Over the past couple of years, Hamlet and Olesia Garcia have learned the hard way about the Zip Code Education policies that punish families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, for being unwilling to accept the worst American public education. While the circumstances that have led to Hamlet and Olesia facing a jury trial next month in a suburban Philadelphia court are different than that of Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tonya McDowell, the Garcias have used their struggle as an opportunity to fight strongly for expanding school choice and Parent Power for all families. The Garcias deserve the support of every reformer and every person who wants brighter futures for all children.
In this Best of Dropout Nation from December 2012, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why Hamlet and Olesia’s battle against Zip Code Education policies should inspire all of us to push for expanding school choice and end restrictions on the opportunities for all children to attain high-quality education. Read, consider, follow the Garcias on Twitter, and support Hamlet’s and Olesia’s legal fund.
For an illustration of the ridiculous of families facing criminal charges for the laughable non-offense of “stealing education” — and end Zip Code Education policies such as restrictions on inter-district choice that perpetuate these problems — consider the case of Hamlet and Olesia Garcia of Philadelphia.
Hamlet and Olesia, insurance agents who own their own firm, had placed their daughter into an elementary school, Pine Road, that was next door to their home — and across district lines — in the Lower Moreland Township district last year after the couple had separated. This shouldn’t have been a problem. After all, Olesia had moved in with her father, who lived in the district and through his property taxes, was paying plenty into its coffers. But when Olesia moved back with her husband two months before the school year ended, the Garcias kept their daughter in the school so she could finish out the year because, like most caring parents, they wanted to do their best to provide their child with a stable (and high-quality) school culture.
But since September, the Garcias have been battling with Lower Moreland and the Montgomery County District Attorney, both of which have apparently decided to make an example of the family for daring to send their kid to school. Despite the taxpaying status of Olesia’s father and the fact that the Garcias even offered to pay back the district for the those last two months — and even pay the district to keep their daughter in that school for this school year (the daughter is now attending a private school), the Garcias now face criminal theft charges (and the dire consequences that come with conviction) for an act that hardly merits either an indictment, or the expense Lower Moreland spent to hire a private investigator to look into the family, or even the costly prosecution being pursued.
Hamlet and Olesia can at least say they have folks on their side. Within the last couple of months alone, Democrats for Education Reform (and the head of its California branch, Gloria Romero), Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel, and other Parent Power activists have jumped into the fray. They, in turn, have brought the harsh spotlights of national media outlets to bear on how Lower Moreland (which has few Latino or black students in its enrollment) has only pushed to prosecute the family of one of the few minority kids that had attended its schools. [Dropout Nation, being supportive of the Garcia family, asks you to sign this Change.org petition, or call up Montgomery County D.A. Risa Vetri Ferman at 610-278-3090 to demand that the charges be dropped.]
Certainly the Garcia’s case isn’t similar to that of Kelley Williams-Bolar, whose conviction for stealing education attracted national attention last year or that of Connecticut grandmother Marie Menard. Nor is their case that similar to Annette Callahan, the Waukegan, Il., mother of five whose effort to provide her youngest two children with high-quality education led to a battle with the Beach Park district over sending her kids to its schools, even though her ex-husband was a taxpaying resident there. And clearly the Garcias don’t face the same plight as Tanya McDowell, the homeless Bridgeport, Conn., mother who will spend the next five years of her life in the Nutmeg State’s York Correctional Institution for sending her son to a modestly-better school in the Norwalk district.
At the same time, Hamlet and Olesia are no different than Kelley, or Marie, or Annette, or Tanya in their pursuit of providing the kin they love with brighter futures. This included making sure that their daughter stayed in a nurturing school environment even as they themselves struggled to deal with the strain that comes with marriages facing trouble. Pine Road Elementary was not only the neighborhood school for Olesia’s daughter while she and her mom were living with her grandfather, it is also two miles away from the home in which her dad still lived (and much-closer than William A. Loesch Elementary, the Philadelphia district school the daughter had previously attended); so sending their child to Pine Road assured that their daughter would still be able to see both her parents even if they were no longer together. Given how close Pine Road was to Hamlet and Olesia’s home (further away by just a mile or so, than Loesch), the very fact that a family’s school choices are restricted by boundaries — especially when as taxpayers to Pennsylvania’s state government, they finance Lower Moreland’s budgets, also makes the district’s efforts to prosecute the family even more laughable.
All in all, the Garcia case once again shows why we must put an end to archaic Zip Code Education policies that restrict families (especially those from poor and minority backgrounds) from providing their kids with high-quality education.
In many ways, stealing education prosecutions are just manifestations of this longstanding opposition among district bureaucrats and other traditionalists to expanding school choice, and their desire to maintain their preferred approach to American public education. From where they sit, expanding choice will lead to the end of public education as they prefer it (government-run, no private-sector or parochial school players, and uninterrupted funding whether or not they do the job of improving student achievement). The very idea that families are capable of making smart decisions for their kids if given high-quality data, and should be lead decision-makers in education, also disturbs them. After all, they distrust families, and think that only they, the supposed experts, should decide which kids should get highly effective teachers and comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. This desire to keep control over funding and policy (along with the long-term fiscal crises resulting from decades of feckless spending) is one reason why districts hire investigators to keep tabs on families they suspect are attending schools outside of their boundaries. It also explains why districts in Louisiana (along with affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) to kibosh the Bayou State’s school voucher program, and traditionalist-minded school leaders in Michigan are up in arms over Gov. Rick Snyder’s push to overhaul school funding.
