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.
As Dropout Nation hinted on Wednesday, there is nothing just or moral about the decision by a New York City grand jury to not indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner. As with last week’s grand jury decision in Ferguson over Michael Brown’s slaying, we have all been rudely reminded that state-sanctioned murder of black men is at the heart of the racial bigotry that is America’s Original Sin. Just as importantly, we are once again warned about the consequences of militarizing law enforcement agencies as well as giving them too much carte blanch in how they patrol our communities.
Yet one of the more-positive developments from the Garner grand jury’s appalling act of injustice is that it once again shines light on how state laws and the cultism among those wearing the badge often act to protects corrupt, even murderous police officers from being removed from beats. School reformers and criminal justice reform advocates can come together to help each other get rid of professionals who shouldn’t be trusted with our kids or with protecting our neighborhoods.
The fact that Pantaleo managed to escape even an indictment on a lower level charge such as manslaughter or criminally-negligent homicide is certainly shocking. This is because 83 percent of 98 homicides by officers led to charges of murder or manslaughter, according to a recent study from Bowling Green State University. But even if Panteleo was indicted, past cases of homicide-by-cop — including the 2006 murder of Sean Bell by a New York Police Department undercover squad who mistakenly thought he was a suspect in a case they were investigating — serve as grim reminders that he (along with former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson) wouldn’t have likely been convicted. Just one-in-three officers charged with a crime were convicted while a mere 12 percent of them (or one-in-eight) ever served time, according to data released in 2010 by the Police Misconduct Reporting Project; both are, respectively, two and four times lower than for indicted suspects in the general population.
Certainly the natural sympathy among the public outside of black and Latino communities for what can be dangerous work of policing is one reason why bad cops such as Pantaleo and Wilson are often allowed to kill with impunity; even though the number of cops slain in the line of duty (along with other crimes) have declined for most of the past three decades (and are at their lowest levels in more than a century), it is easy to understand why officers will have to pull out their weapons in order to protect communities and themselves. But as the reaction of even more law-and-order oriented movement conservatives such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat shows, even those sympathies fall by the wayside when video clearly shows an unarmed citizen such as the 43-year-old Garner being choked to death by Pantaleo with so much malice. Add in the video of Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shooting to death 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun, and the trust that the legendary Sir Robert Peel argued was key to support for law enforcement falls away.
But the more-important reasons why bad cops get away with corruption or worse have to do with state laws and court rulings, police evaluation structures that fail to weed out bad apples, and the proverbial thin blue line of silence (and support) from fellow police officers who are often willing to defend even the worst of their allies.
Beginning in 1985 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Garner v. Tennessee, state laws such as Article 35 of New York State’s Penal Code and Chapter 563 of the Missouri Revised Statutes have given officers wide leeway in how they use deadly force in stopping criminal activity. Officers can shoot to kill if they “objectively reasonable” probably cause to “believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others”. The problem is that it is almost impossible to determine what is objective or reasonable, and thus, objective becomes subjective and unreliable. More often than not, if a police officer says he fears for his life (as Wilson did in his testimony to the St. Louis grand jury), than he is let off the hook. Since state laws rarely require the objective standard to be based on physical evidence, even a videotape isn’t enough to lead to an indictment, much less a conviction.
Then there are the shoddy processes for selecting police officers and evaluating their performance. Police departments generally use a process that includes filling out a job application, passing a physical, going through criminal background checks, and polygraph examinations. When done properly, this process can weed out aspiring officers who are too out-of-shape to chase down robbers on foot or have past convictions; when not, (as seen in Miami during the Cocaine Cowboys crime wave era of the 1980s), this can lead to spectacular corruption. But it doesn’t actually do much to determine if they have the proper temperament and judgement needed to do the job. This is especially problematic in community-oriented policing, in which officers have to be trusted with making short- and long-term judgments on their own.
Even worse, as in the case of Loehmann (who was sacked by the Independence, Ohio, police department for dismal gun handling before becoming a Cleveland cop), officers forced to leave other departments because of past misbehavior or incompetence can end up back on the job with another police agency. As the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services noted in a 2008 study, “law enforcement agencies have been unable to successfully develop a system that can identify… which individuals will become the most effective officers.”
