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December 9, 2014 standard

As a child, my father taught me how protest, civil disobedience and labor unions were used so farmers would stop spraying our families with pesticides while they worked the fields. We had heroes: They included Cesar, Martin, and J.F.K.

I became a freshman in high school in the fall of 1988. I remember wondering why the next Martin or Cesar never showed up and if I’d ever see another compelling civil rights activist in my lifetime. Instead of taking messages to the streets, activists tried to take to the airwaves, but their messages were lost in an increasingly noisy, short attention-spanned, media industry that was undergoing its own radical transformation and on a public that grew weary of talk about race.

I have spent the past few days processing the New York City grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer for killing Eric Garner. I didn’t have a single coherent thought. Just anger and two rap lyrics from albums that were released my freshman year of high school. The first, from NWA: They have the authority to kill a minority. The second, from Chuck D and Public Enemy: Five O said, “Freeze” an’ I got numb Can I tell ‘em that I really never had a gun?

It wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talking about the relationship between minority communities and the criminal justice system when I was a kid. It was Chuck D and Ice Cube – 26 years ago. I grew up questioning a justice system that didn’t seem to work for black and brown communities. Chuck D and Ice Cube appeared prophetic when the Rodney King riots broke out just a few weeks before I graduated from high school.

Another institution that didn’t seem to work for us was our schools. My high school had 900 freshman — and only 330 seniors on the path to graduation. No one could say where the other 570 kids went; there was no high school with three times as many graduating seniors than freshmen. As we walked around campus listening to our Walkman radios, our eyes told us that most of us wouldn’t make it to graduation.

Beyond the obvious human rights implications, Eric Garner’s case matters because millions of people are watching to see whether the system works for them or is stacked against them. Every time we interact with our justice system, our public schools, our medical system, our churches and other public institutions, it either confirms or denies a narrative about our relationship with society.

Because if a society works against me and my loved ones, I behave differently. I stiffen. I resist. I despair. I resent. I protect.

We had Dr. King in the 1960s, Chuck D in the 1980s, and now Eric Garner in 2014. A good friend pointed out in disbelief that an unarmed man had to die on video in order to spur the latest call-to-action around civil rights. Why does an innocent man need to die for us to generate a sense of urgency? I also wonder if the Eric Garners of the world will be our leaders going forward exactly because social media is too difficult to ignore.

I need to stop waiting for the next Dr. King, and forget about finding the next Chuck D. This goes for you, too. Because we are the leaders — and the leaders are now us.

I kind of hoped that our society would mature to the point where some of our current racial issues would get resolved. Maybe this is because society began to work very well for me and it was easier not to talk race or civil rights. But we also made this mistake in education reform when we thought everything would work itself out if we just ran good schools. We are realizing in education that running good schools is not enough. We need to match and exceed the political will of those who steal the possible when it comes to children’s education. I think the same is true for civil rights. We just have to fight.

We have a chance to battle demons in 2014 that we brushed away in 1988. My friend Marc Porter Magee recently quoted Winston Churchill’s aphorism that “The United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all possible alternatives.” It sure is taking a long time to exhaust all the alternatives. I’m marking my calendar for 2040. We have a lot do between now and then.

November 14, 2014 standard

Your editor wasn’t surprised that Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman handed in his walking papers yesterday. For one, running a state education agency, especially in an age in which states are the lead players in overhauling public education, may actually be harder (especially given the lack of resources for the complex tasks) than operating a traditional district. As Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week notes, just 21 states have the same chief state school officer they had in place two years ago when he started covering his beat. [Even more have changed over since 2007, when Dropout Nation began what was then irregular publication.]

Secondly, in the case of Huffman, there was also the fact that Volunteer State Gov. Bill Haslam, often a fair weather reformer when it comes to such matters as expanding school choice, was likely to back off on implementing Common Core reading and math standards in order to assuage movement conservatives opposed to them. If Haslam is already willing to give up on this important aspect of systemic reform, he will likely back away from the teacher quality reforms and other efforts Huffman was overseeing.

This isn’t to say that the former Teach For America executive’s efforts were always the most-sensible for kids. Dropout Nation has been particularly critical of Tennessee’s Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets allowed by the Obama Administration as part of its successful No Child waiver plan. Sure, Huffman, Haslam and other officials may think they mean well by focusing solely on growth instead of also looking at overall proficiency. But the consequence of this is simply condemning poor and minority kids to low expectations as well as letting districts and schools off the hook for providing high-quality education for all kids. For that, Huffman should offer an apology to Volunteer State children for even codifying such thinking into policy.

Yet at the same time, Huffman has done plenty of good in continuing the much-needed overhaul of Tennessee’s public education system, often battling traditionalists (including districts and the National Education Association’s Volunteer State affiliate) opposed to any effort to provide kids with high-quality education.