But this opposition to expanding choice (along with the stealing education prosecutions that partly emerge from it) wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the hemming and hawing among states about taking over the full funding role that they need to undertake in order to make choice and other reforms a reality. Thanks to decades of battles over equal funding of schools and efforts at property tax relief, states now provide the plurality of all school dollars, accounting for 48 percent of all school revenues nationwide. Pennsylvania is an exception, with the state only providing 36 percent of school funding (and less than a fifth of Lower Moreland’s revenue). States could easily pave the way for choice by replacing all local funding with state dollars, essentially turning the dollars into vouchers that follow every child to whatever school, public, private or parochial, they so choose.
Yet save for a few — including Snyder, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — governors and legislators haven’t fully embraced moving towards full state funding. This reticence exists even though it isn’t that hard to do politically, and can be done as part of an effort to reduce property taxes (half of which usually are poured into the coffers of traditional districts). But because state leaders aren’t willing to do so, this stalemate allows districts can justify opposition to school choice; after all, they can oppose school choice because they still collect local property tax dollars and parents outside their boundaries don’t provide those funds (even though they are financing the same schools through their state income taxes). At the same time, the districts can even deny choice to the children they are supposed to serve by continuing zoned school policies.
The consequences are borne by four out of every five children and their families, who have no access to school choice, and are thus stuck with whatever is offered in traditional districts. Especially for poor and minority families, this means subjecting their kids to educational neglect and malpractice that endangers their futures. This unwillingness to overhaul school finance also perpetuates one of the tenets of the Poverty Myth of Education held so deeply by so many education traditionalists: That poor and minorities don’t share the same interest in providing their children with a high quality education as they do, and won’t do whatever it takes to help their kids succeed. This racialist and condescending notion never considers the reality that for these families, simply moving from one zip code to another can be economically impossible — and given that districts often arbitrarily change their zoning policies, even moving residences doesn’t guarantee high-quality school options.
But it isn’t just an academic problem. As in the case of the Garcias (and for McDowell), even those families who want to structure education in ways that ensure their children have stability — even when circumstances aren’t necessarily so great — are also stymied by Zip Code Education policies. Considering that marital discord and splits has always been a part of life even before the turmoil unleashed by divorce laws in the 1960s (legendary business titan John D. Rockefeller was himself the product of a single-parent home), ending Zip Code Education policies can help families do all they can to shelter their kids from the storms of life. American public education shouldn’t make it harder for parents to do what’s best for their children.
Lower Moreland and Montgomery County should cease their prosecution against Hamlet and Olesia. More importantly, reformers should use the Garcia case (and that of Kelley, and Tanya, and Annette, and Marie) as an opportunity to expand choice by overhauling school funding. And this will help all families provide high-quality education to our children.
As the nation marks the first anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 26 children, teachers, and school leaders, there remains plenty of debate about addressing gun violence. But it is important to keep in mind that mass murders such as this are rare, especially in light of the dangers our children face each day, both physically and educationally. More importantly, there are plenty that we can do for our kids to keep them on the path to lifelong success.
In this Best of Dropout Nation from last year, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains what we should do for our children and our communities. Read, consider, and take action for better lives for all children.
As your editor, I’m loathe to comment more than necessary about last week’s massacre of 26 lives — all but six children under the age of seven — in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. From where I sit, rare incidents of mass carnage tend to bring as much of the worst out of people as they inspire the good. So far, I haven’t been proven wrong. From simplistic calls for gun control laws, to senseless proclamations about the propensity for violence among the mentally ill, to the scapegoating of any bogeyman available for the picking, far too many people have allowed their righteous indignation at the slaughters of these innocents to overwhelm their thoughtfulness.
Yet any close look at the Newtown massacres shows that this, like so many incidents, avail no one of a simple solution. For one: Mass murders are incredibly rare, with 100 incidents in the past three decades, or less than one percent of the 13,913 homicides reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year alone. The fact that mass murders are rare — along with the fact that the mother (and victim) of Adam Lanza, who committed the heinous murders — was a law-abiding gun owner, makes it is hard for any thoughtful person to use mass murders such as what happened in Newtown as either a strong case for enacting new gun control laws or for crafting laws allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in classrooms. One would even dare say that both sides of the gun control debate appear to be craven opportunists instead of being compassionate caregivers to the families of the victims in their time of suffering. The fact that less than two percent of homicides involving youth happen on school grounds, according to the U.S. Centers on Disease Control, and, even with questionably-reported statistics, that school violence has been in decline for the past three decades, also makes the Newtown massacres even less-useful for any solid discussion about preventing crime against our children or about the use of school discipline in schools. Such overreaction over the massacre in Columbine High School in 1999 was one reason for the overuse of suspensions and expulsions (as well as passage of zero-tolerance laws) that are a major culprit in the nation’s education crisis, and why 150 children drop out each hour into poverty and prison.