Adding further complication is the reality that police officers often view themselves as bands of brothers who will protect each other even at cost to the integrity of their profession. Famed police detective Frank Serpico — who carries a bullet in his head as a result of his decision to shed light on the Big Apple’s drug war-driven police corruption in the 1970s (which led to the famed Knapp Commission cleanup of the police department) — forcefully pointed out this reality in a piece on Ferguson in Politico Magazine. Not only will officers do nothing to help weed out the worst (and even merely bad) within their ranks, they will shun (and even endanger) those few brave officers who dare to break the Blue Wall of Silence. This was clear Wednesday after the Garner grand jury decision to not indict Pantaleo, when participants on one police bulletin board cheered it.
But the culture extends beyond the precinct walls. Police unions such as New York City’s Patrolmen Benevolent Association as well as affiliates of the International Union of Police Associations work overtime to keep even the worst officers on the job. This includes termination processes that can often stretch out for years. [Update: The Daily News touched on the role of unions in protecting bad cops when it reported that one rookie NYPD officer, Peter Liang, immediately texted his union representative after he shot and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley.]
As seen in the cases of Pantaleo and Wilson, prosecutors mindful of the importance police union endorsements in winning and keeping office (as well as maintaining an image of being tough on crime) will often do all they can to not obtain indictments or convictions. Particularly in the case of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, his, well, unorthodox approach to presenting his case to the grand jury investigating Wilson’s murder of Brown has been widely criticized for essentially making it easy for the now-former officer to walk away scot-free from human justice.
As a result, few bad cops ever get sacked. Just 1.9 percent of NYPD’s men in blue were dismissed between 1975 and 1996, according to a 2005 study by James Fyfe of City University of New York’s John Jay College and Robert Kane of American University. Those who remain on the job can often end up walking the beat even in the departments where they committed offenses. Michael Carey, one of four officers who shot 41 bullets into the body of Amadou Diallo in 1999, got his gun back to patrol Big Apple streets just two years ago. For all citizens, especially for poor and minority communities with long memories of state-sanctioned murder, the presence of bad cops means immediate danger to their lives and civil liberties.
If any of this sounds familiar to those of us in the school reform movement, it should. Because the ways bad cops are protected and enabled are parallel to how American public education keep laggard and criminally abusive teachers in classrooms.
As with laws governing deadly force, state laws granting near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure all but ensure that teachers remain on the job regardless of performance. Thanks to the fact that all but eight states allow teachers to attain tenure in less than five years — and in the case of California, within two — laggard teachers end up getting into jobs regardless of their performance. Adding to the burden are teacher dismissal laws such as those of California (which can cause firing processes to last seven years and cost a district as much as $7 million), that make it difficult to toss even the criminally abusive out of classrooms.
Just like police departments, the nation’s university schools of education do a shoddy job of recruiting and training aspiring teachers. As your editor noted last month, this was made clear again by the National Council of Teacher Quality in the latest of its reports on the low quality of ed school preparation. Thanks to both bureaucratic incompetence as well as state laws that have, until recently, restricted the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations (and have only allowed subjective observation-based evaluations that don’t actually measure how teachers improve student achievement), districts have failed miserably in evaluating and managing classroom instructors. Just 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires were evaluated by Los Angeles Unified School District during the 2009-2010 school year, according to NCTQ in a 2011 report.
Meanwhile the cultism that pervades police departments can also be found in teachers; lounges in traditional public schools. Like the Blue Wall of Silence, the Thin Chalk Line not only keeps good and great teachers from calling out the incompetents in their midst, it (along with near-lifetime employment) also lead otherwise-honorable teachers to protect the criminally-abusive among them. This was clear in the sexual abuse scandal still enveloping L.A. Unified; former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt’s “lewd conduct” against children in the school went unreported by his colleagues. In some cases, teachers will even defend the worst apples among them. One example can be seen in Rochester, N.Y., where teachers at School 19 rallied failed to cooperate in the investigation of Matthew LoMaglio for second degree sexual conduct an eight-year-old boy, they even wrote letters to a judge begging for leniency on his behalf.
