Dropout Nation gang is taking off today to enjoy time with family. But there are still plenty of discussions going on today in the world of education. One of them: The role of the private sector in American public education. In this Best of Dropout Nation compendium of pieces from 2011 and other years, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses the intellectual blindness of traditionalists to the benefits of borrowing lessons from the private sector, as well as the limits of what can applied to stemming the nation’s education crisis. These points are as important now as they were a few years ago.
Chris Cerf and Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem: For all the taxpayer-funded doctorates and graduate degrees that are found among the defenders of traditional public education, there is little going on among them other than closed-minded, sclerotic thinking. This lack of intellectual vigor — the ability to see the value of new concepts, the lack of understanding of economics and technology, and the rabid opposition to anyone outside of education arguing for reform — is one reason why American public education is mired in the kind of mediocrity that has fostered the nation’s education crisis.
And that lack of thoughtfulness manifests itself even more when it comes to the thought of private-sector involvement in education. From where defenders of the status quo sit, the idea public charter schools causes them to reach into their Cliff Notes versions of The Communist Manifesto, and the school reform efforts of nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation make them so apoplectic that they toss around terms such as “kleptocracy” without any understanding of their meaning. From where they sit, the private sector is nothing but pure evil, their involvement in school reform means the end of public education and a return to the dark days of, whatever they think of is the dark days. The fact that they are as dependent on the wares of the private sector and the economic marketplace for their very sustenance (you know, since companies and entrepreneurial philanthropists are also those guys who provide such items as computers and soap, along with paying those things called taxes, which support schools), never factors into their thinking.
One example of this silly anti-intellectualism comes courtesy of incoming New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s move to restructure the state’s woeful education department. Foes of the new commissioner’s efforts are particularly annoyed that Cerf is getting help in this work courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is ponying up $60,000 for the hiring of the consultancy helping to develop the plan. Status quo critics of Cerf’s effort have complained that it is a conspiracy to privatize education. They have argued that the ties between Cerf, the consultant William Cox, and Broad (which helped Cox spin out rating service Standard & Poor’s school evaluation project to become GreatSchools.org, and counts Cerf among its alumni) makes the whole effort an exercise in cronyism. And they have speculated about the role Cox played in the Garden State’s failed effort to win a share of Race to the Top money.
Given the scope of work — and the reality that American public education remains quite public — the first complaint is just thoughtless. The cronyism argument would have slightly more merit if this was being paid out of Garden State coffers. Since it isn’t, the argument also falls apart. And with no evidence that Cox played any role in New Jersey’s Race to the Top bid, the speculation is merely that; given that the Garden State’s bid was rather problematic, unlikely to be picked even without the botched work of Wireless Generation (the consultancy that helped New Jersey assemble its bid and had Cox on its payroll for a time), and opposed by the same status quo defenders now using the situation for their rhetorical argument, that discussion is rather meaningless.
Now the critics could have considered some real questions. For one: Whether a consultant is really needed to think through the difficult question of how to revamp the organization? (My own answer is no; Cerf is just using Cox and Broad to gain cover for the overhaul he already plans to do.) Another: Cerf and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie, failing to consider the more fundamental question of whether the current system of educational governance — including the array of local school district bureaucracies — is even necessary in the first place? Given that Christie’s colleagues, including Gov. Christine Gregoire in Washington State, are already pushing to restructure their state education governance structure, the governor and Cerf should be using this time to push for a Hollywood Model of Education for New Jersey under which district bureaucracies would be tossed out altogether and traditional public schools would essentially become charters.
But this would actually require status quo defenders to stop reading Diane Ravitch’s claptrap, applauding Sir Ken Robinson’s creativity snake oil, and fawning at Daniel Pink’s vapid treatises on motivation. They would have to ditch such dribble about “democratic education” and “authentic learning”. It would require them to embrace the use of data in improving the quality of instruction and curricula, and understand the lessons (good and bad) from the private sector about recruiting and retaining talent. And would mean picking up copies of Wired, The Wealth of Nations and Education Myths.
Overstating What Can Be Gleaned From the Private Sector: School reformers may have the intellectual vigor at the moment, but they also suffer from the problem of oversimplification. Particularly when referring to the private sector, it is far too easy to argue that the solutions to the problems of American public education can come from Corporate America and entrepreneurs. The reality is far more complicated.