Anyone using Newtown as a fulcrum for a discussion about the role of mental illness and mental health treatment must also keep a few things in mind. The first? That few of the mentally ill ever commit a violent crime. This includes those diagnosed with schizophrenia — a disease often associated with violent crime in the public imagination — who are less likely to commit a violent crime than someone with bipolar disorder or major depression. If anything, as Heather Stuart of Queens University in Canada has pointed out, the mentally ill are more-likely to be subjected to violence than those of us in (arguably) good mental health, and are especially prone to abuse by relatives and significant others taking evil advantage of their vulnerabilities. A drug addict or alcoholic is three times more likely to commit a violent crime than anyone with a mental illness, according to medical sociologist Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University based on data from the National Institute of Mental Health’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area. Certainly a real discussion needs to be had about overhauling the other super-cluster of failure that is the mental health treatment system, a matter about which I have become well-versed on a personal level as a relative of someone with a mental illness. This is especially clear from the horrific fact that prisons and jails have now replaced the barbaric institutions known as insane asylums as the mental health centers of first and last resort for young men and women who are both homeless and mentally ill. But as with any incident of mass murder, Newtown will prove far less useful in advancing such discussions one way or another.
Meanwhile we all need to be sensitive about the conversations we have and how we have them. Behind every incident such as the Newtown massacre are people. Mothers and fathers who are grieving. Sisters and brothers who are in sorrow. Communities where the victims are known and beloved by even the most-distant of neighbors. It is important to have honest conversations about the ills that plague society. But we must also take care to remember that times of tragedy are not about our own concerns. We should spend our time praying for the families, and supporting organizations that are helping them during their moments of sorrow. One way to do this is to support the Connecticut Parents Union’s effort this week to provide counseling and teddy bears to Newtown’s families. Another is the effort being undertaken by the United Way there. And, most importantly, pray for the families; they need that more than any sloganeering and punditry.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some lessons that can be learned from the Newtown massacre — or that they cannot be applied starting now. Certainly there are. The most important of them is that we must build nurturing cultures so that our children know their own names and weather the storms and tragedies that come as part of being alive.
This starts with our families providing love, moral fiber and undying faith. As Proverbs 22:6 makes clear, a child who is taught well by their parents and caregivers will stay on the path to being a healthy, confident person of character. It also includes our schools — and not just about academics. We serve our children well when we transform education in order to ensure that they are taught by high-quality teachers and school leaders who care for them, and attend schools whose cultures build up them up. Finally, each and every one of us should take a child who is not our own under our tutelage. This was a point Howard-John Wesley, the pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., made clear in a sermon he gave yesterday. As the old African proverb made clear, it truly does take villages to help our children become men and women of strong character.
Most importantly of all, we must keep in mind our obligation, both to our children and to our fellow men and women, the role we each must play in improving the world in which we live. This extends beyond the systemic reform of American public education or overhauling any of the social systems that feed into our communities. As Americans, we have an obligation to live up to what John Winthrop, and later, Ronald Reagan, would call our status as the shining city on a hill upon which the eyes of the world shall rest. We cannot fail to meet our obligations at the hill’s summit, especially when it comes to the futures of our children. When we volunteer at a soup kitchen, launch a ministry within our churches, or simply donate to a worthy cause, we are doing our part to make our nation and our world better places in which to live.
Let’s take this time to pray for the families. Let’s put the energy unleashed by this tragedy to thoughtful and productive use. And let’s teach all of our children well.
It is just that simple: The better-educated a person is — and the more education they get, the more likely they will avoid economic and social despair. The rewards flow into the communities in which they live, with higher levels of home ownership, entrepreneurial activities, and civic activities that lead to high quality of life that benefits everyone. Yet traditionalists and even some reformers continue to argue the Poverty Myth of Education, claiming that schools cannot provide high-quality education foe the poorest children until we address conditions in communities through oft-ineffective anti-poverty programs.
In this Best of Dropout Nation from August 2012, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why transforming American public education is critical to stemming the conditions of poverty that filing and mediocre districts help perpetuate. Read, consider, and take action.
Last week, Dropout Nation contributor Matt Barnum noted the penchant of education traditionalists to advance the Poverty Myth of Education through faulty statistics and exaggerated claims that school reformers don’t offer thoughtful ideas on how to help families emerge from being economically poor. These two issues have come up once again, this time, in a “dialogue” between Education Week columnist Anthony Cody and Chris Williams of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on systemic reform.
Cody took a shot at advancing poverty mythmaking last week when he proclaimed in one of his responses that Gates and other reformers were ignoring “the effects of poverty and racial isolation” on how children perform in school and ultimately, their paths in life upon adulthood. By focusing on improving teacher quality and other reforms instead of attempting to “hold society accountable” for impoverished conditions, school reformers fail to tackle ”the conditions in which [students] live”. Instead of transforming schools, Cody would rather embrace so-called Broader Bolder approaches featuring anti-poverty programs for which education traditionalists unsuccessfully advocated a few years ago (as well as increasing school funding, and support the expansion of public- and private-sector unions). He latter declares that Gates failed to address his points in its counterpoint.
As with so many traditionalists, Cody would rather ignore the fact that reformers actually do talk plenty about addressing poverty, just not in the manner that fits his impoverished worldview on the role education plays in addressing those issues. He also ignores the reality that the education spending has continued to increase for the past five decades, and that much of the troubles with American public education has little do with money than with the fact that so much school funding is trapped by practices such as degree- and seniority-based pay scales for teachers that have no correlation with improving student achievement. But those are matters for a later day. Why? Because Cody’s puts on full displays the problems of the poverty mythmaking in which he and other traditionalists engage.
