menu search recent posts
May 5, 2015 standard

A week after the tragedy in Baltimore, many are trying to spin the events as a feel-good story.  From the story about a Black mother grabbing her teenage son and pulling him out of the street, hitting him “upside the head” in traditional fashion, to the move by the state’s attorney to bring charges against several police officers for the killing of Freddie Gray, there are those who want to assure the public that what has happened in Charm City is “not about race”.

Wrong. It is all about race.

We are assured that Baltimore is different, because Baltimore has a Black mayor and a Black police chief and many Black police officers.  It also has an African-American CEO of the school district, whose previous position was as superintendent in Milwaukee.  Yeah, Milwaukee.

But W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out long ago that there can be Black officials and yet persistent institutional racism. The presence of Black leaders doesn’t even ensure good leadership that supports brighter futures for Black children and communities. Baltimore is a good enough illustration of this.

Maryland incarcerates 310 per 100,000 White residents of the state and four times that, 1,437 per 100,000 Black residents of the state.  This is not unusual. It is worse in Milwaukee.  As a matter of fact, it is business as usual in America: the mass incarceration of African-Americans, specifically young Black men, as a way of enforcing caste boundaries, impoverishing their families.  The drug laws are useful for this purpose, but so are traffic laws.  Both can result in summonses and then often enough bench warrants, which are particularly useful in perpetuating cycles of debt peonage. Summoned to appear in court for these sometimes minor violations, a man who believes that he will be fined more than he can afford, does not appear.  Not appearing in court, a warrant is issued, at which point, for lack of the price of the judge’s dinner, he becomes an outlaw, as Alice Goffman has shown in On the Run, her book about such matters.

There are armored cars on the streets in Baltimore, another American city under military occupation.  The officer in charge of the Maryland National Guard’s army units was a company commander in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation Desert Storm and also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, just to be clear.

But the yellow brick road out of poverty onto the sunny uplands of post-racial America runs through the schools, doesn’t it? What happens to Black children in Baltimore’s schools?

Just 13 percent of Baltimore’s Black eighth-graders read at or above grade level in reading. Just eight percent of eighth grade Black boys in the city read at or above grade level. Just seven percent of those young Black men in eighth grade eligible for National Lunch Programs in the city can read at grade level.

As the data shows, and as Dropout Nation has documented over the last two years, Baltimore schools are not teaching their Black children to read

Maryland certainly likes to perpetuate the myth that its schools are high quality. But it does have an exemplary accounting system for its schools.  It tells us that statewide, only 16 percent of classes in high poverty high schools are not taught by highly qualified teachers; in Baltimore it is 22 percent. What is more, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 35 percent of Baltimore teachers are absent more than ten days of the school year, an extraordinary and unacceptable level of teacher absenteeism.

The result of the failure of the Baltimore schools is a four-year cohort graduation rate for Black students in Baltimore of 70 percent, that is, a dropout rate of 30 percent. Half of those graduating go to college.  Just half of those who go to college are still there after the first year

Twice as many Black residents of Baltimore over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school as the average for Black residents of the state as a whole. Half as many have graduated from college. Eleven percent of Black men in Baltimore have graduated from college, as compared to 48 percent of White men in the city.

Ninety-three percent of poor male Black eighth-graders in Baltimore cannot read well enough to read Dropout Nation or the stories in The New York Times about the Black mother grabbing her teenage son and pulling him out of the street, hitting him “upside the head” in traditional fashion; people from the damaged neighborhoods and others from outside picking up trash, sweeping up broken glass; interviewees assuring commentators that “this is not about race.”

The interactions of the criminal justice and education systems work very well to police the boundaries of caste, to teach Black Americans, if not to read, to understand their place in these post-racial United States. Just look at Baltimore, or Ferguson, or Chicago, or New York.  Or Milwaukee.

April 28, 2015 standard

Let us pray for peace beyond understanding to the family of Freddie Gray. Please give them respite from their sorrow, let them know justice for his slaying, and allow for them to forgive the men who trespassed on his life.

Let us pray that all the people brutalized senselessly by both criminals and lawless police officers in Baltimore, as well as elsewhere, are able to gain the peace from fear they haven’t seen for a long long time.

