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November 13, 2013 standard

The 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress breaks down results into four categories:  Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced.  Students scoring at the Proficient and Advanced levels are where they should be for their grade in school. The others aren’t.

NAEP measures many subject areas at grades four, eight, and 12.  The best general indicator of these is the essential skill, reading, at eighth grade. By eighth grade students have been in school long enough that it is fair to judge the overall effectiveness of their schools by the percentage of students scoring at or above Proficient in eighth grade reading.

How are we doing, particularly for young black men, arguably the most vulnerable group? The answer: Not well at all.

The percentages of White, Black, Asian and Hispanic students scoring at or above Proficient on eighth grade reading all increased between 2011 and 2013. This is either a good thing or an indication that there is a technical problem with the test. Let’s give NAEP the benefit of the doubt and stipulate that it is a good thing.

The percentage of White students scoring at or above Proficient increased by three points, as did that for Hispanic students. The percentage of Asian students scoring at or above Proficient increased by four points. The percentage of Black students scoring at or above proficient increased by two points. That is, the gap between Black students and the others increased by between one and two points.

This is not good. Particularly not good if we look at the actual percentages. Half of all Asian students scored at or above Proficient on eighth grade reading in 2013. The percentage for White, non-Hispanic, students is 44 percent. Not as good as the Asian result, but pretty good (especially when we see that the percentage in 2011 was only 41 percent). A fifth of Hispanic students (21 percent) scored Proficient or above.
Meanwhile, just 16 percent of Black students scored Proficient or above in eighth grade reading on the 2013 NAEP. Which means, of course, that 84 percent did not. It is particularly troubling that Hispanic students are now five percentage points more likely to read at grade level in eighth grade than their Black peers. [Hispanic outcomes include those of the large middle class Cuban community in Florida and the entirely Hispanic districts along the Texas-Mexico border, where differential intra-district school funding is not an issue.]

Young black men, as we have come to expect, are failed by their schools even more spectacularly than their sisters. Twenty-one percent of female Black students score at the level of Proficient or above, a rate identical with that of Hispanic students. But just 12 percent of male Black students score Proficient or above on the NAEP eighth grade reading assessments. Those are national averages. Alabama, Mississippi and Wisconsin have been unable to break 10 percent for their male Black students (nine percent, five percent and seven percent, respectively). Everyone knows about Milwaukee, not to mention Mississippi.

What is to happen to the nearly 90 percent of male Black students on the verge of secondary school who the schools have not taught to read proficiently? Will they graduate from high school?  Will they avoid incarceration?  Will they find good jobs and live with their families on middle class incomes?  Will their children have access to good schools? Or will the Black poverty cycle continue, pushed along by inequitable school funding, stop-and-frisk policing, mass incarceration and increasing inequality? No prizes for the obvious correct answers.

April 3, 2012 standard

No matter your political or ideological leanings, you can’t help but admit that there was a time when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s name was actually tied to strong activism for advancing civil rights for African-Americans. The son of a boxer who was adopted by his stepfather at age 14, Jackson emerged as the leading figure in the civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. By 1984, Jackson had become a leading political figure in 1984 by becoming the first black man to run for the American presidency; in 1991, he became an international figure as well after negotiating the release of hostages held by the infamous Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the First Gulf War.

But these days, Jackson is better-known for appearances at the funerals of stars such as Whitney Houston, his publicized infidelity involving a former aide, and incidents such as being caught calling then-presidential candidate Barack Obama an expletive on-camera during what he thought was an off-camera moment. For every occasional moment Jackson rises to the occasion (such as stepping up after the Trayvon Martin murder), he fails to live up to his own legacy. Jackson has become such a caricature of himself that Memphis preacher and school leader Kenneth Whalum declared on Twitter (after noticing that Jackson wasn’t wearing his wedding ring) that instead of leading chants about “I am somebody”, he should be declaring that “I am married.”

What may be even more galling is that Jackson, once the path-breaking figure among those who are now old-school civil rights activists, has failed to lead on the most-important civil rights issue of our modern times: The reform of American public education and the need to stem an education crisis that condemns one out of every two young black men to poverty and prison.