One thing to remember: Private sector has a variety of players, each of which deal with different kinds of constraints. Healthcare companies and electric utilities, for example, are heavily-regulated. They struggle with the same problems faced by traditional school districts, including bureaucratic structures (and corresponding inertia) that would make the agencies that oversee them proud and state laws that restrict their profit-making activities. Those firms share little in common with a Wal-Mart and Google which operate in lightly-regulated sectors and are structured more-nimbly to compete in more-active markets. So the respective problems each group of companies have for their human resources, cost-management and other operational issues — and the solutions they undertake — can sometimes be as different as night and day.
Another problem lies in assuming that every solution applied in the private sector can work in education. One example: Teacher evaluation. As Rick Hess rightly points out, the private sector doesn’t use objective measures of performance as the sole criteria for evaluations. But Hess forgets this: The cost of a poor-performing employee impacts a company’s bottom line, causing problems for customers, vendors, shareholders, creditors and other employees. But the impact is limited because private sector firms aren’t generally supported by tax dollars. The impact of low quality teacher quality is borne by a far-larger group — including taxpayers and children — who cannot avoid impact by just abandoning brands, selling shares, dropping clients, refusing to lend money or switching jobs. There’s also the reality that teachers and teachers unions don’t trust principals to evaluate their work. All things considered, using objective student data (from test scores for students to portfolio evaluations for electives such as music) as the sole criteria may make the best sense.
There are plenty of lessons from the private sector that can be applied to education. But we think through those lessons, apply them in ways that fit the particular characteristics of the education sector, and not simplistically offer up companies as the source of solutions.
Featured photo courtesy of Wired.
Friday’s release by the U.S. Department of Education of school discipline data once again demonstrates how minority children and young men of all races are subjected to a pernicious form of educational neglect. But far too many people, including some reformers, continue to ignore evidence of how policies such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions put so many young black, Latino, and poor white men onto the path to poverty and prison.
In thisBest of Dropout Nationfrom August 2012, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains how overuse of suspensions and expulsions allow adults in education to ignore the impact of educational malpractice on the behavior of children. Read, consider, and take action.
When it comes to the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of harsh school discipline, a few things have become immediately clear after three decades of research.
The first is that far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. The second: That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers.
Third: More often than not, the underlying reasons for such discipline have little to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. As analysis of state-level discipline data by researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba, along with reports I wrote in 2005, 2006, and 2007 for the Indianapolis Star has shown, most suspensions occur in categories such as disruptive behavior and attendance — which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means — while students are also expelled for chronic truancy.
The fourth fact is that there is no evidence that such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) improves school cultures or improves safety for children attending school. The American Psychological Association concluded this four years ago, and most studies show this to be the case; as Dropout Nation contributing editor Steve Peha noted two years ago in hispiece on overhauling school discipline, suspensions and expulsions do little more than let adults in schools off the hook for not looking at the underlying causes of misbehavior (which, as I’ll show later, has as much to do with low-quality teaching and curricula, as with lack of discipline at home), while letting students escape the consequences of disrupting their peers and teachers. And finally, the consequences of such use of discipline often lead to kids dropping out into poverty and prison. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later.
Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure. So the report on the overuse of harsh school discipline released yesterday by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA offered little in the way of surprises. If perfect insanity is doing the same thing over and over, then American public education has gotten it down to a science. The data, based on the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database for the 2009-210 school year, doesn’t fully reflect the impact of suspensions and expulsions on American Indian and Alaska Native students (in part because as many as 44 percent of such students are likely counted in the “two or more race” category”) and doesn’t break down suspension and expulsions by category (including disruptive behavior and insubordination, information which states already collect). But the abysmally high levels of suspensions determined by the Civil Rights Project’s analysis — especially the 17 percent suspension rate for all black children in elementary and secondary grades — serve as another reminder of the high cost paid by young men and women for adult decisions. Nor was it shocking that suspension rates for kids condemned to the nation’s special education ghettos were suspended at twice the rate of kids in regular classrooms (including one out of every four young black men labeled as special ed); there is nothing special about way-stations used by adults in schools to toss out children they can’t (and often, don’t) want to teach.
Yet you have otherwise thoughtful folks such as few folks such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute education czar Mike Petrilli asking if racism is still a factor.Proclaiming earlier today on the think tank’s Flypaper site that the higher levels of suspensions and expulsions seem in line with the higher levels of incarceration for black adults, Petrilli argues that “pathologies” such as single motherhood and poverty that lead to poor minorities being more likely to end up in prison could also be a reason for them being suspended as well. Yeah. Petrilli is once again arguing that Personal Responsibility mythin education that seems to be in vogue among a few reformers who should know better. And as I noted last year, it doesn’t hold up. Given that young white men are also suspended at high levels (albeit lower than that for young black men), Petrilli’s argument fails to hold water. [Your editor had a less thoughtful initial reaction. But a dental drill and Novocaine helped him calm down.]
