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April 28, 2015 standard

Let us pray for peace beyond understanding to the family of Freddie Gray. Please give them respite from their sorrow, let them know justice for his slaying, and allow for them to forgive the men who trespassed on his life.

Let us pray that all the people brutalized senselessly by both criminals and lawless police officers in Baltimore, as well as elsewhere, are able to gain the peace from fear they haven’t seen for a long long time.

Let us pray for those officers and teachers who do well by our children, let them shine as guiding lights for those with whom they serve. Let us also pray for the souls of those who don’t or worse, stand idly by. Let them change — or move out of the way.

Let us pray for our children in Baltimore, who like so many young men and women in America, have been condemned to poverty and prisons by American public education and criminal justice systems.

Most of all, let’s pray for our young black sons in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Pray that our young black men in Baltimore and elsewhere can be measured by the content of their character.

Pray that all who deal with them behold their genius and nurture it, instead of be frightened by what they think they are.

Pray that they see hope even in hopelessness, glory even in the midst of the fire, and possibility in the middle of the storm.

Pray for a day in which they don’t have to mourn for peers named Emmett, named Yusuf, named Trayvon, named Michael, named Tamir, and named Freddie.

And as we pray, we all take action, turning righteous indignation into positive change. Transform our schools and overhaul our justice systems. Build up every young man that we see. Help our children know their own names.

There are too many Baltimores, both in big cities and in our suburbias. Take the time now to do better by every Freddie and every child.

April 23, 2015 standard

Your editor hasn’t spent much time on the efforts of suburban white families along with opponents of Common Core reading and math standards as well as affiliates of National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to push families into opting out of state standardized tests. As Alexander Russo and others have pointed out, there is slim evidence that families are actually heeding any of the messages. The fact that outcry in many states — notably New York — is driven by AFT and NEA (to neuter the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations) and Common Core foes (in order to stifle implementation of the standards) also makes the entire effort more of a traditionalist tantrum than real concern from families over supposed overemphasis on testing. And besides, reformers such as Andy Rotherham and Chris Stewart have devoted plenty of words to the issue, likely more than it deserves.

Yet reformers cannot simply dismiss the arguments for opting out by suburban families and cannot just dismiss the opt-out efforts. If anything, the opt-out efforts are another reminder to the school reform movement that they must continually make the strong case for advancing systemic reform. This means both reminding those opposed to reform why they must live up to their moral obligations to all of our children regardless of whether they gave birth to them or not — and explaining to them why transforming American public education will be beneficial to their own children, who deserve better than what they are provided now.

Prompting your editor’s consideration of the issue is a piece from Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, who proclaims this week that opt-out efforts are “testing education reform’s humility.” From where Smarick sits, reformers who argue against the opt-out efforts, including those pointing to how their efforts damage the futures of poor and minority children, are engaging in “condescension”. As far as he is concerned, reformers shouldn’t view the opposition to standardized testing from white suburban families and others “with skepticism or antipathy”, and that it is “untoward to suggest they don’t care about other kids or are insensitive to issues of race and income.”

Declares Smarick: “We could disparage them. But that would only serve to insult and incite. Or we could humbly listen, respectfully argue our case, and make the necessary course corrections.”

Certainly your editor can appreciate Smarick’s desire to ignore the racialist aspects of the opt-out efforts. Either out of naivete or discomfort, he and other conservative reformers want to believe that everyone is a person of good will. But for Smarick to not consider that racialism is as much an underlying force behind the opt-out efforts as organized efforts by teachers’ unions and (occasionally legitimate) concerns of suburban white families is to be intellectually unserious.

Racism is America’s Original Sin, one that pervades the political, economic, and social fabric of the nation. While state-sanctioned discrimination (and enslavement) is no longer tolerated, issues within and outside of education (along with actions such as last November’s New York City grand jury decision to not indict a police officer for the murder of Eric Garner) are constant reminders that racial bigotry have only become more-subtle and, because of social stigma, less explicit.

Just as importantly, Smarick and other conservative reformers keep making the error of thinking of racism in binary terms, that is, you can only argue that a policy or practice is racist if it explicitly targets a race or ethnicity, or if the person authoring or administrating it is explicitly and consciously racialist. As demonstrated in studies of the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline — including one by Stanford University professor Jennifer Eberhard and graduate student Jason Okonofua published this month in Psychological Science — the consequences of policies and practices can be as racialist as overt acts by those engaged in explicit racial discrimination.

This is a stubborn fact neither conservative reformers nor the rest of the movement can ignore. This is because school reformers, like all social reformers of past and present, have to constantly remember that their efforts often run counter to human nature. Sometimes people are capable of great good. Other times, even greater evil. Most of the time, though, humans, being imperfect creatures of the Creator, are naturally tribal, concerned first with the protection of our kin, then with the preservation of those who look like us and share our background. Those who do not look like us, don’t live in our neighborhoods, or aren’t even part of our social class are looked upon with either contempt or indifference. They are merely the other.

On a practical basis, this means that as many people are unconcerned about the futures of other people’s children as those who are, even when it is clear that the collective success and survival our children (and that of society and civilization in which they will be adults) is clearly at stake. Anything that challenges the primary concerns for one’s own — be it the recognition of the life and liberty of others, or social reforms that improve other communities alongside our own — will always be greeted with look askance and worse.

