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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.

July 17, 2014 standard

Traditionalists will do anything to defend tenure laws giving teachers near-lifetime employment, even amid evidence that all it does is protect laggard and criminally abusive teachers from being sacked from classrooms. Especially now that the California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California, which effectively ends tenure, is now leading school reformers and Parent Power activists to file similar suits in the rest of the nation. Especially for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, upon which their influence over education policy — and the grand bargain they struck decades ago with classroom teachers that fills their coffers to the tune of $708 million a year — is partly based, any effort to end near-lifetime employment is anathema.

So it isn’t shocking that Arthur Goldstein, an AFT union boss at Francis Lewis High School in New York City, took to the pages of the Daily News to defend tenure. But unlike his fellow NEA and AFT leaders, he didn’t bother to make the usual argument that tenure merely ensures that teachers are kept from being unfairly fired. This time, Goldstein offered a novel, yet absurd, defense of near-lifetime employment: That it allows teachers to be whistleblowers and defenders of kids in schools. The problem? The evidence doesn’t support his case.

Pointing to his own personal efforts as a teacher to help out English Language Learner students who had long been neglected by the Big Apple district, Goldstein argues that near-lifetime employment allows for him to be a strong advocate for the kids in his care without fear of reprisals by craven school leaders. Goldstein also argues that denying tenure can force teachers working hard for kids to be forced out of schools. Writes Goldstein: “[Teaching] is a tough job, and despite what you read in the papers, it also entails advocating for our students, your kids, whether or not the administration is comfortable with it.”

Let’s say this: It’s admirable that Goldstein looks out for the kids in his care. This is what all teachers should be doing. On this, he deserves our thanks. But Goldstein’s claim that he could only do this because near-lifetime employment rules keep him from being fired isn’t exactly so. As a civil servant, he is already covered under New York State’s civil service law, which provides rather reasonable protections against unfair dismissals by laggard leaders. In fact, if the New York City Parent’s Union’s Vergara suit (along with that being filed by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Equality) succeed in eviscerating tenure, Big Apple teachers would still be protected from unfair firings. NEA and AFT leaders cannot argue legitimately why teachers should be granted protections that go far beyond those given to police officers and firefighters (who endanger their lives daily and are subjected to far harsher politicking), much less other civil servants and those of us in the private sector.

There’s also the reality that Goldstein would still be protected from unfair firings if traditional teacher evaluations — which use subjective observations from school leaders with their biases (and who may themselves lack the skills to teach effectively) — were replaced with objective evaluations that use both test score growth data , student surveys similar to the Tripod student perception survey developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education, and evidence of teachers undertaking successful efforts to help their students succeed. By getting rid of observations that are going to be biased and subject teachers to the predations of principals looking for revenge, good and great teachers are protected from harm to their careers. [The same kind of strong evaluations can also rid districts of incompetent school leaders who attempt vengeance on those teachers.]

Meanwhile Goldstein fails to admit is that not every teacher does this for their children. In fact, near-lifetime employment rules, along with teacher dismissal policies and the greater concern of NEA and AFT affiliates for maintaining their influence at the cost of children’s futures, even criminally abusive teachers can keep their jobs.

Some 97 Big Apple teachers and other school employees were charged with sexual misconduct over the past five years. Yet, thanks to arbitrators who are essentially appointed by the AFT’ local — along with the union’s zealous defense of those teachers regardless of guilt — the likelihood of them ever getting fired can often be remote. One teacher, Steven Ostrin, who was found guilty of sexually harassing students and even propositioning one of his young women students for a striptease; yet he was only given a  six-month suspension and a reprimand for what would be considered a firing offense in the private and even much of the public sector. [He would eventually retire.] Another criminally laggard instructor, Andrew Troup of Public School 96 in the Bronx, kept his job in spite of being found to have professed his infatuation to one of his students.

