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October 29, 2015 standard

Discussions over the privacy of student data have recently hit the headlines in the case of the son of Faida Geidi, thanks to a battle between Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy and journalist John Merrow over a piece aired on PBS NewsHour over the charter school operator’s use of out-of-school suspensions and other traditional school discipline practices. Thanks to the adults involved in this issue – from Geidi’s mother to Merrow to Moskowitz herself – the young man’s school discipline record is now public fodder. Thanks to this disclosure by Moskowitz, this public fight could eventually end up in courts.

As an admitted admirer of Moskowitz, I have my own opinion about whether Moskowitz did the right and necessary thing. The esteemed editor of this outlet, on the other hand, has his own thoughts. We’ll leave it at that. Numerically, however, the fight over Geidi’s son’s discipline records is a drop of water in the ocean of private information in America. From tax forms and hospital visits, to credit cards and mobile phones, we broadcast enormous amounts of private information to the world. We expect government to protect us from having that information stolen or misused. Indeed, we want our information used wisely to make us safer and more prosperous. This is especially true for data generated in American public education, to which we entrust 50 million students and $600 billion very year.

Currently the rules governing school data are shaped by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which was co-authored by James Buckley, the brother of the legendary founder of National Review. From there, a patchwork of state laws further govern the use of student data. As the linchpin in school data governance, FERPA gives families control over the release of children’s data, and to access and therefore potentially correct errors.

But now, as data collection and analysis has become more important than ever in improving student achievement, the reasonable and sensible safeguards over data provided under FERPA are under attack. As with so many debates over education policy, this battle over the future of school privacy mirrors the broader privacy debate in this country by featuring three types of argument: Authoritarianism, Luddite extremism, and a cautious common-sense middle ground.

The first type of data extremism is authoritarianism. Dick Cheney is the archetype of this type of overconfidence, having been proven spectacularly wrong on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, while also authorizing domestic phone dragnets and acts of torture. Outside of government officials, Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise gives numerous examples of leaders who gather and act on data with insufficient awareness of the risks. In education, this kind of authoritarianism would use student data to segregate and marginalize disadvantaged student populations.

The data Luddites arise in extremist response to the possibility of authoritarianism. These folks require individual, person-by-person approval before government allows any third-party analysis of data. In education, the poster child for data luddites is David Vitter, the U.S. Senator now running to succeed Bobby Jindal as Louisiana governor. Driven by his own searing personal experience with breakdown in data piracy – Hustler’s 2007 report that the erstwhile advocate for family values had his phone number on the client list of a prostitute – Vitter Vitter has proposed legislation that would, according to University of Michigan Professor Sue Dynarski, “effectively end the analysis of student data by outside social scientists,” including “recent prominent research documenting the benefits of smaller classes, the value of excellent teachers and the varied performance of charter schools.”

But for those who support proposals such as that from Vitter, the goals have less to do with securing privacy than with ending standards-and-accountability regimes that have helped improve education for children. If the luddites prevail, Americans can say goodbye to population health research, especially in genetics, as well as most of the “smart cities” policies that have been making progress in cities from Boston to Los Angeles.

The smart center rejects both of these extremes and gives the power of data to citizens. As Barack Obama’s White House articulated last year, big data privacy can bolster “the potential of government power to accrue unchecked” and, at the same time, contain “solutions that can enhance accountability, privacy, and the rights of citizens.”

The key to this approach is that citizens own their own data, with government holding it only as a fiduciary. In the context of criminal justice, for example, this principle would require police officers to wear working body cameras while on duty, while controlling the storage and release of the resulting data to protect citizen and officer privacy except in specific cases such as civilian deaths. The private sector would be encouraged to provide additional solutions to protect individual privacy, such as Microsoft’s work on random noise generation to protect identifiable individual data.

In education, the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign articulated this middle ground with ten Student Data Principles. [For those focused on the Moskowitz-Merrow battle, the key question with this as with other proposed rules is whether the First Amendment means that the parent effectively gave consent to share with by releasing partial data to the press.] The Obama Administration has already taken some steps on this front four years ago as part of administrative rule-making involving the ability of state education agencies to allow third-parties to have access to student data.

