked over by his doctoral advisor, you can somewhat excuse those flaws. [The fact that his career has been in education research, including time as research director for the California Charter Schools Association, makes this excuse rather weak.] But Eden, a longtime education policy wonk who spent time working for Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute before landing at Manhattan Institute (and who still co-writes pieces with Hess on occasion), can’t justify why he ran with this shoddy work. If your editor can sniff out the weaknesses in Zarecki’s study, then Eden can do so, too.

The fact that Eden ran with Zarecki’s study and conclusions despite all of its flaws isn’t shocking. As mentioned earlier in his wrong citation of Reardon’s study, Eden is sloppy, both in his research and his thinking. This becomes even more clear when you look at his claim to fame, a report released last yeara by Manhattan Institute on school climate throughout the city and the school discipline reform efforts undertaken by the New York City Department of Education under Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill de Blasio.

In that report, Eden concludes that the school discipline reform efforts by Bloomberg, de Blasio and their respective chancellors have led to traditional district schools in the Big Apple becoming less safe for teachers and children. How? By comparing responses of teachers and children in the traditional district to peers in charters on the city’s annual school climate survey. As any researcher can immediately note, such surveys have little usefulness as objective evidence, because they are based on subjective opinions that can change based on who is working in classrooms, because survey designs can be flawed with leading questions yielding results favorable to the pollster, and because survey designs can change drastically from year to year. Eden himself admits this in the study when he notes that he could only measure results on five questions from the city’s school climate survey because the wording had been consistent over time.

What makes Eden’s results even less-reliable is the fact that he didn’t just simply measure the raw results from the surveys over the five-year period (2011-2012 to 2015-2016) being measured, which is the most-reliable way of analyzing what is already unreliable data. Instead, Eden cobbled together a “distribution-of-differences” analysis in which any change of 15 percentage points on each of the questions represented “a substantial shift” in attitudes on school safety, especially for each school in the district. How did he arrive at 15 percentage points instead of, say, 20 or 10 or even five? Eden doesn’t explain. This gamesmanship, along with the lack of explanation, makes Eden’s analysis even less reliable than it already is.

If Eden was being intellectually honest and simply compared the raw numbers themselves, he would have reached different conclusions. Between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, the percentage of teachers citywide (including charter schools) agreeing or strongly agreeing that “my school maintains order and discipline” remained unchanged at 80 percent. Exclude charters results from the survey, and the percentage of teachers just within the New York City district agreeing or strongly agreeing that “my school maintains order and disciplined” increased from 77 percent to 78 percent over that period, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of the city’s survey data from that period. This happened even as the number of out-of-school suspensions meted out by principals  in district schools declined.

Even when using subjective data, Eden’s arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, a point made by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA during testimony at a December hearing held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at which Eden also testified. It doesn’t even stand up to the brief on overuse of suspensions in Big Apple schools released today by Center for American Progress, which uses objective data to look at the number of days children lose when they are kept out of school

Again, this isn’t a surprise. In a report on school safety released last October, Eden reached the conclusion that New York City’s charter schools were “safer” than traditional district counterparts not by comparing raw data from the Big Apple’s school climate survey or even using more-objective data such as incident reports over a period of several years. Instead, he cobbled together an index that gave scores to each of the questions on the survey, then crafted a secondary index in which charters that scored five or more percentage points higher on that first index over a traditional district school, would be rated higher. This approach to analysis is amateur hour at its worst.

The thing is that Eden’s shoddy work product could easily be ignored if not for the fact that he, along with Fordham’s Petrilli, is a leader in the effort to convince the Trump Administration and DeVos to reverse the Obama Administration-era Dear Colleague guidance pushing districts to end overuse of suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline against poor and minority children. The four-year-old guidance, a keystone of federal efforts to spur school discipline reform, has long been the bete noir of so-called conservative reformers everywhere.

Because Eden, along with Petrilli and even Riley’s Wall Street Journal, likely has the ear of DeVos’ appointees (including Kenneth Marcus, the former George W. Bush appointee who will likely end up overseeing the agency’s Office for Civil Rights), the shoddiness of his data and that of his allies matters even more now than ever. Bad policy backed by slipshod data equals damage to children, especially those from Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska Native households most-likely to be suspended, expelled and sent to juvenile justice systems (the school-to-prison pipeline) as a result of districts and other school operators overusing the most-punitive of school discipline.

Which is why shoddy polemicism by the likes of Eden and other opponents of school discipline reform deserve to be exposed and denigrated. School reformers know better than to use bad studies to champion worse policies.