The obstacles to firing laggard and criminally abusive teachers can be even harder in other states. One of the reasons why the families of nine Southern California children behind Vergara pushed so hard is because of the Golden State’s dismissal rules, which requires a district to spend as long as seven years (and as much as $7 million) to go through a process that involves 10 different steps — including appeals before a three-person panel of the state’s Professional Competence commission that is largely slated in favor of NEA and AFT, and state courts — until a dismissal is either finalized or tossed out. Even then, incompetent teachers could keep their jobs. Two years ago, L.A. Unified was told that they had to keep special education teacher Matthew Kim on the job despite evidence of harassing female counterparts and propositioning his students. The byzantine steps, along with the length of time it takes to conduct a dismissal, and the high cost of doing so, explain why just 100 dismissal hearings were heard between 1996 and 2005, according to the Golden State’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Meanwhile there is little evidence that tenure gives teachers the freedom to cross the thin chalk line of silence that often protects laggards and criminally abusive teachers from damaging children, both academically and otherwise. This was clear in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where former teacher Mark Berndt was allowed to engage in at least 21 acts of what prosecutors call “lewd conduct” against children at Miramonte Elementary School over the course of his three-decade-long career. Not only did few teachers at Miramonte inform on Berndt, they even remained silent about the alleged criminal abuse of another colleague, Martin Springer, who also engaged in lewd conduct against another student. [Springer's charges were dismissed only after the parents of the child said she was too traumatized to testify at trial.] Berndt was only removed from L.A. Unified classrooms after the district paid him $40,000 just in order to get him to drop his appeal of its dismissal.

If anything, near-lifetime employment rules actually encourage silence among teachers about abuse to children by their colleagues. One reason: Because even the most-honorable teachers know that even if they report acts of criminal abuse, their colleagues can end up keeping their jobs. The possibility of reprisals against them from those teachers and those laggards willing to protect them is more than enough to keep them silent unless they are willing to risk their careers to do the right thing. Another reason is that tenure ends up fostering cultures of academic neglect and abuse in the first place. When laggard teachers know that they can keep their jobs, they are willing to aid and abet even the worst among them; after all, low expectations lead to even worse consequences.

This was made clear last year in Rochester, N.Y., where Matthew LoMaglio was convicted of second degree sexual conduct against a minor for criminally abusing an eight-year-old boy who attended School 19. Not only did teachers at the school fail to cooperate in the criminal investigation against LoMaglio — and the school leader failed to report the allegations to police as required by law — his former colleagues even wrote letters begging for leniency on his behalf to the judge presiding over his case.

Certainly you can’t just fire your way to high-quality education for kids. That’s why reformers focus so hard on overhauling how we recruit, train, manage, and reward teachers. But the status quo can’t remain ante. You can’t build cultures of genius that help all kids succeed as well as keep good and great teachers working in classrooms when near-lifetime employment rules keep even criminally abusive teachers in classrooms. And you can’t stem an education crisis that condemns 120 kids every hour to poverty, prison, and even mental anguish, if laggards and criminally-minded teachers know they can never be fired.

It is high time that we end tenure and near-lifetime employment for teachers. Our children deserve better than this.



June 30, 2014 standard

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically measures literacy skills at grades four, eight, and 12. The results are reported at four levels: At Basic and below Basic; at Proficient and at Advanced for each grade level. As reading is the basis for all other education, and as by grade eight schooling has had ample time to be effective, grade eight reading proficiency can be taken as a good indicator of the quality of education available to students. The quality of the data made available by NAEP allows us to identify those factors most significant in determining whether a child will grow up in the virtuous circle of good educational opportunities and class mobility, or the vicious circle of poor educational opportunities and caste sedimentation.