While the details are hard, the right direction for school data is absurdly easy. The risks of data authoritarianism are real, but so are the threats from data luddites. Collection and analysis of data is at the core of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. We can use data to innovate in educational methods, track what works, and tailor solutions for children of all backgrounds. Data is critical to families in helping their children get the education they deserve, and necessary in aiding teachers in their work nurturing young minds. Walking away from that means consigning students to mediocrity in public education, which means a life sentence of limited outcomes for those students who do not have wealthy parents.

As Congress works to update and amend FERPA, and where appropriate to coordinate diverse state laws, they should put student learning and opportunity at the forefront of their agenda.

September 25, 2015 standard

Who knows what Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen was expecting when he attended a Back to School night for his four kids at a Fairfax County school? But what he saw pleased him not one bit. The Democrat’s complaint brings up one of the most-fractious issues in discussions around the direction of American public education: Do schools get enough money to help kids succeed?

On Facebook, Petersen expressed dismay that Fairfax County school leaders deemed it appropriate to force families to watch a five-minute video asking them to lobby state legislators for additional funding. While sympathetic to the district’s call, Petersen declared that “forcing a captive audience of parents to watch a five-minute political commercial before meeting their kid’s teacher is not the answer.” That the “video’s facts were highly selective” – including leaving out news that Fairfax County gained large increases in state funding as well as gave school leaders 60 percent pay raises – also bristled the state legislator.

But there’s a reason why Fairfax County played that video: Because it works. Twice as many upper-income Americans as lower-income Americans tell pollsters that “lack of financial support” is the biggest problem facing schools (28 percent vs. 14 percent). Because affluent families have influence in American politics, teachers’ unions and school districts use their considerable resources to win their support. As Dropout Nation noted last year, National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers spend $700 million annually to shape education discussions.

But as Petersen points out, there’s far more to the story than the claims that public education systems are underfunded. Can America’s traditional public schools use resources more-effectively? Absolutely. Can more resources help schools improve the odds for our children? The answer to question number two is more-qualified than the first. Which is why Sen. Petersen had more than a few reasons to look askance at the video he was shown that night.

The best, though, imperfect way, to understand how well America is spending money on education is look at how much other nations – most-notably highly-touted Finland and South Korea — spend on their schools.

There are numerous differences between those two systems, from class size (smaller in Finland, bigger in South Korea), to levels of school choice (more in Finland, less in South Korea), to testing (recently less in Finland after decades of central testing; continued heavy testing in South Korea), to the role of unions in education policy and practice (collaborative in Finland, adversarial in South Korea).

What they have in common, however, is that they spend less than the United States. Finland’s per-pupil spending of $10,905 in 2011 is lower than the $15,345 spent by the United States; South Korea’s $8,382 per-pupil is 83 percent lower. Based on comparisons with those two countries alone, it becomes clear that money isn’t the main problem in American public education.

But traditionalists tend to dismiss those facts – and the results achieved by both countries – by pointing to the fact that America has different prevailing conditions – from levels of poverty to the legacy of slavery and immigration – than Finland and South Korea. But that argument falls apart when you look at the performance of the nation’s public charter schools.

Earlier this year, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released an extensive study based on six years of data on the performance of charters in 41 urban communities. From that data, CREDO concluded that “urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading” than traditional public schools – results that translate to “roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.”

Two top-performing countries, South Korea and Finland, spend far less than America on their public education systems.

The study also concluded, “gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading. … Gains for these subpopulations amount to months of additional learning per year.” Further, the study showed that the charter sector is steadily improving, with significantly larger gains at the end of the time period studied than at the beginning.

These results, by the way, come even though charters spend $1,800 per-pupil less than traditional public schools.

Traditionalists claim that charters succeed by taking the best students or pushing out the worst students. Research since 2009 has empirically rejected these claims. But the most decisive repudiation emerged recently from analysis of the charter sector in New Orleans.

Since the city of New Orleans moved to a charter system, Tulane scholar Doug Harris was able to assess the impact of a system-wide move to charter schools by comparing post-Katrina performance in New Orleans to that of nearby Baton Rouge (which also suffered terrible hurricane damage but did not switch to an all-charter model). Harris wrote of the New Orleans result that “on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. … We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time. The effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool.”

The evidence shows that other nations provide high-quality education to their children while spending significantly less money than spent in America – and that charter schools, with little in the way of bureaucracies that typify traditional districts, deliver significantly better results than their counterparts. We even know from the New Orleans experience that charter schools can improve student achievement across an entire system, at more significant levels than expensive interventions such as class size reduction and universal preschool.

