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August 26, 2014 standard

The Rochester City School District enrolls just under 30,000 students, 61 percent of whom are African American and 25 percent of whom are Latino. [There are approximate 10,000 school-aged white residents of the city, two-thirds of these are not enrolled in the city’s public schools.] Eighty-five percent of the district’s students are listed as “economically disadvantaged.”

In 2012-13 there were approximately twice as many students enrolled in ninth grade as in 12th grade because of a “gate” assessment at ninth grade. This high ninth grade enrollment is common among schools and districts serving children living in poverty, nearly unknown in wealthy communities. The large number of children spending more than one year in ninth grade can both be attributed to a lack of academic achievement in earlier years and be said to be a factor leading to the absence of a high school diploma four years later.

In the 2011-12 school year, the turnover rate of teachers with fewer than five years of experience was 51 percent. The turnover rate of all teachers was 28 percent, double the state-wide average. In a typical Rochester school, comparatively few teachers are highly educated, few teachers new to teaching are in the classroom after their second year, few of any teachers after their fourth year.

Statewide, 31 percent of New York students reach the National Assessment of Educational Progress Proficient (grade level) status in eighth grade reading, and four percent reach the Advanced level. White students score at Proficient or above 46 percent of the time; black New York State students reach Proficient or above 18 percent of the time. The New York State Department of Education believes that the new Common Core tests begun in 2013 are now aligned with NAEP.

In the 2014 administration of these tests, 5.7 percent of all Rochester eighth grade students scored at grade level in reading, level 3 or above (up from 5.6 percent the previous year). This was the lowest percentage at grade level of any of the state’s large cities. Among white students, 12 percent reached level 3 and 8 percent reached level 4. Among black students, four percent reached level 3 and none reached level 4 (due to rounding, the combined levels 3 and 4 totaled five percent). For black male students, 3 percent reached level 3 and none reached level 4. The failure of the district to teach its black students to read and write by eighth grade is nearly total.

Monroe High School is one of Rochester’s dropout factories.

There are many ways to calculate high school graduation rates, some more exotic than others. There is little difference in results among them for successful districts. On the other hand, they can produce widely differing results for less successful districts because of the ninth grade gate issue. If we wish to focus on the record of the school in educating its students, rather than, say, the “resilience” of individual students to the effects of an inadequate education, the commonsense method of dividing the number of diplomas by the number of students enrolled in ninth grade four years earlier will tell us what we want to know.

There were 2,505 black students in ninth grade of the Rochester public schools in the 2008-09 school year. There were 671 black recipients of New York State’s regular, and Regents, diplomas in 2011-12, a graduation rate of 27 percent. There were 1,330 black male students in ninth grade of the Rochester public schools in the 2008-09 school year. There were 323 black male recipients of New York State’s regular and Regents, diplomas in 2011-12, a graduation rate by this method of 24 percent. Ironically, this is a significant improvement on previous years.

The New York State Department of Education calculates an “Aspirational Performance Measure,” in effect, its judgment of whether students are well-prepared for careers and college. The state judged 5.1 percent of Rochester graduates in June 2013 as satisfying this measure. The percentage of black students was 2.9 percent.

As Princeton University’s Bruce Western and his colleagues have determined, the lifetime chances of incarceration for a young adult African American man without a high school diploma is as high as 60 percent, more – many more – black male students are being prepared by the Rochester schools for jail than for good jobs or college.

Rochester’s education results can be compared to those in a nearby working class suburban district, Greece, which has a k-12 enrollment of 11,281, 13 percent of whom are African American and 72 percent of whom are white. In 2012-13 there were approximately equal numbers of students in all high school grades, that is, the ninth grade “gate” was open. The teacher turn-over rate was 13 percent (half of that of Rochester).

The district’s eighth grade English Language Arts outcomes for 2014 were that 32 percent of the district’s students scored at levels 3 and 4 in the state English Language Arts test; 15 percent of the district’s black students did so, nearly four times that of black students in Rochester. The “four-year graduation-rate total cohort for accountability” of the Greece school district was 84 percent, 76 percent for black students.

Young black men like Sesly Williams deserve better than what Rochester gives them academically.

Black students in the Greece district are as likely to graduate from high school as the national average for White students. Black students in the Rochester school district have about one-third that chance. As with many districts like Rochester, a black student can double his or her chance of learning to read and write and graduate from high school by taking the bus to a nearby suburban district.

This brings us to the next question: How well prepared are these Rochester school district graduates?

We might first look at Monroe Community College for an indication of the postsecondary preparation and success of black students educated in the Rochester schools. Eighty-two percent of Monroe Community College’s 50,000 credit and non-credit students are Monroe County residents; 4,328 are listed as Rochester residents (which of course does not necessarily mean that they are graduates of the city school district).

The U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System counts 4,119 first-time students in fall 2006, 670 of whom were Black, 296 were black men. Completers within 150 percent of normal time (2012) total 938, 62 of whom were Black. Fourteen of those were men. Approximately nine percent of Black students enrolling in Monroe Community College and five percent of black men graduate within 150 percent of normal time. As noted, not all of those graduates attended Rochester city schools.

Looking at the University of Rochester, we find that in 2006 there were 1,219 first-time, undergraduate, degree-seeking students, 50 of whom were black. Each year the University enrolls, on average, four Black students from the Rochester school district, one of whom is male. In 2013 the University awarded 1,441 Bachelor’s degrees to students, 59 of whom were black. It is possible that two or three of these were from the Rochester school district, but the “Rochester Promise,” which funds tuition for graduates of the city school district, cannot find enough such students for the funding available.

Just like Kodak, Rochester’s traditional school district is hardly a going concern.