Huffman’s successful implementation of a new teacher evaluation system, which uses objective test score growth data to measure 35 percent of teacher performance, has not been welcomed by either the NEA or by other traditionalists because it promises to shine an even harsher light on the low quality of teaching that persists in the state, especially in schools and districts serving Tennessee’s poor and minority children. Yet in implementing the evaluation system — and in successfully convincing the legislature to increase the frequency of evaluations for tenured teachers from every five years to annual — Huffman has helped foster a culture in which teachers can be recognized for success in improving student achievement or held accountable for failing to do so. At the same time, the moves also hold districts in the state accountable for doing the proper job of measuring teacher performance and weeding out those who don’t belong in classrooms. There’s still plenty to do on this front. But these are important steps that deserve recognition.

Huffman’s moves on teacher compensation have also been in important. By consolidating salary scales from 21 steps to four Huffman helped the Volunteer State admit decades of evidence that show that there is no correlation between seniority and ability to improve student achievement. In eliminating all but two salary increases for attaining graduate degrees, Huffman also helped the state admit the fact that there is also no correlation between degree attainment and teacher performance in the classroom. Both moves allow districts to offer performance-based bonuses and other pay increases tied to what teachers actually contribute to improving the futures of children. Add in his efforts to create new paths for teachers who want to take on more-challenging roles, yet don’t want to move into classrooms (including creation of coaching positions for teachers to help their peers implement Common Core), and Huffman’s efforts on the teacher quality front have been substantial.

Then there is Huffman’s willingness to serve as a strong messenger for advancing systemic reform — even against powerful opponents in the legislature as well as district superintendents such as Williamson County’s Mike Looney (who managed to get a state law passed effectively exempting his district from the state’s accountability system). That fact is one reason why 15 legislators — including Rep. Mike Sparks — issued a letter earlier this year calling for Haslam to force Huffman out of the job. As current and former counterparts such as former Indiana and Florida education chief Tony Bennett can attest, this is often be hard for any chief state school officer to do. There’s nothing wrong with being polarizing and divisive on behalf of our children. In fact, no one can fight for brighter futures for our children without taking stands that force men and women to make choices they would rather avoid. And for this being divisive and courageous, Huffman deserves praise.

Meanwhile Huffman has done something that chief state school officers, regardless of their party or policy orientation, should always do: Be honest and responsive. When Dropout Nation noted last year that Tennessee excluded high numbers of ELL students and kids in special ed ghettos from the latest edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (including a 27 percent exclusion rate for eighth-graders in special ed on NAEP’s reading exam, and an 18 percent exclusion rate of 14 percent of eighth-grade special ed kids from NAEP’s math exam), Huffman didn’t offer an excuse. Instead, he explained the Volunteer State’s long and sordid history of how it would engage in this form of test-cheating, discussed how the state cut such exclusion levels by half under his watch, and pledged that the state would continue to reduce NAEP cheating. This stands starkly in contrast to responses from other states with high NAEP exclusion levels, many of whom didn’t even bother to respond or came up with excuses for their misbehavior.

One can imagine how much more Huffman could have done if Haslam was more-willing to use his political capital to continue reform. Haslam did nothing earlier this year when the Volunteer State’s legislature passed a law barring the use of test score growth data from the state’s Value-Added data system (the oldest in the country) in licensing decisions. Haslam’s move last month to launch a review of Common Core also undercut Huffman’s efforts to advance systemic reform. Because Haslam has been far more concerned with being liked and getting re-elected (even though he had almost no credible competition among either Republicans or Democrats), he has done little more than weaken Huffman and the state board of education, who have actually shown far greater backbone in withstanding traditionalist and movement conservative opposition.

Huffman’s resignation, along with the likelihood of Haslam appointing a less hard-charging state schools chief, bodes badly for children (especially my nephew and niece — this is personal) in the state. Your editor expects Haslam to fold like a tabloid newspaper on Common Core implementation within the next year. There’s also little chance that Haslam will push hard on other reforms (including expanding school choice) or even strongly defend the efforts Huffman has already undertaken.

But this turn of events is not shocking. As Dropout Nation has continually pointed out, any notion among reformers that one party is better on advancing systemic reform than the other is a fallacy; especially in southern states such as Tennessee (where school districts are often the biggest employers in their communities, the most-powerful political players, and the breeding grounds for so many politicians), Republican domination of statewide politics does not any advancements in overhauling public education. [This, by the way, is why conservative reformers need to temper their exuberance over last week’s Election Day victories; as seen in the case of Haslam, as well as Florida’s Rick Scott, being a Republican or a conservative doesn’t translate into being a reformer.]

For reformers, Huffman’s resignation and Haslam’s waywardness on reform is another reminder that their efforts must be bipartisan. This means cultivating supporters in both parties to sustain reform efforts, as well as build up strong grassroots support in order to keep politicians honest.

The good news, however, is that Huffman can now go back to the national stage and advance systemic reform as he has done for most of his career. He has set a fine example of school leadership that his soon-to-be former colleagues, along with future state school chiefs, should follow.

