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August 1, 2014 standard

The California Superior Court’s ruling this past June in Vergara v. California has the school reform rightfully excited over the promise of using the courts to advance systemic reform for our children. But before reformers get too excited, they must keep in mind an important lesson learned by activists in the Civil Rights Movement of the last century: That it is important to aggressively pursue our efforts on all playing fields in American politics — including the grassroots as well as courtrooms, statehouses, and the confines of Capitol Hill — in order to achieve the political, social, and institutional changes needed to help all kids succeed.

Starting in the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took to the courts to invalidate Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave blessing to Jim Crow segregation laws passed by southern state legislatures at the turn of the century. Over the next three decades, the NAACP won successive legal victories invalidating separate-yet-equal laws. This included Murray v. Pearson, the Maryland state court decision that was the first to strike down segregation by public institutions of learning, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1939 ruling in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (which built upon Murray v. Pearson at the federal level to end segregation in the Show Me State’s main law school), and Morgan v. Virginia, which found bus terminals to be interstate transit subjected to the U.S. Constitution, which meant states could not apply Jim Crow to any form of interstate commerce.

This legal approach to ending Jim Crow reached its crescendo in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet governors and legislators in southern states refused to enforce the court rulings and did all they could to circumvent them. Declaring that “unelected” federal and state judges were engaging in “undemocratic actions” and “judicial activism” that harmed their way of life, southern politicians continued segregation by political and extralegal means. The fact that civil rights litigation was undertaken not just by NAACP, but also by organizations such as the International Labor Defense affiliate of the American Communist Party, allowed Jim Crow segregationists to tar any efforts by civil rights activists as being seditious and treasonous.

States such as Arkansas and Virginia would respond to Brown by refusing to integrate scho0ls and even shutting down entire school districts in a form of massive resistance; others would continue segregating bus stations and other transportation hubs with the acquiescence (forced and otherwise) of businesses. That the NAACP itself was a toothless tiger, unwilling to go beyond litigation (and later, public policy) to advance civil rights, effectively weakened its own efforts.

Civil rights activists learned that it was folly to just expect state and local governments (and the players who financed and shared political ties with the politicians who ran them) to obey and enforce laws. So NAACP, along with the emerging National Urban League, began expanded their efforts from lawsuits to leveraging the federal government’s role in ensuring that all citizens had equal opportunity under the law. This began in 1948 when then-President Harry S. Truman was forced into signing Executive Order 9988, which desegregated the nation’s armed forces. Then it continued into the 1950s with the NAACP and others working with then-Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson to pass the nation’s first civil rights law, as well as the decision by Truman’s successor, Dwight David Eisenhower, to send National Guard troopers to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School a decade later.

But by the beginning of the 1960s, civil rights activists learned that presidents and congresses would only go so far in passing and enforcing civil rights legislation. For Truman, Eisenhower, and by 1961, John F. Kennedy, equal opportunity before the law for blacks was a secondary concern to fighting the Cold War. The fact that southern segregationists such as Richard Russell, James O. Eastland, and J. William Fulbright held great influence over legislation through their control of Senate and House committees often led to Johnson’s civil rights proposals being weakened (when they weren’t killed outright).

Thurgood Marshall (center) and his staff at NAACP would learn the hard way the limits of legal action in ending segregation. Reformers must understand the same limits in order to transform education.

Then the civil rights movement began to fully embrace a final step: Grassroots activism to force states and the federal government to end Jim Crow as well as to win over the public. The roots began in the 1940s with the emergence of the nonviolent resistance approach begun Bayard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality with efforts such as the Journey of Reconciliation bus rides into southern cities, then accelerated with the protests and boycotts by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By the 1960s, a younger generation of civil rights activists — young black collegians from the South who formed the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, along with military veterans like the legendary James Meredith who demanded that that the rest of the world reflected the integrated military settings in which they served — advanced even more-aggressive activism, dragging King and the NAACP along. They would be joined by celebrities such as comedian Dick Gregory who would help whites and others realize that state-sanctioned discrimination was immoral and unsustainable.

While none of the camps within the civil rights movement were fond of each other, they slowly realized that they needed each others’ efforts and strategies to end Jim Crow. It worked. The Freedom Rides of CORE and SNCC in 1961 forced Kennedy to finally enforce the Morgan ruling. Meredith’s successful lawsuit (filed with help from the NAACP) against Mississippi state government, along with his messianic and militant push to integrate Old Miss, would force states to integrate universities and schools throughout the country. The 1963 Birmingham campaign led by Fred Shuttlesworth and SCLC (along with the brutal response to the protests by the notorious Bull Connor) would, along with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killing four young girls, forced the Kennedy Administration to begin the push for the passage of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By the end of the decade, the passage of that law, along with the Voting Rights Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would fuel lawsuits, protests, and new laws that ultimately lead to America finally fulfilling its promise of equal legal and social opportunity for all under law.

The civil rights movement learned two key lessons. The first? That no one tactic on its own will lead to political and social progress. The limits of every approach, political and otherwise, made such silver-bullet approaches impossible. Secondly: That all political tactics would have to be used to achieve the final goal. Gomillion v. Lightfoot and other rulings ending poll taxes and other restrictions on voting would have remained just paper if not for the Freedom Vote three years and the much-larger Freedom Summer effort in 1964. Freedom Summer, in turn, would have amounted to nothing if it wasn’t followed up by the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Meredith’s famed march through Mississippi in 1966 (which fomented into the last great civil rights demonstration of the era and led to voter registration drives throughout the South), and the small-yet-brave-and-powerful acts such as that of entrepreneur Booker Wright (a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast).

More than five decades later, school reformers must also embrace those same lessons — and put them to work — in order to sustain the movement’s mission.

Reformers must take to the streets. And the courts. And the statehouses. And the ballot box, too.

