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June 18, 2015 standard

The editors and contributors of Dropout Nation offer our condolences and prayers to the families of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other eight victims of last night’s senseless shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. We also offer our prayers and sympathies to the parishioners and their families. Let us all pray for God to give them and the people of Charleston peace beyond understanding.

June 13, 2015 standard

Plenty enough has been said about Michelle Malkin’s op-ed this week calling for Congress to cut federal funding to Teach for America because it is supporting the criminal justice reform activism of alumni and staffers such as Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett. Yet let’s keep in mind two matters that few have mentioned — and that Malkin has conveniently ignored for her own ideological purposes.

The first? That the nation’s university schools of education, which train the majority of instructors going into classrooms, have done an absolutely shoddy job of recruiting and training aspiring teachers.

As the National Council on Teacher Quality determined last year in its second annual review of ed schools and other teacher training programs, just 107 out of the 1,612 ed school programs it vetted provided the instruction aspiring teachers needed to be successful in teaching children. This data isn’t surprising. As NCTQ determined in 2006, just 11 out of 71 ed schools surveyed at the time taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction; these results have changed very little within the last nine years.

Even worse, as NCTQ revealed in a study released last November, half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Two hundred ninety-five of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation.

The results of this low-quality training can be seen in the fact that three out of every 10 fourth-graders in the nation read Below Basic in 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s test of student achievement. Especially for poor and minority children, the shoddy training provided by ed schools almost all but ensures that those taught by their graduates will learn little and suffer educationally as well as economically down the road.

This low-quality teacher training comes at a high price to taxpayers. States, along with the federal government and aspiring teachers, spend $7 billion annually on sustaining ed school operations. When you consider that teacher salaries are based on attaining additional degrees (which is often funded by districts and states) and not on performance, the costs of laggard ed schools borne by taxpayers are even greater.

The second: That no organization has done a better job of setting a higher standard for recruiting and training teachers as well as showing how much better teacher training can be than Teach For America.

A decade of data has pretty much shown that Teach For America does a better job than ed schools in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. A 2013 study on Teach For America conducted by research outfit Mathematica determined that its recruits outperformed ed school peers; in fact, the average student taught by a Teach for America recruit gained an additional 2.6 months of learning over a peer taught by a traditionally-trained teacher. Particularly for poor and minority kids, with which Teach For America works with the most (and whose needs the outfit is geared toward serving), the outfit’s recruits are helping them gain the high-quality teaching they deserve (and taxpayers of all ideological stripes should expect).

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin has moved on from fact-free opposition to Common Core to a senseless jeremiad against Teach For America.

At the same time, Teach For America has shown new and better ways for recruiting and training aspiring teachers. Over the past three decades, the outfit has shown that teacher training programs should deliberately recruit entrepreneurial self-starters with strong leadership ability (alongside subject-matter competency in the subjects they teach and empathy for children of all backgrounds) needed to lead classrooms. At the same time, Teach For America’s focus on quickly and comprehensively training aspiring teachers in how to actually teach in classrooms exposes the damage wrought by ed schools and their emphasis on unproven instructional theories. Meanwhile Teach For America’s success in recruiting high-quality black and Latino collegians into teaching (with one out of every two recruits in 2014 coming from minority backgrounds) has proven lie to the arguments of ed schools that they just can’t provide children with teachers who look like them.

With two out of every three of its recruits remaining in education — and becoming school leaders, policy players, activists, and social entrepreneurs — the benefits of Teach For America’s efforts aren’t just seen in classrooms. From the work of Michelle Rhee in forming TNTP and launching the so far successful reform of D.C.’s traditional district, to Kaya Henderson’s continuation of those efforts in the nation’s capital, to the work of the likes of KIPP founders Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin in launching charter schools, Teach For America has helped advance the very efforts in advancing systemic reform that are helping more kids succeed in school and in life.

All of this comes at little comparable cost to taxpayers. Federal funding and contracts with districts account for just 20 percent of Teach For America’s revenue of $211 million in 2013-2014. The rest of its support comes from reform-minded philanthropies who understand the critical need for overhauling how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers.

Given the low quality of teaching in the nation’s schools and the success of Teach For America in providing high-quality teachers, you would think that Malkin would call for states and the federal government to stop funding the former and  praise the quantifiable and qualitative successes of the latter. But given her fact-free jeremiads against implementing Common Core reading and math standards, neither her claptrap against Teach For America nor silence about the failure of ed schools is shocking. Malkin has proven in the past that she doesn’t do her homework — and her ideological blinders (including a thoughtless and overly-sentimental allegiance to institutions of law and order regardless of misbehavior) assure that she wouldn’t put the work in this time around.