November 6, 2014 standard

For Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the past few weeks have been far kinder to his re-election prospects — and the continuation of systemic reform in the Second City — than he probably deserves. Which means he must use this time to build a strong agenda for helping all kids succeed as well as address the city’s quality of life issues.

Tuesday’s victory by Republican Bruce Rauner over incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn in Illinois’ gubernatorial election may prove to be one of the best things to happen for Emanuel so far. This is because the private equity investor and school reform philanthropist’s agenda of tackling the Land of Lincoln’s virtually-insolvent pensions and expanding school choice dovetails nicely with Emanuel’s efforts to address the Second City’s own defined-benefit pension shortfalls and increase the number of charters serving children. One can easily expect Emanuel and Rauner to work closely on this front even as the two will likely spar for the role of leading politician in the state.

Three weeks earlier, the announcement by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis that she was stepping down temporarily as head of the American Federation of Teachers local after being treated for cancer essentially sidelined Emanuel’s most-potent foe. Lewis was preparing to mount what would have likely ended up being an unsuccessful challenge to Emanuel’s re-election, something that the mayor didn’t want to face (even though Lewis, contrary to a Chicago Sun-Times poll, was unlikely to win). Because Lewis will be sidelined through the election cycle — and won’t draw money and other support from a national AFT more desperate than ever for an electoral victory — Emanuel will end up with just two weak challengers, none of whom have the money or the ground game to beat the mayor next year.

Meanwhile the AFT local itself is itself in disarray amid Lewis’ temporary absence. One reason lies with the dissatisfaction among many rank-and-file members over Lewis’ move to force the union to back the mayoral challenge of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, over Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti. While the union’s delegates went with Lewis’ choice this week, rank-and-filers were particularly miffed last week when her underlings used the AFT local’s annual LEAD dinner to harass them into backing the little-known Garcia over Fioretti, who is backed by some labor-oriented progressives despite the embarrassment of his firm’s unpaid bills (as well as being accused by two ex-staffers for his city council campaigns of not paying them). Even worse, they had to listen to Garcia give a speech at the dinner, delaying their chance to listen to Gov. Quinn, who eventually gave the keynote address. The high-handed actions are another reminder that AFT leaders only listens to teachers when they say what the union tells them to say.

All of this is happening for Emanuel at just the right time. Since succeeding Richard M. Daley as Chicago’s mayor, the former congressman and onetime Obama Administration chief of staff has been beset by his predecessor’s failures on the quality of life and fiscal fronts.

Certainly concerns that Chicago’s crime levels are overblown. The city’s reported homicides declined by 41 percent between 1993 and 2012, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics; while far lower than the 79-percent decline experienced by the far-larger New York City and Los Angeles’ 72 percent decline, the Second City is still far safer now than it was two decades ago. Yet because of Emanuel’s and Daley’s unwillingness to adopt the aggressive data-driven crime reduction techniques undertaken in the Big Apple and in other cities, Chicago remains a less-safer place to live than the nation’s two-largest cities; Chicago’s reported homicides of 500 is 81 more than that reported in the Big Apple and 201 more than that experienced in the City of Angels.

Emanuel’s own failures on this front is one reason why his approval ratings on crime among blacks and whites declined from 45 percent in 2013 to 30 percent this year, according to the Chicago Tribune. And the revelations by Chicago that the police department had reclassified certain crimes in order to make stats look better (also known as fudging and cheating) have furthered the perception among Second City residents that the mayor isn’t handling the most-important job of his office very well.

Meanwhile Emanuel has had to deal with the Second City’s pension morass, which looms even larger as Baby Boomers working in city government are heading into retirement. This has forced the mayor to battle with public-sector unions — especially the Chicago AFT local — over addressing those woes. The teachers’ pension’s virtual insolvency is particularly problematic thanks to mismanagement by Daley (who successfully petitioned legislators in Springfield to grant the city a decade-long “holiday” from making contributions to the pension) and CTU (which controls eight of the 12 seats on the pension’s board). A Dropout Nation analysis of the pension’s insolvency shows that the result of the mismanagement and empty promises is that it is underfunded to the tune of $12.5 billion, or 30 percent higher than officially reported.

Emanuel’s efforts on the pension reform front are tied to that of the Land of Lincoln, whose own modest pension revamp in the form of Senate Bill 1 is being challenged in court by a cadre of public-sector unions that includes the AFT’s state affiliate as well as that of the National Education Association. There’s also CTU, which is working overtime to avoid any reform that involves cutting annuity payments to current and future retirees.