The Vergara ruling, which effectively ended near-lifetime employment policies that have long-shielded laggard teachers at the expense of kids, has excited reformers. For good reason. The success of the case so far has finally proven the point your editor has been making over the past three years that civil suits can help advance reform, both by using courts to hold legislators, governors, and school leaders accountable for providing kids with high-quality education, as well as rallying families and communities who want better for their kin. Therefore it is heartening to see Vergara suits such as Wright v. New York, filed earlier this week by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, as well as the tort filed earlier last month by the New York City Parents Union.

But reformers must not think that lawsuits alone are the most-important or even only tactic necessary for transforming American public education. This matters because reformers have a penchant for not using every avenue available to tackle the failed policies and practices at the heart of the education crisis. The movement has long focused on winning over policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as on launching institutions such as Teach for America and KIPP, often at the expense of equally-important grassroots activism, civil litigation, and political campaigning. The consequences of these neglected tactics can be seen today in the battles over implementing Common Core reading and math standards, as well as in the limited success of the No Child Left Behind Act in systemic reform.

Certainly stepping up litigation offers plenty of possibilities for the movement. As Andy Rotherham noted back in June after the Vergara ruling, reformers have never been adept at campaign politics. Just as importantly, eight decades of court rulings — driven by the courtroom work of civil rights activists and school funding equity advocates – also provides reformers with the legal arguments necessary to challenge tenure laws and other policies that impede the constitutional obligation of states to provide children with high-quality education.

Yet reformers must keep in mind that litigation, like policymaking and institution-oriented reform efforts, have its own limitations. As civil rights activists and funding equity advocates have long ago learned, courts are limited in their ability to actually enforce the rulings they hand down. That is because the judiciary branch is constitutionally restricted to the role of interpreting law and ensuring that laws are constitutional, not in the business of law enforcement (an executive branch job) or passing legislation itself (which rests within statehouses). Unless judges step up and push enforcement of their rulings through such measures as appointing special masters and fining governments for non-compliance, they have little power beyond the bench.

Even when judges take those steps, this leaves them (and, ultimately, plaintiffs) vulnerable to being accused by recalcitrant politicians and their allies of engaging in judicial activism, of being “unelected dictators” and other buzzwords used by all of different ideological stripes to oppose any effort. They can then engage in massive resistance that will rile up their allies, especially since the latter is also opposed to any change. This was a lesson the NAACP’s Yonkers, N.Y., branch, along with U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Sand, learned all too well in the late 1980s during the effort to desegregate housing and zoning in that northeastern locale. Even if politicians follow the law as they are supposed to, they can still impede reforms by merely following the letter of the ruling and not the spirit. California’s state legislature, which is thoroughly beholden to the National Education Association’s and American Federation of Teachers’ affiliates, may end up on the path to doing just that in the aftermath of the Vergara ruling.

These sobering realities shouldn’t stop reformers from taking to the courts. Far from it. What it does mean is that the movement must build upon successful court action with strong, thoughtful policymaking, successful and thorough implementation, aggressive grassroots advocacy, and single-issue voter efforts. This is also true for successes achieved in statehouses, on the ground, and in political campaigns. No one victory on one front will survive if it isn’t augmented by efforts on others. Because long-term success in American politics — and education is a part of it — is won by victories on all fronts.

This also means that all players within the movement — from Beltway policy wonks to Parent Power activists on the ground — have to work together. It isn’t easy. Even the civil rights movement struggled to agree upon strategies and even mesh conflicting personalities. But it can be done. More importantly, it must. Systemic reform isn’t possible without the respectful interplay of every activist, thinker, school leader, and teacher working to transform these failing super-clusters.

So the movement should embrace Vergara and the potential of lawsuits for reform. But lawsuits alone won’t work. Our children need a movement working on all fronts to build brighter futures for them.


June 13, 2014 standard

When it comes to providing children with the worst American public education has to offer, few operators are as woeful as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education the federal agency that is a hybrid traditional district, state education agency, and charter school authorizer serving 48,000 native children. Fifty-nine percent of BIE eighth-graders scored Below Basic in 2013, double the 26 percent national average, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the average BIE eighth-grader’s math performance is three grade levels below the national average for all middle-schoolers heading into high school. If it were a traditional district, BIE would rank as the second-worst in the nation after Detroit Public Schools.

Thanks to the federal government’s spectacular mismanagement of BIE — including five leadership changes since 2007 — the agency’s operations are in shambles. As the U.S. Government Accountability Office pointed out in a report released last year, the logic-defying decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior to deny BIE control of its operations has resulted in bureaucratic dysfunction. The fact that BIE has failed to replace or repair many of the 65 school buildings identified back in 2009 as being dilapidated, hazardous, and unsafe — in some schools, exposed asbestos fibers, the presence of lead and other toxic materials, and water leaks near electrical outlets are the norm and not the exception — borders on the criminal. The shoddiness of BIE’s operations is especially horrific when compared to how well the federal government runs schools serving children of the nation’s military. All the while, the Obama Administration, which has been charged with running BIE for the past five years, has done little to address its woes.

Simply put, BIE needs an overhaul. So it is good news that the Obama Administration is finally announcing plans today to revamp its operations. But the initiatives won’t mean much if both the administration and Congress doesn’t make them a reality.

At the heart of the Obama Administration’s proposed overhaul of BIE is a move to fully transform the agency into a state education agency. Over the next two years, the 58 remaining schools BIE operates will be handed off to American Indian tribes. One hundred fifteen of the BIE’s schools are already run by tribes while another nine off-reservation boarding schools are privately-run. This move will certainly please tribes and Native activists who believe that Native communities are the ones best-fit to operate schools serving their own kids.