Through citing a piece from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, Cody attempts to use data from the infamous study on child vocabulary development written by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. But as Boston College professor Curt Dudly-Marling (no fan of the school reform movement) has noted in his own work, the Hart-Risley study is based on a comparison of six poor black families in Kansas City and 13 middle-class households, plagued by “serious limitations in their methodology and analysis”, and essentially plays into stereotypes held by traditionalists that poor families are incapable of helping their kids learn. Simply put, Cody is basing his argument in part on shoddy data and desultory thinking. This shouldn’t be shocking. The use of Hart and Risley’s crap study (along with the even more abysmal pedagogy offered up by Ruby Payne) is typical among traditionalists looking for go-to sources to base their faulty argument.
In citing the impact of crime and violence on children in poverty, Cody fails to consider how dropout factories and failure mills (along with the lack of focus by city officials on addressing quality-of-life issues) feed into crime-ridden conditions. The most-critical area schools struggle is in providing literacy instruction and curricula, especially in identifying and helping struggling students in the early grades. This has tremendous consequences for kids. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills — and those third graders struggling with reading tend to struggle with school discipline issues two years later. This is one reason why young black men who are high-school dropouts had a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34, according to Princeton University researcher Bruce Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington in their 2004 study — and why high school dropouts made up 40 percent of all first-time inmates in state prisons in 1999 (and even higher when one adds former dropouts who attained General Education Development certificates).
Cody also attempts to recycle one of his earlier arguments: That teachers are not the most-important factor in student achievement. He bases this argument on the generally held assertion (originating from the famed Coleman study) that schools only account for 40 percent of student achievement — and that teachers account for half the impact. But Cody fails to admit is that many researchers think that the percentage may actually be understated and that the role of both schools and teachers on student achievement is even greater than can be quantified. Spyros Konstantopoulos of Northwestern University pointed out in his 2005 meta-analysis that teacher quality may have a much-larger impact on student achievement in areas such as mathematics and science, largely because those are subjects more-likely to be learned by students in school than at home. Another study, co-written in 1998 byValue-Added godfather Eric Hanushek, John F. Kain and Stephen Rivkin, noted that the impact of teachers on achievement could easily be underestimated largely because of grade variation in teacher quality, errors that may be inherent in the tests used at the time, and the problems of using lower-bound estimates. Given the growing evidence that low-performing students with three consecutive high-quality teachers will make gains in achievement, Cody can’t just wish away the importance of high-quality teaching (or excuse laggards who perpetuate educational malpractice on poor kids).
Then Cody makes the rather simplistic statement that family income levels have a tendency to correlate with student achievement. As Dropout Nation Contributing Editor (and research czar for the Schott Foundation for Public Education) Michael Holzman has noted, simply pointing to this tendency tells little about why, and more importantly, ignores the reality that there are schools and entire states where poor kids are achieving at the same levels as middle-class peers. More importantly, by simply arguing that poverty is destiny, Cody ignores the reality that the real problem of poverty lies with Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling, and outdated practices and racialist concepts such as ability-tracking, which deny poor families (along with peers from minority backgrounds) opportunities to provide their kids with high-quality instruction, curricula and school cultures of genius.
But the biggest problem with Cody’s piece lies with its rather unjustified contention that anti-poverty programs are the long-term solutions for fighting poverty. One only needs to look at the history of government-run anti-poverty efforts, and pay attention to today’s knowledge-based economy, to understand why this version of the Poverty Myth of Education has no standing.
Starting with the Great Society programs of the 1960s, America has spent five decades pouring billions into anti-poverty efforts. If one goes back to the construction of housing projects such as Chicago’s Cabrini Green during the New Deal era, and the mother’s pensions of the Progressive Era of the first two decades of the last century, these efforts have been around for a century. Yet they have largely been failures. For example, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the greatest decline in poverty came between 1959 (when the federal government began keeping such statistics) and 1966, just when Great Society programs were being implemented. This decline in poverty had almost nothing to do with anti-poverty programs than with the strong economic growth that came after the end of World War II, when the United States was the world’s manufacturing center (and before Japan and Germany emerged from respective economic collapse), an unusual period in which high school dropouts could obtain high-skilled middle-class employment. After 1966, poverty rates has bounced around between 11 percent and 15 percent, waxing and waning with economic growth and recession.
If anything, many of the anti-poverty programs (including welfare) has helped foster what Leon Dash would call the pestilences of gang warfare, drug dealing and unwed motherhood that have plagued Black America and Latino communities. Federal welfare rules barring married women from receiving benefits, for example, is one reason why marriage among poor blacks has gone from being the norm to being extraordinarily rare since the 1950s — and why 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.
The reason why most of these anti-poverty programs haven’t worked goes back to this reality: Short-term anti-poverty efforts ameliorate the problems, but don’t stem those issues for the long haul. After all the food stamps, the Section 8 housing, the SSIC payments, and the WIC checks, the families still remain poor. The fact that these families must deal with condescension toward from bureaucrats who dole out the benefits, along with the traditional emphasis of these programs on simply handing out dollars without any sweat equity (thus denying recipients their dignity), the corruption of politicians (who tend to use welfare programs as add-ons to their political machines), and the general inability of government to deal with the complexity of family and social issues (including the issues that end up landing in juvenile courtrooms), and one can see how anti-poverty programs are doomed to long-term failure.