But there is one bright spot for Emanuel: His continuation of the reform of Chicago’s traditional district that began under predecessor Daley. Emanuel had suffered a public relations loss two years ago when Lewis and the CTU embarked on its two week-long strike. But for all of Lewis’ bluster, the reality was that the work stoppage achieved little in the way of blunting reform; Emanuel was able to extend the amount of hours schools are open and thus, the time it can require teachers to work in theory (which didn’t go down so well with the hardcore traditionalists within the union’s rank-and-file). The strike also helped Emanuel make a strong push to expand school choice through authorizing new charter schools — which aren’t subjected to collective bargaining agreements. Under Emanuel, Chicago authorized 30 new charters between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014. Given that the city’s charter schools have significantly improved student achievement in math and reading (according to last year’s report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes), the move also benefits kids academically as well.

The results, both under Emanuel and Daley, have been remarkable. Between 2005 and 2013, the city’s high school graduation rate increased from 39 percent to 66 percent. The percentage of Second City fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 60 percent to 49 percent between 2003 and 2013, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 13 percent to 21 percent in the same period. The district has also done better on helping eighth-graders gain the literacy they need for lifetime success, with the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increasing from 15 percent to 20 percent within the last decade.

Chicago still has ways to go before it can be considered a high-performing school operator; this includes improving achievement for young black men, at which it has done a poor job; the percentage of young black men in eighth grade reading Below Basic declined by a mere three percentage points (from 54 percent to 51 percent) between 2003 and 2013. The low levels of literacy contribute to the district’s overuse of harsh school discipline on black children (especially young black men). Ten-point-one percent of black students were suspended one or more times by Chicago Public Schools in 2011-2012 while a mere 3.3. percent of Latino schoolmates and 2 percent of white students, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education; note that Latino students make up 45 percent of the district’s population, while blacks account for 41 percent of kids in its schools (nine percent of students are white). But Emanuel’s efforts (as well as that of Daley before him) are helping more kids gain the teaching and curricula they deserve.

Given the lack of a strong opponent, the mayor’s strong alliances with the city’s private-sector unions and business community, and the fears among many of Chicago sliding back into the worst days of the 1980s (when it was known as Beirut by the Lake), Emanuel will likely win. But this doesn’t mean that he can sit on his laurels. In fact, what Emanuel must do is offer a strong vision for the Second City’s future, one in which streets are safer, its financial condition is far less dire, and in which all children (especially young black men) will have the knowledge they need to write stories of prosperity for themselves and their communities. This starts with the building upon the successes on the education front.

As Emanuel already knows, and as big-city mayors elsewhere have concluded over the past four decades, a city’s future economic growth and social vibrancy starts with schools at the center of the neighborhoods in which they are located. While Chicago’s reform efforts have been successful, they haven’t been aggressive enough. One step is to eliminate the city’s school zones, a Zip Code Education practice that not only restricts the ability of the Second City’s poor and minority families to provide  Emanuel should also rescind the district’s move last month to not open any new charters until 2015-2016 (a move done in anticipation of what was expected to be Lewis’ challenge for the mayor’s job), and go full bore on launching more high-quality charters. He should also foster the development of blended learning by outfits such as Rocketship Education, and DIY education efforts by families, churches, and community groups in the city. Especially given the move last year to shut down 50 half-empty traditional district schools, Emanuel must show that the city is going to provide families options they need and deserve. Moving the district away from overusing harsh school discipline and toward restorative justice models that actually teach kids the impact of their behaviors on peers (along with more-aggressive reading remediation for young black men) is also key.

Emanuel should also come together with Rauner, who will become Illinois governor in January, to build upon the teacher quality reforms Daley got passed by the state legislature three years ago. This should include embracing the spirit of Vergara v. California and enacting laws to increase the time it takes for teachers to gain tenure from four years to five and allow districts to extend the probationary period for newly-hired teachers if their performance isn’t up to snuff. [It would be great if Emanuel and Rauner worked to abolish near-lifetime employment altogether; but this is Illinois and that won’t go down well.] Teaming up with Rauner to enact a Parent Trigger law allowing Second City families to take over failing traditional district schools would also go a long way toward making parents lead decision-makers in education for their kids.

But as Dropout Nation noted last year in its commentary on Emanuel’s move to close 50 traditional district schools, high-quality education isn’t enough in Chicago, especially in the city’s most crime-ridden locales. Asking kids and their families to commute to schools and go to work in fear for their lives is just plain unacceptable. For this, Emanuel has absolutely no excuse. [As a native New Yorker, your editor is amazed that Emanuel, and before him, Daley, were allowed by Second City residents to get away with, well, murder; in New York City, they would have already lost their jobs.] Emanuel should rip a page from New York City by using the Broken Windows principles on crime-fighting that it used to great success, as well as hire more officers to patrol the streets. The mayor could also use the schools to help keep kids off the street; beyond extending the school day, the district should even launch night schools where high schoolers can attend instead of being on the streets.

Emanuel must also show good faith to the citizenry by dismissing Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who has been at the center of the scandal surrounding how the police department classifies crimes. Public confidence in crime-fighting must be earned, both through safer streets and honest data on crime-fighting.