Yet as earlier generations of reformers outside of education have shown (and as the school reform movement has demonstrated), reforms and social improvements are possible. The very existence of modern civilization demonstrates this, as does the end of Jim Crow segregation and the peculiar institution that was American slavery. This results from strong, persistent efforts in activism, policymaking, and practice-developing. It doesn’t end when victory is won because all victories against human nature are temporary without it. And it involves calling people on the carpet for their immoral thinking as well as appealing to their nobler instincts (including their obligations as children of God and members of the family of mankind).

For reformers, this means that they must continually make the case for advancing systemic reform. Because of the baseness of human nature, no social improvement remains eternal. Because tribalism in all its forms is foremost in the human psyche, unifying people to do better for each other is always a challenge. Because it is easy for people to deny the humanity of others — including and especially children — there will always be a fight for equality and justice, especially when it comes to education.

So reformers must both be the conscience of men and women who should know better — and remind people that it is in their enlightened self-interests to both be concerned about providing high-quality education to their own children alongside those of other people.

As legendary social activists such as Salvation Army founder William Booth would say, reformers are moral scolds. There is nothing wrong with that. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was no more wrong for calling out white suburban parents over their opposition to Common Core than Martin Luther King was for calling White America on the carpet for perpetuating Jim Crow segregation five decades ago or Abraham Lincoln was for opposing slavery 100 years earlier.

Certainly you should make a case based on data and evidence. But evidence has never been enough to convince people to do the right thing. As civil rights activists and abolitionists of the past have shown, calling out immoral and intellectually dishonest thinking is a foremost obligation of every school reformer. Simply sidestepping that role, something for which Smarick implicitly argues under the guise of “humility” cannot ever be done. More importantly, the actions we take emanate from our moral concerns; so morality cannot be excluded from policy and practice. Calling things as they are (or as some with less backbone call it, demonizing) is a necessary part of highlighting that which is wrong, immoral, and should no longer be acceptable.

At the same time, reformers cannot simply shame people into embracing its tenets. This is what Smarick does get right, though not necessarily for the correct reasons. Moral scolding alone doesn’t work because of realities of human nature. The other? The fact that people will always be convinced of the rightfulness of their views even when they are demonstrably wrong. So is important for the movement to offer a positive vision that both builds brighter futures for other people’s children and appeals to the desire of families to do the best for their own kin. Or as some would say, enlighten people’s natural self-interest on behalf of the children whose futures we are aiding.

This means explaining how standardized tests provide critical data on how schools and the adults who work in them are serving their children as well as those from different backgrounds. It involves demonstrating over and over again how suburban districts are subjecting children from white middle class households to mediocre teaching and curricula while condemning kids black and brown to educational abuse and neglect. Finally, it includes honestly and sensitively addressing legitimate concerns about testing and the other solutions for which we advocate.

The school reform movement shouldn’t overstate the possible impact of opt-out efforts. At the same time, it shouldn’t consider any victory for systemic reform eternal. Constant activism — from moral scolding to appeals to goodwill — are key to sustaining the reforms we implement to help all children succeed.

January 28, 2015 standard

Fifty percent of high school seniors who express no interest in any form of higher education eventually end up in traditional colleges, community colleges, and technical schools within eight years of graduating. This finding, courtesy of a report released this week by the William T. Grant Foundation, offers another important reason why we must provide all of our children with the college-preparatory curricula they need so they can choose their own path to lifelong success.

As Dropout Nation has documented over the past few years — especially in critiques of the Pathways to Prosperity report offered up by Harvard University as well as the arguments of Andrew Hacker and Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli — many traditionalists and even some reformers think that providing all children with college preparatory learning (or what they derisively call college for all) is somehow unnecessary. From where they sit, providing all middle-schoolers with Algebra 1 courses and every high school student with Advanced Placement courses is harmful to them because students struggling in school (including dropouts and those who will barely graduate from high school) aren’t going to head to college. Those kids, they say, aren’t college material and probably don’t want higher education anyway.

They think those children they don’t consider to be college material should be shunted into vocational high school programs. Your editor has pointed out numerous reasons why their thinking is so shortsighted. One of the most-important: The fact that few high schoolers really don’t know what careers suit them until they enter the workforce; what may be an ideal fit in theory (or based on a brief internship) often turns out not to be in the bright light of day. This is why only 30 percent of kids in vocational courses spend any time working in their chosen fields, according to education policy consultant Richard C. Seder. Sooner or later, they will end up seeking higher education; so it is a mistake to assume that those who don’t immediately enroll in college won’t eventually do so.

This is the reality the Grant Foundation highlights in its latest study. Looking at data for high school sophomores followed in the federal  Educational Longitudinal Survey who graduated in 2004, a Grant Foundation research team led by James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University found that 86 percent of high school graduates eventually attends some form of higher education. This includes those high school grads who expressed no interest in any kind of higher education — the very children that the likes of the Pathways to Prosperity crowd (along with Hacker and Petrilli) argue don’t need college-preparatory curricula.

The percentages of high school grads attending higher ed doesn’t vary based on their academic performance: Seventy-three percent of high school grads who performed at low levels on their 10th-grade exams eventually took up some form of higher education within eight years as did 87 percent of peers performing at average levels and 95 percent of those who were top-performing. This was also true regardless of socioeconomic status, with 75 percent of low-income high school grads, 86 percent of middle-income peers, and 95 percent of higher-income counterparts eventually going to college.

Yet there are clouds in these silver linings. Most of those high school grads will end up with a workforce certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate, or graduate credential. But 46 percent of those first enrolling in community colleges and 23 percent of those first enrolling in four-year universities attained no credential at all. While their economic prospects are certainly better than high school dropouts, Rosenbaum and his team found that they were less likely to be employed than those who left higher ed with credentials. The earnings of a high school grad with some higher education, on average, was at least 10 percent lower than that for peers graduating with a certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate or graduate-level degree.