In 2006 there were 2,368 first-time, undergraduate, degree-seeking students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the region’s other nationally-rated postsecondary institution. 108 of these were black, 32 of those were transfers-in. In 2013 the University awarded 2,478 Bachelor’s degrees to students, 102 of whom were black. Perhaps some of them were graduates of the Rochester schools.

It appears likely that only about one or two dozen male black Rochester school district graduates go on to receive Associate’s degrees each year and something on the same order, at most, receive Bachelor’s degrees. If we compare these educational outcomes for African American residents of Rochester to those for White residents of Monroe County (including Rochester) we can see that nearly four times the proportion of the latter as the former have attained education to the Bachelor’s degree level or above and that the proportions reverse for the populations without high school diplomas. It is not too much to say that a college education for Rochester residents is a white privilege.

The Rochester school district brings relatively few of its black students to grade level in reading in eighth grade. It graduates just over a quarter of them. A few dozen earn Associate’s degrees, a relatively few Bachelor’s degrees and above. Without those qualifications their opportunities for successful careers are quite limited, their chances of economic mobility beyond the station in life of their parents scant.

At the end of the day, the only thing Rochester does well is reinforce a socioeconomic caste system that keeps young black men and women at the bottom. Thanks to the district, they will have a good chance of being known to the criminal justice system.

August 21, 2014 standard

Opponents of Common Core reading and math standards have spent the past couple of days crowing about survey results from polls conducted by Education Next and Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Organization. But your editor isn’t all that concerned about those results. For one, as great leaders such as Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan have always known, doing the right thing is never popular. This is especially true with implementing Common Core, which disturbs many of those opposed to the standards because they don’t believe that all children (especially those from poor and minority households) deserve high-quality education. More importantly, the success of the standards will ultimately be seen in their execution in classrooms and throughout American public education. And finally, given that opinion polls are only as good as the questions are asked (as well as how they are asked), who really knows whether either Education Next or PDK/Gallup’s results fully reflect public sentiment.

But your editor does care about data on how many of our children are getting the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula they need for success in adulthood. Which is why yesterday’s report from ACT on the readiness of high school graduates for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education is disturbing. Once again, we have been reminded that far too few of our children are getting the knowledge they need for lifelong success. And that should be far more disturbing to Common Core foes than their ideological, political, and personal opposition to the standards.

The fact that just 11 percent of black high school grads taking the ACT scored at college-ready levels — the lowest percentage for every racial subgroup taking the exam — in three or more categories is absolutely shocking. The numbers are even worse when you break down each category. Black children trailed in every category, with just 17 percent of them scoring at college-ready levels on the English portion of the exam, a mere 14 percent scoring at such levels on the math exam, and a rock-bottom 10 percent on the science component of ACT’s annual test.

This means that far too many black high school graduates didn’t get the college-preparatory learning they needed to be ready for either ACT or for success in college. Which, in turn, means that they will likely struggle mightily in higher education, ending up in remedial education courses that will lead them out of the door of colleges and into poverty.

But the news isn’t any better for the rest of our children. Just 18 percent of American Indian high school grads scored at college-ready levels in three or more categories on ACT; only 17 percent of Native students performed at college ready levels in science while a mere 20 percent scored at such levels in math. Only 23 percent — or one in four — Latino high school grads were able to score at college-ready levels; just 21 percent of them performed at college-ready levels in science while only 29 percent demonstrated their college-readiness in mathematics.

As for white high school grads? The news isn’t all that good. Sure, 49 percent of them scored at college-ready levels in three or more subjects. But that means that one out of every two of them didn’t get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they needed. Just 52 percent of white high school grads scored at college-preparatory levels in math, while only 46 percent scored at such levels in science. And only 54 percent of white high school grads scored at college-ready levels in the reading portion of the ACT exam. Given that math and science mastery are the key gateways into the high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in this increasingly knowledge-based economy, this means many white children — along with black, Native, and Latino kids — are being locked out of middle-class futures. And that doesn’t bode well for either the nation or the communities in which they live and will likely stay.

It isn’t as if many of these high school graduates were just a question or two away from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmark. One out of every two high school grads missed the mark in math and science by three or more points; two out of every five missed the mark in reading by that much. Put in perspective, only one out of every 7 high school grads taking ACT missed the college-readiness mark by less than two points in reading and science, while one in 10 missed the goal by that much in math.

Meanwhile ACT’s trend data on college readiness should also give everyone pause. Between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of high school grads who demonstrated higher ed readiness in three or more categories tested barely budged for all groups. Black and Latino high school grads showed only sluggish growth, with percentages increasing respectively, by one percent and two percent between 2010 and 2014. The percentage of white high schoolers demonstrating college-readiness increased by a mere one percent in that same period. Even for Asian high schoolers, who have the highest performance levels on ACT, the percentage demonstrating college-readiness barely budget at 57 percent.

What about states that aren’t implementing or halted use of Common Core? In North Carolina, which halted implementation last month, just 30 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while a mere 33 percent scored at such levels on the math portion of the exam, and only 23 percent of Tar Heel State graduates scored at college-ready levels on the science portion; all high school grads in the state take ACT. In Missouri (where 76 percent of students take ACT), one out of every two high school grads scored at college-ready levels on ACT’s reading component, while only 45 percent and 42 percent of grads scored at college-ready levels on the math and science portions of the exam. [Given what we know about how few students in the Show Me State are being provided college-preparatory learning, the results aren't shocking.] And in South Carolina, which rolled back Common Core in June, (and where 58 percent of grads took ACT), only 41 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of the test, while just 39 percent and 33 percent of grads scored at such levels on the math and science components.

Meanwhile in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation has been defeated, the need for the standards can be easily seen in the scores for high school grads in that state. Just 37 percent of Bayou State grads scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while only 31 percent and 29 percent of grads reached such levels on the math and science portions. The need for comprehensive college-preparatory curricula standards is crystal clear for both the states that have halted Common Core implementation and those where politicians are fighting to roll them back.