Let us pray for those officers and teachers who do well by our children, let them shine as guiding lights for those with whom they serve. Let us also pray for the souls of those who don’t or worse, stand idly by. Let them change — or move out of the way.

Let us pray for our children in Baltimore, who like so many young men and women in America, have been condemned to poverty and prisons by American public education and criminal justice systems.

Most of all, let’s pray for our young black sons in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Pray that our young black men in Baltimore and elsewhere can be measured by the content of their character.

Pray that all who deal with them behold their genius and nurture it, instead of be frightened by what they think they are.

Pray that they see hope even in hopelessness, glory even in the midst of the fire, and possibility in the middle of the storm.

Pray for a day in which they don’t have to mourn for peers named Emmett, named Yusuf, named Trayvon, named Michael, named Tamir, and named Freddie.

And as we pray, we all take action, turning righteous indignation into positive change. Transform our schools and overhaul our justice systems. Build up every young man that we see. Help our children know their own names.

There are too many Baltimores, both in big cities and in our suburbias. Take the time now to do better by every Freddie and every child.

April 21, 2015 standard

Choice has been getting a lot of good press lately. Ever since Mr. Kellogg began making corn flakes, Americans have been told that many brightly colored packages of slightly differing products are better than one. (“Would you like corn syrup and dehydrated strawberries with your cattle feed?”) Mr. Ford’s offer of the Model T in every color as long as it was black quickly gave way to automobiles in every possible, and some impossible, colors. Victorian black in winter and white in summer are only seen in certain districts of Manhattan and otherwise identical tract-houses and apartments are distinguished from one another with names intended to convey status and romance.

Which brings us to schools.

There are some 14,000 school districts in the United States and most have only a few high schools, often enough North, South, East and West, with their bitter football rivalries. Larger districts, almost from their beginnings, have differentiated some of their schools by curriculum and the class status of students. Boston Latin with its classical curriculum, serving the children of the wealthy and well-born, was complimented by vocational schools, on the one hand, and common schools, on the other. Eventually there were systems with different varieties at each level: classical and science elite schools, five or six types of vocational schools, perhaps a music and arts school. Students (actually, their families) didn’t exactly choose these schools—“Well, Jackie, do you want to go to Bronx Science or Aviation High?”—but the variety of schools in many large districts presented the thought of an alternative to the common school.

This thought was available for use when direct desegregation efforts failed and authorities attempted to lessen segregation by means of magnet schools, each excellent in its own way. These were much more a matter of choice, for White families, who could choose to send their children to one or another or to none at all. For Black children, magnets weren’t much of a choice at all. Meanwhile the schools that predominantly served them were almost never improved.

Today, many large districts offer secondary schools (and even primary schools) with bright and shiny grocery store packaging: The School for Advanced Study in Sub-Prime Mortgages, The School for Olympic Sports Commentary, and the like. There are also public charter schools and other forms of choice operating outside of districts; in New Orleans, those are the dominant forms of schools, while in most other places (namely New York and Chicago), they serve less than a fifth of the student population. But the vast majority of what some can (vaguely) call choice still exists within the confines of traditional school districts.

None of these schools, especially those operated by districts, are intended to serve the children in their neighborhoods. So as a result, choice operates district-wide. Sometimes it serves as a desegregation strategy. Other times, as resegregation by various other names. Occasionally, especially outside of the traditional school district, even as a way to provide Black and Latino children with high-quality education.

There is evidence that when structured properly, school choice can improve learning outcomes for our children. But as my Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, has pointed out, the infrastructure for choice – including school data – isn’t robust enough in some places for it to help children. In some places, intra-district and out-of-district choice doesn’t even work as a lever for high quality education. In the last case, it’s meant to be that way.

Take New York City. Yes, I’m calling it out again. The traditional district’s medical-school-admissions-style process for high school admission is extraordinarily complicated and driven by the actions of families, who, in an adaption of University of Chicago School of Economics rational-choice theory, are assumed to be uniformly well-informed and highly (and similarly) motivated. What is the result? Schools that somewhat well-informed (and often, usually wealthy) parents ascertain offer the best educations are filled with the children of the well-informed and highly motivated. Other children are consigned to other schools.