While BIE spins off its remaining schools, it is also revamping its operations to become a “school improvement organization” for the entire education system (including 115 schools already operated by tribes, along with the nine privately-run off-reservation boarding schools still in operation), helping tribes overhaul failing schools and address their teacher quality woes. This includes the creation of a “School Improvement Solutions Team” charged with helping tribes overhaul failing schools and developing comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that also appropriate to Native cultures. BIE will also develop of School Support Solutions Teams to help with operations.

BIE will also focus on improving teacher quality throughout the system. This includes providing professional development to teachers already on the job. But it also likely means that BIE will work with teacher quality outfits, most-likely organizations such as TNTP and Teach for America (the latter of which already does plenty of work in providing teachers to schools serving Native children), to recruit talented collegians into classrooms.

Meanwhile BIE will now directly oversee construction and maintenance of school buildings, taking the work out of the hands of its former direct parent, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is likely a key step to drafting a six-year plan to spend $1.3 billion on replacing and repairing BIE’s dilapidated schools. Interior is also reversing it made last year to shift BIE’s administrative operations from one Indian Affairs division — the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management — to the agency’s regional directors without fully informing BIE’s bureaucracy.

Even bigger plans may become reality in the near-future. One of them: Embarking on its long-stalled plan to develop a unified accountability and school data system monitoring the performance of all of the schools BIE operates and oversees in 23 states throughout the nation. The proposal was developed two years ago as part of its No Child waiver request. Such a move would mean that BIE’s schools would no longer be monitored by a patchwork of state education departments. It would also pave the way for BIE to embark on other possible efforts, including developing its own teacher certification process that the schools it oversees would follow instead of that of individual states.

Another is the launch its competitive grant programs similar to those such as Race to the Top championed by the Obama Administration throughout the rest of American public education. Through the move, BIE would spur reform by rewarding tribes and schools implementing such reforms as developing new teacher evaluation systems using objective student test score growth data. Such a move is critical because BIE is not allowed by law to require tribes to improve teacher evaluations. BIE could also end being granted full status as a state education agency, giving it the ability to fully participate in Race to the Top and other existing competitive and formula-based grants.

Bureau of Indian Education Director Charles Roussel must oversee the school operator’s critical transition.

All of this is good news. By fully ditching its role as school operator, BIE gets out of a business that it has proven long ago it is too incompetent to do. By becoming a state education agency, BIE can also help tribes develop their own capacity to operate schools; this, in turn, helps Native communities take important steps toward providing their own children with the high-quality education they deserve. By giving BIE full control of its capital maintenance and administrative functions, it ends the fragmentation of operations that has made it difficult for it to engage in smart strategic planning needed to undertake reforms and handle such basic activities as supplying textbooks.

For reformers, BIE also offers an opportunity to advance systemic reform and build cultures of geniuses for Native students on a New Orleans-level of scale. BIE would be among the nation’s smallest state education departments, yet at the same time, covers a wider geographic scale than any of them. Addressing the underlying causes of the education crisis on a large scale will both yield important lessons for reform throughout the nation, and help some of our most-vulnerable children gain high-quality education they need to help preserve their cultures as well as build up their communities.

The biggest benefit of all lies in the federal government taking an important step towards making amends for subjecting generations of Native children to what can best be called educational genocide. Starting with the launch of the notorious Carlisle Indian Boarding School in 1879, the federal government focused its schools on assimilating Native children into American culture. By the mid-20th century, what is now the BIE opened 26 boarding schools (along with overseeing 450 others operated by missionaries) that subjected Native children to physical abuse, molestation, and educational abuse. As a Brookings Institution panel declared in the 1928 Meriam Report, the average Native child left school “poorly adjusted to conditions that confront him”.

By the 1970s, the federal government had abandoned the assimilationist approach to schooling Native children. But the damage done can be seen, not only in the high levels of young Native men and women dropping out into poverty and prison, but even in the high levels of unemployment that have helped perpetuate poverty in many Native communities (especially those without casinos). The continued mismanagement of BIE remains a moral stain, both on the Obama Administration’s checkered-yet-otherwise admirable record on school reform as well as on the nation as a whole.

Yet it remains to be seen whether any of the plans will become a reality.

For one, as I detailed last September, the Obama Administration hasn’t exactly done well when it comes to actually helping BIE make its reform initiatives a reality. The proposal to develop the unified accountability and school data system have been stalled since former Director Keith Moore left the agency in July 2012; the U.S. Department of Education still has not moved on the BIE’s No Child waiver proposal even as it has approved waivers (and made a mess of its entire gambit) in that time. Last year, Interior declined to allow BIE to launch its own battery of tests, a key step towards making accountability a reality.

Secondly, the Obama Administration hasn’t shown much in the way of commitment to providing BIE with stable leadership. It took nearly two years for the administration to appoint Moore as permanent director; after he left, the job was held by placeholders until current Director Charles Roussel (one of the interim bosses) was given the spot permanently. Considering the instability of BIE leadership, it can’t be helped that some Native education activists are skeptical that the new reform effort will become reality.

Thirdly, you must remember that BIE’s struggles as a school operator are matched by its failures as an oversight agency. Schools weren’t informed by BIE about whether or not they made Adequate Yearly Progress during the 2011-2012 school year until April 2013, seven months after the new school year began. During 2012-2013, BIE allowed schools in Arizona, Mississippi, and South Dakota to use NWEA’s assessments instead of those in the respective states in which they are located, then changed its mind and told those schools to use state assessments, forcing them to scramble for the test materials.

These problems are compounded by the reality that BIE staffers don’t fully understand the increasingly complex roles state education departments are now being asked to play in education governance, a consequence of the Obama Administration’s reform efforts (along with the impact of No Child and three decades of reform). BIE will need plenty of help, especially from reformers, to make any of its plans a success. Whether it will be accepted, especially given the skepticism of Natives to anything proposed by mostly-white school reformers (and even black and Latino reform activists, who are not always welcomed in Native circles) is an open question.