But does that mean American public education doesn’t need more money? That is a different question entirely.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned Professor James Coleman to conduct research as to how much school funding mattered to student achievement. To Coleman’s shock and that of many other liberals, the answer that emerged was “very little if any.”

Over the following five decades, scholars pressure-tested those assumptions in the context of rapidly rising school budgets. As Stanford’s Eric Hanushek concluded in 1989, “Two decades of research into educational production functions have produced startlingly consistent results: Variations in school expenditures are not systematically related to variations in student performance.”

How is this counter-intuitive result possible? Don’t kids in rich areas do better? Isn’t it because of all the fancy buildings they have? Well, no. Kids in rich areas have lots of advantages in life. Those advantages, not school funding, make most of the difference for those children.

Parents and politicians such as Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen are right to be skeptical about claims that American public education needs more money.

But this doesn’t mean that money can’t help. Neither Coleman nor Hanushek have ever said that money never matters. In fact, within the last decade, research shows that money spent properly can be helpful in improving achievement.

Three years ago, the American Federation of Teachers’ Albert Shanker Institute released a study by Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker that concluded that money can help children and that they can’t be helped without it. Baker reanalyzed the same sources that Hanushek used, but dismissed some as methodologically flawed, while choosing to emphasize others.

Earlier this year, however, a team led by Northwestern University Professor Kirabo Jackson reached similar conclusions in a study that ran in Education Next. Isolating the effects of additional funding resulting from court rulings in school funding torts, Jackson and his team realized that the dollars served as an exogenous shock that could be isolated from the advantages wealthier students already had. They analyzed concluded that in this specific case, additional resources helped improve results for low-income students.

A careful review of both reports, however, reveals three important caveats. First, “can” is not the same as “will” or “must.” As Coleman and Hanushek observed, money is usually spent in ways that don’t make a significant difference for children. Fancy offices for central headquarters or gold-plated and retroactive pension increases do little for current students. As Hanushek notes, Jackson’s team based their conclusions on student achievement results from 1970 to 2010, during which time real per-student spending increased by 150 percent. While results for students have improved during that time, the improvements have been very small compared with the spending increases, and the improvements have been mostly concentrated in places that have adopted aggressive non-spending reforms.

Secondly, what can be done at scale with more money is often much less than what can be done better with existing funds. While any effort at precision will lead to a false sense of certainty, the scale of the difference is clear. For example, the CREDO report showed that urban charter students obtained the equivalent of 40 extra days of math instruction, which would add up to 480 days — or more than 2.6 school years — over the course of 12 years. By comparison, Jackson concludes that a 10 percent increase in funding would result in .44 years of extra schooling for poor children. A zero-cost investment, therefore, would deliver about six times the impact of the $60 billion additional national investment that Jackson’s team suggests.

Finally, even Baker and Jackson concede that what matters most is how money is spent. As seen in school funding torts, traditional district bureaucracies don’t immediately capture court-ordered increases in funding. New money goes first to instructional and support services, at higher levels than traditional budgets. But ultimately, bureaucracies find ways to absorb the money, a fact that my colleague Sandy Kress will discuss in tomorrow’s commentary. This provides further weight to the argument of school reformers that new money should be allocated to what works – especially via the mechanism of Parent Power and School Choice to make sure the money stays focused on kids. [Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress, by the way, hints to this in his studies of school spending.]

Petersen has good reason to be skeptical – and so should we. America’s schools are not underfunded. There’s nothing wrong with using new money to help all children succeed. But we can do much, much more with the dollars we have, and do it in ways that are focused on kids.

September 15, 2015 standard

You can expect few school reformers, especially those in Beltway think tanks, to pay any mind to yesterday’s release of recommendations for criminal justice and school reform by the Ferguson Commission formed last year after the murder of Michael Brown by now-former Police Officer Darren Wilson. After all, there are still far too many in the movement that still don’t understand that it is as important to discuss the issues outside of schoolhouses that are as important (and are affected by) what happens inside them.

But there are plenty of reasons why reformers should pay plenty of close attention to the recommendations in Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equality. One reason? The Ferguson Commission offers some important thoughts, especially when it comes to expanding school choice as well as stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline. Another: Because the approach of tackling both criminal justice and educational issues undertaken by the panel should be done by reformers as part of systemic efforts on the ground.