The lack of completion is especially problematic for high school grads from the poorest homes who proceeded on to higher education. Thirty-six percent of low-income high school grads who first attended a four-year university failed to attain a higher ed credential; this is only true for 26 percent of middle-income peers and 15 percent of counterparts from wealthier homes. It is also quite troublesome for any high school grad who first starts out their higher ed path in a community college, with one out of every two high school grads from poor and middle-income households, along with two out of every five wealthier peers, failing to attain a higher ed credential. And it can be an arduous challenge for high school grads who are the first in their families to attend some form of higher ed: Just 51 percent of those kids eventually attain a higher ed credential.

Certainly one problem lies with the challenges faced first-generation higher ed students, many of whom come from poor and minority households, is part of the problem. Because they lack parents and caregivers familiar with navigating the complexities of staying in college (including annually filling out federal financial aid forms) and lack the financial cushion to deal with emergencies such as when Pell Grants come in too late to pay for room-and-board, these students often find themselves struggling to survive in environments for which neither school nor home ever prepared them. That community colleges, which are the higher education institutions of choice for most students (and the key lynchpins in workforce training efforts for nearly every industry), fail mightily at both supporting low-income students and in providing high-quality higher ed is also a problem. This, by the way, is another reason why the Obama Administration’s plan to subsidize community college tuition for those with a 2.5 grade-point-average should probably go back to the drawing board.

Yet the biggest problem lies with failure of American public education to provide college-preparatory curricula and guidance to kids so they can be successful after they leave high school.

College-preparatory curricula is critical to helping kids graduate from high school and complete higher ed. Yet few children, especially those from poor and minority households along with first-generation collegians of all backgrounds, are provided academically-nourishing curricula. Just 13 percent of American high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds were taking comprehensive college-preparatory courses while the rest were taking less-rigorous curricula, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2009 high school transcript study. As Dropout Nation reported in its analysis of federal data, just 21 percent of middle-schoolers in seven states that mandate Algebra 1 in seventh and eighth grade were provided those courses in 2009-2010. The consequences can be seen when kids enter higher ed, especially community colleges and public universities that devote little to supporting students in college completion. Just one out of every 10 community college students in remedial ed programs graduate within three years, according to Complete College America in a 2012 study.

The problem begins long before secondary education. As a team led by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago determined in a study released last year on the effects of academic content on the learning of kindergarteners, “all children benefit from exposure to advanced content in reading and mathematics”. In this case, advanced mathematics for kindergarteners included advanced number concepts, and basic arithmetic such as addition and subtraction usually taught in first grade. Yet few children are provided high-quality content in math. And as your editor continually points out, the low quality of reading curricula and instruction in the early grades all but ensures that far too many kids are functionally illiterate or reading at just basic levels by the time they walk into high schools.

Another problem: Traditional school discipline and the overuse of out-of-school suspensions. As Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University determined in his studies, sixth-graders who are marked unsatisfactory for behavior (and likely suspended) have little chance of graduating high school. But the consequences of overusing suspensions — along with the fact that they hide the failures of traditional districts to address underlying literacy and other learning issues — extends even to those few kids who do graduate from high school. Just 31 percent of high school grads who get in trouble three or more times as high school sophomores attain a certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate or graduate credential according to Rosenbaum and his team. This is likely because of the misbehavior that manifests in kids by fifth grade as a result of literacy and other learning issues that are almost never addressed.

But it isn’t just about academic failures. As Dropout Nation detailed four years ago in a profile on the efforts of the See Forever Foundation’s Maya Angelou charter schools to help ex-dropouts complete higher education, traditional districts fail mightily in helping students stay on the path to success in higher ed. The very scale that should allow districts to help children stay on the path to educational and economic success 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.

Benjamin L. Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay C. Page of the University of Pittsburgh determined in a 2013 study that simply sending students text messages reminding kids to fill out college applications and other forms increases the likelihood of attending college by seven percentage points. Yet traditional districts, with their struggles on the technology front, are unlikely to undertake such efforts or partner with organizations that can. Districts barely keep tabs on where students go after they graduate high school; offering the kind of alumni services to graduates (including helping them apply to college a few years after they finish high school) almost never happens.

Guidance counselors can help kids think through their career paths; particularly for first-generation collegians, counselors can help them go through the college application and financial aid processes as well as figure out what resources are on campuses they can use once they go to college. Yet because of the bureaucratic scale-oriented nature of the traditional district model, and collective bargaining agreements with affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, few districts hire enough guidance counselors to do the job — and almost always lay them off first during periods of belt-tightening. Nor do districts hire enough mental health workers — or even contract and partner with organizations that can do such work — to help either traditional students or ex-dropouts get ready for the emotional challenges of higher ed.

Yet there is no reason why we don’t help all children gain the knowledge and support they need to choose their own paths to success in adulthood. In fact, there are a number of critical steps that reformers can take to help our children to get the high-quality education they need and deserve.

This starts with implementing high-quality curricula standards, especially continue putting in place Common Core reading and math standards. But this isn’t enough. Providing kids with college-prep curricula that aligns with the standards is key to making the promise of high-quality content a reality. It also means ending the rationing of learning — including gatekeeping gifted-and-talented classes that are key to children getting on the path to higher ed completion — that are a legacy of early 20th-century thinking that only some kids (namely those who are white and middle-class) deserve college prep learning. This means reformers must build upon efforts such as Project Bright Idea in North Carolina as well as the work of the St. Charles Parish district in Louisiana, who are essentially declaring that every class for every child should be a gifted-and-talented course.