Let’s be clear: As shocking as the ACT results are, they aren’t surprising. Just 37 percent of high school grads scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a one percent decline from levels in 2009. Just 16 percent of black high school graduates, along with 24 percent of Latino schoolmates, and 26 percent of Native peers scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, barely budging from levels four years earlier; white and Asian high school grads did little better, with 47 percent of each group scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels, little changed (for white kids) and a two percentage point decline (for Asians) in that time.

Young men of all backgrounds, in particular, are struggling mightily in college-and-career readiness. Only 33 percent of young men graduating high school in 2013 scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading, unchanged from levels in 2009. As a result, young men graduating high school trail their female peers by nine percentage points in 2013; while the gap shrunk by two percentage points between 2009 and 2013, that’s only because of a decline in the percentage of young women high school grads scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels. The problems are particularly acute for young black men. Just 13 percent of young black men graduating high schoool read at Proficient and Advanced levels, trailing their female schoolmates by five percentage points. But the gaps for young white men are even larger; the percentage of them scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels was 11 percentage points lower than that for their female peers.

The reforms spurred by the No Child Left Behind in 2001 have reduced the percentage of high school grads who are functionally illiterate. But the demands of the knowledge-based economy means that the greater focus must be on providing kids with college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching) they need to be successful in a world in which what they do with their minds is more-important than what they do with their hands. Yet until the implementation of Common Core, few kids were being provided this learning.

Just 13 percent of American high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds were taking comprehensive college-preparatory courses while the rest were taking less-rigorous curricula, according to NAEP’s 2009 high school transcript study. A quarter of all grads taking NAEP were subjected to curriculum that didn’t even include algebra or any kind of rigor. The importance of comprehensive college-preparatory curricula can be seen in this year’s ACT results: One out of every two high school grads who took what ACT defines as a core curriculum (including three years of math and science), scored at college-readiness levels on the reading and math portions of the exam.

This is a problem that begins long before kids reach high school. As Dropout Nation noted last year, just one out of every five eighth-graders in seven states that mandate all kids take Algebra 1 actually did so. Even worse, most students haven’t been getting the literacy and math curricula and instruction they need to take on college-preparatory work once they enter high school. Thanks in part to the gatekeeping of gifted-and-talented programs and the overlabeling of kids, especially young black men as special ed cases — all of which are legacies of the racialist policies of American public education’s past — many kids are kept from getting the learning they need and deserve. This is especially true for kids from poor and minority backgrounds As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation determined in a 2007 study,  3.4 million children from low-income households were among the top-performers in their schools, yet were unlikely to get the college-prep curricula necessary to continue their success into high school and beyond.

What is clear from the ACT results, as well as from other data, is this simple reality: We cannot continue providing our children with substandard curricula and standards unfit for them to build better lives in adulthood. Patricia Levesque is correct when she argued yesterday that we cannot continue to perpetuate the failures of American public education on another generation. This is why implementing Common Core, along with other reforms, is critical to helping all kids succeed. And why those opposed to implementing the standards should hold their heads low in shame for their immoral denial of high-quality education for children better-deserving than the worst they get.

Featured photo courtesy of Chloe Crane Leroux.


August 13, 2014 standard

Life shows us clearly that parents, relatives, and communities are our children’s first teachers. Those of us who can read to our kids, teach our kids how to tie their shoes, show them how to go “potty” for the first time, and, if you are parents of color, remind them to put lotion on them ashy knees and elbows. –

As parents in turn, we teach our kids to blindly trust schools to educate them equally and we even teach them to blindly trust law enforcement to protect and serve all communities justly, all because we were also taught these things. Especially when it comes to our police officers. In my town, I grew up in a time where kids were taught to like police officers because they are our friends. So we introduced our own children to Officer Friendly, too.

But as we have learned a long time ago about trusting traditional public education, we have now learned that we can’t trust our police officers either. And incidents such as the alleged murder of 17-year-old high school graduate Michael Brown have made mothers and fathers like me afraid of Officer Friendly, because he doesn’t seem to be so friendly to young black men that look like my son.

If you are white, you may ask why black parents such as I are fearful of law enforcement, and why we believe that law enforcement officials are enemies to young black men that look like my son.

The first reason is that as we get older, the lessons we are taught as a child are replaced by the history lessons about young black men like James Earl Chaney, who was murdered by police officers in Philadelphia, Miss., because he was fighting for equality. Then we watch news stories about young black men like Sean Bell, who was murdered by New York City police officers who misidentified him as a suspect in one of their investigations – and then watch how the officers get away with their crimes.

Then we watch how the police department in Sanford, Fla., initially let George Zimmerman off the hook after he murdered Trayvon Martin, a boy whose only mistake was to wear a hoodie, hold a can of iced tea, and eat a bag of Skittles. If not for the protests of black mothers and fathers like me, Zimmerman wouldn’t have even faced a jury trial for his crime.

For black parents like me, men and women who work hard every day to teach and raise our black boys, Officer Friendly is no longer so friendly. He’s a buddy of men like Zimmerman, who walked free after committing cold blooded murder of an unarmed young black man. He’s the comrade of Paul Headley, Michael Carey, Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora, and Paul Oliver, the men who murdered Bell, an innocent man just hanging out at a club with his friends. He is the successor to Cecil Ray Price, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy who orchestrated the murder of Chaney and the two white men who were with him, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.

So we fear for our sons. We fear for our daughters too. But especially our sons, because they are no longer cute little tykes white people smile at. They are now the big black men that many of our teachers fear –and many cops fear them too. They are just young men. They can barely pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. But for so many people in authority, who have bought into myths about how black men are dangerous, our sons are to be feared instead of loved.