Plenty of scrutiny has been placed on the law enforcement agencies, courts, and school districts within St. Louis and its 89 immediate suburbs in the year since Brown’s slaying on the streets of Ferguson. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko and others revealed how the patchwork of municipal courts in St. Louis County were exorbitantly fining poor and minority citizens for minor driving offenses (and in many cases, putting them in jail) in order to generate revenue generator for city governments; in some cities, as much as 40 percent of city dollars were generated from putting residents into criminal justice systems. The U.S. Department of Justice further highlighted these problems this past March with its scathing review of the Ferguson Police Department’s racialist policing practices.

Meanwhile the failings of traditional districts within St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs, an issue that has been widely-discussed in Missouri for years, garnered even more national attention. Dropout Nation, in particular, detailed how Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves the community in which Brown was murdered, has been a massive failure mill that metes out-of-school suspensions to one out of every seven black students in regular classrooms and 23 percent of black kids condemned to its special education ghettos.

The continuing battle over whether to allow kids trapped in nearby Normandy‘s traditional district to escape into better-performing districts has also gotten plenty of attention. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has deservedly earned scorn for his handling of the Brown affair last year, garnered more ire last month when he vetoed a proposal contained in House Bill 42 that would provide intra-district choice to children in Normandy and other failing traditional systems. That move has led to another row between Nixon and his fellow Democrats who backed the measure, including the governor’s longtime nemesis, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Normandy and Ferguson- Florissant.

Given all the scrutiny, the Ferguson Commission certainly had a lot of ground to cover to get it right. After all, the panel would be deemed a failure if it didn’t offer any concrete solutions. With 17 policymakers, activists, and community leaders (including Brittany Packnett of Teach For America) serving on the main commission and dozens more serving as experts and task force members, the final report could have also been a muddle of compromises worth nothing to everyone. But for the most part, the commission did its job properly and offered solutions worth implementing.

This isn’t to say that the final report doesn’t have flaws. The fact that the Ferguson Commission supported Gov. Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42 — even as it supports intra-district choice (more on that later) is puzzling and unfortunate. The panel’s partial embrace of the “Whole Child” rhetoric championed by traditionalists as a way to avoid overhauling the superclusters of failure, both in St. Louis and nationwide, that sustain their pockets and ideologies, means that it didn’t take on such matters as Missouri’s near-lifetime employment laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms of districts such as Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy.

Another major flaw is that the commission didn’t offer any recommendations on expanding high-quality charter schools, which are key to building brighter futures for St. Louis children. This is an especially egregious oversight, especially when you consider that Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes noted last year that children in special ed attending charter schools in the Gateway City (many of whom are black) gained as much as 86 days in math and reading performance over peers in traditional district schools.

Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. Charters in St. Louis aren’t as high-performing improving reading as counterparts in 26 of the 41 other cities CREDO surveyed. As in Ohio, St. Louis has also proven that the concept of multiple charter school authorizers on its own hasn’t led to high-quality school operations; the ability of low-quality charter school operators to shop for favorable authorizers is a clear problem that must be addressed. But given that far too many kids in St. Louis area districts are stuck in failure mills, the Ferguson Commission should have devoted at least a couple of pages to both arguing for increasing the number of charters and overhauling how they are regulated.

Another flaw lies with the failure of the Ferguson Commission to recommend that Missouri legislators pass a Parent Trigger law that would allow families to take over and overhaul failing schools. Even if school choice fully flourishes in St. Louis and its suburbs, families will still want to have high-quality educational options in their own communities. Just as importantly, many of these families don’t just want to be passive players in education decision-making. They want to be able to structure the curricula, instruction, and school cultures in which their children will spend the most-critical times of their youth. As evidenced in Ferguson-Florissant, where the district’s board is hardly reflective of the black and brown kids who make up the majority of its students, the traditional district model does almost nothing to give families such power.

For the Ferguson Commission, arguing for passage of a Parent Trigger law would not only have been helpful to families, it would have also helped its own goals of transforming criminal justice and other systems that have done damage to St. Louis communities. This is because Parent Trigger laws help families understand that they can transform public education for their children. When mothers know they can build better schools for their kids, they will take on the other challenges outside of schoolhouse doors that also damage futures.

Those flaws aside, A Path Toward Racial Equality offers some important recommendations for transforming public education and criminal justice in St. Louis that can help children thrive into adulthood.