In 1992, nine percent of black students in grade eight read at the Proficient level and for all practical purposes no black students read at the Advanced level. Twenty-one years later, in 2013, 16 percent of black students read at the Proficient level in grade eight and one percent read at the Advanced level. Although the percentage of black students reading a grade level or above in grade eight has doubled, 83 percent of African American students still read below the level expected at grade eight. According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent available, there were 586,231 black students and in eighth grade. Therefore, there were nearly half a million black students reading below grade level and almost exactly 100,000 black students reading at or above grade level in grade eight, which is one-third the number that would be expected if Black students had equal educational opportunities to those afforded white students.

NAEP allows further refinements in analysis. We can, for example, look at results within race by income, parental education and school location. By doing so we can examine the crucial variables that influence the disparate learning outcomes just outlined. What becomes clear in the analysis is that while there are correlations between income and achievement, there are even stronger correlations between how well black parents are educated as well as where their kids attend school, and the achievement of black children.

First , let’s look at the correlation between family income and student achievement. NAEP uses eligibility for National Lunch Programs (free and reduced cost meals) as an income indicator. The cut-off between those eligible for National Lunch Programs and those less poor families that are ineligible is about $35,000, which happens to be the median income for Black families. While 28 percent of black students who are less impoverished are now reading at grade level, nearly 90 percent of black students from poorer families are not able to do so, and the gap between the two is widening.

There are approximately 250,000 black students in grade eight eligible for National Lunch Programs, 33,000 of whom are reading at or above grade level. Of the approximately 334,000 black eighth grade students ineligible for National Lunch Programs, 94,000 are reading at grade level. Other things being equal, National Lunch Program eligibility appears to account for a difference of 15 percentage points for black students in grade eight reading. Reading achievement at grade level in grade eight appears to be correlated with family income, but as I have established, there are clearly other factors in play.

NAEP reports parental education as “Did not finish high school,” “Graduated high school,” “Some education after high school” or “Graduated College.” Black students who told NAEP that their parents did not finish high school scored at Proficient or above 8 percent of the time in 2013. Black students who reported that their parents who had graduated from high school were at or above grade level 9 percent of the time in 2013. For black students who said that their parents had some education after high school, 21 percent were at Proficient or above in 2013. The black children of college graduates were at or above grade level 22 percent of the time.

Looking just at reported parental education, the difference between scores of students reporting parents as having educational attainment at the “no high school diploma” level and those reporting parents as having educational attainment at the “college degree” level is 14 percentage points for black students in grade eight reading. The effect of increasing parental education for black students is approximately the same as that for higher family income. Increasing parental education from the lowest to the highest category triples the percentage reading at or above grade level for black students.

We can look at this another way by calculating the numbers of students reading at grade level (Proficient and above) with parents at various educational attainment levels, that is, the percentage of students at a given combination of reading proficiency and parental education. Seventeen percent of black adults over 25 years reported to the Census that they had less than a high school diploma, equivalent to NAEP’s “Did not finish high school.” [A caution: the numbers of adults in these categories, as reported by their children, are not necessarily the same as those self-reported to the Census or those that might be obtained from school and college records.] Thirty-one percent of African Americans said that they were high graduates with a diploma or GED, equivalent to NAEP’s “Graduated high school.” Thirty-three percent of African Americans reported some college or associate’s degree, equivalent to “Some education after high school” and 19 percent of African Americans reported attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher: “Graduated College.”

Since 8 percent of grade eight black students reporting parents with no diploma read at grade level or above, and 17 percent of black adults report that they did not graduate from high school, we can estimate that just one percent of grade eight black students read at grade level in spite of having parents who did not finish high school. Three percent of black students report that their parents completed high school while they themselves read at grade level. Seven percent of black students read at grade level in grade eight and have parents who had some college. And four percent of black students at grade eight read at grade level and report that their parents have a college degree. [The percentage of black students at grade eight reading at grade level who are the children of college graduates is lower than that of those whose parents have “some college” because there are fewer adult black college graduates.]