The biggest problem of all lies with the one group with which the Obama Administration hasn’t worked well at all: Congress. As the administration admits, some of the future plans on the table (including requiring tribe-operated schools to utilize new teacher evaluations) will require both Senate Democrats and House Republicans to pass a new version of the Tribally Controlled Schools Act. Given the preoccupation of the former on holding on to its slim majority, the unwillingness of the latter to give President Barack Obama a legislative victory, and the ire among both over Obama’s penchant for using executive orders to get around their opposition, let’s just say that any BIE reform plan that needs congressional approval is a no go for sure.
But the good news is that Obama Administration is finally taking steps to help Native children in the schools the federal government directly operates. Not only will this help end the nation’s education crisis, it will make amends for a legacy of near-genocidal practices that have damaged the communities of Native children deserving better.

May 9, 2014 standard

Every now and then, we are reminded that all that we achieve are often the fulfillment of the unrealized (and often, unexpressed) hopes and dreams our parents and grandparents had for themselves. This was made clear to me while looking through a folder of old photographs taken eight decades ago by my grandfather. And this reality serves as a reminder of why we must provide all of our children the high-quality education they need to fulfill both the ambitions of their families as well as their own.

The photos, taken by my grandfather in his hometown of Camden, N.J., between May and July of 1942, aren’t simply a collection of poses and family portraits. One is an action shot of a young man sliding into home plate during a baseball game. A few others are of young men in batter’s stances, ready for the next pitch (or strike out). Then there are others: A mother holding her baby standing on a sidewalk in front of a delivery truck. Three kids sitting on the stoop of a dilapidated apartment house, probably near the home on Federal Street where my grandfather grew up. A photo, likely of my great-grandfather, William, looking toward the camera as a gas station attendant fills up the tank of a streamlined automobile.

As the grandson of the photographer, I will admit to my bias. But the photos are as good as any done by the average budding photojournalist of the time. One would dare say that if my grandfather had the opportunity to graduate from high school and go to college, he could have ended up working on the photo staff of The Courier-Post or the Philadelphia Inquirer, or, given how the racial bigotry of the time shut out so many talented young black men and women from careers in the mainstream press, shooting photos for any of the black-owned newspapers that provided news about the triumphs and challenges of African-Americans of the time.

But this didn’t happen. Within a year of the photos being taken, Grandpa was in the Pacific as a soldier in World War II. By the end of the decade, my grandfather had moved to New York City, had two sons by his first wife, and was working on the construction of what would become John F. Kennedy International Airport. Eventually, as a chef, he would build his family, take care of his sons and three daughters — including my mom — and with my Grandma, help the children become part of the American middle class. Everywhere Grandpa went, from the shore of Guam to the streets of Los Angeles, he took photos. But save for those photos, and those he took of the kids and grandchildren at birthday parties, whatever dreams he may have had of being a photographer or journalist went unfulfilled.

As I looked at the photos, it dawned on me that I had fulfilled both my own ambitions and the dreams he had for himself. The smile he had for me when I came back to New York back in 1999 for an internship with ABC News, and the kudos he gave me when I published my first article on the pages of Forbes wasn’t just about knowing that I was making something of myself. Through the work I did, I was also carrying hopes and dreams unfulfilled — that of Grandma and his own. And when I think about it, I am also realizing the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of Grandpa’s ancestors as well as that of my Grandma’s forebears.

Photo courtesy of the Biddle Family.

The older we get, the more we realize that our lives are neither just our own or lived for ourselves. Each of us, in all that we do, carry responsibilities, made plain and otherwise, to our parents and forebears to make real they dreams and ambitions they possess for us and themselves. We are all our grandfathers born anew. This is also true for all of our children. No matter who they are or where they live, every child bears an awesome, sometimes unfair, charge to fulfill hopes and wishes that their parents and grandparents have for themselves, but could never realize.

But our children can only succeed in achieving these dreams, both their own and those of their families, if they are provided the high-quality teaching and curricula they need and deserve. And this is no truer now, in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society, than at any other time in history.

As this week’s data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress has shown, far too many young men and women are leaving high school without the literacy and numeracy they need to survive and succeed. That’s just the kids who graduate. There are the 1.2 million young men and women in the original Class of 2014 who have already dropped out of school into poverty and prison, the 1.2 million fifth-graders who are reading Below Basic levels of proficiency (and likely to drop out over the next seven years), and the 5.8 million young adults are neither working, finishing high school, or studying in traditional colleges, apprenticeships and other forms of higher education.

Photo courtesy of the Biddle Family.

The futures for these young men and women are absolutely bleak. In an economy in which what you know is more important than what you can with your hands — and in which annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008 (even as high school grads, those with some higher ed training, and collegians have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent) — these young adults are ill-equipped to either fulfill their own ambitions much less those of their parents. Twenty-seven percent of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners were high school dropouts and another 36 percent were high school grads without some form of higher education, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Even worse, they will be unable to help their own children achieve dreams, both their own and those that they as parents have that remain unfulfilled. Forty-one percent of high school seniors whose parents were dropouts — and 36 percent of those whose parents were high school graduates without some higher ed education — read Below Basic on NAEP 2013.

Yet poverty and educational underachievement need not be destiny. As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation determined in a 2007 study,  3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools. But the inherent genius within these children must be nurtured in schools where cultures of genius, fostered by high-quality teaching, strong school leadership, and comprehensive college preparatory curricula, are the norm.

The problem largely lies with the nation’s education crisis, which has condemned at least two generations of men and women to economic and social despair. Children from poor and minority households — especially those where families are poorly-educated — are more likely than middle-class peers to attend schools staffed by low-quality teachers. Even worse, those laggard teachers tend to perform even worse than equally poor-performing peers serving middle-class kids to educational neglect. The average low-performing teacher in North Carolina working in school serving mostly-poor kids was four-hundredths of a standard deviation worse in performance in math than a laggard in a middle-class serving school, according to a 2010 study conducted by a team led by Tim Sass, an economist now with Georgia State University.