The Ferguson Commission’s call for districts in St. Louis to use restorative justice approaches to school discipline is not only sensible, it aligns with evidence that shows that such approaches do more to improve school cultures and help kids improve behavior than traditional harsh discipline approaches. There is no reason why districts in St. Louis and the rest of Missouri should be overusing suspensions and expulsions. Show-Me State legislators should pass a law restricting districts and other school operators from meting out suspensions to children in kindergarten-through-third grade, as the panel recommends. They should also pass a law that meets the panel’s recommendation of developing a more-comprehensive system for tracking data on suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to juvenile courts.

The creation of early-warning systems that track how children are falling off the path to high school graduation and higher ed completion is also an important recommendation. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has noted, 43 percent of children on the path to dropping out of school can be identified before reaching sixth grade. Missouri state officials, along with school operators in St. Louis, should have long ago come together to develop such systems. More importantly, thanks to existing tools such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (or DIBELS) test, which can be used to identify struggling readers before they reach first grade, this can be don.

Meanwhile the commission’s deserves credit for its forceful call for the state to implement intra-district choice, even though it unfortunately called for Nixon to veto H.B. 42, the best path currently available. Even more impressive is that the panel thought through the infrastructural issues that can make it difficult for families to exercise choice on behalf of their children. Calling for state officials to identify conveniently-located high-quality schools — and ease the transportation burden on families and children — makes plenty of sense. So does its call to restrict the excuses that districts can use to stop kids from transferring into their schools. The commission’s report should spur Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to override Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42. As for the governor? The report should also embarrass him for being so willing to sacrifice the futures of children.

Again, the Ferguson Commission’s report isn’t perfect. Reformers in St. Louis and the rest of the Show-Me State should follow up on the panel’s recommendations with solutions that are more fleshed-out than the body, primarily focused on addressing criminal justice and law enforcement, could make on it own.

At the same time, the Ferguson Commission’s report shows another approach reformers can take to transforming American public education in every municipality and region: Addressing the issues outside schools that are affected by what happens within them.

From the fact that schools account for the second-highest number of referrals to juvenile courts, to the failure of districts to provide all children with the college-preparatory learning they need to be economically and socially successful, schools are the gateways into failure for so many children on their way into adulthood. By teaming up with criminal justice reformers, Black Lives Matter activists, and others, reformers can advance solutions that can improve the conditions in which our children and their families live, learn, and work.

At the same time, by working on the ground with communities, listening to their concerns, and addressing their school and non-school issues reformers can also build the trust and gain the buy-in needed to sustain the overhaul of public education in communities. As your editor notes in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, education is as much a part of politics as criminal justice systems, so reformers must master coalition-building. Given how reformers have been beaten in Newark, and the rancor that remains over the transformation of New Orleans’ public education system, the movement should be more-active in combining the best ideas from within it with the solutions from the communities we are helping.

There’s a lot that reformers can learn from the Ferguson Commission report and its approach to addressing St. Louis’ criminal justice and educational crises. The movement should pick up a copy of the report and come up with some new approaches today.

August 29, 2015 standard

Through my work and that of my colleagues at Stand for Children, I have had the great privilege of getting to know hardworking parents all across the country with inspiring stories. Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and how it profoundly affected the New Orleans’ public school system, I wanted to share with you the story of Roshand Miller, a proud mother of three school-age children born and raised in New Orleans who then watched her city, her community, and her childhood get washed away.

Because stories about Katrina and education in New Orleans are so often told by outsiders, I wanted to provide you with Roshand’s unfiltered first-person perspective on the storm and the changes in the New Orleans schools that followed it. So with that, here is Roshand’s story. Jonah Edelman

In New Orleans, it’s common to speak of things as they were “before the storm” or “since the storm.”

I remember the days “before the storm” like a vivid dream. A week before it hit, I was in Houston, Texas, living my life. Going to work, dating my new boyfriend (now husband), hanging out with friends, and just living. I knew a storm was brewing, but I wasn’t paying it too much attention. My mom was back in New Orleans getting ready to drive my sister to college in St. Louis, fully expecting to drop her off and return home.

We had no inkling of what was to come.

As the storm kicked up, my family back in New Orleans began to scatter. My grandmother went to one state, my dad and his family went to another. My mom, meanwhile, was rushing between states. I, on the other hand, was glued to the television, watching images of this grey beast churning in the ocean before finally making landfall.