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Max Eden (and other School Discipline Reform Foes) Use Bad Data

There are some amazing things about the internecine battle within the school reform movement over efforts to end overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline,…

There are some amazing things about the internecine battle within the school reform movement over efforts to end overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline, and the effort by so-called conservative reformers to overturn the U.S. Department of Education’s Obama-era guidance to districts on school discipline reform. One is the unwillingness of opponents of school discipline reform, especially Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, to actually engage the three decades of high-quality research that shows that far too many children, especially Black and American Indian kids, are suspended often. The other? That those very opponents attempt to use low-quality research that doesn’t actually prove their defense of such practices, often to ignore the volumes of evidence standing against them.

These two matters become especially clear this morning in an op-ed by Eden in US News & World Report that declares that reducing the overuse of suspensions — especially restrictions on using suspensions for minor infractions such as disruptive behavior that can be addressed through other means — is somehow causing “substantial academic damage” to children in classrooms. Primarily citing a study by Boston University graduate student Dominic Zarecki on Los Angeles Unified School District’s move five years ago to stop suspending children for acting out in class, Eden argues that “suspension bans hurt kids”, hinders the efforts of teachers to manage their classrooms and leads to lower student achievement.

Yet contrary to Eden’s assertions, the study itself doesn’t offer much in the way of hard conclusions. One reason? Because the study doesn’t use student-level academic data. As conceded by Zarecki (who, for some odd reason, goes unnamed by Eden in his op-ed), the study is based on school-level data which doesn’t follow an actual cohort of L.A. Unified students over a period of time. The other problem: That it doesn’t track impact over a period longer than two years. This is a problem especially given that the long-term effects of a reform or an effort can take years (including adjustments in implementation such as improved teacher training) to manifest. Since the study itself doesn’t actually look at student performance over time, or even accounts for matters such as student migration, it “lacks the data granularity” needed to look at how reducing suspensions impacts individual students or even particular groups, much less actually offer any conclusions worth considering. Even Zarecki concedes that based on additional analysis, L.A Unified’s ban “may have had no causal effect” on achievement.

Certainly a study using longitudinal student-level would be hard to do in part because of the efforts by California Gov. Jerry Brown to kibosh more-robust school data systems. But it wouldn’t be impossible. After all, the Los Angeles Times did exactly that in 2010 with its value-added analysis of teacher performance within the district, gaining access to the data after a Freedom of Information request to the school system. Researchers tend to have an easier time obtaining data, especially since they are willing to safeguard privacy and, in many cases, even withhold the name of the district itself (though there are often enough details to figure out which school operator was the subject). Zarecki, who also works for California-based charter school operator Fortune Schools, can easily get in touch with L.A. Unified’s data department if he chose to do so. There is no justifiable reason why the data couldn’t have been obtained for this study.

Put simply, this study is of low-quality. Especially when compared to the research on school discipline that has been conducted over the past decade alone. This includes the 2012 study conducted by a team led by Johns Hopkins University scholar Robert Balfanz that used eight years of student-level longitudinal data to determine that overuse of out-of-school suspensions in ninth grade were positively correlated with likelihood of dropping out of high school, as well as Balfanz’s renowned 2007 study on developing early warning systems with Lisa Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund (which also used eight years of student data, this time, from the City of Brotherly Love’s traditional district) to reach the same conclusions.

This lack of high-quality, along with the short time span being measured, is a problem shared by other studies promoted by other opponents of reforming school discipline. Take the study released last month by Petrilli’s Thomas B. Fordham Institute on Philadelphia’s school discipline reform efforts. Eden also cites the study in his piece. The study’s main conclusions — including the assertion that reducing suspensions for non-violent offenses have little effect on achievement — are also based on two years of school level data that doesn’t actually measure how the reforms impact student achievement. [It also doesn’t take into consideration how well individual schools implemented the reforms, a matter that is discussed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education in a similar study also released last month.] That the study uses school-level data instead of student-level data also means that the conclusions have little value.

Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, along with other opponents of school discipline reform, has a tendency to misuse and overstate data.

In fact, the only useful study the Petrilli-Eden crowd have at their disposal is one conducted last year by a University of Arkansas team led by Gary Ritter. The study, which is based on six years of student-level data, concludes that out-of-school suspensions on their own don’t have a negative impact on student achievement and may lead to “slight” improvement in standardized test performance. But even the Ritter study is little use to them. One reason: Because the study itself doesn’t look at the impact of any particular school discipline reform (the study merely looks at possible impact of suspensions on achievement), it isn’t useful in any argument against those efforts. Another is the fact that the study doesn’t actually measure impact of suspensions based on the number of days kids are kept out of school; in the case of Arkansas, a suspension of more than 10 days is considered an expulsion, which means that thousands of children and their student achievement data have likely been excluded from the study, a limitation conceded by Ritter and his team. [Others have expressed their own concerns about the study.]