Finally, Emanuel must ramp up his pension reform agenda. Your editor wouldn’t expect the mayor to do this until he wins re-election. But he must begin leveling with citizens on the true depths of the Second City’s fiscal morass. This includes requiring the city’s pensions — especially the teachers’ pension — to provide honest numbers based on the formula developed by Moody’s Investors Service as part of its effort to shed light on underfunded pensions. Emanuel must then team up with incoming Gov. Rauner on a pension-reform plan that includes moving mid-career and younger workers (including teachers) from the busted pensions to hybrid retirement plans that features a defined-contribution element into which they can save as much as they choose and a defined-benefit component with a guaranteed savings rate. Especially for Chicago’s younger teachers, as well as high-quality teachers of all seniority levels, such pension reform would allow them to gain retirements worthy of their hard work.

Emanuel now has an opportunity to use his likely second term to execute a vision of Chicago’s future worthy of children and their families. It is time for him to make this a reality.


September 6, 2014 standard

Sometimes the worst damages done in American public education to our young black men and women are committed by the educational incompetence of people who look like them. And this can be seen in Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest of Indianapolis’ 11 districts that is the worst collection of failure mills in the Midwest outside of Detroit.

Back in 2005, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz commented that IPS was the only district he researched in which all of its high schools were dropout factories.  Little has changed since then. While the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) improved from 32 percent to 45 percent between 2005-2006 and 2011-2012, IPS’s five-year graduation rate declined from 41 percent to 40 percent over that time, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data. [The Indiana Department of Education reports an official graduation rate of 65 percent overall and 62 percent for black students.]

The failures of the district are borne hardest upon black children, who make up the vast majority of IPS’ enrollment. Although the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate has increased from 32 percent to 49 percent, few of them are getting the college-preparatory learning they need for success in traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships. Just 8.5 percent of IPS’ black middle-schoolers were provided Algebra 1, the key course for preparing kids for higher-level math courses in high school, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database.

Just 6.4 percent of IPS’ black high schoolers took trigonometry, statistics, and other forms of advanced math, while another 6.4 percent took physics, another college preparatory course. A mere 28 black students took calculus. Even fewer took Advanced Placement courses; just 23 black students took A.P. Math, while another 58 took A.P. Science. Only 10 black students were enrolled in the district’s International Baccalaureate program. [The numbers are equally abysmal for the district’s white students; just 6.6 percent white high schoolers took physics, for example.]

That’s just for the kids who actually get to stay in school: During 2011-2012, 1,794 young black men and women — or 10.7 percent of IPS’ black student population — were suspended at least once by the district. Another 1,751 black children in IPS — or another 10.5 percent of all black students — were suspended two or more times during the same period. Given that most suspensions in IPS, like in most districts, are for behaviors  such as disruptive behavior that can often be addressed through better means (and are often indicators of underlying learning issues), this means that IPS is failing to address the needs of kids in its care.

Meanwhile the district meted out in-school suspensions — technically keeping kids in school, but not actually having them attend regular classes and get any learning — to 2,033 young black people, or another 12 percent of the black student population. Altogether, one-third of black children attending IPS were subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, and as a result, fell further behind in their studies. Even worse, one out of every two black children condemned to IPS’ special ed ghetto was subjected to some form of in-school or out-of-school suspension. [Sixty-eight special ed students were either placed in restraint or what prison inmates call solitary confinement.]

Presiding over IPS’ consistent condemning of the futures of black children are black men and women who have perpetuated the district’s unenviable status as a failure cluster. Until 2013, this included the notorious Eugene White, whose eight-year tenure overseeing the district was marked by craven nepotism, shuffling incompetence into school leadership jobs, and and few improvements in student achievement. He gained particular notoriety two years ago when he claimed that IPS was failing because it served special ed kids he called “blind, crippled, crazy”.  It also includes Mary Busch, who, along with Michael D. Brown, ran IPS’ board for two decades (and let White off the hook for his nasty remarks) before they finally ended her reign of error last year.

IPS’ new leadership,  including Supt. Lewis Ferrebee, is working hard to overhaul it. But the district’s dysfunction (along with its coterie of laggard teachers and school leaders) has so ingrained in its DNA that it may be best for folks in the Indiana Statehouse to just shut it down and abandon the traditional district model altogether.

Yet IPS isn’t the only district run by black school leaders who do the kind of damage to the futures of children that would lead most of us to go on protest marches if this were done by whites. Far too many black school leaders, teachers, and even politicians, are allowed to condemn the futures of the young people who we need to bring black communities into the economic and social mainstream in an increasingly knowledge-based world.

Old-school black leaders such as Jesse Jackson have preferred to ally themselves with traditionalists concerned with keeping influence than with those who want better for our black children.