It was there we saw the wind rip through familiar buildings, and it was there we saw the water coming down familiar streets. All we could think about was those family members left behind. We wanted to drive back down, but the news demanded we “don’t come back”.

My aunt, a police officer, and her family stayed in the city because emergency personnel were told not to leave. My other aunt and her family were also still in the city. They, along with my stepfather, fled to my mom’s house. We all thought that was the safest bet because, in case of flooding, it stood feet above the ground and had a second floor.

My mom was on the phone with my stepfather as the water came into the house. There was a calm panic in his voice before the phones went dead. It would be one week before we’d hear from them again. One week of watching the non-stop media coverage, trying to get any hint of information about the status of my family. One week of watching images of my city under water, looking for landmarks close to the house, trying to determine how much water was in my childhood home. One week of my family being trapped on the second floor of my mother’s house, after it was overcome with flood waters.

It would be days before they would get out, only to be trapped again on the interstate leading out of the city. My aunt, the police officer, found them and was able to get them water. She talks of breaking down and crying right there, having to leave her sister, her nieces, and her nephews. We were crying in Houston too, praying that everyone was alright.

Days after the storm and the levees broke, we found out that people were being bused to the Astrodome in Houston. We went there to search for my family. It was there I saw a sea of people crowding every inch of the stadium. I remember the sounds, the smells, the blue cots, and the disparity of a thousand faces. I spoke with one family, a young man and a woman with an infant in tow. The father told us of how he floated his newborn on a mattress, wading through debris and passing dead bodies to escape what was left of New Orleans. It was all just too much for me at that point, but I had to stay strong to help find our missing.

The next few days were an emotional roller coaster as we located family members one by one, and took them back to my home in Houston. At this point, my one-bedroom apartment was now home to 13 people. I joked during those trying times about my tiny place turning into a “refugee camp.” We would eventually find out that my mother’s house, which served as sanctuary during the storm, was damaged, but salvageable. We would be able to return home.

We were blessed, but so many lost so much more.

School leaders such as Jamar McNeely of InspireNOLA are working hard to build brighter futures for children. But it will take Parent Power to sustain those efforts and shape public education in the Crescent City.

Ten years later, I’m back in my hometown. I’ve been back for seven years now. I came home for several reasons, but one of those reasons was to be a part of the rebuilding and remaking of my city. My family is back. New Orleans is back. We survived the storm.

I am a different person now, with different concerns and responsibilities. I have been married for almost 10 years. We have 3 beautiful children: ages 7, 6, and 1. We chose to raise our kids in my hometown, but things are different from when I was a kid. Back then, you went to your district school. It was close to home, but, if it was failing and you couldn’t afford private school, you had no choice. That’s all changed.

These days, we have more of a choice, and that’s a good thing. If the school in your area is failing, you have options. Parents now have access to quality schools – much different from the system before the storm. We have what’s called a One Application system for most schools; parents have the ability to rank which school they want their children to attend. Does it work? It depends on who you ask.

I’m blessed. I did my research and ranked my choices. My top choice schools don’t participate in the new system, plus everyone is trying to get their kids in those schools, so they were long shots. The One App process, however, did work in our favor. We were able to enroll our daughter in our first choice school, Akili Academy, a public charter school. Akili is new to our city (post Katrina), and they’re doing good things for their scholars. They recognize that we are a village working together to educate the children.

But not every NOLA parent is so lucky under the new process. Some parents have kids, who are siblings, in different schools. Some have kids in schools far from home and their jobs. Some parents have to struggle to find transportation to schools with no buses. And some kids are still in failing schools. The process is far from perfect.

So how do we make it better? By making all of New Orleans’ schools better. Parents shouldn’t have to fight to get into a handful of “good schools.” Some don’t like the use of that term, “good schools,” but that’s the world we’re living in right now. We are making progress, and as a parent, I own that process. We all have to own it, and by owning it, we have to get involved. Involvement can be different for different people. For some, it’s joining the Parent Teacher Organization or sitting on the board of a charter school. For others, it’s staying in constant contact with their child’s teacher.

Me personally, I chose to work with Stand for Children Louisiana as a parent leader, and it’s benefited me greatly. I try to stay informed, but Stand has educated me about different issues facing our schools, from the transition to higher standards, to One App, to School Board Leadership. I’ve always advocated for my kids, now I have the tools to try and help every child in my community.