Anti-poverty programs don’t address the penchant of floundering cities to ignore educational and other quality-of-life issue — and focus on doling out tax breaks to developers and propping up local bureaucracies that do little to improve life for the poor families (and dwindling number of middle class counterparts) within the city limits. This is particularly the case with Cody’s hometown of Oakland. Save for onetime Oakland mayor (and current California governor) Jerry Brown’s efforts to launch charter schools, city executives have done little to address either education or quality-of-life issues. Its soon-to-be shuttered redevelopment agency, which siphoned off dollars to the local school district, didn’t even help do much to boost quality of life; just 12 percent of the redevelopment agency’s income of $28.7 million actually went to police (and almost all of it likely to those taxpayers in the redevelopment zone). Little wonder why Oakland’s violent crime rate declined by just 13 percent (from 1,851.2 per 100,000 to 1,603.9 per 100,000) between 1985 and 2010; this compares poorly to counterparts that put more energy into addressing educational and quality of life issues such as Washington D.C. ( a 24 percent decline), and New York City (which saw its violent crime rate decline by 68 percent).
Meanwhile anti-poverty programs don’t address the real issues of low educational attainment that is at the heart of the economic segregation that perpetuates poverty. In an age in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands, high school dropouts and others who have been given low-quality education are going to be left behind economically and socially. Anti-poverty programs can help alleviate a 15 percent unemployment rate for high school dropouts age 25-and-older, but it won’t get them back into the economic and social mainstream. Education equals empowerment, and a high-quality education is what the children of these dropouts need in order to move out of poverty for the long haul.
There have been three truly successful anti-poverty efforts of the past seven decades: The federal school lunch program; the welfare reform efforts that began with the work of Wisconsin governor (and now U.S. Senate candidate) Tommy Thompson in the late 1980s (and are now being being undone by President Barack Obama in another one of his less-thoughtful efforts; and the expansion of earned income tax credit programs both at the federal and state levels. All three have worked because they are also tied to the most-important solutions to stemming poverty: Education, jobs and empowerment. Amazing things happen when kids get the nourishment they need to concentrate on learning, mothers and fathers can get job training they need to get off welfare rolls and into decent-paying jobs, and families get additional cash alongside what they earn from work to lift themselves above the poverty line.
The reality is simple: Overhauling American public education is critical to fighting poverty for the long haul. Revamping how the nation’s ed schools recruit and train aspiring teachers, for example, would help all children get the high-quality instruction that is the most-important in-school factor in student achievement. Just as importantly, reforming education can even help address the immediate problems that stem from poverty. After-school programs and extensions of the school day (and year) — the latter of which is a hallmark of the Knowledge Is Power Program and other successful schools and systems — can help poor families address child care issues by providing healthy, crime free, and nurturing environments in which kids can continue learning. Expanding high-quality school choices, including charter schools and school voucher programs, can help revive communities by bringing schools into communities that can appeal to both the poor and middle class. And Parent Trigger laws can empower poor families to take over and lead the overhaul of failure mills in their own communities (and help them take the next step of taking on other challenges in their own neighborhoods).
These reforms would especially help poor black, white and Latino men, whose underemployment and imprisonment are among the biggest contributors to economic and social poverty. Remember, the average annual income for male high school dropouts declined by 27 percent between 1973 and 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When men don’t work, they cannot support families or be productive, active players in their communities. As seen with the 25 percent of male high school dropouts aged 35-to-54 who have never married, they are also less-likely to help build the strong two-parent households needed to help kids get into the middle class.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a need to ameliorate the immediate effects of economic poverty. This is why the earned income tax credit is one of the best anti-poverty tools that exist. It is also the reason why city governments must focus on fixing the broken windows in and other quality of life issues that make life harder for all families, especially the very poor. And there are some issues that neither schools nor government programs can adequately address. It will take a village to end rampant unwed motherhood and emphasis the importance of marriage and building strong families.
But anti-poverty programs and quality-of-life efforts aren’t going to address the reality that 1.4 million fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate are likely to drop out in eight years. More importantly, we cannot ignore the consequences of American public education’s failures on the very communities at which its schools are the center of the lives of the children who live in them. This can only be addressed by overhauling how educate all children — especially our poorest. They deserve better than last-class schools.
Over the past two years, President Barack Obama’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its strong accountability measures has proven to be as counterproductive an effort as Dropout Nation predicted it would be. From revelations of the sloppy policymaking process by which waivers were granted to 38 states and the District of Columbia, Canada to the approval of Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that subject poor and minority kids to the soft bigotry of low expectations, to the negative impact of the waivers on other reforms such as the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit has wrought consequences that centrist Democrats and other reformers are only beginning to recognize.
In this Best of Dropout Nationfrom September 2011, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why the Obama Administration should have never engaged in this scheme in the first place. Sadly, the administration didn’t listen to good counsel then — and continues on a policymaking path that is already undoing the good its other efforts (including Race to the Top) have done.
As your editor expected, the waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act being pushed by President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written.
Under the Obama plan, states will be allowed to evade the aspirational 100 percent proficiency provision with a vague set of “ambitious but achievable goals” and an equally amorphous requirement that states must put “college and career-ready” curriculum standards in place. Many surmise the latter means implementing Common Core standards in reading and math — something that 45 states have done so far. But Duncan has had to avoid making such a public statement means in order to avoid the full wrath of congressional Republicans and some reformers who essentially declare that doing so oversteps the Department of Education’s authority. As a result, a state can probably come up with some mishmash, call it college- and career-ready, and easily get it past federal officials.