Cross-tabulating parental education and National Lunch Program eligibility, we find that for black students whose parents did not graduate from high school there is no difference in the low percentage of students scoring at or above Proficient, each is 7 percent. On the other hand, black students whose parents graduated from college have great differences in reading proficiency at grade eight related to family income. Fifteen percent of those eligible for National Lunch Programs (in itself nearly double the level of those whose parents did not complete high school) and 32 percent of those ineligible, read at the Proficient or above levels. This compares to 17 percent for all black students in grade eight. The effect of increases in the family income category at each additional level of parental education are particularly strong at high school and college completion.

NAEP data also allows us to test for school location effects: city, suburban, town and rural. City and suburban locations appear to be the effective variables. Fourteen percent of black students in city schools in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, while 20 percent of those in suburban schools did so, nearly a fifty percent advantage for black suburban students. Moving from city to suburban schools increases the percentage of students at or above grade level for black students by nearly 50 percent.

Cross-tabulating school location and National Lunch Program eligibility, we find that 1one percent of black students in city schools who were eligible for National Lunch Programs in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, as did 25 percent of those from more prosperous families who were ineligible. Fifteen percent of black students in suburban schools who were eligible for National Lunch Programs in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, as did 30 percent of those who were ineligible. The percentages of black students scoring Proficient or above in grade eight reading in suburban schools, for both eligible and ineligible students, were double those in city schools.

Finally, cross-tabulating school location by parental education, we find that for black students, of those attending city schools whose parents had not graduated from high school, 7 percent were proficient and above as were just 5 percent of those in suburban schools whose parents had not graduated from high school. Of those black students whose parents had obtained a high school diploma, the percent Proficient or above was an identical 9 percent in city and suburban schools.

But for black students the advantages of attending suburban schools is clear for those whose parents had some college (from 18 percent city to 24 percent suburban) as well as for those whose parents graduated from college (17 percent and 25 percent). This effect is more apparent when we look at the change in percentages scoring at or above Proficient as a percentage of the percentage for students in city schools. The advantage for black students whose parents had some college is 33 percent and for those whose parents graduated from college 47 percent.

Twenty percent of black students, without regard to family income or parental education attainment, attending schools in the suburbs, as compared to 14 percent in city schools, read at or above grade level. Twenty-two percent of black eighth graders whose parents had completed college were at least proficient readers as compared to 8 percent of those whose parents had not completed high school. And 30 percent of black students ineligible for national lunch programs, that is, with family incomes over $35,000, and who attended suburban schools, were at least proficient readers, as compared to 11 percent of black students eligible for national lunch programs who attended city schools.

As $35,000 is approximately the median income of black families, the difference in educational outcomes is most likely an artifact of the difference in the quality of schools between urban and suburban systems.


June 27, 2014 standard

If there is one education policy discussion in which sensible thinking from both reformers and traditionalists goes to die, it is that over the overuse of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and other harsh forms of school discipline.

More than two decades of research from scholars such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University have long ago revealed that far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school; that those practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer; and that children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. The data also shows that suspensions are far more-likely to be meted out over minor matters such as disruptive behavior and attendance — which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means —  that for violent actions. And finally, that teachers and school leaders often use of suspensions and expulsions to let themselves off the hook for the failure to address the illiteracy that is usually at the heart of child misbehavior.

Yet despite the evidence, some otherwise-sensible conservative reformers (along with institution-oriented reform types and traditionalists) continue to argue against the facts. This time around, the arguing against reality comes courtesy of Education Next, the conservative-leaning school reform magazine, with the help of famed legal scholar Richard A. Epstein in a piece focused on the Obama Administration’s move earlier this year to issue a series of guidelines to districts and schools geared toward making suspensions and expulsions rare and only used for the most severe cases of child misbehavior in schools. Epstein’s arguments falls apart against the overwhelming evidence (and real consequences to children) behind the administration’s decision. And by running the piece, Education Next exemplifies the problems my fellow conservative reformers dealing seriously with the consequences of racialist policies