But as with the Blue Wall, the Thin Chalk Line extends beyond teachers’ lounges. Thanks to affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, removing laggard and criminally abusive teachers can be too onerous for districts to undertake. Because the two unions are the biggest players in school board races and, thanks to state laws, can force districts into bargaining, they have worked closely with administrators to structure contracts that keep principals from removing laggards or stop those with seniority from bumping out better performing-yet-less senior counterparts. At the same time, low-performing school leaders in school buildings, who couldn’t even get jobs checking coats at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, often do such a terrible job of managing teaching staffs as well as even aid and abet laggard teachers through practices such as overusing harsh school discipline.
As a result, few laggard and criminally-abusive teachers are ever tossed out of classrooms. In New York City, cases such as that of Steven Ostrin, who was found guilty of sexually harassing students, yet he was only given a six-month suspension and a reprimand, have become commonplace. Overall, just 1.4 percent of tenured teachers were removed for poor performance, while less than seven-tenths of one percent of newly-hired instructors are ever fired. And like bad cops, bad teachers damage the futures of communities, especially those black and brown, and the lives of the children who are forced to sit in their classrooms.
But unlike criminal justice reformers, school reform advocates can say that they are making some headway on addressing teacher quality issues. From the teacher evaluations using objective test score growth data in measuring performance, to efforts such as the lawsuits inspired by the Vergara v. California (in which a state court judge tossed out the Golden State’s tenure and dismissal laws), to efforts by districts such as New York City to aggressively evaluate newly-hired teachers before they attain tenure, small positive steps are being made to provide all children with the high-quality teachers they deserve.
What this means is that reformers can team up with criminal justice reform advocates are share lessons on how to address their parallel issues. After all, reformers have taken some of the more-successful aspects of policing — including the development of early warning systems based on the Broken Windows Theory used to great success in the Big Apple — in systemic reform efforts. More importantly, it is important for reformers to be concerned about what happens outside of schoolhouses, especially since the nation’s education crisis fuels the crises that happen daily on our streets. Just because criminal justice reform isn’t a primary focus of transforming public education doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a concern.
One way school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates can work together is on police recruiting and training. Criminal justice reformers, for example, could apply some version of the teacher recruiting model developed by Teach For America, which has not only helped provide kids with high-quality teachers, but has also led to diversity in the teaching ranks. One can imagine how a Teach For America-style corps for police officers could help stem police brutality as well as build trust between law enforcement agencies and black communities.
The Garner grand jury decision, along with that in Ferguson, once again offer reformers an opportunity to stand up and be counted for the very communities of the children for who we advocate. Sharing lessons with counterparts working to end police corruption and brutality will help our kids and their families outside of classrooms as well as in them.
On this day, Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Blessings upon our lives.
More importantly, we thank You for the mighty men and women who work for brighter futures for all of our children.
We are thankful for how You sustain the good and great teachers who work in our classrooms, to the talented school leaders who help them do powerful work in our classrooms.
We are grateful for how You support the Parent Power activists, the policy thinkers, and the builders of cultures of genius that nurture the futures of our kids.
We appreciate how You protect the activists who fight each day so that every child, no matter who they are or where they live, have opportunities for better lives.
We are filled with gratitude over how You give all of us the strength and bounty each day to stand for the children and communities who need our support the most.
As we thank You on this day, we also come to you with the burdens of our hearts, and to aid us on behalf of every boy and girl.
We petition You, Lord, to protect every child who goes without, to provide to every parent struggling to give their kin all they need, to bring transformers for children to every neighborhood.
We ask You, Creator, to give peace beyond understanding to every mother and father who is grieving, to bring hope and light to every place beset by the tears and sorrow brought by evil.
We request from You, Father, the wisdom and energy to continue bending the arc of history toward progress, to help America live up to its place as the City Upon a Hill, to honestly address the ills of the past so everyone can move forward.
We beseech You, God, to help us be the shepherds to our youth that You are to us, to be more like Your Son in every word and deed, to sacrifice as You and Christ did so long ago to grant us salvation from our sins.
And each day, we remember the prayer that Your Son taught us long ago…
Our Father, thou art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.
For ever and ever.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.