The rest of the proposed waiver standards, as being unveiled today by the administration, simply point to a full retreat on accountability. States will be able to allow all but 15 percent of the nation’s schools receiving Title 1 funds (including the 5,000 dropout factories and failure mills) to fully avoid accountability. Certainly, the administration wants states to focus on schools that either have “low graduation rates, large achievement gaps, or low student subgroup performance” to be subjected to scrutiny. But there’s no way that the administration can mandate this without reducing the flexibility it argues that the waivers will give. So the merely poor-performing schools — including suburban districts that are failing to properly educate poor and minority kids — will largely be left alone.
Essentially, Obama’s waiver plan amounts to the gutting of accountability. Like the plan offered up last week by Senate Republicans, the waivers don’t address the need to overhaul ed schools, who train most of the nation’s new teachers, or push for the development of alternative teacher training programs outside of university confines. The waiver plan doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis. As Richard Whitmire and I proposed in June, simply requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability would do plenty to force states and districts into dealing seriously with this problem. The waivers may allow for the possibility of states targeting gender for subgroup accountability (and thus, addressing the crisis of low educational attainment among young men of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds) on their own. But the conditions under which the waivers are being granted don’t require states to take on any additional accounting for the performance of young men or other children whose academic failures are the result of the education crisis.
The waivers don’t require states to set a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy — an early warning indicator of academic failure — that would give teachers and principals honest data that they can then use in keeping kids in school. Right now, only two states — California and Indiana — offer some sort of breakdown of chronic truancy data, and that’s not good enough. As for school choice and Parent Power? Not even a consideration.
The waivers, in short, aren’t worth anything when it comes to spurring systemic reform. The Obama plan is a step back, only slightly better than what congressional Republicans and their Senate counterparts are offering.
As Dropout Nation pointed out at the time of Duncan’s announcement in June, this move has weakened the administration’s hand without moving forward its reform agenda. With the waivers, Duncan will give the NEA, the AFT, suburban districts, and congressional Republicans what they really want — gutting accountability — without having to actually do the job themselves. They won’t have to face a full public debate over what this step would mean for addressing the nation’s education crisis and the consequences of laying out their positions in full view. Duncan’s move also allows them to argue that the Obama administration has already ditched accountability while also declaring that the college- and career-ready standards it wants states to put into place in exchange for “flexibility” is unconstitutional because it steps on congressional authority. And for reform-minded governors who have wielded No Child effectively (along with Race to the Top) to push through their own reforms? They are on their own.
In the process, Obama won’t gain traction for the rest of his school reform agenda. Congressional Republicans will not only use this move to bolster their efforts to keep control of the House, they will also refuse to pass any other reform measure Obama offers up. The gutting of AYP is largely unpopular among centrist and liberal Democrat allies such as the Education Trust and congressional Democrat education point man George Miller, as well as by Republicans such as No Child mastermind Sandy Kress and Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor as Secretary of Education. It is reviled among conservative reformers such as Rick Hess and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — which, by the way, want to gut No Child themselves, but want to put their stamp on it. Supporters and foes of Common Core standards, who still believe that Obama will tacitly require states to embrace those standards in exchange for receiving waivers, are also dismayed by the waiver effort; particularly among conservative supporters of Common Core, they can no longer dodge accusations that the standards will lead to the creation of national curricula. (Whether or not that is a bad thing, given the low quality of curricula and standards throughout the nation, is a whole different matter entirely.)
This doesn’t bold well for Obama’s re-election prospects. After all, education reform was one of the few issues on which he had bipartisan support. While the president can point to some real successes, those achievements are muffled by a weakening of school reform efforts and ultimately, a set of decisions that have essentially declared to black and Latino constituencies concerned with reforming education that their children are not worthy of concern.
And let’s be clear: Despite what Obama and Duncan may declare, the decision to gut AYP essentially declares that federal education policy is no longer concerned with improving education for the very poor and minority children, be they black, white, Latino or Asian, who were poorly served by America’s traditional public schools before No Child’s passage a decade ago.
No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, schools were forced to set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Through AYP, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.
And now, there is no real focus at the federal level on improving education for all children, including our poorest children and those from minority communities. Certainly, reformers may be able to keep pressing in states and districts throughout the country. But there won’t be much in the way of federal support. Given that America is increasingly a majority-minority country, retreating on accountability isn’t the smartest decision for the nation’s future.
Let’s give Obama and Duncan credit for Race to the Top and some of their other reform efforts, which have spurred major systemic reform over the past couple of years. But on the matter of No Child, it is clear Obama and his education secretary have failed where his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his education point people) certainly and laudably succeeded.
High-quality data on state, district, school and even teacher performance is critical for families so they can be lead decisionmakers in education for our children. This is especially true when one considers that the quality of education children are provided can vary from classroom, and not just from school to school. But there are still those — including some reformers — who argue that teacher performance data should not be publicly available. This is unacceptable.
In this Best of Dropout Nation from 2011, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why everyone — especially high-quality teachers and children — benefit from making teacher performance data public for families (and others) to use. Read. Consider. And take action.