A new generation of black civil rights leaders have emerged, pushing for the expansion of high-quality school choices; agitating for the end of Zip Code Education policies that restrict the ability of black families to help their kids get strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula; championing the overhaul of urban and suburban failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity; and battling National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates to end near-lifetime employment privileges and other practices that deny high-quality teaching to poor and minority kids (as well as damage the quality and the esteem of the teaching profession as a whole). These advocates, including Better Education for Kids Executive Director Derrell Bradford, Black Alliance for Educational Options President Ken Campbell; singer John Legend; Hartford, Conn. principal and CNN commentator Dr. Steve Perry, and Whalum himself, have been joined by civil rights veterans such as Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund, who recognize that overhauling American public education — and keeping young black men on the path to economic and social success — is critical to revitalizing black communities (and to the nation as a whole) in an age in which what you know is more important than what can be done with your hands.

As Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project made clear in yesterday’s Dropout Nation commentary, the prospects for far too many young black men are bleak. Young black men make up one out of every five eighth-graders who will drop out in five years; even if they make it out of high school, young black men will earn only 34 percent of all the degrees awarded to black students overall. And once a young black man drops out of school, they, along with their white, Latino, Asian, and Native peers, are unlikely to stay out of prison or earn the kind of incomes that can sustain families. The average black high school dropout, for example, earns $9,142 a year less than a  peer with some form of college education; sixty-percent of black male dropouts will have landed in prison by their early 30s, according to Princeton University researcher Bruce Western.

The effects of the nation’s education crisis on young black men start early. Forty percent of all students will enter school struggling with literacy, regardless of what their parents do; young men especially struggle because the areas of their brain involved in reading comprehension develops later in them than in young women. Yet traditional districts fail to provide early reading interventions that can help keep more young men (and young women) on the path to literacy. This, along with the low quality of reading curricula and instruction (along with the abysmal training of teachers in reading provided by the nation’s ed schools) end up putting young black men (and other kids) on the path to academic failure. One out of every two young black men in fourth-grade is functionally illiterate, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress; the average fourth-grade black boy reads at the same level as a first-grade white boy. As a result, young black men are more likely to be steered into special ed ghettos in which they are unlikely to receive a high-quality education. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles noted in their 2006 study, low levels of literacy in first grade lead to young black men becoming discipline problems by third. Little wonder why 28 percent of young black men in middle school have been suspended by the time they leave for high school.

This problem is exacerbated by zoned schooling rules and other Zip Code Education policies that force black families to send their sons and nephews to schools that are unfit for their futures. As Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Lettgers noted in their pathbreaking 2004 study on the nation’s dropout crisis, 46 percent of black high school students attend dropout factories where they have a one-in-two chance of graduating from high school. Another problem lies with the fact that many teachers and school leaders damn young black men — especially those from poor backgrounds — with low expectations, denying them opportunities for the strong curricula and high-quality teaching they need for success.

Certainly the first wave of school reforms that began in the early 1990s – including the launch of charter schools such as KIPP, along with the wave of reforms ushered in after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act — have helped lower those numbers and slightly improved prospects for all students. But more needs to be done to push the next wave of systemic reforms — including expanding high-quality educational opportunities, and overhauling how we recruit and train teachers who can work with kids from minority backgrounds — that can help young black men succeed. In short, we need all black men, especially Jackson, to stand up and be counted in advancing reform.

Yet with the exception of an op-ed this week on the overuse of harsh school discipline, Jackson has done little on the school reform front. If anything, he has joined the NAACP as being a steadfast fellow-traveler with NEA and AFT affiliates in defending the very practices and schools that have ruined the futures of young black men (and the opposition to school choice that black families support). Last month, Jackson proclaimed that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s continuation of predecessor Richard Daley’s longstanding effort to shut down failure mills and replace them with new schools was perpetuating “apartheid”.  Jackson also teamed up with the AFT’s bellicose Second City local to protest the district’s layoffs of 365 low-performing teachers, supporting its argument that the district disproportionately laid off black and Latino teachers, part of the union’s latest effort to protect the very privileges that have long fueled its influence.

Certainly Jackson could offer some legitimate criticism of Chicago’s school reform efforts. Although the district has improved over time, with the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic declining from 60 percent to 52 percent between 2003 and 2011, it still struggles in providing high-quality education to the city’s young black men. Jackson could easily challenge Emanuel and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, to improve literacy instruction and even provide early reading remediation to young black male students, or even ask them to embrace efforts such as the Open Society Foundation’s black male education initiative. Jackson could even argue that Chicago should enact a Parent Trigger provision that allows families to take control of their schools and attempt their own turnarounds.