Meanwhile Ritter and his team honestly concede that decades of research show that overuse of suspensions damages children when you look at graduation rates and other data. In fact, they concede that school leaders and policymakers can have justifiable reasons for reforming school discipline. Ritter himself publicly stated that his study doesn’t argue for halting school discipline reforms and shouldn’t be used as justification for ending the Obama Administration’s guidance, the bete noir of the anti-school discipline reform crowd.

Despite these caveats, opponents of school discipline reform have insisted on using the study to bolster their case. Eden, in particular, mentioned the Ritter study as a supporting example last month in his testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during one of its hearings. But this isn’t shocking. Eden also mentioned a 2014 study by Russell Skiba of Indiana University, the leading scholar on school discipline reform, to support his argument that racial bias wasn’t a factor in why Black, Latino, and American Indian children were suspended at far higher levels than White peers. Eden did this even though Skiba’s study actually focused on student misbehavior and concluded that minority children weren’t worse-behaved than White counterparts, and therefore, didn’t explain why those kids were suspended at higher rates than White children in the first place.

But again, Eden’s seemingly deliberate sloppiness in handling data and evidence, along with that of his allies, is not shocking at all. Eden was called out by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA during the Commission on Civil Rights’ hearing for making arguments not borne out by his own data. Meanwhile Fordham and Petrilli, who work alongside Eden on opposing school discipline reform efforts, has been called out several times by Dropout Nation and other researchers for other incidents of reaching conclusions unsupported by data. This includes misusing data from NWEA to claim in a 2011 op-ed that focusing on achievement gaps harmed high-achieving students (as well as a study published months earlier that attempted to do the same).

What does become clear is that Eden, Petrilli and company do all they can to dance around what decades of data has proven beyond dispute: That far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. That those practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer. That children from minority households are more likely to be suspended, expelled, arrested and even sent to juvenile justice systems than White peers, even when they are referred to dean’s offices for the same infractions. That also suspensions are far more-likely to be meted out over minor matters such as disruptive behavior and attendance than for violent behavior and drug activity. That soft and hard bigotries among White teachers toward poor and minority children are underlying reasons why those kids end up being suspended more-often than White counterparts. And that teachers and school leaders often use suspensions and expulsions to  to let themselves off the hook for the failure to address the illiteracy that is usually at the heart of child misbehavior.

Given all the facts, it becomes clear that Eden, Petrilli and their allies have little interest in dealing honestly with data and evidence on the damage of overusing harsh school discipline. Which makes them untrustworthy when it comes to the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed in school and in life.

Featured photo courtesy of the New York Times.

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D.C. Denies Children Access to College Prep

Discussion about the reform of public education in the District of Columbia has long tended to be driven by two equally-true narratives. On one side, as reformers such as David…

Discussion about the reform of public education in the District of Columbia has long tended to be driven by two equally-true narratives. On one side, as reformers such as David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute correctly note, there is clear evidence that the three-decade-long effort to transform education in the Nation’s Capital is reaping some fruit. Fewer children are struggling with literacy while more high-quality teachers are working within its traditional district and public charter schools.

On the other side, news over the last few months that D.C. Public Schools allows children to graduate from high schools such as Ballou and Wilson despite high levels of absenteeism and unpreparedness for success beyond secondary school is a clear reminder that those efforts, especially within the district, have been plagued by allegations of test-cheating, favoritism to city officials, efforts to hide the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh school discipline by all school operators, and gamesmanship that have little to do with teaching and curricula.

But there is a third story in the District of Columbia, one that hasn’t been given much consideration by reformers or traditionalists: The state of access to college-preparatory coursework, from Algebra 1 courses in middle schools to Advanced Placement and trigonometry classes critical to success in American higher education. Based on a Dropout Nation analysis of Civil Rights data submitted by traditional district and charter schools to the U.S. Department of Education, the narrative that emerges should displease every D.C. parent, caring adult and political leader.

Regardless of whether a student attends a D.C. traditional district or charter, there is little likelihood of any of them gaining access to college-preparatory education. This is absolutely unacceptable.

Few traditional district and charter school students take AP: Just 23.5 percent of D.C. Public School high school students and 11.4 percent of high schoolers attending charters took AP courses during the 2013-2014 school year. Overall, just 18.8 percent of high school students in the Nation’s Capital took the college preparatory courses that can help them prepare for the rigors of traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships (which are often run by community colleges). Put simply: The average D.C. high school student has just a one-in-six chance of taking an AP course by the time they are supposed to graduate with a diploma.

As you would expect, the numbers are even worse when broken down by race and ethnicity. Just 19.4 percent of Black high schoolers served by DCPS accessed A.P. courses that year. This is lower than the 61.9 percent rate for White students, 47.7 percent for Asian peers, and 26.9 percent for Latino high school students. It doesn’t get much better in charters. Just 11.2 percent of Black high schoolers served by charters accessed A.P. courses in 2013-2014; 36.2 percent of Asian high school students, 12.2 percent of Latino peers, and 8.9 percent of White students accessed AP that year.