The work of providing kids with high-quality education must begin early. This includes providing intensive reading remediation to the 40 percent of children who will enter K-12 with literacy issues regardless of what parents do at home. It also means using tools such as Response to Intervention to identify those struggling kids and providing them with such remediation. Meanwhile kindergarten classes must provide intensive math instruction, especially on helping kids understand that numbers represent quantities, as well as basic arithmetic, in order to get them on the path to success. This certainly means overhauling how we train aspiring teachers as well.

Then there is stemming the overuse of the harshest school discipline, which is especially important given that few suspensions are ever meted out for violent behavior. Addressing the underlying literacy and learning issues, along with implementing restorative justice approaches to discipline that would help children understand the consequences of their behavior, would go a long way toward helping them become college graduates.

The final step lies with moving away from the traditional district model. Moving to what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education, in which a variety of schools — including independent public schools, public charters, private schools, online outfits, DIY schools launched by families and communities, parochial school operations, and charter management organization-managed schoolhouses — can help all kids. This means expanding school choice — from high-quality charter schools to voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives — as well as passing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over and overhaul failing schools in their own communities.

The Grant Foundation study once again shows that is a mistake to think that only some children deserve college-preparatory learning. Which means we must continue transforming American public education to help all of them gain the knowledge they need and deserve.

January 21, 2015 standard

There were plenty of responses to last week’s pieces tearing apart Rick Hess’ and Michael Petrilli’s op-ed accusing fellow school reformers of race-baiting for raising concerns about efforts by congressional Republican powers John Kline and Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. Certainly many of them were supportive of your editor’s argument — as well as that of other reformers — that the two erstwhile reformers failed to make their case against their colleagues in the movement.

But a few were annoyed with the essays. Why? Because I had essentially claimed that the arguments Hess or Petrilli have offered on No Child reauthorizaions and other issues displayed their myopia on race and lack of concern for the futures of children from poor and minority backgrounds. From where they sit, your editor failed to show mutual respect and goodwill to them and their arguments. And this view extends to my treatment of the proposals offered up by Kline and Alexander (the latter of whom is holding hearings today on No Child reauthorization).

Certainly your editor understands why they make this argument. After all, folks within Beltway policy and educational research circles tend to embrace what I call the Goodwill Presupposition of Debate. That is, the assumption in any discussion, especially those related to battles over the reform of American public education, that everyone involved are men and women of goodwill, whose ideas and policy positions reflect their desire for to provide children, along with the families and communities in which they live, the best they deserve. Based on that theory, we should be less-strident in our criticism of those with whom we disagree, and in fact, give their ideas the benefit of doubt.

All of this is well and good if you want to believe it. But there are myriad problems with the Goodwill Presupposition as a guiding principle in rhetoric and debate, especially when it comes to matters that affect the futures of children.

The first is that the Goodwill Presupposition assumes that all ideas and policies as morally equal. This isn’t true. As with intellectual consideration of issues, some ideas and practices can be proven as morally inferior to others based on the historical record, on data and evidence, and on the moral codes, Judeo-Christian-Muslim as well as humanist and atheist, that are at the heart of our world.

Outside of education policy discussions, for example, we would not assume that state-sanctioned segregation — from America’s Jim Crow, to South Africa’s Apartheid, to the separatism practiced in Israel against native Arabs — is morally equal to equality for all people under law. This is because history, along with the Golden Rule, has shown us that no law that treats some people as inferior to others has any moral standing to the idea that all men are granted inalienable rights by God and mankind.

The second problem with the Goodwill Presupposition is that it assumes that the consequences of ideas, policies, and practices are morally equal and valid. If ideas can be found invalid intellectually based on empirical evidence, why can’t they be found morally unsound?

As we have learned over the past century, practices such as ability-tracking have been proven to do little to improve the quality of education for children, especially for those from poor and minority backgrounds Just as importantly, decades of evidence has shown that the consequences of ability-tracking have been dire for the futures kids already denied opportunities for high-quality teaching and curricula. There is no more reason to treat ability-tracking as an morally- and intellectually-equal practice to expanding school choice.

Thirdly, by assuming that everyone involved in debates and political battles all share the same good intentions, the Goodwill Supposition demands that we ignore evidence that shows otherwise. Certainly you can’t know the heart and mind of an opponent. But to assume that all are people of goodwill, even amid evidence otherwise, is to give some people greater credence than they deserve — especially if the morality and moral consequences of that for which they advocate are inferior and in fact, damaging to their fellow men and women.

For example, I don’t know American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s heart and mind. But I can argue that her defense of near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal policies that keep criminally abusive teachers in classrooms to harm children is morally as well as intellectually indefensible. As both a moral being and an intellectually-reasonable person, there is more than enough evidence for me to be skeptical of Weingarten and her advocacy.

Finally, the Goodwill Supposition is a form of moral relativism that neither Jesus nor Socrates would find tolerable. If some ideas and their consequences are immoral and their consequences violate all codes of morality, then you cannot regard them as equals to those which are morally valid both in theory and result.

If we give all ideas, policies, and practices equal moral footing regardless of evidence and precept, we are essentially saying that lies are equal to honesty, fabrication is akin to objective facts, and that propaganda is no different than evidence. What is the point of scholarly inquiry or discussion if everything has validity?

But the consequences of this thinking extend beyond debate: What is the point of doing the right thing when doing wrong is just as good? Why should you advocate for bending the arc of history toward progress when regressive ideas and practices have equal validity? Particularly for reformers, unquestioned practice of the Goodwill Presupposition can harm the movement’s moral mission.