At the heart of Epstein’s argument is that the Obama Administration’s school discipline guidelines are “of dubious legal validity and practical soundness.” Why? Let’s start with the legal arguments. From where Epstein sits, the administration’s wrongly bases its decision to issue the guidance on Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act. Because Title IV was originally intended to address school desegregation and coax districts and states to achieve that purpose, Epstein declares that the administration can’t issue or enforce the guidelines. As for Title IV? Epstein argues that the Obama Administration is wrongly applying the disparate impact standard adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power to stop “legitimate government action” by districts to discipline kids while in school. And ultimately, from where Epstein sits, the administration is essentially issuing guidance in order to avoid meeting the rules for federal action under the Administrative Procedures Act.

But the legal issues Epstein raise pale compared to his other chief concern: That goal of reducing the overuse of suspensions and expulsions — or reducing “disparate impact” as he calls it — is “weakly justified”. As far as Epstein is concerned, the Department of Education’s Civil Rights data used by the administration to justify the discipline guidelines are particularly useless because it doesn’t supposedly provide “insight into the kinds of behavior that are observed inside particular schools”. This, according to Epstein, makes the administration’s effort especially counterproductive.

Epstein argues that disparate impact is dubious because state-sanctioned racial segregation (including the Jim Crow laws of the American South) no longer exists. [Yes, you can laugh.] Driving this thinking is Epstein’s view that any effort to address the overuse of harsh school discipline is essentially out of order because it is attempting to address what he declares to be “hidden forms of unconscious race bias against minority students”. From where he sits, if policies and actions undertaken by districts aren’t explicitly racially-motivated, then they cannot possibly be racialist in effect.

Meanwhile Epstein essentially argues that harsh school discipline has no adverse impact at all on the futures of either the kids subjected to suspensions or even those kids in districts that overuse them. Echoing arguments offered by conservative and libertarian reformers such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute boss (and EdNext editor) Michael Petrilli, Joshua Dunn of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson, Epstein argues that suspensions and expulsions actually improve school cultures by ridding schools of troublemakers who make it difficult for kids to learn. Epstein is particularly annoyed that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is, in his mind, arguing for a policy that will supposedly subject “good kids” to increased violence in schools. As far as Epstein is concerned, the administration’s school discipline guidance is “dangerous”, both to districts (whose efforts on school discipline should only be addressed by states only) and to children.

Epstein’s arguments would be somewhat seductive if you don’t know anything about either the use of school discipline or about the Obama Administration’s guidance. But when you know better, Epstein’s arguments fall apart. As I noted in January’s Dropout Nation Podcast  on school discipline, the prescriptions offered up by the administration aren’t exactly ground-breaking, and in fact, are based on recommendations provided by leading researchers in improving school cultures. Some can question how districts should move to implement such guidelines. Others can even argue that the administration’s guidance isn’t specific enough. But the Obama Administration’s recommendations don’t restrict districts from addressing student misbehavior. More importantly, the administration is sensibly addressing a critical aspect of the nation’s education crisis that ends up damaging the futures of our most-vulnerable kids.

Epstein’s key legal argument, that the Obama Administration doesn’t have any right to issue the guidance under Title IV and  Civil Rights Act, doesn’t stand scrutiny. For one, Title IV of the Civil Rights Act is actually fairly broad, giving the federal government plenty of leeway to address any denial of opportunities for equal education. This includes addressing complaints from families over any instance where their children are being denied high-quality learning. So the Obama Administration can validly use Title IV to justify issuing guidance, as other administrations (including that of George W. Bush) have done over the past six decades. Same is true for Title VI. Even if one argues that the disparate impact standard used in employment law doesn’t apply to education, the fact that the traditional districts receive federal funding gives the Obama Administration leeway.

Richard A. Epstein may be a legendary legal scholar. But he doesn’t know much about the damage of school discipline on children.