This can be seen in abject failure factories such as Camden, New Jersey, whose black leadership had been failing black kids for decades before Gov. Chris Christie finally ordered a state takeover last year. Under a string of black superintendents, including Annette D. Knox and Bessie LeFra Young (who skipped out on more than 180 days of work for two years and racked up $6,000 in travel reimbursements before being sent packing in 2012), the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate for its black students declined from 75 percent for its Class of 2006 to 61 percent for its Class of 2012. Keep this in mind: African-American men and women account for 77 percent of the district’s school leaders.

The rot isn’t just among the school leaders alone: The average Camden teacher was absent for 11.2 days during the 2008-2009 school year, according to an analysis by the Courier-Post, leading the district to spend $8,748 each day for 81 substitute teachers to fill in for absent teachers. Two years ago, the district hired an employment agency after recognizing that as many as 40 percent of classroom teachers were absent each day during the school year. This is especially shameful given that black teachers account for 43 percent of the instructors working in Camden classrooms.

There are also the black-run districts which subject far too many black children to the harshest school discipline — even when the leaders know the damage this does to their futures.

Two years ago, the Pontiac district in Michigan was cited as the worst district for suspending black kids, according to analysis of federal data by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Things haven’t improved much more based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis. Fifteen percent of Pontiac’s black students were suspended at least in 2011-2012, while another 17.6 percent were suspended more than once. [Eight tenths of one percent of its students were subjected to in-school suspensions] Altogether, a black child attending Pontiac has a one-in-three chance of being suspended during a school year. Considering that 77 percent of Pontiac’s school  leadership is black (as are 36 percent of its teachers), this is shameful. But it isn’t shocking: These are the very school leaders whose mismanagement — including former Assistant Supt. Jumanne Sledge (now in prison for diverting $236,000 in district funds to pay for his lifestyle) has nearly led Pontiac to fiscal ruin.

Four of the 10 districts ranked by the Civil Rights Project as having the highest suspension levels for black children are run by black school leaders and largely staffed by black teachers. Besides Pontiac, this includes East Jasper Consolidated in Mississippi, Bloom Township in Illinois, and Oak Park City in Michigan. Combined, these four districts meted out in-school and out-of-school suspensions to 43 percent of the black children they serve. And as with nearly all districts, the suspensions were for

Aiding and abetting these school leaders, along with other traditionalists such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, are some old-school civil rights activists and black politicians, often more-interested in sustaining their limited vision and pocketbooks than helping black children succeed.

These days, that group includes Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic party apparatchik who is now heading up the AFT’s front group against centrist Democrat reformers. There’s also Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who has long ago proven that he will never show up for advancing systemic reform. Instead, in exchange for $50,000 in donations from the AFT into the coffers of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson have supported the notoriously-bellicose Chicago local’s efforts against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reforms, including the decision two years ago to lay off 365 low-performing teachers. Let’s also not forget the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which continually debases its once-proud legacy as a school reformer. This includes its efforts in New York City and elsewhere against charter schools, as well as the resolution it passed in 2011 against the expansion of school choice beneficial to black children.

Meanwhile there are well-meaning black leaders in education who engage in equally senseless arguments defending harmful traditionalist practices because they are more-interested in protecting brethren who commit educational malpractice than about the very children for which they should show the greatest concern. The otherwise-sensible Andre Perry, dean of Davenport University’s school of urban education, took to the pages of the Washington Post last week to argue that efforts to end near-lifetime employment laws and overhaul other teacher dismissal policies would hurt black communities because laggard black teachers could lose their jobs, and thus, districts would have less-diverse teaching pools serving our kids. Forget that Perry ignores the reality that black teachers make up larger portion of instructors in charter schools (where they don’t get near-lifetime employment) than in traditional districts that do. The fact that he refuses to acknowledge the evidence — including research by outfits such as TNTP as well as reporting by the Los Angeles Times – on how tenure and other policies (including Last In-First Out layoff rules) harms the academic achievement of black children is absolutely stunning.

Now let’s be clear: There are plenty of black men and women, from classroom teachers to politicians, fighting hard every day to transform American public education for our children. This includes such folks as former Memphis school board leader Kenneth Whalum; former IPS principal (and current Chicago Public Schools principal) Jeffery White; Black Alliance for Educational Options cofounder Howard Fuller and the outfit’s chief executive, Kenneth Campbell. It also includes a generation of new civil rights leaders such as Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff, and outgoing Georgia legislator Alisha Thomas Morgan. One of the less-acknowledged benefits of the emergence of the school reform movement is that it has helped bring to prominence new and longtime black leaders who realize that the path to black economic and social empowerment begins with overhauling the schools that have damaged generations of children and communities for far too long.