Wealthy, well-informed parents do not complain about the (woefully inadequate) quality of those other schools and the voices of the children in those other schools are inaudible in the corridors of power. Which allows the continuing diversion of public resources from schools serving the children with the lowest level of family resources to those serving children with greater family resources.

When school choice is structured like it is in New York City, school choice can end up validating the unequal distribution of economic opportunity that has been a problem since the days of Horace Mann. But those kids had their chance, didn’t they? Those children without parents, with parents working two jobs, with parents afraid to have their children travel out of the neighborhood. They must like things this way.

Would you like whipped cream on those corn flakes?

April 4, 2015 standard

Historians such as Wilma Dunaway are now establishing that slavery was a highly profitable business for the slave owners as well as for the northern banking and commercial interests that supported them. Popular culture has left behind the romantic and highly deceptive images of slavery in the last century projected by The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to provide in their stead the realism of movies like Twelve Years a Slave and Django Unchained. Especially for those of us who have never watched Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, there is the profound sense of shock that we realize that, in this context, Quentin Tarantino is a realist.

These strands come together on the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the blacksmith shop of which was used as the setting for the scene in Django Unchained in which Django is tortured.

The recently restored Whitney Plantation is one of a series of plantations along the Mississippi above New Orleans. The tours of the others celebrate their white columned houses and the leisure of the White owners of those houses, their imported furnishings, their gardens and their gracious way of life. John Cummings, the attorney whose project the Whitney Plantation has been, takes a different approach, making it into a monument for the enslaved Africans themselves, their horrific lives, their early deaths.

Cummings has placed a large, now rusted, iron cage between the blacksmith shop and the big house. About six feet high and twenty feet long, it was used to display the sufferings, and often enough the death throes, of slaves bull whipped in front of their fellows and families for defiance, attempting to escape, or for nothing at all. They were left to bleed in that cage in the Louisiana summer heat, in the winter rain, in the clear line of sight from the covered porch in the rear of the second floor of the big house. One can visualize the Haydel family, owners of the plantation, the men and women, the children and their visitors, taking tea on that porch on a summer’s afternoon, talking among themselves of the doings of their relatives and neighbors along the Great River Road or about the politicians in the capitol, Baton Rouge, just across the Mississippi, while one of their slaves, perhaps one of their mulatto daughters, screams as the bull whip strips the skin from her back and she is tossed naked into that iron cage.

Each member of the Haydel family, of the families of slave owners all along the river, had a personal slave, often given to them when each—owner and owned—was a child. The slaves slept on the floor, at the foot of the owner’s bed or just outside the bedroom door. White infants were nursed by enslaved Black women, who slept on the floor next to their cradles, in some cases forming life-long relationships. White people of the former slave-owning class in the South had similar upbringings not so long ago, or may even have such experiences today. The memory of some of these relationships were (and still) viewed sentimentally by their White participants. These sweet stories are part of the myth, the ideology, of the Southern way of life. Of course they are no longer stories about master-slave relationships, and yet even master-servant relationships are not true human relationships based on a mutual recognition of equality. They are stories of domination.

The legacy wrought by slavery and White Supremacy upon black children of the Whitney Plantation still haunt their descendants (and those who claim ancestry from other slave children) today thanks to American public education.

That cage behind the big house on the Whitney Plantation, perhaps replacing one worn-out from use, was manufactured in Philadelphia. The owners of the Philadelphia iron works profited; the plantation owners gained an instrument to help preserve the Southern way of life. Just as that exchange united the North and the South in a common cash matrix, so did it and the persistent exchanges on other levels infect Northerners as well with the racism of Southern slave owners (thinking again on the popular culture level of Gone with the Wind and the like, and on the political level of the Fugitive Slave Act and continuing White Southern dominance in Congress).

The tour of the Whitney Plantation begins at a church, built by and for ex-slaves elsewhere in the region and moved to the plantation as an entrance to the lessons taught by the docents. The church contains statues of slave children, reminiscent of those created by the artist Kara Walker, standing at the ends of the pews, witnessing. In a corner there is a bust of Pope Nicholas V, he of the Papal Bull justifying the enslavement of Africans. The next exhibit, a few dozen yards around the back of the church, is a set of memorial walls with the names of those who had lived as slaves on this property and the next is a set of Vietnam Memorial-style walls covered with the names and ages of the children who had died there before their fifth birthdays.