Epstein also ignores the other legislation that grants the Obama Administration the ability to address overuse of harsh school discipline. There’s the No Child Left Behind, which originated as the Elementary and Secondary Act and was crafted as both civil rights legislation as well as a tool for the federal government to spur education reform. When you focus specifically on Title IV of No Child, which gives the federal government leeway to address and fund efforts to deal with school violence, the federal government is given an expansive role in addressing how districts and states use school discipline. Particularly in the case of overuse of suspensions against kids condemned to special ed ghettos, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also grants the federal government wide leeway in dealing with how districts deal out discipline to those kids.

Given that Epstein specializes in the role of law in shaping economic activities, it’s not shocking that he doesn’t give these other laws consideration. But Obama Administration surely does (even if it doesn’t mention it). So do the lawyers representing nearly every district and state sure do. This is why districts haven’t bothered to challenge the guidance.

But as I noted earlier, Epstein’s problems with the Obama Administration’s efforts on school discipline go beyond the legal. And on this front, Epstein’s arguments are especially off-target.

For one, Epstein fails to admit that the Obama Administration is relying on more than just the Civil Rights Database to justify addressing disparate impacts of harsh school discipline. There’s decades of research on the subject, and it shows that minority children, especially young black men, are more-likely to be disciplined than white counterparts, and often, more-likely to be disciplined for minor offenses than white peers. As a team led by University of Pittsburgh researcher John Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study on school referrals — the first step schools take in disciplining kids — young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers; once referred, they are also 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. What makes the disparities even more shocking is that there are few differences in rates of suspensions and expulsions for violent behavior and substance abuse. Just as importantly, young black men are subjected to higher levels of discipline regardless of their economic background; a young black man from a two-parent home is still more likely than most kids to be tossed out of school for a minor offense.

The evidence that suspension and expulsion levels for all kids for the most-serious incidents of violent behavior and substance abuse tend to differ little across race, ethnicity, and gender makes the wide disparities in suspensions for non-violent offenses even more glaring and troubling.

Contrary to what Epstein and conservative reformers want to admit, disparate impact of school discipline (along with the overall overuse of suspensions and expulsions) is a real issue. But the inability of Epstein to admit this isn’t shocking because his thinking (and that of conservative reformers at Education Next) is based on another flaw: The error of thinking about racialism in binary terms, that is, you can only argue that a policy or practice is racist if it explicitly targets a race or ethnicity, or if the person authoring or administrating it is explicitly and consciously racialist. But as the essayist Richard Rubin once pointed out in his assessment of the 1955 acquittal of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant for their murder of Emmitt Till, whether a policy ends up leading to racialism is more-complicated than that. The consequences of policies and practices can be as racialist as overt acts by those engaged in explicit racial discrimination. Even if teachers and school leaders aren’t explicitly targeting black and Latino children in meting out discipline, the decisions they make can result in educational neglect and malpractice. And this, by the way, can be as true of black teachers and school leaders, many of whom are from middle-class households that diverge greatly from the economically poor households of the kids they serve, as it can be for white counterparts.

This is particularly true when it comes to the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, whose causes and effects mirror another underlying cause of the nation’s education crisis: The over-labeling of children, especially young black men (along with young white male counterparts) as special ed cases. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category; essentially they end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. This thinking, along with other biases, explains why so many kids are deemed unworthy of education by many within public education.

As for Epstein’s argument that the Obama Administration’s guidance will lead to greater violence in schools? That only stands if there is evidence that suspensions and expulsions leads to safer schools. But this isn’t so. School violence has been on the decline for the past   This isn’t surprising. As Linda Raffaele Mendez and Howard Knoff of the University of South Florida noted in a 2003 study, few kids are ever suspended for committing violence or possessing weapons. More often than not, kids are more-likely to be suspended for non-violent offenses such as disruptive behavior, tardiness to class, and truancy. In Maryland, for example, 60 percent of suspensions were meted out for non-violent offenses such as insubordination and classroom disturbance in 2010-2011, according an analysis conducted by the state department of education.