At the same time, we must acknowledge these realities: That far too many black school leaders, men and women who aren’t fit to check coats at Ruth’s Chris steakhouses, are as much responsible as their white brethren for the policies and practices (including overuse of suspensions) that have condemned our sons and daughters to the abyss. That these leaders often come to the protection of laggard black teachers whose incompetence does harm to our kids every day they sit in their classrooms. That far too many old-school black politicians and civil rights leaders, both because of their own avarice as well as an unwillingness to acknowledge new evidence on addressing the nation’s education crisis, fight against the very reforms that will help our kids attain the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory learning they need and deserve. In the process, they perpetuate the educational genocide that has wrecked havoc on our children and communities, and have hobbled efforts to end the racialist policies.

These leaders who should stand for our children deserve to be called out for their failure to do right by them. We cannot let our own people be as much a cause of the debasement of our children as those whose skins aren’t brown. As champions for our black sons and daughters, this must be done. The future of Black America may well depend on it.

August 17, 2014 standard

Your editor has been a tad too busy focusing on the impact of Michael Brown’s alleged murder in Ferguson, as well as other pieces, to think much about Michelle Rhee’s departure from StudentsFirst. Others, as you know, haven’t ignored it. As you would have expect given the divisiveness that surrounds anything regarding Rhee, Stephanie Simon of Politico an inside-the-Beltway-stenographer-like not-for-attribution-quote laden gossip piece about Rhee’s tenure at the outfit. That piece, in turn, has been rightly lambasted by This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo and Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk (along with Rhee’s soon-to-be former underlings) for being way below Simon’s usually-higher standard of reporting. Traditionalists such as once-respectable educational historian Diane Ravitch are also celebrating Rhee’s departure from the school reform outfit. So are, given how Rhee’s presence in the school reform movement crowded out so many aspiring big names, her friendly rivals as well.

Certainly Rhee didn’t accomplish all that she could during her tenure overseeing StudentsFirst. Rhee’s infamous lack of collegiality, along with the envy among rival groups, meant that StudentsFirst wasn’t always successful in building coalitions on the ground needed to advance critical reforms. This was clear in Florida two years ago when its effort to pass a Parent Trigger law was defeated in the Sunshine State senate. Under Rhee, StudentsFirst didn’t hit what I determined to be the sweet spot in advancing reform: Merging policy savvy with hard-core, grassroots activism and entrepreneurial (and operational) drive.

Then there’s the fact that Rhee hasn’t been successful (or even had enough time to) build StudentsFirst from a personality-driven outfit to an institution that will survive long beyond her departure. StudentsFirst has more than enough money to survive for the time being, and after a period of high turnover, now has a top-notch staff that includes chief operating officer Rebecca Sibilia and policy czar Eric Lerum. But Rhee’s failure on the institution-building front is especially shocking, especially when you consider the lasting success of teacher quality reform outfit TNTP and the continuing work of reforming D.C. Public Schools undertaken by Rhee’s successor there, Kaya Henderson.

Yet you also can’t deny that Rhee’s work at StudentsFirst did achieve some important results for our children. The organization’s success in backing strong systemic reformers in statehouses deserves praise. Her embrace of the bipartisan single-issue voter approach in politically advancing reform, an approach that differed greatly from that of groups such as Democrats for Education Reform that have spent most of their time only trying to win support from respective party circles, is one that other reform groups should embrace. This is because Rhee realized, as other reformers have figured out the hard way, that bipartisanship is the only way to break through the ideological sparring and power relationships at the state and district levels that often complicate efforts to advance systemic reform.

Under Rhee, StudentsFirst also succeeded in developing the State Policy Report Card, which has proven to be a comprehensive-yet-simple report on what states are doing (or, in many cases, not doing) in the area of revamping public education. Even better, the report card has shown how even the most-aggressive reform-minded states have not taken on the school finance and pension reform overhauls that are as critical to reforming American public education as expanding school choice and revamping teacher evaluations. Other reform groups should embrace StudentsFirst’s effort and craft their own.

Meanwhile we must keep in mind that Rhee’s impact on the debate over transforming American public education extends beyond her short time at StudentsFirst. Certainly, this can be hard to consider. After all, the clash of egos, both between reformers and traditionalists, as well as among the movement’s players (especially when one of the their own gains heightened public stature as Rhee has), colors every consideration of Rhee’s legacy so far. But we must acknowledge that without Rhee, the school reform movement’s most-renown public figure, and one of its few from minority households (whose second husband is also from that background), the movement would have not advanced its efforts as far as it has.

One of the points your editor always make is that movements succeed in part because of divisive figures who stand by their moral principles, strongly challenge policies and practices that are immoral and abominable, force people to clarify where they stand on matters of great moral importance, and embrace true leadership. Divisive figures such as Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi are the ones who force the positive changes that have improved the world for all of us. And Rhee deserves to be considered among them.

After all, without Rhee (along with Teach for America cofounder Wendy Kopp), there would be no TNTP, whose reports and work with districts on addressing their shoddy hiring practices have provided us with new models for bringing high-quality teachers to every classroom. Without TNTP’s studies, there wouldn’t be the Vergara lawsuits that are challenging morally repugnant near-lifetime employment laws that harm poor and minority kids. For the existence of TNTP alone, Rhee deserves our thanks.