Certainly Petrilli is right in noting that race isn’t the only issue when it comes to the overuse of school discipline. After all, Some of the highest-suspending districts surveyed by the Civil Rights Project include Memphis before its merger with the Shelby County district in Tennessee (which suspended 53 percent of young black men in special ed), and Pontiac, Mich. (which suspended two out of every three black students overall) are run by black school leaders and have large numbers of black teachers on staff. The class biases of many teachers and school leaders against poor and minority children and families regardless of color, which is often reinforced by the degree- and seniority-based pay scales that connote inflated opinions of intelligence, is as much a factor as race in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions. As Dropout Nation pointed outearlier this year in its analysis of comments about racial disparities in school discipline made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal officials need to do a better job on collecting data (especially by category) in order to make a stronger case.
But Petrilli’s declaration fails to consider the impact of racialist policies such as ability-tracking and the comprehensive high school model (which were based on the notion that only white middle class children of Protestant backgrounds were capable of college preparatory learning, while blacks and immigrants — especially of Italian and Slavic backgrounds — were considered too feeble-minded to learn) on the attitudes of many teachers and school leaders today.
This is especially clear when it comes to another symptom of the nation’s education crisis: The overdiagnosis of children as special ed cases. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category, essentially deciding that certain racial and ethnic groups of students will be learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. When one also looks at how middle class black and Latino families and their children — almost all of whom are two-parent households with strong values — are treated with disdain within suburban districts, it is hard for Petrilli or anyone else to say that race isn’t still a problem within many of our schools.
Yet at the same time, Petrilli unintentionally hits upon this reality: That the overuse of suspensions and expulsions are symptoms of the deeper problems within American public education. This starts with the low quality of instruction and curricula, especially in addressing the illiteracy at the heart of the nation’s education crisis.
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. Children with strong reading skills in the early grades tend to also have good social habits (including the executive function of self-control), while those are struggling with reading tend to have disciplinary problems. A third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more-likely to end up engaging in the kind of aggressive behavior that leads to suspension and expulsion; in fact, low literacy in third grade is predictive of school discipline issues two years later in fifth grade. This makes sense. Children who are struggling in school act out because they don’t know how (and are afraid to) to admit they can’t read, and don’t know how to ask for help from teachers (who in many cases, may not be equipped or have the desire to help them anyway).
Illiteracy is also a driving factor in children, especially young men of all backgrounds, ending up in special ed and being subjected to suspensions and expulsions. As Reid Lyon noted in 1997, young black men end up being labeled special ed because they are struggling with literacy; literacy can often be mistaken for mild retardation or developmental delays. Because the areas of the brain that involve reading develop more-slowly in young men than in female peers (as well as because of their natural rambunctiousness is of great contrast to the more-docile behavior of their female classmates), boys are particularly vulnerable to being condemned to special ed ghettos and being subject to harsh school discipline.
Reading experts have spent years developing new ways to help lagging students improve reading before they reach fifth grade and work with boys to get them up to speed. This includes identifying poor readers early on through response through intervention and other techniques, as well as intensive teaching of linguistic skills every day. Yet few districts have embraced these techniques or focused on intense remediation in the early grades. The fact that the nation’s university schools of education do such a poor job of training aspiring teachers in the science of reading means that far too many teachers lacking the expertise to teach reading. The fact that ed schools also do poorly in training teachers overall — especially in classroom management — also results in instructors being too quick to refer children to principal’s offices for suspension. Add in the fact that we don’t recruit aspiring teachers and leaders for their ability to empathize with all children (along with subject matter competency, and entrepreneurial self-starter ability), and one can see why so many kids are suspended from school.
Overhauling how we recruit and train teachers, especially in reading, would result in fewer kids being illiterate and thus, reduce their likelihood of misbehaving. Having aspiring teachers apprentice in classrooms alongside high-quality teachers (who are also skilled in managing classrooms) would also help. Meanwhile addressing the other issues at the heart of the nation’s education crisis — including the abysmal school leadership within districts and school buildings – – would also help reduce suspensions and expulsions. This includes embracing approaches to discipline that addresses underlying issues arising from struggles with learning.
Until we fully reform American public education, the insanity of harsh school discipline will continue to condemn far too many kids to economic and social despair.
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.