For me, I tossed out those hoodies I bought for my son right after the Zimmerman verdict because it isn’t safe for my son to wear one. Unlike white parents, we don’t get to only focus on “stranger danger”. We talk to our sons about the facts of life being black men, how they can’t walk too proud like Richard Sherman, or talk too loud either. I explain to my “husky built “son with deep mellon skin tone that he had to be careful about Walking While Black and Being Black in School. As with so many teenagers, my son says “mom, you are just overreacting”. He doesn’t think that what has happened to Trayvon and to Sean can happen to him.

Then our children have their Trayvon moments, their Sean Bell moments, and now, their Mike Brown moments. And that changes everything for them – and for their parents, too.

For me, that Mike Brown moment came this past winter, after a snow storm that hit Connecticut and the rest of the Northeast this year. That day, my son, my huskily built son, my 15-year-old son, walked home from school around 2:15 in the afternoon, was walking down the street behind some kids who moved slower than him. To get around them, he walked around the kids onto the street. But then, as soon as that happened, a cop car was coming fast toward them. My son got back onto the sidewalk as the cop car screeched to a halt next to him.

The cop called for him. The officer thought my son moved too slow in response. He then threatened my son saying “I swear to God if I have to get out of this car there is going to be a problem”. Once my son was next to the cop, the officer searched my son’s back pack without any probably cause. My son didn’t give him any consent for such a search. Then my son was placed into the back of the squad car, and taken to the police station. He wasn’t even read his Miranda rights.

I only learned about what the cop did after the police department called me. The good news is that he wasn’t charged with any crime.

Clearly, what happened to my son is better than what happened to Mike Brown, to Sean Bell, and to James Chaney. At least my son was not shot down in the street like an animal, his body left there for hours uncovered. But the officer didn’t treat my son like a human being worthy of respect. The officer didn’t behave like Officer Friendly. He behaved like a man looking for a reason to arrest any young black man. And as a black mother, who knows the stories all too well, it scares me.

Listen, I try to be fair and open minded, I try to believe that we don’t live in a country in which significant numbers of people don’t believe that the lives of black children have no value. I know that there are teachers who want to nurture our black children. I know that there are also police officers who follow the law and behave justly for all people regardless of color.

But as I help black (as well as Latino) parents every day fight for high-quality education for their children, my hope is slipping. After my son’s incident, and now, the savage murder of Michael Brown, my belief that we will all be treated equally under the law is slipping as well. It is increasingly clear to me that many who work within our public education and law enforcement systems do not believe that black boys like mine are even worthy of life.

What is a black parent to do? Seriously, what is a black parent to do. The only answer is to keep fighting. Because our sons deserve better than this.

August 12, 2014 standard

Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on why school reform is critical to stemming unwed pregnancy and poverty evoked plenty of e-mail responses to yours truly. Those who view poverty and unwed pregnancy as consequences of bad choices — also known as the Personal Responsibility Myth that is a dominant strain in anti-poverty and education policy discussions — were particularly vexed that your editor didn’t fully validate their perspective. After all, from where they sit, if single mothers and others exercised some form of personal responsibility, be it not getting pregnant until they got married, or spending wisely, then they wouldn’t be impoverished.

Such arguments are seductive, especially to your editor, who is conservative on social issues (even as I am libertarian on economic and political matters, and a creative radical on education policy). Yet as an editorialist and reporter, I’ve learned to dismiss simple answers because they don’t explain everything. This is true when it comes to arguments from those who espouse the Poverty Myth (or that structural and other issues render the poor fully incapable of helping themselves). And this is especially so when it come to Personal Responsibility myths.

If bad choices were the sole or even the predominant reasons why so many people are mired in poverty, then Paris Hilton would be suffering economically and socially from her myriad bouts of misbehavior, my mother (who gave birth to your editor at age 16) would be on welfare, and Watergate player Charles Colson would have died as impoverished and ostracized as most convicted felons. Yet none of these things have happened. Hilton has been greatly rewarded financially and socially thanks in part to her infamous porn tap. My mother is a college-educated second-generation member of the American middle class with a lovely suburban home to boot. And Colson died last year after having spent the last three decades attaining redemption (and even a pardon) through his ministry to his fellow convicts.

Keep in mind that Hilton, my mother, and Coulson are not outliers. Humans being, well, imperfect creatures with a penchant for error, this isn’t possible anyway. From suburbanites in the D.C. suburbs living way above their six-figure means, to movie stars self-medicating their pain through drug and alcohol addictions, to middle-class moms and dads who hire maids to clean up the homes instead of having their kids do some chores, bad decisions are as common as crab grass. This is especially true when you keep in mind that you and your next-door neighbors in Alexandria have engaged in the same vices — including as alcohol consumption and premarital sex — as people who live in Anacostia.

Yet your decisions, and those of Hilton, my mother, and Coulson, haven’t been harmful in the same way as they are for those in poverty. Why? The first reason lies with the fact that unlike most poor people, those of us in the middle class had the resources (from income to health care) available to overcome bad choices. For Hilton, her status as a scion of the most-famous name in the hospitality industry has given her the money and the connections needed to parlay even the worst decisions into profit and fame. My mother? Thanks to my grandparents, whose middle class status and high levels of education were the resources they needed to help care for me during my childhood, my mother could go on to overcome one not-so-great decision (for which I am grateful she made) to make smart decisions. As for Coulson? His friendships in Republican political circles, among with his notoriety and sensible decision to become born again, helped him focus his life away from the amorality of politics and towards helping other ex-convicts change their lives for the better.