Meanwhile poor and minority children are often denied opportunities to attain comprehensive college-preparatory curricula. Only two percent of Detroit’s seventh- and eighth-grade students — including 1.6 percent of black middle-schoolers — took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. This lack of choice extends even to poor and minority kids in suburbia, where high quality learning is supposed to be the norm. Just 24 percent of black middle-schoolers took Algebra 1, versus an also-low 39 percent of white peers. This lack of access to high-quality learning is a problem caused largely by a century of racialist- and class-driven rationing of education, including the overuse of special ed ghettos to condemn those considered unteachable by those unwilling (and often, lacking the talent) to instruct them. Add in Zip Code Education policies such as school residency laws and the lack of high-quality information on the performance of schools and districts, and it’s little wonder why only so many of our most-vulnerable children end up on the path to despair.

Photo courtesy of the Biddle Family.

The nation’s education crisis doesn’t just affect poor and minority children. Seventeen percent of young white male high school seniors whose parents graduated from college read Below Basic on NAEP 2013, as did 16 percent of their Asian peers from the same background. Twenty-seven percent of fourth-graders from suburbia were functionally illiterate. High schools sophomores from middle class backgrounds lagged behind peers in 15 countries in science literacy, according to an analysis of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment by America Achieves. The reality is that the educational abuse borne upon poor and minority children visits their middle-class peers in the form of academic neglect. When our poor and minority kids are provided high-quality education, all children will succeed.

Systemic reform is about helping our children achieve brighter futures. At the same time, it is also fulfilling the dreams of our ancestors — especially those of earlier generations of black men and women like my grandfather, whose ambitions were deferred because of centuries of racial bigotry. As Virginia Tech historian Wilma Dunaway documented in her tomes on slavery in the southern communities surrounding Appalachia, the practices of slavery — from the hiring out of black men to other plantations to impregnate slave women (and thus, keeping three-quarters of black slave men from serving as fathers to their own children), to the denial of slave families to live together as families, to the forcing black women to nurse the children of slave masters (and deny nutrition to their own kin) — was as much about whites denying the humanity of black people (and their dreams for better lives) as it was about leveraging free labor for profit. This was also true of Jim Crow segregation in the American South, de facto discrimination in the northern states, and federal laws such as the Davis-Bacon Act, which denied employment on New Deal projects to blacks who couldn’t join all-white labor unions. School reform is a fulfillment of the dreams — and a long-overdue apology — to past generations of black people who labored hard to help this country prosper, yet were denied chances to reap the fruits of their labors.

Transforming American public education is key to helping all kids fulfill their ambitions as well as the dreams fulfilled of earlier generations. This includes overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers and school leaders. It also includes the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — as well as the development of high-quality curricula aligned with the standards — in order to provide our kids with comprehensive college preparatory curricula. And we must continue to expand school choice as well as Parent Power efforts, along with developing school data systems that provide all families with information they need to make smart decisions.

Our kids cannot make their ambitions real — or achieve that which their parents and forebears dreamed about — without high-quality education. For that, we must engage in systemic reform.


April 25, 2014 standard

Back in 2011, your editor took a look at the work of the See Forever Foundation and how its Maya Angelou charter schools broke away from the approaches embraced by traditional districts to help former high school dropouts and kids in Washington, D.C.’s juvenile jail graduate from high school and gain college degrees. Finding that few of its high school graduates — many of whom were the first in their families to even be accepted into college, much less graduate from high school — were actually enrolling once they were accepted, much less graduating with a degree, See Forever had to take on new approaches that would not only help their students graduate from high school, but then successfully navigate the complexities of staying in college. This included providing its graduating students with counselors, who work to keep the students on track both while in high school and in college; working with families to annually fill out federal financial aid forms (a challenge made even more difficult when relatives are earning incomes through informal means such as day labor); and supplying other forms of counseling to the kids so they can deal with emotional challenges of being the first in their families to move out of neighborhoods and move onto the path to economic and social achievement.

What See Forever’s experience, and that of other outfits working with struggling children, made clear was that the traditional district model lacked the nimbleness for such work, even though the emphasis of scale at the heart of it should theoretically make it possible. In fact, the very scale that, in theory, should allow traditional districts to help ex-dropouts and traditional students stay on the path to educational and economic success (and, more importantly, keep students from dropping out in the first place), is of little use in an age in which ensuring all children get a high-quality education is more-important than how many students attend in the first place.

Two years later, this reality once again comes to mind, courtesy of Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Michael Petrilli, who partially walked back his piece last month in Slate declaring that we shouldn’t bother providing college-preparatory learning to all children. Conceding your editor’s point that struggling kids who aren’t “college material” wouldn’t succeed in the vocational ed programs he and others of this mindset propose as alternative “pathways” (as well as acknowledging that we must improve education at the early grades), Petrilli then complains that yours truly and other reformers are not being as “realistic” as he supposedly is about the challenge of helping kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds in failing big city districts, get up to speed academically. Then Petrilli challenges his critics to offer solutions to this aspect of the education crisis. Wonders Petrilli: “What should we do with these students while they are in high school?”

The obvious answer to Petrilli’s last question starts with providing those children with intensive remediation, especially in reading and math, the two subjects which hinder their lifelong success the most. But let’s go beyond that because Petrilli is asking an important question that deserves a serious answer. What Petrilli fails to acknowledge is that reformers, especially those working in big cities, have provided some important solutions for some time. There’s See Forever, where 87 percent of its graduates make it through their first year of college, and 60 percent of graduates leave college with a degree, the latter being higher than that for ex-dropouts and for all American students attending higher ed in six years. Then there is the work of YouthBuild, whose charter schools also work with children either on the verge or have already dropped out, as well as those operated by Goodwill Industries’ Indianapolis branch.  Another possibility comes courtesy of New Visions for Public Schools, whose successful work with the New York City Department of Education on developing small high schools has been well-documented.