But Jackson hasn’t done any of this. More importantly, in attacking Chicago’s efforts to shutter failure mills, Jackson ignores the reality that district-initiated school turnaround efforts rarely work. Just 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Andy Smarick (now an adjutant to New Jersey school czar Chris Cerf); fewer than one in ten traditional district schools were turned around six years later, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its 2011 study. Meanwhile shutting down schools and replacing them with new operations has turned out to be work better. Sixty-eight percent of charter schools opened in the Denver school district between 2007 and 2011 outperformed the Mile High City’s traditional district schools, while 61 percent of new “innovation schools” opened by the district outperformed older traditional counterparts, according to a report released this week by the Donnell-Kay Foundation. In fact, it is the shutdown of dropout factories (and the opening of new replacement operations) by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg since he took control of the district a decade ago which partly explains the city’s improvement in student achievement.

This isn’t to say that Chicago has always gotten it right on school shutdowns; in fact, as the Consortium on Chicago School Research has noted, the city’s biggest failure has been in not opening new schools and, in the process, allowing kids to go to schools that were just as bad (if not worse) than those from which they fled.  As Anthony Bryk and his team showed in Organizing Schools for Improvement – the City of Big Shoulders has managed to pull off some amazing school turnarounds. But you can’t save every failing school, especially when the culture within it has become too geared toward failure. And it seems that Chicago has learned its lessons — and those from cities that have managed school shutdowns in a more effective manner — making Jackson’s complaint seem senseless.

Meanwhile Jackson never considered that perhaps given the low performance of many Chicago schools, it may be a good idea for the district to toss out the instructors who, along with incompetent and mediocre principals, have perpetuated educational neglect and malpractice for decades. Nor has Jackson considered the role of his AFT allies in protecting failure. After all, it is the traditional system of degree- and seniority-based compensation, near-lifetime employment, and reverse-seniority layoff rules that have contributed to the low quality of teachers working with young black men and other children in Second City schools. He would be better off rejecting his alliance with the AFT and instead, team up with the New Jack school reformers who are leading the way in systemically reforming a failed system.

But Jackson isn’t alone. As Dropout Nation has noted over the past couple of years, old-school civil rights groups have aided and abetted education traditionalists who are more-interested in protecting their privileges. From the fizzled effort two years ago by the National Urban League and other groups two years ago to criticize President Barack Obama’s school reform efforts, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s unsuccessful work with the AFT’s New York affiliate last year to effectively kibosh the expansion of charter schools in the Big Apple, these old-school groups have all but stated that the status quo in American public education should remain quite ante. The fact that veteran and retired teachers and principals — who benefit greatly from traditional teacher compensation and privileges — still control the direction of these organizations is part of the problem; the fact that NEA and AFT affiliates have lavished considerable funds on these groups also plays a part. The old-school crowd also remain dedicated to the outdated notion that socioeconomic and racial integration will improve student achievement — even amid evidence that the real solutions lie with overhauling how we recruit, train, and pay teachers, providing all kids with strong curricula, expanding school opportunities, using data smartly in educational activities, and making parents lead decision-makers in schools.

In the process, old-school civil rights activists have alienated black families, particularly those in urban communities often served by failure factories, who have become major supporters of expanding choice and are forming their own groups to sustain reform. More importantly, these groups have all but declared that they will not stand up to help the very children and families they are supposed to help. In short, they, along with Jackson, have cheapened their legacies as the voices for helping blacks attain the very liberties they deserve — and condemning the futures of young black men.

Jackson still has an opportunity to stand on the right side for advancing systemic reform. So do the old-school civil rights groups that are on the wrong side of history. We need all hands to help our young black men attain the futures they deserve.

October 13, 2011 standard

One of the aspects of the education crisis that gets little discussion from reformers and education traditionalists alike is the yawning achievement gaps between young men and their female counterparts. No matter the racial, ethnic or economic background, far more young men fall behind in school and never catch up. One-fifth of young white male 12th-graders from college-educated households read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress versus just one out of every ten of their female counterparts, while the percentage of black male high school seniors mired at levels of functional illiteracy is 14 percentage points higher than for their female schoolmates. The low levels of achievement explain why women earn 62% of all two-year degrees, attain 57% of all four-year degrees, and young men are absent on nearly all college campuses.