The other reason lies with the most-important of resource of all: Knowledge. Not only is it power, it is the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty. This is especially true in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society in which what you know is more valuable than what you can do with your hands.

My mother is a perfect example of how knowledge can keep people out of poverty. Even as my mother carried me in her womb, my grandparents made sure she stayed in high school, and kept her on the path to graduation even after I was born. Because my mother was in a household where my grandmother was also college-educated and my grandfather was an avid reader and learner, she also became a lifetime acquirer of knowledge. A decision she made in the early 1980s to move from working as a claims adjuster for an insurance company into the information technology field put her into a field in which incomes were (and are still) increasing; this gave her the income she needed to support my siblings and I. By the 1990s, she sought her college degree, and then a graduate degree, providing her with

As I pointed out last week, poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. But it is more than that. Poverty is also the consequence of the interplay between resources, knowledge, and decision-making.

For middle class families, bad decisions can be easily overcome because they have the means — from higher incomes to social connections — needed to do so. This includes bad decisions made by laggard teachers and school leaders. One out of every five young white male high school seniors from college-educated read Below Basic on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most middle-class households have more means to ameliorate the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — including the ability to send their kids to tutoring services — while the wealthy can insulate their kids from the worst American public education offers.

The poor aren’t so fortunate. Because poor families are the ones most-likely to attend dropout factories and failure mills — and because Zip Code Education policies such as school zones restrict their options — they are less likely to graduate from high school or even complete any form of higher education, the keys to gaining financial and social capital. As a result, the consequences of any bad decisions are even more pernicious because they have no means to bail themselves out of them. And even good decisions may not be enough if the resources — especially a wide array of high-quality school options — aren’t available for those choices to be beneficial to their lives.

Just as importantly, because poor families have been subjected to educational neglect and malpractice, they also lack the academic knowledge (including understanding of how to ask questions and find resources) they need to even make the best of good decisions. Natural curiosity just isn’t enough; it must be honed by practices of the mind that come from being nurtured by high-quality teaching, college-preparatory curricula, and even religious instruction. The fact that they cannot access high-quality data, either on schools or teachers, that they need to make smarter decisions makes it even tougher for them to emerge from poverty.

In fact, the lack of academic and social knowledge ends up obscuring the ability to make good decisions. The negative becomes the positive because the truly positive isn’t visible. It is why a young woman who dropped out of high school at age 17 ends up pregnant at 20; the better solution may be to avoid pregnancy, go back to school for learning remediation, then attain a high school diploma and a college degree. But you don’t know what you don’t know. So you make decisions blind. The more decisions you make without high-quality knowledge, the more likely the choices will be negative. And without the resources (which come as a result of acquiring knowledge) to ameliorate bad decisions, the consequences are even more pernicious.

[The lack of knowledge also explains why the arguments of Poverty Mythologists that more money is the solution also doesn't work; as I noted last week, knowledge is critical to managing resources and acquiring more of them.]

This isn’t to say that poor families are helpless automatons in structures that work against them. When poor families are provided the knowledge they need to make smarter decisions, they will often do so because, as the legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker would likely say, strong people emerge from knowledge. This is why systemic reform — from overhauling how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, to expanding school choice — is so critical to stemming poverty and the ills that emerge from it in the first place. In fact, transforming public education can help provide to our poorest kids schools that can nurture them both academically and emotionally, helping their families help them stave off the mental illnesses that can keep them mired in poverty when they reach adulthood. But thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.

Reformers have an opportunity to help anti-poverty activists on all sides engage in more-nuanced thinking about what poverty is and how we can stem it. And it starts by reminding all sides that education is a critical solution to helping poor people help themselves out of poverty.

Featured photo courtesy of Arleen Hodge. Please support her work.




August 6, 2014 standard

Even amid the battles over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, and the sparring over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system, an old debate is flourishing again: How to stem unwed pregnancy and the chronic poverty among out-of-wedlock households that are caused and exacerbated by it. But for all the talk about how to deal with the matter among conservatives and progressives — as well as the policy proposals for dealing with it — neither side have looked at the one critical solution that could stem out-of-wedlock pregnancies and ultimately, is the long-term key to reducing poverty: Systemic reform of American public education.

What has sparked this latest discussion is the proposed anti-poverty effort unveiled last month by Congressman Paul Ryan as part of his likely run for the Republican presidential nomination. The proposal has gained attention for its plan to increase the number of poor adults qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit program — the most-successful non-educational approach to stemming poverty — and merge all anti-poverty programs into a block grant that is annually distributed to states.

But Ryan’s plan has stoked discussion because it also calls for those on anti-poverty programs to sign life contracts that tie their receipt of welfare subsidies to meeting a series of life goals geared towards getting out of poverty. In some ways, the requirement is similar to both the successful welfare reform efforts of the 1990s as well as the approaches taken by organizations such as the Salvation Army during the 19th century. But the Ryan approach would end up being more invasive and bureaucratic because caseworkers would be charged with keeping families on whatever state and federal governments define as the straight and narrow. Given that the bureaucratic-heavy Great Society programs of the 1960s achieved little success, as well as research showing that in most cases, those receiving welfare cash without strings will spend it properly, that part of Ryan’s plan may not make sense at all.

As you can imagine, Ryan’s proposal have once again focused attention on the divide between progressive and conservative anti-poverty advocates over whether poverty is a result of structural problems resulting from free market systems or bad decisions resulting from a lack of personal responsibility. Which, in turn, has focused attention on the role of unwed motherhood in miring kids and families in poverty.

From the perspective of progressives such as Matt Bruenig of Demos, poverty is a structural problem, one that results from the fact that young families mired in poverty aren’t either paid more by jobs or get more in welfare benefits in order to deal with the burdens of raising children. Particularly for poor women, argues Bruenig, “the mere act of adding a child to a family”, further mires them (and their kids) in poverty. From where progressives sit, simply providing families with cash benefits would do plenty to alleviate the burdens of poverty.