By focusing solely on the fact that Teach For America alumni are playing their proper (and laudable) roles as participants in civil society on behalf of children and communities, Malkin fails to pay any mind to the great work that the organization and its recruits do on a daily basis in providing kids with high-quality teaching. At the same time, she ignores the much-bigger problem of low-quality teacher training that goes on in ed schools and the consequences on America’s public school systems. If anything, Malkin seems to be more in common cause with traditionalists and teachers’ unions opposed to Teach For America’s very existence than with the taxpayers (including families and their children) for whom she expresses so much concern.

Meanwhile Malkin seems to ignore the reality that the nation’s criminal justice systems are in as sore a need of reform as public education — and that as school reformers, Teach For America alumni and staffers can no more ignore the consequences of those woes on children outside of schools than the crises within them.

The high-profile slayings of black men such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray just exemplify the problems of overmilitarized police departments, overcriminalization of youth, perpetuation of state-sanctioned racial bigotry, drug war overkill, and violations of civil liberties by law enforcement that have been detailed at length by progressives, conservatives, and libertarians alike.

Teach For America alum such as Deray McKesson are rightfully standing with criminal justice reformers on behalf of children who must deal with issues outside as well as inside of schools.

If anything, the deaths of these young men have galvanized bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. So arguments by Malkin (as well as those by conservatives within the school reform movement such as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute) that McKesson and Packnett (along with Teach For America) are “agitating” for a “leftist agenda” ignores reality.

As with school reform, there are plenty of good reasons for such bipartisanship. As Dropout Nation has detailed over the last year, the enabling of incompetent and criminally-venal cops by state laws and criminal justice bureaucracies parallels the protection of laggard and criminally-abusive teachers by state education agencies and traditional districts. The use of excessive force laws that allow rogue officers to murder young black men with impunity are little different from the tenure and teacher dismissal laws that keep even child abusers in classrooms. The only difference between the actions of police unions such as New York City’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and those of NEA and AFT affiliates is that the former carry guns.

As with the consequences of failing and mediocre traditional districts, the consequences of abusive criminal justice systems are borne hardest by the communities in which poor and minority children live. As Balko and others reported within the last year, the use of courts and cops by municipalities as revenue generators (in the form of arbitrarily handed out traffic ticket and rulings that often double those initial penalties) essentially impoverish already poor families. The U.S. Department of Justice’s probes of police practices in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland have also revealed how racial bigotry and faulty policing bears out in use of excessive force (including murders in all but name) of young black men and women.

But the consequences for kids aren’t just outside schoolhouse doors. Traditional districts (along with some charter school operators) have long played a pernicious role in fostering a school-to-prison pipeline that condemns far too many kids to despair. School districts accounted for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.

Now, thanks to the law enforcement agencies districts have formed on their own (as well as bringing in cops from the outside to serve as school resource officers to handle student misbehavior better managed by teachers and school leaders), American public education has also become key players in the police militarization plaguing our communities. With help from the federal government, districts such as Compton Unified in California are arming their cops with AR-15 rifles and grenades that should never be anywhere near classrooms.

The results can be seen in districts in cities such as Birmingham, Ala., where police officers in Birmingham, Ala., using Freeze +P pepper spray against eight children attending the traditional district there (the subject of a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center); some 110 incidents of pepper-spraying occurred in the district since 2006. Because half of school resource officer programs (and other law enforcement) are patrolling elementary school hallways, it means that even kids in kindergarten and first grade are being criminalized at early ages.

There’s no way that any school reformer, much less those black and brown such as McKesson and Packnett, can avoid standing in common cause with criminal justice reformers of all stripes to advocate against these abuses of state power. Considering that Teach For America is has been dedicated from day one to providing poor and minority children with high-quality education, it also cannot ignore the injustices happening outside schools to the students their recruits serve. And as Atlantic Monthly‘s Conor Friedersdorf declared last month in a piece on police brutality, no conservative or liberal, much less a moral human being, can ignore the pressing need to seriously address the reality that there are police officers acting as thugs against people of all backgrounds — especially young black men and women — under the guise of enforcing the law.

Seems like the problem lies not with Teach For America or its alumni, but with Malkin’s immorality and that of her amen corner.