After this there are slave cabins, that blacksmith shop, the carriage house, mule stable, kitchen and the pigeon towers, the cage, and finally the big house, with its genteel atmosphere. The tour is a form of adult education. It is a course in American history, in the sociology of the plantations, in the morality of the owners of those plantations, their influence on race relations even today.

Education is not limited to elementary and secondary grades. It begins at birth and continues throughout life. Some of it is formal, some not. It is difficult to distinguish education in the usual sense of the word—reading, writing, arithmetic; quantum mechanics and philology—from education as the transmission of ideology or as the promotion of commercial products. Proctor & Gamble spends half a billion dollars or more on one form of education: making their products known and attractive to consumers. Political parties and those paying for them spend billions of dollars on another form of education, which also has the purpose of making their products known and attractive to the people they wish to influence.

Efforts to educate White people to accept racism as natural began in Europe as early as the sixteenth century Papal Bull of Nicholas V and rapidly took root in the Americas. Those efforts have been, continue to be, highly successful. The White police officers shooting Black children have been educated in this way so that they do not think that they are doing anything wrong. The school superintendents preferentially funding schools attended by White children do not think they are doing anything wrong. The school principals paddling or suspending Black girls and not White girls for similar behaviors do not think they are doing anything wrong. They have been carefully taught.

Different lessons are taught by the Whitney Plantation.

Visitors to the Whitney Plantation leave with images difficult to get out of one’s mind: Those artfully decorated rooms in the big house. That cage. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

March 23, 2015 standard

The U.S. Department of Education is celebrating improvements in United States high school graduation rates overall and its finding that the graduation rates of Latino and Black students are improving faster than the national average. Putting aside the dubious measure used – four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate – and the serious conceptual and technical issues in the calculations (don’t ask), the data accompanying the announcement directs our attention to some matters of interest at the state level.

For all the debate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, we must remember that primary and secondary education are state responsibilities, administratively, fiscally and in terms of policy, except insofar as the federal government takes a role in these matters, which is sometimes quite minor and never predominant. The quality of education available to students therefore varies among the states and, because of differences in state policies and practices, opportunities for education vary within states.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education has recently found that funding within states between districts with high rates of poverty and those with low rates of poverty can greatly differ. In fact, the gap between per-pupil spending between our poorest and wealthiest districts have increased over the past decade. Wealthier districts spent 10.8 percent more than high-poverty districts in 2002; they now spend 15.6 percent more today.

In 23 states districts serving the highest percentage of students from low-income families are spending fewer state and local funds per pupil than districts that have fewer students in poverty. In 20 states, districts serving a high percentage of minority students are spending fewer state and local funds than districts that have fewer minority students. Now school spending isn’t everything – and lots of districts regardless of demographics spend money badly. But it is clear that nearly half the nation’s state governments have decided to spend more of taxpayers’ funds on White and comparatively well-off students than on children from low-income and minority families.

But then there are other examples of how poorly political leaders and others think of Black, Latino, and low-income children. This can be seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both are prosperous states with progressive histories; Minnesota even has a self-proclaimed reputation for “niceness.” But neither state are all that nice for Black, Latino, and poor children or for their families.

Minnesota’s traditional public schools work very well for White children, with 85 percent of them graduating in four years according to the federal government’s adjusted cohort graduation rate. But they don’t work so well for other children. The graduation rate for Minnesota’s black students is 28 percent lower than that for Whites, while the graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students are, respectively, 26 and 36 percentage points below that of Whites.

Wisconsin’s public schools are also highly successful for White children, graduating more than 92 percent of the adjusted cohort of White children in four years. But the schools are also not very nice for poor and minority children. Black students graduate at levels 26 percent lower than White students. The graduation rates for Latino and Native students are also in the pits.

How bad are the gaps in graduation rates between White and Black students in both states? Their gaps are, respectively, 15 and 13 percent greater than that for Mississippi, and 18 and 16 percent greater than that for Alabama. Based on the data, you can ascertain that opportunities for high-quality education in the Deep South are greater than in two of our most “progressive” states. You can also say it the other way: That Minnesota and Wisconsin are twice as racist as Mississippi and Alabama. Either way, how nice is that?