On the other hand, conservatives such as Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy argue that poor women could stave off their plight by delaying childbirth while they are in their early 20s, a time in which they are less likely positioned to earn middle class incomes. By waiting longer before having their first child (and perhaps, getting married before then), poor women and their kids are less likely to be impoverished. Writes VerBruggen: “women might encounter a better marriage market or at least be able to collect more stable child support.”

Both points are compelling. Poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. Yet both arguments and the respective solutions are flawed, as is Ryan’s plan overall. Why? Because the solutions ignore addressing the nation’s education crisis, the underlying cause of both unwed motherhood and long-term poverty.

Neither House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan — or the ideas of progressives and conservatives critiquing it — address the education crisis at the heart of poverty and unwed motherhood.

Let’s start with this fact: Fifteen percent of young women age 16-to-24 in 25 of the nation’s big cities are neither working, finishing high school, or studying at an institution or program of higher education, according to Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristin Lewis of the Social Science Research Center in a report released in. This includes 20 percent of young Latino females, 19 percent of young black women, and 11 percent of young white women. These young women are dropping out of school at a time in which knowledge attainment is critical to economic and social success.

Annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008, even as high school grads with some higher ed training, and college graduates have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent. This is because dropouts (and even many high school grads) lack the strong reading, math, and science skills needed to gain entry into high-skilled and knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs that are (and will continue to be) the biggest sources of economic growth.

The news isn’t much better for women (and men) who only graduated with a high school diploma and have no training at the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs that make up higher education. The unemployment rate for young adults age 16-to-24 with just a high school diploma and not enrolled in any form of schooling was 17.4 percent in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the overall unemployment rate for the nation. The average high school dropout earned 35 percent less in median weekly wages in 2012 than a high school graduate who attended college, a gap that has been growing for some time.

The very changes in the economy that have rendered dropouts unemployable is increasingly hurting young high school grads without college experience as well; the fact that they often have little in the way of on-the-job experience (something that grads age 25 and older have attained) is also damaging their employment prospects. The fact that employers, especially those in knowledge-based sectors, have long ago figured out that many high school grads have not been provided with the college-preparatory education that is the baseline needed for tackling high-skilled jobs is also a problem.

As a result, both dropouts and high school grads without some form of higher education training are mired in poverty. Twenty-seven percent of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners were high school dropouts and another 36 percent were high school grads without some form of higher education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; they made up just nine percent of the highest-earning fifth of the nation’s households, and just a quarter of those in the fourth-highest earning fifth of all households.

But the consequences of dropping out or only attaining a high school diploma without some higher ed training extend beyond being unemployable. Particularly for young women, when they unable to attain anything other than the most menial of work, puts them into a vicious cycle. They are more-likely to become out-of-wedlock mothers in part because they see no point in either using birth control or delaying gratification, especially since they are already out of school and in the adult world, the natural stage that comes before starting families.

Thirty-five percent of young women neither working or in school becoming pregnant versus just 10 percent of peers who are engaged in college and career, according to SSRC. Once female dropouts and high school grads without college training have children, they are unlikely to continue on the path to high school and higher education even though achieving those goals will lead them to gain middle class employment. As a result, they remain impoverished for the long term.

Dealing with the nation’s dropout factories and failure mills is critical to addressing the effects of poverty. Cartoon courtesy of California Review.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that American public education continues to subject far too many young men and women — especially those in big cities that are home to the worst-performing districts, as well as poor people in rural areas and increasingly in suburbia — to educational neglect and malpractice. Forty-seven percent of fourth-graders eligible for free- and-reduced lunch, along with 34 percent of eighth-graders from impoverished backgrounds, read Below Basic on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test of student achievement.

These woeful results are the consequence of shoddy reading, math, and science instruction, often by teachers poorly trained by the nation’s ed schools and protected by near-lifetime employment laws that allow laggard teachers to stay in classrooms. There’s also the fact that our children, especially those from poor and minority households, are being provided shoddy curricula, exacerbated by a century of rationing education — especially the comprehensive high school model, gifted-and-talented programs, and special ed ghettos used to condemn young men considered unteachable by those unwilling to instruct them.

The consequences of low-quality education have been reaped by the young women of today — and will eventually be borne by their own kids. This is a problem because poverty doesn’t naturally determine academic destiny. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. But they are unlikely to progress any further so long as they are condemned to failing schools that don’t nurture their talents or even address the literacy issues plaguing struggling peers.

This isn’t to say that providing cash benefits isn’t a good idea. It certainly is. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — which provides money (in the form of tax refunds) in exchange for working — is a good idea. But as with most anti-poverty programs of the last century, pure cash payments will only ameliorate the effects of poverty for the short term — even when they spend money properly. To paraphrase the old proverb, teaching a young woman to fish (through high-quality education) will do her more good in the long run than just handing her food.

Given that education — specifically the premiums given to collegians for attaining higher education — accounts for between 60 percent and 70 percent in the variations in wages, according to Harvard University professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, it is critical to address the long-term educational issues that has resulted in so many young women (along with young men) into economic and social despair. [This would also help address income inequality.] Reforming education will also help their children get onto the path out of poverty.

As for delaying childbirth? Women should do this, and civic society (especially in black and Latino communities) should encourage this; in fact, community groups already do. But there’s no way any government anti-poverty program can make this a condition of receiving benefits without either greatly expanding welfare state bureaucracies beyond a level tolerable to the public or violating the U.S. Constitution.