Where we go from here? Some work has to be done on a larger scale. The best way to get continued improvement in our new school system is for parents to put continued pressure on charter boards, the school system, the legislature, and whoever else has an iron in the fire. As parents, we have our kids’ best interests at heart. We need to make sure that legislators, school board members, charter board members, principals, and teachers have our kids’ best interests in mind, as well. These are our kids and our schools. Let’s make sure we have a seat at the table so we’re not left just watching, like I had to helplessly just watch Katrina ravage my city.

It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. But contrary to those images on the screen, we were not destroyed. We rebuilt, and we are here. We are still rebuilding, and there is still work to do, and we all must do our part. Ten years from now, my kids will be 17, 16, and 11 and still in New Orleans Public Schools, so I have long range goals for the school system. I’d like to see the “A” schools partnering with the “F” schools to show them how it’s done. That way, we aren’t still fighting in 2025 to get into that handful of “good schools.”

When all of our schools and students excel, our city will reap the benefits.

August 26, 2015 standard

I am not surprised by Dropout Nation‘s reports on how schools and districts handle (or mishandle) discipline. I am not surprised that too many schools have abdicated their discipline to police officers. I have lived through the experiences and the data. Harsh discipline data doesn’t tell everything. But it does shine light on what needs to be fixed in the classroom as well as in society.

For many, many years I technically violated our union contract by going out on the yard during lunch and after school. This is because supervision wasn’t part of our duties as teachers under our contract. Over that time, I deterred or broke up my share of altercations. In my classrooms, I also found that I can maintain order. Over time, I have learned this: A committed, caring teacher can discern a goof-ball from one with malicious intent; in fact such a teacher can soften the edges of those hardened young people because they relate to them more respectfully than adults even in their life, and they appreciate that.

The ability of a committed caring teacher extends into the classroom. When I started out, my first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Any parent knows that if you keep children occupied you reduce the opportunities for dumb things to happen. A classroom is no different. Schools can improve their discipline with better trained teachers and leadership creates an environment that encourages learning and deters disruptive behavior.

The 500 lb Silverback Gorilla in the room people don’t want to acknowledge is the dearth of prepared, qualified, and committed educators where they’re needed most. Teachers who only drop worksheets or lecture incessantly will invite mischief, or worse chaos. Teachers who do that tend to be the least qualified and least committed, and sadly those teachers end up where they shouldn’t be: in schools where committed, caring teachers who know how to manage classrooms are needed most. Harsh discipline can also be a function of how and why it’s meted out, as well as what you do after the harsh discipline. The problem begins before teachers go into classrooms. If you do a survey of education schools you’ll find very few that have a stand-alone course in classroom management.

Again, I am not surprised that too many schools abdicate their discipline to police officers. There are far too many schools that simply don’t have enough supervision during those non-classroom hours — from lunch time to recess — when incidents occur that might lead to discipline and worse. Especially incidents of police officers shooting students happen. I’ve also always thought that most of these tragic officer shootings are a function of their inexperience with young people. That is all the more reason not to have traditionally-trained police officers walking the corridors of schools.

There will still be situations where harsh discipline must happen. I’ve known students disciplined harshly for dumb stuff. At the same time, I’ve also known students who indeed needed to be removed from the school environment, and not allowed to return until they came with a parent. If the consequences for behavior are clear and consistent, what may seem as harsh from the outside will be accepted by the student and family. What the adults do in a school AFTER harsh discipline goes far to limiting repeat behavior. Acceptance, commitment, and support to those young people is necessary to counterbalance their burdens and manage the learning environment for everyone else.

That this sounds like what good parents do should be no surprise, and a bell-ringer: You’ve got to love these young people as your own children. If not, seriously consider another line of work.

July 9, 2015 standard

In 1956 the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in Los Angeles to publicize efforts by “subversives” to repeal laws mandating imprisonment and deportation of people who disagreed with those laws. On December 6, 1956, HUAC attempted to interrogate Frank J. Whitley, a Black real estate broker.

To say that Mr. Whitley was not impressed by the committee would be an understatement of grand proportions:

Mr. Whitley. “Both of my parents were slaves here in America, and I have been persecuted ever since the day of my birth. And this committee or no other committee has taken up my cause . . . They are killing me and my people all over this country, and you know it. And you know it . . . What about Emmett Till? What about Mr. Moore in Florida a few years ago? And I don’t have to go that far. I can start right in Los Angeles. The same thing is happening.”