None of these school operations are unqualified successes. Nothing wrought by man can ever be. What all they do have in common is that they operate in one form or another outside of the traditional district model. While some, such as New Visions for Public Schools, work in conjunction with traditional districts, others such as See Forever and YouthBuild are charters that have developed their own unique approaches to helping kids poorly-served for years by traditional district schools get up to speed and head into the economic and social mainstream. All of them take unique, radical, and sensible approaches to education that fit the contexts in which they work and best serve the children in their care. And they models that have emerged in the past decade, long after the traditional district model became the norm in American public education.

Petrilli could have considered some of these models, as well as others. Those models include applying the approach of treating struggling students the same way we would those in gifted-and-talent programs developed by Project Bright Idea, an outfit working in North Carolina’s schools focused on elementary age children. Another can be gleaned from the Response to Intervention approach developed to keep illiterate children out of the nation’s special ed ghettos. As with so much in transforming American public education, there will not be one answer that solves the complex crisis before us. Yet Petrilli didn’t put any time into offering a solution. Why? Largely because he, like so many reformers and traditionalists, are still stuck in a traditional district paradigm that has long ago proven to be useless.

All this points to three critical realities. The first? That helping all kids succeed — especially those suffering from years of educational neglect and malpractice — requires ditching the traditional district model altogether. As Petrilli managed to point out in his response to my points, and as Dropout Nation has consistently illustrated since it began publishing six years ago, American public education has long ago been scaled for failure. From the collective bargaining agreements and state laws that essentially protect laggard teachers and fail to reward high-quality teachers (all of which are artifacts of industrial-era thinking and a time in which teacher performance could not be measured), to the bureaucratic nature of traditional districts (which foster cultures of mediocrity and failure that are difficult to overhaul), it is clear that the scale-oriented model embraced by the traditional district doesn’t work now (if it ever did). So we must stop fetishizing scale — something that reformers deserve criticism for doing — and toss the traditional district model into the ashbin of history where it belongs. We must instead embrace new models of education that focus on providing high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures to every child.

The second reality: That moving away from the traditional district model requires reformers, especially folks such as Petrilli, to ditch mindsets that embrace it. Sure, it is easy for Petrilli to demand that his fellow-travelers be realistic about the challenges before them. We should be. But realism is often used, both by traditionalists as well as the likes of Petrilli, to justify doing little or nothing to help all children succeed. As history has consistently shown, both in the success of social movements such as the end of the slave trade and in the advancements in technologies such as the personal computer and smartphones, the world is changed not by those who rigidly embrace realism, but by what Martin Luther King once called creative radicals who both acknowledge the challenges facing them and take imaginative, daring, even seemingly unrealistic approaches to solving them.

The final reality: That the school reform movement must continually bring in new and energetic voices to revive and sustain its efforts. The success of the school reform movement has come from the emergence of men and women from different backgrounds who strongly take on both traditionalists more-concerned with preserving their ideologies and paychecks, and hold accountable longtime reformers who lose sight of the goal of building brighter futures for all children. It can become easy for the current generation of reformers to become so jaded about the challenges before them that they end up being more-concerned with “reality” than with transforming education.

To paraphrase Marvin Gaye, you can’t solve America’s education crisis by simply hollering and tossing up your hands. We must embrace new models of providing education that focus on providing all children, especially those who have suffered the most from the traditional district model’s failures, teaching and learning they need and deserve.

December 20, 2013 standard

Reading is fundamental — and not just for our children. School reformers, in particular, must always read more than just the wide array of op-eds and policy texts churned out of think tanks in order to continue fostering the intellectual dynamism that has helped the movement battle strongly for building brighter futures for all children. This means reading lots of books, especially ones on history, economics, and other subjects outside of education, in order to develop even more-cohesive arguments for the myriad solutions needed to transform American public education.

This is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2013 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a wide range of texts. This includes two history books — including a biography of how urban politics and social reform shaped the career of Theodore Roosevelt, and a look at political maneuvering by Jim Crow segregationist senators to preserve failed and bigoted thinking — from which reformers can glean lessons on how to use politics and activism to transform American public education. It also includes a primer on the develop of Western art and culture that can also serve as a rallying call for expanding experiences for all of our children.

As Dropout Nation does every year, the selections were judged on five criteria: Does it have a strong narrative or polemical power (also known as “is it well-written”)? Are the lessons relevant to the reform of American public education? Is the book thought-provoking (or does it offer new arguments or new thinking on familiar issues)? When research is involved in the narrative, does it stand up to scrutiny? And would you pay at least $14 to put it on your tablet (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?

Below are this year’s selections. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And just read, read, read.

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined: There are plenty of reasons why psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s books on the misuses of IQ tests — and mistaken views overall about the potential of children — was the subject of last September’s Conversation at Dropout Nation podcast. For one, Kaufman smartly explains how IQ tests such as the Stanford-Binet — which were originally developed to help children identify and address their learning issues — have been warped by IQ determinists such as Charles Murray, who use the tests to argue that cognitive ability is genetically-driven and that only some kids (usually white) are deserving of college-preparatory education. Kaufman also explains in clear terms why concepts such as learning disabled (which are used to condemn far too many kids to the nation’s special ed ghettos) and giftedness fail to keep in mind all the factors that play into how children learn (including the role of deliberate practice). For reformers, Ungifted is one that should be read. And read. And read again. So go do it.