More importantly, the best way to encourage young women to delay pregnancy (and help them, along with young men, attain jobs that can pay them middle class wages needed to sustain families) is to get them back into school. Young women, along with young men, will delay short-term gratification when they can attain long-term goals. Just as importantly, they will then keep their kids on the path to graduating from high school and higher education, keeping them from remaining poor.

This is where systemic reform of American public education comes in. This can start in the short term by expanding the array of charter schools and other school operations that can help dropouts and those who merely graduated with a diploma get back on the path to educational success. Academy of Hope, a charter school in D.C., and the See Forever group of charters, are among the operators engaged in such work. In fact, anti-poverty programs can reward women and men receiving benefits for attending remedial education programs that address their illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as complete higher education.

Creating a tax credit program modeled on EITC that would reward poor women for skipping out on low-wage employment and going back to school would also make sense. Expanding early childhood education programs (and even offering them at night) so that kids can learn while poor women go to school is also critical. [By the way: As Ellen Galinsky, the author of Mind in the Making, would note, both adult education programs and early childhood education offerings should include focusing on the seven executive functions that are key to both kids and adults making smart decisions.]

Then there’s addressing elementary and secondary education for the long haul. Within urban and even many suburban communities, this means moving away from traditional districts that have long ago proven incapable of providing kids with high-quality education, and expanding a wide array of school options — including charters as well as private schools operated by churches and community groups. This also includes overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers and school leaders; as well as implementing Common Core along with developing of high-quality curricula aligned with them.

The most-important solutions for stemming unwed motherhood and poverty for the long haul start with addressing the ills of American public education. Better-educated women are less likely to end up having children before their educationally and economically ready to do so.

July 25, 2014 standard

Your editor thought that he would write a piece today about Center for American Progress’ interesting-yet-simplistic report on teacher pay, and how it left out such key aspects of traditional teacher compensation such as defined-benefit pensions (as well as how it ends up hurting younger teachers who leave long before those benefits kicks in). But that is a matter about which you, dear readers, and I can focus on another day.

What reformers need to do is give attention to a much more-important matter: Building brighter futures for the 57,000 undocumented immigrant children from Central America crossing the Mexican border into America. Helping these kids, many of whom are fleeing from violent and impoverished conditions in Latin America, gain the high-quality learning they need to succeed in this country is an opportunity for school reformers to humanely help these kids and transform American public education for all children at the same time.

As you already know, children as young as in preschool have been crossing the border from places such as Honduras and other Central American locales. Some are coming here because their families want them to escape from drug-related gang violence fueled both by the breakdown of civil society in those countries and America’s war on drugs (as well as this nation’s accompanying consumption of them). One out of every two of kids crossing the border are coming to reunite with mothers and fathers who are already in America undocumented working to provide their kids with money so they can ameliorate bitter poverty.

As a result of their emigration — and the surrender of these children to U.S.border patrol guards — the federal government is running out of places to hold them until it is decided whether to keep them here or deport them back to the terrible conditions from which they escape. The good news is that more than half of the kids are being reunited with relatives here. Just as importantly, the numbers are small compared to the 1.2 million emigres who arrived to our shores every year between 2000 and 2009. But the federal government doesn’t run orphanages or handle child welfare other than on a policy level. So the detention of these kids — especially in conditions that are ripe for incidents of criminal abuse — is increasingly becoming a humanitarian concern.

At the same time, the emigration of these kids has also become ensnared in the much larger battle between Nativists and supporters of expansive immigration over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional (and racialist) emigre quota system. For Nativists –a group that includes many movement conservatives (driven by racial fears as well as by their view that Latinos will naturally vote Democrat instead of voting Republican) and private-sector unions (who think the presence of immigrants will lead to loss of jobs), any effort to help these kids is a Trojan Horse for granting amnesty to millions of undocumented emigres already in the country. [The fact that these immigrants are taxpayers who are also contributors to the nation's economic and social mainstream never factors into their thinking.]

As a result, they are pushing congressional Republicans (many of whom would simply support expansive immigration) to oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to spend $3.7 billion on dealing with them. Federal lower house leaders, both unwilling to give Obama a legislative victory this election year and tired of his penchant for using executive orders to go around their opposition to his plans, are likely to do Nativist bidding. Immigration foes and congressional Republicans would rather deport the kids back to their countries of origin regardless of whether doing so is either moral or sensible, as without consideration that they will likely attempt to cross the border again. [Obama's indecisiveness on the entire matter is also rather atrocious.]

Meanwhile their rhetoric about these immigrant kids is even worse. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin claimed that the emigres would bring common childhood diseases such as lice, measles and chickenpox to her supposedly disease-fee state. Conservative commentators such as Laura Ingraham and Mickey Kaus call the presence of the kids an invasion of America — as if these young men and women, who look like their own kin at home, are somehow conducting acts of war. Amazingly, many of the very movement conservatives who are the first to (rightfully) oppose medical practices that deny the humanity of children yet out of the womb (and profess to be Christian) have gone out of their way to disavow the humanity of kids already on earth because they are immigrants with brown skin.

Children such as these three girls from Honduras are seeking better lives. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

But it isn’t just Nativists who are denying the humanity of these children. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and his Republican counterpart in Iowa, Terry Brandstad, have opposed requests by the Obama Administration to house the border children in their respective states until their immigration status is determined. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley cancelled the state’s plans to house some of the kids as well. [He is supposedly looking for a new plan to house them.] For both Malloy and Branstad, both of whom (like scores of other governors) are up for re-election this year, the fear is that bringing these immigrant children to their states will lead to losing high office. O’Malley, who is termed out this year, has different calculations to make. Helping the kids offers rewards in terms of winning Democrat votes for any future presidential nomination run, but can cost him in a general election against a Republican nominee who will likely take a harsher stance on anything regarding immigration.