Few D.C. high schoolers will take advanced math: Overall, just 30 percent of D.C. high schoolers accessed calculus, trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced math important for success in the working world in 2013-2014. But the bad news gets worse depending on whether you attend a DCPS school or a charter: While 41.8 percent of DCPS high schoolers took advanced math that year, only 11.7 percent of charter high schoolers did so.

Again, the numbers get worse when broken down further. Forty-three percent of Black high school students served by DCPS accessed calculus and advanced math in 2013-2014. Good news on its face. But that’s still lower than the 58 percent of White high schoolers, and 57.4 percent of Asian peers accessing those courses. Latino high school students trail behind, with just 38.9 percent of them taking calculus and advanced math.

Meanwhile, just 12.6 percent of Black high school students served by charters accessed calculus and advanced math that year. This was higher than the four percent of White high schoolers and 7.3 percent of Latino peers accessing those courses, but lower than the 17 percent of Asian high school students taking some form of advanced mathematics.

Only one in six take physics: Few D.C. high schoolers are taking physics, a key course for gaining preparation for success in science and technology courses in higher education (and ultimately, higher-income careers in those fields after college graduation). Just 18.4 percent of all high schoolers in the Nation’s Capital took physics in 2013-2014; this included 19.4 percent of DCPS high schoolers and 16.8 percent of peers served by charters.

Twenty-point-three percent of Black high schoolers served by DCPS took physics that year. That is higher than the 15.4 percent access rate for Latino high schoolers, but lower than the 28.7 percent rate for White peers and 24.7 percent rate for Asian high school students. Within charters, 13 percent of Black high schoolers took physics, compared to 19.7 percent of Latino high schoolers, 16.9 percent of White peers and 12.8 percent of Asian counterparts.

Few middle schoolers gain access to Algebra 1: Just 8.5 percent of the District’s seventh- and eighth-grade students take this important gateway course to other forms of math in 2013-2014. This includes a mere 9.3 percent of DCPS middle-schoolers and a woeful 7.6 percent of peers in charters. Put bluntly: D.C. children are losing out on future opportunities to learn.

Within DCPS, only 5.8 percent of Black middle school students took Algebra 1 that year, the lowest rate of access among all student subgroups. Twenty-seven-point-six percent of Asian middle-schoolers, 24.3 percent of White counterparts, and 10.7 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1 that year. But it doesn’t get better for those in charter schools. Just 6.6 percent of Black middle school students took Algebra 1, versus 20 percent of Asian middle-schoolers, 12.4 percent of Latino counterparts and 11.9 percent of White peers.

Certainly it is clear in some ways that children in Washington are receiving higher-quality education than they did back in the 1990s, when DCPS was known as the Superfund Site of American public education.

Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of D.C. fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined by 25 percentage points (from 69 percent to 44 percent) while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels tripled (from 10 percent to 27 percent). This included a 20 percentage point decline in the number of Black fourth-graders in the city struggling with literacy (from 72 percent to 52 percent) and an 11 percentage point increase in fourth-graders reading at and above grade level (from seven percent to 18 percent).

The reform efforts within DCPS that began under Michelle Rhee and have continued under successors Kaya Henderson and Antwan Wilson helped more children gain the knowledge they need for greater chances of success. Charter schools also contributed to these improvements; the percentage of fourth-graders in charters reading Below Basic declined by 19 percentage points (from 64 percent to 45 percent) between 2005 (when NAEP began including charters in testing) and 2015, while the percentage reading at and above grade level increased by 12 percentage points (from 10 percent to 22 percent).

But as Dropout Nation‘s analysis demonstrates, far too many children, especially Black children (who make up 75 percent of high school students and 77 percent of middle-schoolers in the District’s traditional district and charter schools) continue to be shortchanged of the knowledge they need for success beyond their elementary and secondary years. This is especially clear when looking at how poorly charters in the city are doing in providing such opportunities to the children in their care compared to the traditional district.

D.C.’s public charter schools have helped the District become a better place for children to learn. But their failures in providing college-preparatory courses is stunning and unacceptable.

Some charter school leaders will, of course, argue that this analysis is painting their operations with a broad brush. After all, some charters, most-notably See Forever Foundation’s Maya Angelou schools (which was featured in a Dropout Nation commentary seven years ago), focus on youth who previously dropped out of school or were incarcerated in the District’s juvenile justice system, and therefore, are working hard to stem the years of neglect to which those children were subjected while in DCPS.

Others such as the Knowledge is Power Program, which nationally has done a better job of preparing children for college completion than all but a few traditional districts, will likely argue that college preparatory curricula is already part of the agenda, and thus, AP isn’t needed. Some seem to be doing the work: Some 43 percent of Black high schoolers served by E.L. Haynes Public Charter School took physics in 2013-2014, one of the highest numbers among charters in the District in this category.