I Got Schooled: One of the new voices emerging for advancing reform this year is filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who has written one of the more-thoughtful polemics on the steps needed to address the nation’s education crisis.  Written as a travelogue of sorts about his six-year exploration of education policy issues, the director of The Sixth Sense manages to do in a mere 249 pages what most think tankers fail to do after thousands of pages: Quickly explain flaws in traditionalist thinking — including class-size reduction efforts — and outline five key steps (including giving power to principals to make hiring and firing decisions, and embracing the use of data) to transform education. Just as importantly, in discussing how high-quality teachers “want to want” to stem achievement gaps while laggards don’t desire this goal, Shyamalan also hits upon the importance of talent in building cultures of genius that help all kids succeed. Shyamalan’s book isn’t without flaws; his citing of the rather flawed 2009 report on charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Options, arguing that it proves that charters are no better than traditional district schools, is rather problematic. But overall, Shyamalan’s arguments are worth considering.


Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School: Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann have offered up one of the most-exhaustive polemics on how the nation’s education crisis is making it harder for the nation and its children to succeed in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economic landscape. Through their analysis of international student achievement data, Hanushek, Peterson, Woessmann detail why arguments from traditionalists that all is well with education don’t stand up to scrutiny. At the same time, Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann take the time to chastise political leaders for not meeting their promises to advance reform, look at already-ongoing fiscal battles between retiring Baby Boomers and families of young children, and explain how reformers must explain to the public that the battle over reforming American public education is one “between the needs of school-age children” who will be the ones charged with keeping the nation prosperous long into the future versus “the interests of those adults who agreed to educate them in our public schools”.

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars: Why should reformers pick up cultural critic and intellectual provocateur Camille Paglia’s  primer on the history and development of Western art and culture? Reason one: Paglia’s book is the kind that textbook writers should aspire to provide children and adults alike. A simple-yet-comprehensive tome, Paglia’s book details the historical forces that shaped — and were shaped by — works of art such as The Book of Kells (which helped inspire the 19th century Celtic revival that led to the Irish War of Independence from Great Britain) and The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David’s ode to the French Revolution. The second reason: Paglia’s strong arguments about the failures of traditional districts to provide children with knowledge about the arts and its role in shaping and being shaped by society (a problem Paglia argues is a problem that is a problem for American culture as a whole) is a clarion call to reformers to do more to expand cultural experiences for all children.


Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt: Certainly you should pick up Edward P. Kohn’s book because it is about the very fascinating life of America’s 26th president — the man who showed the power of the bully pulpit in advancing social change. But reformers can learn plenty from Kohn’s narrative about how Roosevelt’s thinking and activism was shaped by his disgust for the shameless graft of the Big Apple’s infamous Tammany Hall regime, disdain for the equally unabashed corruption of upstate New York politicians, and experience on the ground working with poor and minority families of that time forced into tenements unfit for living. And by discussing how Roosevelt and other social reformers of the time took on the woeful conditions of the time for the Big Apple’s poorest families, Kohn’s book — which will be the subject of an upcoming Dropout Nation Podcast on embracing grassroots leadership — also provides reformers lessons on how it will take plenty of strong steps to help the children of today succeed in school and in life.

Strife and Progress: Portfolio Strategies for Managing Urban Schools: It is easy to talk about overhauling (and, more to the liking of DN Editor RiShawn Biddle, abandoning) the obsolete and dysfunctional traditional district model. It is even easier to talk about how it should be done, including moving away from centralized bureaucracies to a portfolio approach under which traditional and public charter schools are managed under a mayoral control structure. But as former Center for Reinventing Public Education boss Paul Hill and his onetime colleagues, Christine Campbell and Bethany Gross, point out in their 140-page primer on portfolio district, making it work — along with dealing with the political challenges of moving away from the traditional district model — is a different matter entirely. In Strife and Progress, Hill, Campbell, and Gross provide some important lessons, both political and operational, from efforts  by New York City and other reform-minded districts that institution-oriented reformers and their counterparts among activists and think tankers should heed. 


The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got That Way: An observer can easily argue that Amanda Ripley’s 307-page volume on the success of school systems around the world versus the failures of America’s super-clusters has been over-hyped by reformers. Maybe. But Dropout Nation would have to say that the kudos given to Ripley’s book are all well-deserved. Why? Because it is a strong polemic that explains, both the experiences of three young adults and through strong reporting how American public education is doing poorly for its children and for the nation as a whole. The narrative provides strong contrasts between how traditional district schools focus too many resources on expensive buildings and other matters that have little to do with learning with the more judicious use of resources by systemics in other countries. And in explaining how white middle class children are doing almost as poorly academically (especially as measured on PISA and other international exams) against their counterparts around the world as their black and Latino peers at home, Ripley offers everyone a reminder that the high cost of educational abuse to the least of our children also ends up being borne by the wealthiest of them.

Delaying the Dream: Southern Senators and the Fight Against Civil RightsThere’s plenty for reformers to learn from political historian Keith M. Finley’s text on how politicians such as Georgia U.S. Senator Richard Russell, Louisiana’s Russell Long, and J. William Fulbright of Arkansas (now better-known for the international education program he helped create through law) used every political tactic — including arcane Senate rules and faux compromises that effectively kept Jim Crow segregation laws in place — to slow down the civil rights movement’s efforts to end state-sanction segregation. One of the lessons — that those defending a status quo will use any step taken by activists they oppose to rally their side — is one that reformers should always keep in mind; after all, traditionalists are essentially using the same tactics leveraged by defenders of Jim Crow this past century. Just as importantly, reformers can be heartened from another lesson: That those defending failed policies and practices ultimately don’t have time on their side, especially when activists and others continually challenge them at all levels.