Given the woeful statistics and the reality that young men make up three out of every five high school dropouts, it is critical to focus on their achievement gaps in order to stem the nation’s education crisis. And yet, for the past decade, it has been of little concern at the federal level. The No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions didn’t require gender as one of the subgroups for holding schools accountable for performance. And now, the plan for reauthorizing No Child proposed by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Mike Enzi will do even less in tracking how schools are poorly-serving young men of all backgrounds.

As you already know, the Harkin-Enzi plan would scrap AYP altogether, allowing for all but the worst 5,000 failure factories and another five percent of the nation’s schools with wide racial- and economic achievement gaps to escape scrutiny. The rest of the nation’s schools would only be responsible for “continuous improvement” in each subgroup including gender. But continuous improvement under Harkin-Enzi is vague; it doesn’t even require schools to at least improve grade performance of each cohort by as much as two grade levels.  So most schools, especially suburban districts whose performance have been revealed to be mediocre under AYP and independent studies by outfits such as the George W. Bush Institute’s Global Report Card, will avoid improving curricula and instruction for the young black, white, Latino and even Asian men in those schools — especially those from college-educated homes. So the boys, along with poor and minority kids who have long been neglected throughout American public education, get the proverbial short stick.

Under Harkin-Enzi, failure mills and schools with wide achievement gaps will still be subjected under some kind of an AYP mechanism. But the plan still ignores the young men’s crisis because it doesn’t require states and school districts to address the activities that have long perpetuated these achievement gaps — including the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities and the overuse of suspension and expulsion in school discipline. Adding gender as an accountability category is one for which Why Boys Fail’s Richard Whitmire and I argued four months ago in our column for USA Today. While one can argue that school reformers can push to address those matters through the use of litigation (specifically under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act), doing so wouldn’t work to force systemic reform en masse.

This silence on the boys crisis isn’t limited to Harkin-Enzi alone. The even less useful No Child revamp proposed by Enzi’s Republican colleague, Lamar Alexander, is also silent on this matter; the waiver plan being pushed by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan allows for states to subject their schools to accountability for the low performance of young men, but it doesn’t force them to do so. None of these plans for revamping No Child will comprehensively advance the reform of American public education.

Let’s be clear about this: When men don’t graduate from high school and move on to college, they will fall into poverty and unemployment. They are more likely to end up in prison, unlikely to be the kind of men well-educated women want to marry, and are cannot be the kind of fathers and husbands society needs for preserving communities and families — especially in the age of the knowledge-based economy and the decline of traditional manual labor. Ignoring this important aspect of the nation’s education crisis is perilous for millions of young men who need (and deserve) the kind of high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula that will allow them to write their own stories. More importantly, by not addressing these problems and their underlying causes, we will not succeed in building cultures of genius that nurture the potential of all of our students.

This reality is also another reason why the argument against focusing on achievement gaps advocated by American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess doesn’t make sense. When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by traditional public schools — including for young black, white, Latino and Asian men — we are improving education for all children. By addressing achievement gaps, we are also tackling the underlying problems that have made the nation’s education crisis a threat to our immediate- and long-term economic well-being. When we address the low graduation rates and underlying literacy issues facing young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds, we are also helping high-performing young women of all races and economic backgrounds succeed. And when we provide strong reading remediation to young men in the early grades, we also keep more kids out of the educational ghetto that is special ed — and put more kids on the path to higher education of all forms.

Senators Harkin and Enzi need to pull this No Child revamp and come up with a better plan. Such a plan would ultimately challenge states and districts to engage in reforms that will help young men — and all children — succeed in school and in life.

May 22, 2011 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, I turn more attention to the impact of the nation’s education crisis on the futures of young men. We need to continue overhauling American public education and provide strong role models in order for keep our boys on the path to graduation and economic success.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle’s radio page or download directly to your iPod, Zune, MP3 player, smartphone, Nook Color or Kindle.  Also, subscribe to the podcast series. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, the Education Podcast NetworkZune Marketplace and PodBean. Also download to your phone with BlackBerry podcast software and Google Reader.

April 12, 2011 standard

Reading is fundamental. When children don’t read at basic or proficient levels by third grade, they are unlikely to graduate or succeed in life. This is especially true for young men, who develop their capacity for reading just as they enter school. So for parents, it is important to read to your kids. At the same time, it is also critical to make sure that the school your child attends is also on the job, especially since 40 percent of all kids will need special reading instruction no matter what you do at home.