But this isn’t a surprise. Minnesota and Wisconsin also have astronomical incarceration rates for Black men, as well as astronomical disparities between incarceration rates for Black and White men. As I wrote in 2013 about Milwaukee and Wisconsin, a Black family would be better off in Mississippi than in the Dairy State, and this also holds true when it comes to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But are the conditions for Blacks and other minorities in Minnesota and Wisconsin examples of institutional racism. Though they could be unforeseeable racist outcomes of blind institutional forces, I wouldn’t say so. These are examples of the decisions made, every day, by individuals in both states as well as throughout this entire country.

Just as a new police chief in Ferguson or New York City can simply order the police to behave toward Black men as they behave toward White men, so in Minneapolis and Milwaukee the police chiefs and prosecutors could do the same. But they don’t. Similarly, it is the individual responsibility of chief state school officers, superintendents, school boards and others to give Black students the same educational opportunities, schools of the same quality that they provide for White students. But in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, they don’t.

These police chiefs, district attorneys, district and state superintendents, go to their offices each morning and decide to arrest, prosecute and imprison much higher percentages of Black than White people, to provide better schools for White than for Black children. Don’t they? Of course they do. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.

The education officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota have, no doubt, read the press releases from the U.S. Department of Education containing this latest batch of data telling of their shame. And now they could, if they wish, improve the prospects of the Black children in their care. Or they might, as they have been doing, simply encourage their colleagues to build more prisons.

March 11, 2015 standard

Like some other urban school districts, New York City has a system of elite, specialized, high schools, admission to which is governed by a test. As Dropout Nation readers already know, I have documented the role these schools play in perpetuating the racial caste system that condemn so many black and Latino children to poverty and imprisonment. And once again, the data shows that this continues.

As the New York Times reported last week, of “the 5,103 students offered placement in eight specialized high schools [in 2014-2015], five percent were black and seven percent were Hispanic, the same as last year . . . At Stuyvesant High School, historically the hardest to get into, black students earned 10 of the 953 seats.”

That is, one percent, in a school system in which 30 percent of the students are Black. Of course, “black” students are not necessarily African American and students admitted to New York’s specialized high schools have not necessarily attended the district’s middle schools. All 10 of those “black” new freshman at Stuyvesant could be the children of foreign diplomats. At the one percent level, anything can happen.

Year after year the city administers an admission test claimed to be objective and year after year the result is on the face of it discriminatory. What do we say about a situation in which the professed objectives and the actual outcomes differ so greatly? We say that the actual goal of the process is that which is achieved: to exclude African-American students from the best educational opportunities available.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools has released a policy brief on the issue. The authors, Sean Corcoran and Christine Baker-Smith, found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just five percent of the City’s public middle schools.” Were those excellent middle schools located in the three extraordinarily segregated neighborhoods in which most of the city’s Black students live?


Corcoran and Baker-Smith tested various alternatives to the current system as paths to equity. They found that an “admissions rule that would substantially change the demographic mix of the specialized high schools—and reduce the concentration of offers in a small number of middle schools—is a rule that guarantees admission to all students across the City who are in the top 10 percent of their middle school.” This approach has been used in Texas for admission to that state’s elite university.

The present system of admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools is damaging in many ways.

It, along with the entire structure of school choice and gifted and talented education, validates the differences in the quality of education offered by the city’s schools, putting the onus for a student’s educational opportunities on the student’s family, rather than on the system itself. In other words, it helps maintain the inferior quality of education available to students from impoverished, less highly educated, families. That is on the input side, as it were. On the output side, it limits lifetime opportunities for Black students, denying them access to the educational and social networking opportunities of the elite high schools.

In this way, racial discrimination in the United States is supported by the nation’s education system as a full partner in that effort with the nation’s criminal justice system. What happens in Ferguson, Mo. – where the district and law enforcement come together to condemn the lives of Black people – also happens in the City of New York.

The top 10 percent rule would require a change in the law. Perhaps Mayor Bill de Blasio could add that to his legislative agenda. How hard could that be, at least to try?

Meanwhile, 95 percent of New York City’s Black students are denied the opportunity of the world-class education offered by the city’s outstanding specialized high schools, one of which is attended by the mayor’s son.