In all cases, these politicians are also less concerned with being humane toward children who look like their own kin than with doing the right thing politically. And commentators such as Slate‘s Emily Bazelon are right to call out the likes of Malloy, Branstad, and O’Malley for “behaving shamefully”.

What we have here, put simply, is both the failure of America’s politicians to lead, and worse, their unwillingness to behave morally.

One reason why our nation is often consume by what Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, would call cultures of death that damage so many children is because the adults who should be giving our kids nurturing are instead preoccupied with their own concerns. It starts with the denial of the humanity of children, the refusal to acknowledge them as younger versions of ourselves. Then it ends with our children’s futures (and sometimes, their very lives) snuffed out by policies and actions that condemn them to the abyss. What these so-called politicians and commentators are doing fails to meet either God’s or man’s baseline standard for common decency.

Let’s be clear about this: The emigration of these kids from Central America to this country is not ideal. Nor is it new. As documentarian Rebecca Cammisa detailed five years ago in her film, Which Way Home, these children took a dangerous journey that includes stowing away on the top of railroad trains, encounters with bandits, and risks of dying in vast deserts of Arizona and New Mexico once they cross into the Lower 48. This is not a journey anyone should ideally recommend any child to do.

Yet these children come here as their parents and other adults have done — and as earlier generations of emigres from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe did in the previous two centuries — because they seek better lives than they can find in their home countries. For those kids whose parents are already here working hard to send home money, it is natural, even admirable, for them to want to reunite their families. For other kids, who come from place such as Honduras, (where violence has been fueled in part by America’s drug consumption and more than a century of foreign policy geared toward rendering those nations servile), even Detroit would be a better place to live than those locales from which they came. That the United States has been responsible for these problems, especially through decades of interference in the affairs of Central American nations (including the propping up of Banana Republic regimes) makes the entire migration sensible. The Monroe Doctrine (along with our position as the land of the free) has led to millions arriving to our borders.

Sending them back to the abyss from which they have escaped is just plain immoral Just as importantly, it is also not really possible. The federal government can’t simply ship off the kids to their home countries in vain hopes that officials there will do right by them. Given that many of these kids also have parents already in this country, the only place the kids can be placed is, well, here. [Update: The federal data released after this story ran shows that this is already happening, with one out of every two kids placed with relatives as part of the federal refugee asylum program.]

There’s also the fact that as much of the underlying cause of the migration lies with the United State’s long-senseless approach to immigration policy. The families of these kids, like earlier generations, are the kind of hard-working people who produce the entrepreneurs and politicians who have made America the most-powerful nation on earth. Yet they are kept out legally because of the nation’s capricious country-based quota system limiting the number of émigrés allowed into the United States to just 700,000 men and women; one’s country of origin (and thus, their ethnicity and race) is still as much a determinant as it was when the first immigration restrictions (against Chinese emigres irrationally feared by an earlier generation of Nativists) were crafted 132 years ago. When an immigration system is so irrational and dysfunctional that skilled laborers have to wait two decades of more to come to this country legally, no wonder why children and others exercise their God-given right to violate irrational laws and come to this nation.

So the kids should stay. Yet this begs a question: How do we help these kids now that they are here. This matters because these children, like their native-born peers, need high-quality teaching, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius in schools in order to have brighter futures in his country. While reformers cannot necessarily deal with most aspects of immigration, they can undertake steps to help these kids succeed in school and in life.

This stars with reformers on all sides of the political and ideological aisle calling upon Congress and governors (especially those who are already allied with reformers such as Malloy, Branstad and O’Malley) to do the right thing (shaming them, even) and provide these kids with stability. This includes immediately settling the kids into foster home setting where they can live until they are reunited with their families. Reformers should also work with religious leaders such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as those few politicians (including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and his counterpart in Syracuse, Stephanie Miner) stepping up to help these kids.

It also involves granting them and their families an immediate path to citizenship; while Nativists will object to such terms, reformers and immigration activists can tailor this move by tabling any discussion of addressing what to do with other undocumented emigres (other than those who have already been allowed to stay in the country as a result of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order issued last year) at least for the time being. Certainly Nativist arguments against immigration (including the rather misguided statement that undocumented emigres are the reason behind growing inequality) are wrongheaded, as the sentiments of many of them against Latinos. At the same time, the first concern must be for kids in need right now.

It also means continuing the overhaul of American public education. As reformers already know, the consequences of the nation’s education crisis are as brutal upon the lives and futures of English Language Learners (who are often immigrant children or immediate offspring of emigres) as it on peers from poor and other minority backgrounds. Implementing Response to Intervention techniques (which can keep these kids out of special ed ghettos), implementing Common Core reading and math standards (which will help them understand and embrace America’s heritage), and revamping hour teacher quality pipeline (so all kids regardless of their place of origin can get good and great teachers) are all critical steps.

Meanwhile reformers must challenge the racialism and inhumanity at the heart of Nativist sentiment. Conservative reformers have a particular obligation to challenge the views of our movement brethren. For one, the conservative movement has long been tarred — and rightly so — for ignoring the justifiable concerns of black and Latino communities; conservative reformers cannot expect those communities to support our efforts if our ideological fellow-travelers take aim at minority kids. Secondly, it is what Ronald Reagan (the last president to succeed in passing some kind of immigration reform plan) would expect; as a descendant of immigrants, he knew how they helped build America, and knew that open borders was key to the nation’s prosperity. Finally, Nativist sentiment among many of today’s conservatives is antithetical to the doctrine of natural law (and the belief that all of us have inalienable rights endowed by our Creator) that is at the heart of first principles.

The 57,000 immigrant children here now deserve far better treatment than we adults in this nation have given them. As a moral movement, reformers must stand up and help these kids get humane treatment and high-quality education so they can write their own stories.