When the Los Angeles Times released it value-added analysis of teacher performance data based on student test scores(and the names of the teachers whose work was analyzed) last year, some school reformers, including American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, surprisingly joined education traditionalists in opposing the effort. Why? From his perspective, there’s no reason to make such data transparent, and that the data itself is too imperfect for public dissemination. As your Dropout Nation editor showed, Hess’ arguments didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
So it wasn’t surprising when Hess and others joined common cause last week with the American Federation of Teachers’ New York City local to decry the New York State Appellate Division’s decision to allow the New York City Department of Education to release value-added data on individual teacher performance to media outlets and the public. And once again, the objections raised by Hess, other reformers who share his thinking, and education traditionalists, are off-target.
The first argument — that releasing the data serves no compelling public interest — is most-certainly off base. For taxpayers and for families who subsidize New York City’s public school system to the tune of $24 billion a year — most of it spent on teacher salaries and benefits — knowing how well teachers are performing in classrooms is certainly important. Releasing this data is essentially no different than disseminating salary data (which, as the husband of a former state government worker whose salary was exposed by the paper for which he had worked, I know how discomforting this can be). And given that school districts are government agencies accountable to taxpayers — and that New York State law doesn’t ban such release of data (and shouldn’t) — the decision by the Appellate Division is the right one.
For families, there is certainly a compelling interest for knowing the individual success of teachers in improving student performance. After all, they are finally learning what has been emerging as fact for some time: That the quality of a child’s education can vary from classroom to classroom. Even in the best-performing schools, traditional, charter or private, there are high-quality teachers working across the way from those who need help improving their instruction, and those who don’t need to be in classrooms at all. Contrary to what Hess and other foes of releasing teacher performance data may think, empowering parents and caregivers with this information can help them in making high-quality decisions for their families — and spur them to push for much-needed teacher quality reforms that will benefit all of our children.
If anything, releasing the data addresses one of the biggest problems in American public education: The fact that school data is largely a black box, with reporting mostly geared toward compliance instead of helping parents make smart educational decisions. For most parents, the data that is most-important for them is that about the teachers who instruct their kids every given day in the school year. By releasing this data, we finally get parents into important conversations about teacher quality that need to be had — and also take the next step in helping them attain their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education.
Then there are the benefits of releasing this data for good-to-great teachers. For far too long, high-quality teachers have gone without the proper recognition — both in higher salaries and other rewards — for their success in the classroom. They never get the full recognition (or the wide range of compensation and career opportunities) they so richly deserve. Even worse, because we don’t recognize those teachers, they are often forced by their colleagues to remain quiet about their achievements (or in the case of the John Taylor Gattos and Jaime Escalantes, forced out of the profession because of jealousy within the ranks).
Meanwhile they have had to serve alongside poor-performing teachers, who have lurked in the shadows, aided and abetted by teachers unions, administrators and colleagues who instinctively (if not quantitatively) knew better and did nothing. These teachers, who have gained near-lifetime employment (through tenure) just after three years on the job, are paid as much as $100,049 a year, and get nearly-free healthcare benefits and defined-benefit pensions, are a burden on taxpayers and colleagues alike. And because they help foster cultures of mediocrity in which only some children are considered capable of learning, they reap comfortable compensation at the expense of young boys and girls, many of whom will never enjoy the kind of middle-class salaries and strong job protections.
This isn’t to say that the data is perfect. But value-added analysis has stood up to three decades of scrutiny. As the work of Dan Goldhaber, Jonah Rockoff and others have shown, the data generally remains consistent over time. The arguments made by Hess, other reformers, and opponents of teacher quality reform against such uses are mere hogwash. The solution to the question of data quality is to improve the quality of data, not keep it from being released to the public. And to not use student test data in evaluating teachers, especially when it stands up to scrutiny, is just plain doing a disservice to families, teachers and children.
One can understand why AFT and National Education Association affiliates oppose releasing this data. After all, for them, it is the pursuit of perfection at the expense of the good of improving education for children, largely because the second goal is of secondary importance to them. As for Hess and other reformers who agree with this stance? This is a different story.
The unwillingness to support releasing such data proves one of the problems with some reformers: For all their talk of bold reform — including demanding the use of value-added teacher performance data in evaluations — they are unwilling to embrace it when the proverbial rubber meets the road. As a result, they are looked upon by other elements of the reform movement as being paper tigers, only interested in theoretical and policy discussions instead of real-world application of those ideas.
Releasing this teacher data is the right thing for everyone — and especially our children. Hess and other reformers opposed to the idea should be celebrating its release and developing ideas for improving the use of this data.
It will take every man and woman of iron and good will to continue the transformation of American public education for all of our children. This is especially true for families, clergy, community leaders and others in Black America, whose children are among the ones who end up bearing the consequences of systemic educational failure. Yet old-school civil rights leaders and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People remain adherents to traditionalist thinking (including opposition to school choice and Parent Trigger laws) that has to young black men being condemned to special ed ghettos and subjected to the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that leads them to dropping out of school — and falling into poverty and prison. And their alliances with affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers who are among the foremost defenders of failed practices does nothing good for black children.
In this Best of Dropout Nationfrom 2011′ Editor RiShawn Biddle calls out the NAACP’s New York City affiliate and its counterparts for essentially defending the very Zip Code Education policies that keep black families from providing their kids with high-quality education. The issues raised two years ago remain a problem today. And we have to hold civil rights groups advocating racialist policies responsible for the harm they help perpetuate against the very black children they say they want to help.