But it is hard for Friendship Public Charter Schools, one of the nation’s premiere charter school operators, to explain why it provided calculus and advanced math to 18.2 percent of Black high schoolers attending its schools (and 18.1 percent of its students overall). KIPP can’t explain with credibility why not one student regardless of background took physics that year.Or why BASIS, which has been ranked the top charter school in the District, only had four students —  out of 520 — taking advanced math and calculus in 2013-2014.

Excuses cannot and should never suffice when the numbers are absolutely woeful — and children are being denied high-quality opportunity. There are far too many charters that should be providing college-preparatory learning that aren’t doing so. Which is unacceptable in light of the charter school movement’s mission of providing all children with high-quality educational options that cannot otherwise be found within traditional districts.

As for DCPS? The good news is that it is doing better than its peers among charters in providing college-preparatory courses to its middle- and high school students. But as the data shows, the district is still doing poorly by far too many of our children, especially those Black and Brown. Given the latest news about graduation rate inflation and allowing children wholly unprepared for college and life to walk out of its schools with sheepskins, there is also reason to be skeptical about how well the traditional district is doing in actually educating the youth who are in those classrooms.

District of Columbia officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser (who oversees DCPS), the city council and the Public Charter School Board need to put pressure on all school leaders to step up and provide all of the city’s children with high-quality education. [Congress, which has oversight over the District, should also help. But given the penchant for doing harm, it may as well stay out.] This includes doing better in providing information to families on how they can access college-preparatory courses, continuing to overhaul elementary and preschool curricula (a reason why so few children gain access to college preparatory courses down the road), and pushing both DCPS and charter school operators to ensure that all children are given the classes they need for lifelong success.

Reformers at the national level must also play their part, holding their counterparts in D.C. (and in other districts and school operations inside the Beltway) to account for failures to meet the high expectations we implicitly set for school operators in the rest of the nation. The District must be the model for transforming public education and ensuring high-quality options, curricula, and teaching for all children, especially those Black and Brown.

Certainly the progress being made in D.C.’s district and charter schools should be noted — as should the failures in leadership that still remain. But that isn’t enough. It is also time to address the failures of the District’s school operators to help the children they serve gain college-preparatory learning they need and deserve.

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Betsy DeVos’ Deliberate Ignorance

Between 2002 and 2015, the years under which George W. Bush and Barack Obama presided over federal efforts to spur systemic school reform that included the now-abolished No Child Left…

Between 2002 and 2015, the years under which George W. Bush and Barack Obama presided over federal efforts to spur systemic school reform that included the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act, the number of functionally-illiterate fourth graders, those reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined by 172,078 children. In that same period, the percentage of functionally-illiterate Black fourth-graders declined by 12 percentage points in that same period (from 60 percent to 48 percent) while the percentage of Latino fourth-graders struggling with literacy declined by nine percentage points (from 43 percent to 34 percent), and a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of fourth-graders on free- and reduced-priced lunch programs reading Below Basic (from 54 percent to 44 percent).

The percentage of fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels — essentially at and above grade level — increased by five percentage points between 2002 and 2015. This included a five percentage point increase in the number of Black fourth-graders reading at and above grade level, a six percentage point increase among Latino children, and even a four percentage point increase among children on free- and reduced priced lunch programs, the poorest children in America.

Meanwhile the percentage of functionally-illiterate eighth-graders  on free and reduced-priced lunch plans declined by three percentage points within this period, while there was also a nine percentage point decrease in the number of Latino eighth-graders struggling with literacy. At the same time, the percentage of Black eight-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by two percentage points in that same period while the percentage of Latino eighth-graders reading at and above grade level increased by five percentage points. Even better, the percentage of low-income eighth-grade students reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by three percentage points within that period.

These improvements resulted in part from No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision, which required states to meet their obligations under their own constitutions to provide children in public schools with high-quality education and hold districts and other school operators accountable for failure mills and dropout factories they run. Suburban districts could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children. School operators had to focus on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Data became critical to providing all children with high-quality teaching, curricula and cultures.

As Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor determined in a study of North Carolina schools released last year, No Child’s accountability measures have helped the Tar Heel State improve achievement and even helped families in failing schools move into better-performing ones. On average, a North Carolina school failing AYP for the first time improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation. A poor-performing Tar Heel State school under Needs Improvement for a fifth consecutive year (and forced to develop a restructuring plan) improved reading performance by six percent of a standard deviation, while math achievement improved by nearly three percent of a standard deviation.

Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, fewer children were functionally illiterate and more went on to success in adulthood. This is unlikely to happen during the Trump era.