Mr. [Congressman] Doyle. “You don’t charge the United States Government with killing?”

Mr. Whitley. “For doing nothing about it. That is why I charge them . . . It’s been 90 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They are begging to go to school in Texas even, right here by us. What are you doing? You are searching for some subversion you talk about.”

The committee could not get Mr. Whitley off the witness stand fast enough.

This story brings together three basic ways in which harm is inflicted on the Black community: governmental action (or inaction), education, and housing. Mr. Whitley knew that his clients had great difficulty finding housing or obtaining mortgages to purchase homes outside of Watts or other traditionally Black areas of Los Angeles. He knew that although their children could go to school (unlike their cousins in Texas), those schools were inferior to the schools attended by White children. And, as he told the committee, he knew that the police and courts were not to be relied on by the Black community.

Much has changed in the nearly 60 years since Mr. Whitley’s testimony. At the same time, evidence shows that much when it comes to the mistreatment of Black people (especially children) remains the same. And again, the country does nothing.

The Guardian, a newspaper that is based far outside this country in Great Britain, is tracking the numbers of people here killed by police, records that are not kept by neither federal agency nor newspapers based on these shores. Nearing the mid-point of the year, they have identified 490 in 2015 alone, 28 percent of whom were Black. This is twice the share of the descendants of enslaved Africans in the total population.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

A new study funded by the Women Donors Network has revealed that the racial and gender disparities among elected prosecutors, such as district attorneys, are on a scale similar to that in apartheid South Africa. In the state of Ohio, for example, there is only one prosecuting attorney identified as non-White: the Hispanic prosecuting attorney of Stark County. All prosecuting attorneys in the state are male. All but one of the district attorneys in Wisconsin are White. All the district attorneys in Tennessee are White. Of the fifty district attorneys in New York State, just three are Black and two are Hispanic. Just two of the prosecutors in Illinois are Hispanic, none are Black. And so it goes.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

In Cleveland the Black community has so little confidence in the police and district attorney that they decided to bypass local prosecutors and take the case of the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice directly to a judge. But if African Americans cannot trust the police or district attorneys, can they really trust the courts? Based on data showing the low likelihood of police officers being indicted for use of excessive force in killing unarmed Black men such as Eric Garner, the answer is already apparent.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

This brings us to Atlanta, where Black teachers are now going to prison as a consequence of an unprecedented application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Now former Atlanta Supt. Beverly Hall, who led steady improvements of the district, and teachers who worked there, were charged with a conspiracy to improve test scores by cheating.

Cheating is clearly unacceptable and absolutely wrong – a point Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has made several times in discussing what happened in Atlanta. But it is hard to believe that the district attorney there really thought that Hall’s efforts to improve achievement (as measured by test score growth) amounted to a conspiracy like fixing a horse race or issuing sub-prime loans to unqualified home buyers.

While Hall retired and shortly died, a highly emotional White judge handed out sentences of astonishing severity to the teachers and educators who were still alive. Actions that in other districts have been punished with reprimands or, at most, termination of employment, were criminalized in Atlanta.

For doing nothing… I charge them.

This sort of thing is not unusual or new in Georgia. Many African Americans were held in debt peonage there, and in neighboring states, well into the twentieth century. Compulsory schooling for Black children came late to the state and voting by the descendants of enslaved Africans even later.

But if the police anywhere in the country cannot be trusted not to kill unarmed Black children, prosecutors cannot be trusted to bring those police to trial, and judges cannot be trusted to be reasonable in their sentencing, what is to be done?

It is possible that the failure of the public schools to educate most Black children can be remedied by using charter school legislation to create a well-funded national system of schools for Black children who are unlikely to be well-served by their local schools. It is possible that the segregated, inferior housing of all too many Black families can be replaced with wide-spread home ownership by means of a targeted mortgage guarantee program for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

But what is to be done about the police, the prosecutors and the courts? The U.S. Department of Justice is overseeing some police departments. This could be done more widely, more intensely. Similar actions could be taken in regard to district attorney offices and local courts. There is a precedent for this. It was called Reconstruction. It was effective in the South until destroyed by those who regretted the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps it should be given another try, this time on a nation-wide basis.

Because when it comes to our criminal justice and education systems, America can’t continue to do nothing.