Put simply, neither the plans to eviscerate No Child offered by Kline and Alexander, nor the defenses of them by Hess and Petrilli, deserve to be given equal moral or intellectual weight to either the current law or the arguments defending it. This is because the policy proposals of the former are morally, as well as empirically, inferior to the latter. This isn’t to say that any of these men are terrible people. It is to say this: The call by Kline and Alexander (along with Hess and Petrilli) to end subgroup accountability measures that expose how poorly states, school operators, and those who work within them are educating our most-vulnerable children, who are the least of us Christ called us to look after is a violation of our moral obligation as Americans and as human beings.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be principled and respectful in our debates and disagreements with our opponents. Such decorum is not only necessary, but demanded of us as children of God and members of the family of man. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t get along; after all, as Jesus would command, we can hate the argument and still love the people who make it, especially since we are all fallible. It doesn’t even mean that every debate involves moral considerations; this is certainly true when it comes to discussions over what policies will be most-effective in expanding choice or improving teacher quality. Any belief otherwise is an embrace of thoughtless and counterproductive dogmatism.

But it does mean in those debates that do involve moral issues, giving all arguments equal weight is absolutely senseless. Especially because public policy is a clear communication of our moral expectations as citizens. Just as importantly, expecting people to not call things as they are based on both evidence and morality is simply unacceptable.

December 22, 2014 standard

Chances are that you don’t think that New York City Patrolman’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch has much in common with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. In fact, after Lynch sparred earlier this year with Weingarten protégé Michael Mulgrew, the president of the union’s United Federation of Teachers local, over the unit’s collaboration with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on stemming police brutality, you wouldn’t think Lynch and Weingarten share anything in common at all other than being heads of two influential public-sector unions.

But in their respective reactions over the past few months to criticism and less-than-sterling coverage from politicians and media outlets, both Lynch and Weingarten, along with many of their members in their respective rank-and-file, have plenty in common. They have embraced the kind of solidarity mindset that stifle important efforts to transform America’s criminal justice and public education systems that our children and communities need.

As you already know, Lynch and the PBA accused Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio and advocates for reforming criminal justice systems nationwide of having “blood” on their “hands” this past weekend after tragic murders of police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by Ismaaiyl Brinsley (who had come to town after a rampage that included critically wounding his ex-girlfriend). Why? Because de Blasio dared to sympathize with advocates who are righteously outraged over a grand jury’s decision earlier this month to not indict one of the PBA’s rank-and-file, Dan Pantaleo, for murdering Eric Garner this past July.

Lynch and the PBA were already incensed at de Blasio over protracted negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, annoyed with the mayor’s move to formally end a police practice called stop-and-frisk (which criminal justice reformers say has been used disproportionately and abusively against young black men), and looking to weaken him by convincing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill passed by the legislature that would allow the PBA to all but stifle any efforts by the city to discipline corrupt and incompetent cops. But Lynch went ballistic, accusing de Blasio of throwing officers “under the bus” after the mayor, who is married to a black woman, commented immediately after the verdict that he advises his son, Dante (who is both black and white) to be careful when dealing with law enforcement. As far as Lynch and the activists in control of PBA’s rank-and-file are concerned, de Blasio’s statement of sympathy with advocates against police brutality was an affront to all of the Big Apple’s police officers because he didn’t have their back. Some of the rank-and-file echoed those sentiments when they turned their backs on de Blasio when he walked into a press conference to address the murders of the two officers.

But Lynch isn’t just mad at de Blasio. As far as the police union boss is concerned, criminal justice reformers are wrong in criticizing Pantaleo’s state-sanctioned murder of Garner as well as criticizing those in the rank-and-file who are engaged in abusing citizens and other forms of corruption. From where he and PBA sit, protests held in the city since the grand jury verdict should be stamped out altogether. The public should be in solidarity with police officers, not calling out bad cops or demanding reforms of laws governing use-of-deadly-force rules that allow rogue officers to get away with murder. [As you would expect, an amen corner that includes congressman-turned-MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and Daily News columnist Mike Lupica, are cheering him on.]

Lynch isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been echoed by his fellow police union bosses over the past few weeks amid protests over the Garner verdict, the decision last month by a St. Louis grand jury to not indict now-former Ferguson police officer Dan Wilson for slaying Michael Brown, and the murders of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford by officers too quick to pull out guns (and too scared of unarmed young black men to take less-drastic action). Earlier this month, the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded the National Football League to punish players for the Rams franchise for engaging in an “inflammatory” display that insulted cops everywhere. What, pray tell, was that nastiness? Walking out onto the field of Edward Jones Dome doing the “hands up, don’t shoot” sign that has become a protest symbol for criminal justice reformers everywhere. [The NFL reminded the union that its players have freedom of speech — other than when it wants them to appear before mandatory press conferences.]

Around that same time, the police union in Cleveland went into uproar after Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the names of Rice and Crawford as well as a call for justice on their behalf; the union demanded the NFL franchise to apologize for the football player’s supposed affront to men and women in blue. [The Browns refused to do so as did Hawkins, who noted how he was driven to protest by concern for his own two-year-old son.] Now, with the sad murders of Liu and Ramos, police unions and their allies are accusing protestors of endangering the lives of police officers by, well, exercising their First Amendment rights. You can expect similar statements from the police union in Milwaukee today after criminal justice advocates began protesting the decision of District Attorney John Chisholm to not indict former cop Christopher Manney for allegedly slaying Dontre Hamilton this past April.