The improvements in education didn’t come just through efforts in traditional districts. As part of their reform efforts, the Bush and Obama administrations continued the effort first began under Bill Clinton to provide more children with opportunities to attain high-quality education they need and deserve. This includes the opening of 4,179 charter schools between 2002-2003 and 2014-2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education, as well as the launch of school voucher programs in Florida, Indiana and Louisiana.

Thanks to high-quality charter schools in urban communities, children in those schools gain 58 additional days of learning in math and 41 additional days of learning in reading compared to peers in traditional districts. More importantly, as seen with charter school operators such as the Knowledge is Power Program, charters have improved the chances of poor and minority children graduating from traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools and apprenticeship programs (usually run through community colleges) that make up American higher education.

The point in citing these facts? That contrary to the assertions made yesterday by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the reform efforts led by Bush and Obama (and their education secretaries) that began with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and accelerated with Race to the Top achieved measurable and quantifiable results that improved the lives of so many of our children.

From the accountability provisions that forced states to focus on achievement gaps, to the expansion of charter schools, vouchers and other forms of choice, to support for implementation by states of Common Core reading and math standards first developed in the first decade of this century, to the efforts under the Obama Administration to end the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline (as well as criminalization of youth), both Bush and Obama spurred reforms (including the charters and vouchers supported by DeVos herself in her previous role as a school reform philanthropists) that have helped more children gain the knowledge they need to succeed in adulthood.

This is not to say that the efforts were unqualified successes. Nothing done by man will ever be. No Child’s focus on basic literacy and numeracy, a reflection of the mission of the school reform movement for most of its modern history, no longer suffices in an age in which some form of higher education is critical to economic, social, and political success. The Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit, which began the evisceration of accountability that continued with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act two years ago, was arrogant policymaking and sloppy implementation that has harmed systemic reform. Just as importantly, as Dropout Nation has consistently pointed out and as exemplified by the latest edition of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the need to continue systemic reform remains paramount.

Yet the data (along with the long history of  proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bush and Obama administrations successfully embraced the federal government’s necessary, constitutional and life-affirming role in ensuring that every child, especially poor and minority children served poorly by American public education, get a chance at high-quality education. The administrations achieved measurable results that are important steps in helping all children succeed — if DeVos and the Trump regime (along with congressional leaders and those at the state level) bother to do their parts.

Barack Obama didn’t always get it right on education policy. But his administration got it right a lot of the time. Which is saying something.

DeVos’ sophistry, however, isn’t shocking. After all, she gave her speech at an event held by the American Enterprise Institute, whose education czar, Rick Hess, has long opposed focusing on stemming achievement gaps and has generally been, to say it kindly, not all that interested in building brighter futures for the poor and minority children harmed the most by the failures of American public education.

More importantly, DeVos’ dismissal of the need for a strong federal role in education policy and protecting the civil rights of Black and Brown children is reflective of that of the administration in which she serves.

As we already know, President Donald Trump spent the last week doubling down on his White Supremacist rhetoric when he called several African nations which account for the bulk of immigrants to the United States (as well as Haiti) “shitholes”, expressed his preference that the nation bring in more emigres from Norway and other European (White) countries, and dismissed concerns from the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members represent Black and Latino children (as well as their communities) on Capitol Hill.

The statement, which came during a meeting over an increasingly-unlikely deal to stop the deportation of 760,000 youth, young adults and classroom teachers previously covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, once again highlights the reality that the Trump Administration’s long-term goal is what can best be called low-grade ethnic cleansing against immigrants and Native-born Americans who aren’t Caucasian.

DeVos, along with erstwhile school reformers working at the Department of Education, have been willing collaborators in the administration’s war against poor and minority communities. This includes moves to weaken and end Obama-era efforts to stem overuse of suspensions (as well as use of restraints and seclusion practices that harm children condemned to special ed ghettos), to supporting the expansion of 529 college saving accounts for K-12 expenditures that does little for poor and middle class families.

Meanwhile her unwillingness to condemn Trump’s rank bigotry and demagoguery demonstrates that she has little concern for the most-vulnerable children her agency is charged with protecting. Her allies will argue that her past record of advancing school choice proves otherwise. But her record since her nomination for the nation’s top education policy job makes lie of those claims. This is even without considering her general unfitness for her role.

One thing is ultimately clear: Neither Betsy DeVos nor her boss will be the champions for children their predecessors were. For that, and their general indifference to facts and truth, they should both be ashamed.

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A Holy Call for School Reform

Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his…

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

John Sullivan Dwight’s translation of the third verse of Placide Cappeau’s and Adolphe Adam’s O Holy Night. As reformers, we must embrace these words by helping children and their families break the chains of illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as end the oppression of educational failure.

On this Christmas Eve, let’s commit ourselves once again to building brighter futures for all our children.