For one to call Jamaica High School in New York City a dropout factory for most of the past couple of decades is an understatement. And this is especially true for the black students who have the misfortune to attend the school located in the city’s borough of Queens. Just 19 percent of black freshmen in the school’s original Class of 2003 — a mere 115 students — were promoted to senior year four years later. This reality hasn’t changed. Only 113 black freshmen — or another 19 percent — of the students in the Class of 2009 made it to senior year.
This is also true for Paul Robeson High School in the city’s Brooklyn borough. The high school’s four-year Promoting Power rate of 31 percent for black students in the Class of 2009 is eight points lower than it was six years earlier. Meanwhile Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan– which in the days before the development of robust school data was once considered one of the more-prestigious high schools during my days attending the Big Apple’s traditional public school system — is also a danger to the educational futures of black children. Just a fifth of its black students in the Class of 2009 were promoted to senior year, just better than its bottom-of-the-barrel promoting power rate of eight percent six years ago.
This reality should be more than enough to convince the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s New York City branch to support shutting down the schools and starting anew as Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to do. Instead, the NAACP once again proved its irrelevance in the reform of American public education by teaming up with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local to halt the shutdown of these three schools (and also oppose allowing charter schools to share space with traditional public schools in the city’s often half-empty school buildings). This effort, the second such lawsuit filed by the old-school civil rights group and the union in as many years, once again shows that when the NAACP has to choose between the interests of black children and its relationship with teachers unions, the former is almost always the loser.
As Dropout Nation has continuously pointed out, the NAACP, along with some other old-school civil rights groups, seem more determined to team up with the AFT and National Education Association — the prime defenders of the obsolete and woeful traditional public education practices that have perpetuated the nation’s dropout crisis — than support efforts to improve the educational and economic futures of the very black children about which it is supposed to be concerned. From the unsuccessful move last July by the organization, along with the National Urban League, to challenge the Obama administration’s school reform efforts, to Benjamin Todd Jealous‘ lackluster speech on education at the American Enterprise Institute four months later, the NAACP hasn’t exactly risen to the occasion at the national level (and only done so occasionally at the local level).
This year could have been different. At the national level, the NAACP has had several opportunities this year to make itself more-relevant in the discussion over the reform of American public education and actually take stands that would actually help overhaul schools and give black families the ability to seek out better options for their children. It could have embraced the kind of school choice and data quality measures that can help poor kids escape the worst American public education offers. It could have supported the passage of Parent Trigger laws that give families the ability to overhaul failure factories. And it even had resources that it could have used to move away from stale thinking courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What it has done instead is release a report that does little more than proclaim that standardized testing is the cause of the nation’s dropout crisis in spite of evidence to the contrary, while failing to address the systemic problems — from low quality of teaching to reverse seniority layoff rules that lead to the loss of high-quality teachers with less seniority (the ones who are often staffing the schools poor black and Latino kids attend). The NAACP has continued to advocate for integration as a school reform solution in spite of evidence that it doesn’t really work. And instead of pushing for more-robust accountability measures — including those measuring teacher and principal quality — the organization continues to just spin its wheels. What the NAACP is doing in New York City is just one more example of this. Meanwhile the NAACP is neglecting conversations on education that needs to go on throughout the entire black community — including whether we should continue traditional public school districts (many of them run by black men and women) that endanger the futures of our black children.
This isn’t to say that shutting down schools is the only solution. As your editor made clear in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, states and school districts must provide principals with robust school data and real authority to improve their teaching staffs and develop new practices that can improve student achievement. The Bloomberg administration also needs to do a better job of informing parents about school shutdowns and including families in the discussion about overhauling and shutting down schools. The city should also embrace the Parent Trigger concept and allow parents to take control of school turnarounds, including deciding whether to shut down schools altogether or bring in a KIPP to handle the overhaul efforts.
But given the reality that school turnarounds are rarely successful, it makes no sense to continue perpetuating cultures of academic failure that continue to subject children — especially black kids — to educational neglect and malpractice. Instead of focusing on school shutdowns, the NAACP’s New York branch should join Mayor Bloomberg in pushing for the overhaul of state laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms. And on the national level, the NAACP should realize that it is on the wrong side — rhetorically, morally and even historically – of the school reform debate. It should join common cause with the reformers and advocate for the kind of systemic overhaul that will help all children, especially our black children, succeed in school and in life. This may mean that the association will have to offend old-school members (including teachers in its ranks). But given that the NAACP is losing a younger generation of blacks — including singers such as John Legend and activists such as Derrell Bradford — who realize the importance of systemic school reform, it is time for the organization to finally kick obsolete thinking to the curb.
But this isn’t just true for the NAACP. Yesterday, the head of the National Urban League’s New York branch, Arva Rice, devoted an entire column in the Huntington Post to complaining that efforts to weaken and abolish rules requiring collective bargaining between governments and public sector unions, arguing that such moves hurt “our youth and their children”. Nowhere does it appear that Rice considered the consequences of collective bargaining (and other state laws that keep laggard teachers in the classroom) on the quality of education in the very traditional public schools those young people are forced to attend.
It’s time for old-school civil rights groups to embrace systemic reform and join cause with the school reform movement — and stop defending practices, laws and organizations that have contributed to an education crisis that condemns millions of young black men and women to poverty and prison.