Like her PBA colleague Patrick Lynch (in featured photo), AFT President Randi Weingarten (with temporarily sidelined colleague Karen Lewis and Rev. Jesse Jackson, a vassal of the union) is a master of playing to the solidarity mindset that plagues both law enforcement and teaching.

Lynch’s rhetorical charlatanism sounds quite familiar to those of us in the school reform movement. It should. After all, it is no different than defensive statements against criticism of traditional teacher compensation and other failed practices within American public education made over the past few years by Weingarten and her colleagues within both the AFT and the National Education Association.

The latest round came in October after Time came out with a story on Vergara v. California and the sparring between reformers and the Big Two unions over teacher quality reform that featured the headline Rotten Apples and included a cover photo of an apple about to be smashed by a judge’s gavel. Weingarten was so incensed by it that the union rounded up signatures from some 80,000 teachers and other supporters demanding the magazine to “Apologize to teachers.” [Time defended the piece and the cover.] Four months earlier, Weingarten demanded that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to back down from his mild praise of the California superior court judge’s ruling in the case to abolish near-lifetime employment and dismissal rules, complaining that he was adding to the “polarization” of debates over education policy. Duncan’s refusal to do so — and, in fact, move to double down on his original comments — led the AFT as well as the NEA to pass resolutions at their respective conventions demanding the Obama Administration to fire him. As you already know, that’s not happening.

In fact, when it comes to constantly being outraged, no public-sector union leader is as good at it as Weingarten and her fellow NEA and AFT leaders. And education traditionalists have defenders of existing law enforcement practices beat when it comes to being insulted by any criticism of the established order. There’s AFT honcho-turned-Albert Shanker Institute boss Leo Casey, who tossed an Reductio ad Hitlerum-like statement against Steve Brill three years ago after the Class Warfare writer accused the AFT and other traditionalists of being “deniers” of the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis. Casey would go on the next year to accuse news anchor-turned-teacher quality reform activist Campbell Brown (along with several other reformers) of committing “the equivalent of a blood libel” against teachers for daring to expose the complicity of the AFT’s Big Apple local (and that of the national union) in keeping criminally abusive teachers on the city’s payroll. [Casey never apologized for his incivility.]

Based on all the data on the depths of the nation’s education crisis — including the fact that three out of every 10 fourth-graders are functionally illiterate as well as how traditional policies and practices keep laggard teachers in classrooms — you would think valid criticism, internal and external, would be welcomed. But it isn’t. Dare any reformer mention how tenure protects laggard and criminally-abusive teachers from being sacked from classrooms and you will see NEA and AFT bosses, along with traditionalists in their amen corner, accusing that person of hating teachers and not respecting their hard work. This is also true for teachers who dare break the thin chalk line and challenge unions and their colleagues.

But why so little tolerance for criticism in both sectors — and so much faux outrage from both Lynch, Weingarten, and their colleagues? Chalk it up to the solidarity mindset, legacy of the old industrial union model (and its mindset of employees as being little more than mules who can only perform singular tasks ad nauseam) borrowed by both police and teachers’ unions that continues to pervade both the law enforcement and teaching professions.

Because unions, by their very nature, thrive on the idea that the rank-and-file are in bitter struggle, they emphasize unity and common cause over and above everything else. Disagreements within the rank-and-file over a policy direction? Treasonous disloyalty that must be squelched. Questioning of longstanding practices by outsiders? Insulting, and therefore, unacceptable. Criticism from within and opposition from without? Hatred of the hard-working people who dedicate their lives to serving others.

Yet the solidarity mindset is problematic for both professions — and for the children, families and communities for who they work.

For one, by placing unity unchallenged above everything else, the solidarity mindset leads to those who bear it failing to do high-quality work for the people they serve. This is because blind loyalty keeps people from thinking clearly about matters before them and engaging issues thoughtfully. For police officers in an age of community-oriented policing (and the Broken Windows Theory that is a key aspect of it), the solidarity mindset can keep them from making smart short- and long-term decision on their own. For teachers, whose jobs are increasingly challenging, the solidarity mindset can keep them from diagnosing and addressing the learning issues of the children in their care.

For Tamir Rice and other children, the solidarity mindset can endanger their futures and even their very lives.

Secondly, because the solidarity mindset prizes the collective (and group cohesion) over anything else, it keeps those blinded by it from viewing others outside their ranks as their fellow men and women. Outsiders aren’t worthy of respect or consideration because they are outsiders. [It can also exacerbate the bigotries of those in the ranks, as well as the shoddy thinking they may have of people from backgrounds different than their own.] This is problematic in law enforcement because police officers must earn the trust of the citizens who they protect (and are dependent on for the taxes used to provide them compensation) in order to preserve law and order. It is also problematic in American public education because teachers are trusted with the futures of children for who they must have empathy and concern, and must work with families of backgrounds who are the rightful lead decision-makers for them. In both cases, solidarity thinking makes it difficult for them to comprehend and empathize with concern families and communities have for their children and each other — and leads to loss of trust from those they serve, as well as increased scrutiny from media and activists.