Dropout Nation offers six key things to look for in your school’s reading instruction. Also, listen to Dropout Nation Podcasts on how to improve reading for your kids and the youngsters around them, and learn what teachers should be doing in classrooms when it comes to reading instruction. Read, pay attention to what teachers are doing, and take action if you don’t think they are doing the job.

  1. A focus on phonetic awareness: Your child should be learning the ability to manipulate sounds in words, an integral part of decoding what it read.
  2. Emphasis on phonics: Teachers should be teaching your child the relationship between written letters and sounds. If this doesn’t happen, your child will not be able to read.
  3. Building background knowledge: This is as critical as phonics because your child needs to know about the world around him — including history, social studies, even science — in order to build strong reading comprehension — or the ability to gain meaning while reading. The school should have a strong, rich curricula for each grade — and every teacher should be able to tell you what your child should learn (and what the school or district expects you to learn) in the grade your child is in. If not, begin advocating for the adoption of more-rigorous curricula or find them another school.
  4. Gain a vast vocabulary: Each day, your school should be doing what you do at home: Teaching your child words, their definitions and the context in which they should be used. Preferably, the teacher should teach your child at least five new words a week (if not more). Again, if it isn’t happening, start making it happen — even if you have to do it yourself.
  5. Get your child to read faster and pick up information more quickly: Sure, every child reads at different speeds. At the same time, there is a point where your child should be able to read aloud a text designated for their grade without a lot of stumbling (a first-grader should be able to read 60 words per minute). The teacher should have your child read constantly, repeatedly, sometimes working on the same passage, until they get up to speed. If this isn’t happening, take action.
  6. And it all should lead to strong reading comprehension: This doesn’t just mean being able to just pronounce words correctly and being able to speed through a book. They should be able to tell you or their teacher what is being discussed in a book or paragraph. Again, if this isn’t happening, you need to take action, both in school and at home.

April 9, 2011 standard

Yesterday’s Dropout Nation commentary on Pedro Noguera’s opposition to shutting down dropout factoreis garnered a wide array of responses. One in particular comes from Noguera himself. Below is his response, uncorrected and unedited.

Read my work before you ask silly questions.  I have been working to reform urban schools for over 20 years.  I don’t make excuses for failure and I don’t think that shutting down failing schools is  solution.  According to Duncan there are over 5,000 dropout factories across the US.  If you shut them down where will these students go to school?  You should think before repeatsing simplistic ideas.

Apparently those with whom Noguera disagrees can’t possibly have an original thought of their own. Considering all the reporting and commentary Dropout Nation has done over the past few years arguing for  systemically dealing with the complexities of reforming American public education — and that there is no one answer to the nation’s educational crisis — all I can say is that Noguera should also read before making silly responses.

Second: Let’s remember that Noguera mentions that there are 5,000 dropout factories out of 98,916 schools in the entire country (a data point Duncan got from one of the leading thinkers on the dropout crisis, Robert Balfanz). For those who are keeping score, that’s five percent of all schools in the nation. One could easily argue that those 5,000 dropout factories can be replaced rather easily with 5,000 schools with higher-quality instruction, curricula, leadership and learning cultures. It can actually be done and it is being done in New York City through the development of charters and higher-quality traditional district schools. This is what other organizations with whom Noguera disagrees is also demanding. This won’t be easy to do, and again, we still need to systemically reform how we recruit, train and pay teachers, overhaul curricula, create cultures in which everyone is held to high expectations of success, and offer parents the ability to be lead decision-makers in education. But it can be done.

Finally: There are implications to one’s thinking and logical conclusions from them. Noguera may not “make excuses for failures”. But in his work, he has never dealt realistically with teacher quality or curriculum quality issues. If Noguera suggested that there needs to be an end to tenure, more-rigorous evaluation of teacher and principal performance, or any of those things that actually deal with the full range of structural issues that help foster dropout factories, then one could see the point of his argument against shutting down dropout factories. But he hasn’t. He is opposed to using student data in evaluating teachers. He essentially opposes the No Child Left Behind Act, which actually advanced accountability in education. His solutions only nibble at the edges of the nation’s education crisis. Let’s be plain about this: Noguera means well. But his solutions won’t improve the quality of education for poor young black and Latino men without full and systemic reform.

Noguera doesn’t exactly deserve as thoughtful a response as I’ve given. He did not offer much of anything in the first place.