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The Integration Mirage

If the Century Foundation and other advocates for socioeconomic integration are believed, Cambridge Public School in Massachusetts is supposedly the model for harmonious, high-quality educating of all children regardless of…

If the Century Foundation and other advocates for socioeconomic integration are believed, Cambridge Public School in Massachusetts is supposedly the model for harmonious, high-quality educating of all children regardless of background. This is because “73 percent of schools were balanced by race in the 2011–2012 school year” and 64 percent of them were “balanced” by socioeconomic status (including percentage of kids on free- and reduced-priced lunch plans). Declares Century in its lullaby to the school: “Cambridge remains a leader in school integration”.

Yet a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education offers a much different story than what Century and others want to promote. If anything, the rationing of opportunity for high-quality education is as much a problem in Cambridge and other districts considered successes of integration as they are in the nation’s most-highly segregated traditional districts.

Just 8.5 percent of Cambridge’s 577 Black high school students — 49 of them, to be exact — took Advanced Placement courses in 2013-2014. This is four times lower than the 34. 5 percent of White peers (226) taking the college preparatory coursework. [Sixteen-point-four percent of Latino high schoolers took AP that year.]

It gets only slightly better when it comes to access to calculus, trigonometry and other forms of advanced mathematics. Twenty eight-point-four percent of Black high schoolers took college-preparatory math in 2013-2014. But that still trailed the 48.4 percent of White peers who took those course. [Some 35.2 percent of Latino high school students took calculus and advanced math.]

The numbers got slightly better when it came to physics, a critical gateway course for science, technology, engineering and math careers. Thirty three-point-four percent of Black high schoolers took the course compared to 35.9 percent of White peers. But only 28.7 percent of Latino high schoolers took the course.

Meanwhile there is another form of denying opportunity that is pernicious within Cambridge — in the form of who gets put into its special ed ghettos. One out of every four Black children in Cambridge’s district — 25.9 percent of Black children in its care — are labeled special ed cases, as are 25.4 percent of Latino peers. This is almost double the (also far too high) 14.2 percent of White children placed into special ed. Based on those numbers, a Black or Latino child in Cambridge has a one-in-four chance of being denied the high-quality teaching and curricula they need for lifelong success.

Districts such as Stamford Public Schools are touted as examples of success in integration. But the data proves that illusory.

Even worse, the Black kids condemned to special ed are more-likely to be subjected to out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that ensure that they have a one-in-six chance of graduating from high school. Cambridge meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 9.7 percent of Black children and 8.9 percent of Latino peers in Cambridge’s special ed ghettos; this is three times higher than the 3.5 percent out-of-school suspension rate for White peers.

For all of Century’s talk about Cambridge representing the success of socioeconomic integration, the data on equality of opportunity doesn’t support it. But this should be no surprise — especially to otherwise-sensible outfits such as the Center for American Progress (which released its own call for integration this week). Because integration has never proven to be the solution for the nation’s education crisis and its damage to the futures of poor and minority children that its proponents claim it to be.

Take the Jefferson County district in Louisville, Ky., another district that has been touted by Century and others for efforts on integration. Back in October, the foundation bemoaned an effort by the state legislature to end its “controlled choice” effort and allow families to send their kids to neighborhood schools. Just 11 percent of the district’s Black high schoolers and 18 percent of Latino peers accessed AP courses in 2013-2104, versus 28.5 percent of White high school students. Only 12 percent of Black high school students and 14.2 percent of Latino peers took calculus and advanced mathematics; this is lower than the 21.5 percent of White peers who accessed those courses.

Meanwhile the denial of high-quality education in the form of sending kids to special ed ghettos remains a problem. Fourteen-point. six percent of Black children are put into special ed, slightly higher than the 12.3 percent of White peers. [Only 6.4 percent of Latino children are condemned to special ed.] Yet Black children in special ed will suffer even worse than White peers when it comes to out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. Jefferson County meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 17.7 of Black children, compared to just 7.1 percent of White peers (and 10.2 percent of Latino students). Even when Black and White children are equally condemned to educational failure, they are not harmed in equal ways.

Another ‘model’ for integration is the Stamford district in Connecticut, which has been credited by Century for “remarkable success maintaining racially and socioeconomically desegregated schools”. Yet only 14 percent of Black high school students and 17 percent of their Latino peers took AP courses in 2013-2014, compared to 40.5 percent of White peers. Just 15.1 percent of Black high schoolers and 14.3 percent of Latino counterparts took calculus and other advanced math, two times lower than the 32.2 percent participation rate for White peers.

Meanwhile 19.1 percent of Black children and 12.6 percent of Latino peers were condemned to Stamford’s special ed ghettos. Only 9.2 percent of White children were denied high-quality education. Within those ghettos, Stamford meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 13.3 percent of Black students and 6.6 percent of Latino peers. Just 3.3 percent of White students — 16 in all — were suspended one or more times that year.