Thirdly, because the solidarity mindset exacerbates the cultism — be it blue walls of silence or thin chalk lines — that can be a problematic feature of any culture or profession, it enables and protects those who are incompetent, corrupt, even abusive and criminally venal. Those burdened by solidarity thinking cannot accept any statement by colleagues and outsiders other than “all professionals within my sector are hard-working, dedicated, and therefore, competent at their jobs”, or “if not for some outside force such as poverty or bad parents, we could be successful at our jobs.” When coupled with bad policies and practices that govern professions — be they use-of-force laws and dismissal processes in law enforcement, or near-lifetime employment rules and subjective teacher quality evaluation regimes in education — as well as the legacies of the state-sanctioned bigotries that are America’s Original Sins, the damages to both professions, peoples, and communities are devastating. Especially in both professions, the works of those who are honorable and high-quality are marred by the incompetence and evil of those who shouldn’t work with them.

Finally, the solidarity mindset gets in the way of mature professionalism. One of the hallmarks of a mature profession, be it law or medicine or journalism, is that criticism within it of institutions, practices, even people is not only the norm, it is expected. This acceptance of external criticism and productive conflict, a key part of lifelong learning, leads to improvements for the profession, for the people who are in it, and the sector in which it works. Such isn’t the case for a profession burdened by the solidarity mindset. By being unwilling to broach conflict and criticism, professions burdened by solidarity thinking (and those who are its members) end up being ill-equipped to deal with evolutions in sector that challenge it. Part of the decline in influence for AFT and NEA can be attributed to the failures of the two unions to ditch their outdated industrial union model, which is, in turn, partly results from the solidarity mindset plaguing its leaders.

For school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates, tackling the solidarity mindsets of the teaching and law enforcement professions is critical to the systemic overhauls of both sectors. Both are already taking the first step of challenging such thinking with data, advocacy, and action. At the same time, both must address some of the key obstacles to stemming the prevalence of solidarity thinking.

One obstacle lies with the dismissal policies within both sectors that keep rogue cops and bad teachers in their jobs. School reformers, especially Parent Power and teacher quality advocates, have been actively challenging those policies, especially through the launch of lawsuits such as Vergara. Criminal justice reformers should build upon those efforts, while school reformers must press harder on what they are doing so far. In New York, this means demanding Gov. Cuomo to veto the bill effectively giving the PBA control over the process for firing rogue and incompetent cops.

Another obstacle lies with public-sector unions whose coffers and political influence benefit from solidarity thinking. This is another area in which school reformers have led the way, from the successful efforts by governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin to end the ability of those unions to forcibly collect dues from teachers regardless of their desire to be members, as well as the development of professional association alternatives such as Educators4Excellence who represent younger teachers who want to elevate their profession. Again, school reformers must work harder on these fronts, while criminal justice reform advocates should work on such efforts within law enforcement. Weakening the PBA, for example, would do wonders for civil liberties.

No matter what reformers in both sectors do, they need to understand the solidarity mindset that pervades the teaching and law enforcement professions. And they must challenge it successfully on behalf of our children, their families, and their communities.

December 12, 2014 standard

School reformers need to read more than just op-eds and magazine pieces on education policy. After all, as it has been discussed over the past two weeks alone, the nation’s education crisis feeds into the social, economic, and political issues facing our nation and world; this means we must break out of specialization and become interdisciplinary in our thinking. There’s also the fact that as parents and caregivers, we must continually practice what we preach to children every day: Read books and be lifelong learners.

This is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2014 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include a look at how the legendary James Meredith’s march through Mississippi helped splinter the Civil Rights Movement of the last century; political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s treatise on modern government; and an analysis of how the Salvation Army and other religious groups transform civic society. There are also chronicles on reform from school choice pioneer Howard Fuller and former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein.

As with every edition of the Top Eight, the selections met five important 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.


Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick Aram Goudsouzian’s book on the 1966 March Against Fear, the last great protest of the 20th century Civil Rights Era. For one, it offers fascinating profiles in activist leadership. This includes Martin Luther King’s calm resolve in spite of sniping from Thurgood Marshall and other rivals; Stokely Carmichael’s penchant for fiery rhetoric and shoddy strategizing, the clever machine politicking of Charles Evers; the organizing genius of Ella Baker; and the near-messianic spirit of James Meredith, who originally organized the march before being shot on the first day of it. More importantly, in detailing how the Civil Rights Movement fell apart just a year after achieving such policy successes (including Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), Down the Crossroads offers important lessons on how movements can fall apart in the face of diverging priorities, clashes of egos, struggles in collaboration, and sparse financial and manpower resources. At a time in which the school reform movement is in transition, reformers of all stripes should read this book in order to learn how to keep history from repeating.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy: Francis Fukuyama is probably the greatest political scientist of his generation in part because he combines crisp writing with strong, prescient analysis on how politics can shape society. All of his talents are on full display in his latest polemic what makes for good government (and why it rarely becomes reality in much of the world). As Fukuyama details the evolution of American government and those in Africa and Asia, he shows how accountable is key to ensuring that citizens are protected from fiscal and social harm, he offers lessons to those reformers who doubt the importance of the No Child Left Behind Act and its strong accountability provisions. At the same time, by noting how the United States’ own system of checks and balances often leads to a “vetocracy” in which political interests can impede good ideas along with the bad (as well as how “intellectual rigidity” can lead to crises such as the global financial meltdown) Fukuyama also reminds reformers that we must also balance strong accountability with enough room for the kind of innovation and policies needed to ensure the common good in American public education. Your editor doesn’t agree with all of Fukuyama’s conclusions, especially on whether American-style democracy is workable in all nations. But Political Order and Political Decay deserves to be on your bookshelf.