As always, there are a number of books that are also deserving of praise, but didn’t make the Top Eight cut this year. This Next Six includes Tilting at Windmills, Richard Lee Colvin’s profile of former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin’s struggle to overhaul the Southern California district; Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen’s history on the development — and battles between factions within — the modern American evangelical movement; The One World Schoolhouse, education innovator Sal Khan’s tome on the development of his flipped classroom approach to teaching; I Am Malala, the autobiography on the teenage activist’s battle against Islamicists in Pakistan opposed to providing teaching and curricula to young women; Margaret Thatcher—The Authorised Biography, Volume I by Charles Moore; and Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, which details how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revolutionized online retail and (to use a supermarket phrase) so much more.

November 26, 2013 standard

One can easily say that in many ways, outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 11-year effort to transform public education in the Big Apple has helped improve life for families and communities within it. Between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by eight points (from 47 percent to 39 percent) while the percentage of fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by eight percentage points (from 21 percent to 29 percent). The declines in illiteracy for the Big Apple’s poorest children were also pronounced, with a 10 percentage point decline (from 51 percent to 41 percent) in that period while the percentage of poor families reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by seven percentage points (from 18 percent to 25 percent). Bloomberg’s reform efforts have not been perfect — and as this piece points out, his shortcomings have been especially troubling when it comes to education for black and Latino children regardless of economic background. But the mayor is leaving the Big Apple with a better district than it had before he took it over in 2002. And it will be up to his successor, Bill de Blasio to both build upon Bloomberg’s successes and address the shortcomings of the regime.

Over the next few days, Dropout Nation‘s editors will offer their own advice on what de Blasio should do. Today, Contributing Editor Michael Holzman focuses on what de Blasio should do to address one of Bloomberg’s shortcomings: The low (albeit improving) achievement of the Big Apple’s black and Latino children. Tomorrow, Editor RiShawn Biddle will discuss the choices de Blasio must make to build upon the most-successful aspects of Bloomberg’s reform efforts. And on Friday, Biddle and Holzman will both offer additional thoughts on two problems that have remained unaddressed by Bloomberg: Accurate data on school performance to state and federal agencies; and the $31 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that will complicate New York’s fiscal future (and de Blasio’s plans to expand early childhood educational opportunities for the city’s children).

When Bill de Blasio takes over as New York City’s mayor, he will face a task his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, admitted is the most-important of all: Educating the nation’s largest city’s one million children. And the current mayor-elect is right when he declared that the Big Apple has become two cities. This is especially true when it comes to education.

Students from white non-Latino and Asian (especially Indian) homes are more-likely to live in families with two parents who are college-educated. Just four percent of white and Asian families consist of single women with children under age 18. The poverty rate for white families alone is just 19 percent in 2012, lower than the average of 26 percent.

Students from black and Latino households are not likely to be so fortunate. They are less likely to have received baccalaureate and graduate degrees. They are more likely to be single-parent households; 16 percent of black and Latino families in New York City consist of single women with children under age 18. And 40 percent of black and Latino families are living in poverty.

This is a challenge that New York City doesn’t undertake nearly as well as it should. On average, 86 percent of young black and Latino men in eighth-grade, and 82 percent of their female peers score below Proficient and Advanced levels (or at grade level), according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. As a result, most black and Latino students do not graduate college- and career-ready in four years.

The results can be seen in U.S. Census data on college completion for adults in the city. While nearly half of the New York’s White, non-Latino, and Asian adults over 25 years of age have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, only about one-fifth of black adults and 15 percent of Latino adults have achieved that level of education which is a crucial predictor of the educational achievement of their children and increasingly necessary for a middle class income.

The failure to educate black and Latino children is especially problematic because New York City isn’t a majority white or Asian district. Roughly equal numbers of New York’s children are Latino, black and white.  Asian students (including Asian Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and others) number between one-third and half the size of the other groups. When it comes to education, New York is a tale of two cities – and not a good one for black and Latino children.

What, then, is the task of the public schools?  Is it to allocate public resources in proportion to private resources, so that children from comparatively well-off and highly educated families receive more public resources than others? Or is it to fulfill the ideals of the Founders that the quality of education should not depend on where children live or the class status of their parents?

All evidence points to a de facto decision in New York City to allocate public resources in proportion to the private resources available to students.  Pre-kindergarten classes are more available in wealthier neighborhoods. Gifted and talented classes are more available in wealthier neighborhoods (and the qualifying tests are not even given in some poorer neighborhoods).

College-preparatory curricula are available in wealthier neighborhoods and not in poorer neighborhoods, The peak of the system, the selective high schools, as a matter of fact select so few black and Latino students as to be simply a rounding error in some of those schools, and the test is designed in such a way as to be virtually impossible to pass with the courses available in the city’s schools serving poorer (Black and Latino) students, while the city’s students from wealthier families not only have the requisite coursework for a solid foundation in their schools, but benefit from expensive private tutorials.

Given this situation, what is a new Mayor to do? The details are difficult to define. The goals are not.

First, bring equality to the allocation of resources across the school system. The differences in facilities, equipment and maintenance among the city’s schools is grotesque.  It is incredible that this situation should exist.  It must end.

Second, bring equity to the allocation of resources across the school system.  The measure of this should not be clever book-keeping devices, but outcomes:  Every school should have the resources to provide every student with a good education. Neighborhood schools in the Bronx and central Brooklyn should offer educations at least as good as those on the upper West Side and eastern Queens.

It is not difficult to measure the resources necessary for providing a student with a good education.  The new administration need only identify those schools now providing high quality education, as shown by any of the usual measurements and determine the total resources—public and private—available to the students in those schools.  Schools serving students living in poverty, with parents whose own educations are limited, will require compensatory resources:  pre-school, all day kindergarten, after-school tutorials, summer school, high-standards for curricula and teaching.  Schools serving students from wealthier families may find some of these items to be redundant for most of their students.  The budget for each school should follow those determinations.