Your editor can go on and on with each of the nine examples Century touts as models of success in socioeconomic integration — as well as point out other examples such as Clinton Separate School District in Mississippi. But that would be piling on. What the data points out is that for all the claims advocates make, socioeconomic integration doesn’t address the underlying issues that keep poor and minority children from receiving the high-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures they need for lifelong success.

Socioeconomic integration doesn’t deal with the reality that mixing Black and Latino faces into White spaces doesn’t address the myriad ways traditional districts deny opportunities to them. This includes the gatekeeping by school leaders, teachers and guidance counselors of gifted-and-talented programs that are the first steps towards kids attending AP and other college-preparatory courses, the low-quality instruction and curricula in regular classrooms that keep Black and Brown kids off the paths to success, and even selective high schools such as those of New York City, which Contributing Editor Michael Holzman has shown to be forms of “segregation by another name”.

Oddly enough, the magnet schools and other “controlled choice” models integration-as-school reform advocates often tout are among the worst offenders. One reason? Because they are as much used by districts as tools for luring and keeping White families at the expense of poor and minority children as they are mandated by courts for integration. [By the way: The power to use choice and high-quality education as a political tool is one reason why traditional districts oppose the expansion of charter schools in the first place.] Basically, magnets and controlled choice deny our most-vulnerable children access to high-quality education in the name of socioeconomic balance. Even worse, the approaches are no different in practice than the kinds of “curated segregation” that take place in many cities today.

There is a reason why charters have become the choice of so many Black families: Because of the opportunities for children to have their cultures and lives affirmed.

Integration also doesn’t address the failure to provide poor and minority children with teachers who are subject-matter competent and also care for them regardless of their background. As Dropout Nation noted last month, far too many Black and Brown children are taught by teachers who subject them to the not-so-soft-bigotry of low expectations, harming their chances for high school graduation and college completion. Nor does integration address the need to overhaul how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers, deal with the need to bring more talented Black people (including midcareer professionals ready to work with kids) into classrooms, or even the near-lifetime employment rules (in the form of tenure) and teacher dismissal policies that keep so many low-quality teachers in classrooms often filled with the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Addressing those underlying issues requires undertaking the kinds of teacher quality overhauls reformers have been pushing for the past two decades, ones that integration-as-school reform advocates often oppose. Put bluntly, it is difficult for your editor to take integration advocates seriously when they refuse to deal honestly with the consequences of policies and practices that allow educationally-abusive teaching to fester.

Meanwhile integration fails to address the restrictions on opportunity for poor and minority children that result from the traditional district model as well as the zoning policies and property tax-based finance systems on which it is sustained. Integration does absolutely nothing to address how districts use their dependence on property tax dollars to oppose the ability of poor and minority families in other communities (who finance those schools through state and federal dollars). Nor does it stop districts from using school zones and magnet schools as tools for denying opportunity to the Black and Brown families who live within them. And it definitely doesn’t stop White communities seeking to secede from integrated districts from doing so.

It’s long past time to break the ties between educational opportunity, property taxes and housing policy. This means moving away from a model of public education built upon districts and school boundaries (which integration merely overlays) to one in which states finance high-quality opportunities from which all children and families of all backgrounds can choose.

Finally, what integration advocates fail to admit is that their approach is patronizing to the very Black and Brown families for which they proclaim concern. This is because throughout American history, integration (along with its kissing cousin, assimilation, about which American Indians know all too well) has always been based on the racialist idea that Whiteness is superior, that White people are better, and that if it isn’t close to White or attended by White, then it is inferior, and by implication, should be destroyed.

Anyone who has gone to a Historically Black College and University, or been to a rural White school knows this isn’t true. Even worse, it is unconscionable and immoral for anyone to believe it or embrace it or perpetuate it. But the fiction remains as pernicious and destructive now as it was during the heyday of integration in the 1960s and 1970s when schools in Black communities were shut down instead of being provided with the resources they needed to serve children properly. If allowed to re-emerge, that thinking will damage the new efforts Black and Latino people are doing now to help their children succeed on their own terms.

For Black and Latino families who just want and deserve high-quality schools in the communities in which they live that also affirm their cultures, where their kids also go to schools with kids who look like them, where they know that they can succeed (even when they are told otherwise), integration remains what Charles Ogletree once called a false promise. Based on the data, their feelings are justified. They are also tired of having their children being forced to teach White people’s children how to treat them with respect, and exhausted with negotiating with White people for the resources their children are supposed to get by law. Those feelings are also well-deserved. Integration does nothing to affirm the people it is supposed to help.

If we want to build brighter futures for all children, especially those Black, Brown, and poor, we have to get to continue to overhaul the policies and practices that keep them from getting the knowledge they deserve. Focusing on integration as the solution merely papers over the hard work that must be done.

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