No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior s Life from Black Power to Education Reform: From teaming up with the late Polly Williams and former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist to launch the nation’s first school choice initiative, to his willingness to speak truth to traditionalists and reformers alike, the aforementioned Fuller deserves his place as one of the nation’s foremost school reformers. In discussing his evolution from civil rights activism in the 1960s to his role guiding the leadership of Black Alliance for Educational Options, Fuller shows how reformers can advance systemic reform for our children through strong grassroots activism, cannily navigating the corridors of policymaking, and agitating within institutions. At the same time, Fuller’s story shows reformers that they must recognize the interconnections between what happens inside our schools and what happens outside of them. Any reformer who hasn’t read this book yet should do so. Now.

Claiming Society for God: Religious Movements and Social Welfare: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick up Nancy J. Davis’ and Robert V. Robinson’s sociological study of how religious groups such as the Salvation Army and the Muslim Brotherhood succeed in becoming influential players in the societies in which they reside. The most important: Because it offers reformers a blueprint for how to sustain systemic reform. Davis and Robinson show how these groups gain credibility and support for their visions of what society and government should be by addressing the needs of the communities — especially those of poor and minority backgrounds — in which they work. This includes becoming the substitutes for the welfare state role played by governments in their respective countries, and engaging in the kind of grassroots activism that wins them critical support on the ground. For a school reform movement that needs to have a stronger grassroots presence in order to advance its efforts, Claiming Society for God is book that will help it get there.

Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools: Along with former Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant, the aforementioned Klein is the most-successful reform-minded traditional district leader of this generation. Thanks to his book, reformers can now learn what it took for him and his onetime boss, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to improve student achievement for Big Apple children, as well as understand the obstacles to implementing systemic reform that remain. From vivid accounts of his battles with the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local over simply conversing with teachers on the district’s staff, to conceding how his inattention to curricula may have limited the successes the Big Apple could have had in improving student achievement, to his battles to increase the array of school choices for kids and their families, Klein offers important examples of how institutional-oriented players can achieve the kind of changes that help more children attain the high-quality education they deserve.

The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Making and Breaking of Nations: Amid all the efforts over the past few years to weaken No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions, reformers should take time to read Jacob Soll’s exhaustive historical survey of what happens when nations weaken checks and balances in financial affairs. As he details how double-entry bookkeeping and other accounting innovations led to the rise of nation-states, as well as how retreats on checks and balances (as well as transparency) have led to crises such as the global financial meltdown of the last decade, Soll offers reformers new reasons why they must resist efforts to weaken accountability by traditional districts and even institutional players within their own ranks (including charter school operators and private schools that benefit financially from the expansion of choice). Soll also shows how inattention to the details of accountability (which can easily be seen in the education policy arena through the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit) can lead to disaster. Advocates for reforming traditional teacher compensation (including busted defined-benefit pensions) can also learn plenty from Soll’s book.

A Light Shines in Harlem: New York’s First Charter School and the Movement It Led: Mary C. Bounds story about the Sisulu-Walker charter school offers an eye-opening chronicle of how difficult it can be to take one aspect of systemic reform: Launching and sustaining schools that can provide our children with cultures of genius. There is plenty to learn from the steps (and missteps) financier-turned-educator Steve Klinsky and his teammates (including civil rights activist Wyatt Tee Walker) made when they took the arduous step of launching the Big Apple’s first charter school. This includes the importance of being passionate about building schools fit for the futures of children, as well as the willingness to change direction (in the form of moving away from Sisulu-Walker’s initial use of the low-quality Direct Instruction approach to teaching) when it is clear it won’t work. Particularly for Parent Power activists looking to launch their own schools and take over failing operations, this is a book they should read.

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone): Folks such as Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless have criticized Elizabeth Green’s book as an exercise in edu-tourism. DN Editor RiShawn Biddle offers a far more-substantial critique: That Green’s general disdain for the teacher training efforts of Doug Lemov (whose follow-up to Teach Like a Champion was a Top Eight selection in 2012), especially in dismissing its focus on matters such as classroom management, ignore the reality that it has proven empirically to be superior in effectiveness in improving student achievement than the approach developed by University of Michigan’s Deborah Ball (which Green champions). [Update: Green disagrees with DN’s comments, noting that she doesn’t disdain his approach and arguing that the review didn’t mention aspects of Lemov’s training that he is looking to improve. The editors stand by the assessment.] Yet Green’s book deserves to be on your bookshelf because it is an important chronicle of the struggles reformers and others have had in overhauling how America recruits and trains its teachers. Just as importantly, Green’s book is also a clarion call for bringing greater attention to developing alternative teacher training programs as well as reforming the nation’s low-quality ed schools.

As always, there are a number of books that are deserve praise, but didn’t make the cut. This Next Eight includes On the Rocketship, Richard Whitmire’s profile of the blended-learning charter school operator; The Bill of the Century, New York Times editorialist Clay Risen’s narrative on the politicking that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon’s account of how Jim Crow segregationists and companies teamed up to use criminal codes to put blacks into virtual slavery; Jonathan Darman’s LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America, which details how the 1964 election season sowed the seeds of destruction and success for two legendary politicians; British politico Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, which profiles the legendary statesman’s leadership long-ranging impact on world affairs; Unreasonable Men, Michael Wolraich’s chronicle of how tensions between Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette led to the rise — and fall — of early 20th-century progressive politics; Teachers Versus the Public by Paul Peterson, Michael Henderson, and Martin West, which focuses on the divergent views of teachers and the people who pay their salaries; and Putting Education to Work, Mega Sweas’ profile of the Cristo Rey collection of Catholic schools.  

While Dropout Nation doesn’t place books written by contributors on this list, it would be remiss to not mention  The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It, Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s treatise on how the black children are harmed by the intersection of the nation’s education crisis and the drug war.