June 12, 2015 standard

Life is full of bloody tests – and we bloody well need them. As toddlers, we sought to test our environment, and we tested our parents. When we started school, we were tested on our ability to recite the alphabet. As we progressed through our education, we were tested on our vocabulary, on our comprehension of the Constitution, on differential equations.

When we entered the workforce, we were tested on our ability to do our duties properly. Many of us received regular performance reviews or evaluations. If we worked in a profession that required licensing or certification, we were tested.

In short, testing is part of life. For good reason. When it comes to our children, especially kids of color, annual standardized testing is critical to gaining data on how well they are doing in school as well as how schools, systems, and adults are helping them. For children of color, annual test data (as required under the No Child Left Behind Act and state laws) is helpful in the fight for ensuring their civil rights. Without such data, all we have are anecdotes, none of which will help families and civil rights activists fight to provide our children with better schools and high-quality teachers.

The good news is that civil rights groups understand this reality. Last month, 12 of them, all with hundreds of combined years of fighting for equal rights and opportunities, issued a statement wherein they stated their opposition to efforts to discourage the utilization of standardized tests and “subverting the validity of data about educational outcomes”.

These groups, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and National Council of La Raza, were wholly right and justified when they said that “data provides the power to advocate for greater equality under the law.” They were clear when they stated that there were “legitimate concerns” about testing in schools, but that it was critical to have objective measurements of student growth.

There is no person with the slightest cognitive ability who honestly believes that public education is equally serving all populations. As they said: “We cannot fix what we cannot measure.” What these civil rights groups declared was no different than what I wrote on these pages last October – and no different than what parents and caregivers say each and every day in their homes.

Those of us who know how important it is to actually know what is happening with our kids are praising the stance these organizations are taking. But none have been forthcoming from other quarters.

First came Mark Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy. He took to the pages of Education Week to chastise civil rights groups for supporting annual testing and accountability. Why? Because, in his opinion, annual testing “does not help [children of color].”

In a solid example of “me too!”, Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project), Schott Foundation for Public Education President John Jackson and education professor Pedro Noguera jumped onto the bandwagon with Tucker in the pages of the Hill, accusing civil rights groups and others who understand the benefits of standardized testing of believing that children can be “tested out of poverty.”

Now I will agree that Browne Dianis, Jackson, and Noguera raised some good points. They are right in saying that all too often results from standardized tests do not get into the hands of schools (and parents) for too long a time. But as Education Post‘s Chris Stewart put it on the pages of his eponymous site, they seem to be complaining that “annual assessment of student proficiency doesn’t cure cancer.” Their (not so) subtle insinuation that support for testing by civil rights groups was somehow akin to wanting to keep Rosa Parks on the back of the bus is also grating.

The good news is that others have pushed back against Tucker, Browne Dianis, Jackson, and Noguera.

Education Trust President Kati Haycock put it perfectly when she stated that the evidence for Tucker’s “assertions” were “weak” and ignored the fact that these groups have “fought against the misuse of tests for decades”. Jonah Edelman of Stand for Children smartly asserted that civil rights groups “wisely understand that the growing resistance to accountability is directly related to the fact that it’s starting to work.” This includes the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who, as Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle reminded us yesterday, are key backers of the organizations that Brown Dianis and Jackson represent.

Tucker offered a response to the points made by Haycock and Edelman. But those, in turn, were then addressed thoroughly, honestly, directly, and completely by Morgan Polikoff of University of Southern California’s Rossier School, who pointed out that Tucker couldn’t possibly produce evidence to support his assertions because it isn’t supported by the academic research.

I am certainly not a public education policy expert like any of the folks I have cited. But I am a parent with a child in a public high school. As NEA itself points out, schools and systems that partner with families and address their concerns “sustain connections” that improve student achievement.

Being able to see if there success at “improving student achievement” means we need objective measures to ascertain how individual students and whole populations are performing. One of the obvious examples of such are (fair and comprehensive) standardized tests. These give parents a source of data to be the partners we need to be in the furtherance of our kids’ educations. The civil rights groups that support annualized testing understand this. Tucker, Browne Dianis, Jackson, Noguera, and those who back them do not.

As a parent, and as a member of the education community, I do not want to go back to the time when we did not have the objective data we needed. Are we expected to go back to that time when we simply trusted that our kids – regardless of which population group they may belong to – were getting the best education possible?

That path leads to greater mediocrity and discernment of achievement through anecdotalism.

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?