Without Rhee’s strident rhetoric in challenging traditionalist thinking, along with her willingness to use her own bully pulpit to take on traditionalist thinking, discussions around transforming American public education would still be mired in the anti-intellectual civility of false consensus, phony collaboration, and embrace of “best practices” that only serves to keep the status quo ante. While some reformers find this to be discomforting, Rhee’s willingness to call things and people as they are provides much needed-clarity in a battle in which sophistry and demagoguery from the likes of Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is the norm.

Then there’s the presence of Rhee herself. Certainly some may have been discomforted by the photo of Rhee holding a broom on the cover of Time. But that very image also attracted much-needed new voices into the school reform movement and galvanized the support among those who never gave much thought to the possibility that systemic reform of public education could be done. Every movement needs its Churchills, its Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs, the controversial big faces who can attract attention needed to drive its cause forward, who can take the barbs of opponents, while others work on the ground to make things happen. Without Rhee (and without figures such as Kopp, Howard Fuller, John Norquist, Virginia Walden Ford, Steve Barr, and Joel Klein), the school reform movement would still be a coterie of wonks, chamber of commerce members, and southern governors. And you can’t transform education without a wide array of voices from all backgrounds fighting for brighter futures for all children.

Meanwhile Rhee’s impact can be seen in Washington, D.C., where she gained fame and infamy during a four-year period as overseer of the district’s turnaround. Certainly Rhee is likely disappointed by successor Kaya Henderson’s less-than-sensible this week to temporarily halt the IMPACT teacher evaluation regime –the hallmark of her tenure and the most-successful performance management effort in the nation — in order to alleviate concerns about the district’s transition to tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards. [Your editor will have more thoughts on this later this week.] But even with IMPACT halted for the time being, the data shows that Rhee’s reform efforts have been successful in helping more kids in the nation’s capital get high-quality education. The concerns expressed in 2010 by then-Contributing Editor Steve Peha have proven to be unfounded.

The percentage of DCPS fourth-graders reading Below Basic as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 61 percent to 51 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education; the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 25 percent in that same period. The average DCPS fourth-grader reads a grade level higher in 2013 than they did six years earlier. Black and Latino children showed the greatest improvements. The percentage of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by five percentage points (from 67 percent to 62 percent), while the percentage of them reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by four percentage points (from nine percent to 13 percent) in that same period.

While the percentage of Latino fourth-graders reading Below Basic remained unchanged, the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 26 percent in that time. The percentage of kids from poor households reading at levels of functional illiteracy have also declined. Between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of fourth-graders eligible for free and reduced lunch reading Below Basic declined from 71 percent to 63 percent, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels doubled from six percent to 12 percent; the average fourth-grader on free- and reduced priced lunch read at half a grade level higher in 2013 than six years earlier.

This isn’t to say the work begun by Rhee and being continued by Henderson has been an unqualified success. Like other traditional districts, DCPS has not done well on preparing kids for success in higher education and career that is the key marker of success in this stage of reform emerging a decade after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. But that is understandable. After all, DCPS’ overhaul began long after districts such as Houston and New York City began their efforts. There’s also the unwillingness of Rhee and Henderson to address the allegations of test cheating that occurred during the former’s tenure, which continues to cast a cloud on the successes they have achieved. Rhee should have displayed more candor on this front. Period.

There’s also the fact that DCPS is still struggling with improving literacy for young black men, especially those from poor households. Getting this right is critical to the Rhee’s reform efforts yielding lasting fruit. The percentage of low-income young black men in fourth grade reading Below Basic did decline by three percentage points between 2007 and 2013 (from 76 percent to 73 percent), and the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by two percentage points (from four percent to six percent). But the average scale score declined by two points (from 183 to 181); the average young black fourth-grade young man educated in DCPS reads at a grade-and-a-half level below that of his peer nationwide.

Yet Rhee helped spur the reforms needed to help the district toss off its status as the Superfund Site of American public education  — and has given black and white families the possibility that they can send their kids to high-performing schools. IMPACT has shown the way on how districts can effectively use school data in evaluating and ultimately, improving the quality of teachers working it classrooms. Ultimately, Rhee, along with former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and Boston’s Tom Payzant, has shown that traditional districts can be overhauled. Whatever your views on whether the traditional district should continue to exist as a way to provide education (your editor’s views are well-known on this front), Rhee has proven that failure clusters need not be immortal. Rhee has also proven lie to the traditionalist argument that only so-called experts should be charged with operating districts and schools. We need great leaders who understand the challenges facing them, yet are willing to take them on for our kids.

All in all, the school reform movement needs more challenging and divisive figures like Michelle Rhee to continue the transformation of American public education. We also need Rhee to continue playing her part. Our children needs all the strong voices they can get to fight on their behalf.