Meanwhile Epstein’s contention that using suspensions and expulsions improves student achievement, especially for supposedly good kids, is also not borne out by data. Two out of every five children suspended in by Maryland’s districts and other school operations were suspended again during in 2010-2011. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has also demonstrated (including in his 2007 study with colleague Douglas MacIver and Lisa Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund) sixth-graders who have been suspended at least once have just a one-in-five chance of graduating six years later. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Suspensions are an ineffective way of dealing with the illiteracy and other learning struggles that are often at the heart of most student misbehavior. As researchers such as Raffaele Mendez and Skiba have determined, schools and districts with high levels of suspensions tend to do poorly in improving student achievement. Which makes sense. Districts that are the highest-suspending in the nation also tend to be the most-pervasive clusters of failure mills.

Simply put, Epstein has it all wrong. But again, this isn’t shocking because he is writing out of his field of study. Your editor recommends that Epstein spend some time reading Dropout Nation as well as the work of researchers in the field of school discipline such as Skiba in order to better-inform any future commentary. But Education Next and its editors have no such excuse. After all, it is one of the dominant publications covering and opining on education. More importantly, as the voice of conservative and (occasionally) centrist Democrat reformers in the movement, Ed Next has a special obligation to shed proper light on issues that lead to educational malpractice. When decades of data and evidence show that a viewpoint is off-target, then reformers should abandon it.

Yet Ed Next’sindulgence of that thinking isn’t shocking. After all, the magazine hardly has any black reformers — not even an Howard Fuller or an Andre Perry — on the masthead; nor does it run pieces from researchers on school discipline such as Skiba. This results in a lack of diversity in thought on the role of race in education policymaking that leads to pieces such as that by Epstein. The fact that some of Ed Next‘s editors — notably American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess — hardly deal with the impact of education policies on poor and minority children in their research also makes it difficult for the publication to think through matters such as school discipline. Add in the reality that conservative reformers occasionally give comfort to proponents of racialist IQ fundamentalism views such as Charles Murray and now-former think tanker Jason Richwine (and even argue for policies such as ability tracking, which are legacies of earlier generations of IQ determinist thinking) means that in some cases, reformers are engaged in mutually contradictory thinking. It is hard to declare that you want brighter futures for all children when you also still embrace practices that has been used almost exclusively to deny some kids the high-quality education needed to do so.

It’s a shame that Education Next missed an opportunity to offer a piece that actually deals with the reality of overuse of suspensions and expulsions. It must do better.

May 8, 2014 standard

There was plenty of news about the need for systemic reform coming out of yesterday’s release of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress data for high school seniors in 13 states. As Contributing Editor Michael Holzman has pointed out, the nation has made little progress in helping all children — especially black and Latino high school seniors — gain the learning they need for success in higher ed and ultimately, the rest of their lives in an increasingly knowledge-based world. In a more sensible world, the latest NAEP data should be more than enough to show opponents of Common Core reading and math standards that their efforts to stymie implementation are intellectually and morally senseless.

But as Dropout Nation has noted over the past few months, states can game NAEP results by excluding significant numbers of children condemned to special education ghettos and English Language Learner programs. After all, these students are the canaries in the proverbial coal mine of education because they, along with poor and minority children, are the ones served worst by American public education, and whose results, in turn, can expose how poorly states are doing in providing high-quality education. By engaging in this form of test-cheating, states (along with traditional districts and other school operators) are lying to families, other taxpayers, and ultimately, our children and young adults.

To expose this misbehavior and shed light on the worst offenders, Dropout Nation has taken a look at exclusion rate data from the reading and math portions of the 12th grade NAEP exam to determine which states excluded more than 15 percent of high school seniors (or fewer than 85 percent) condemned to special ed ghettos as allowed under NAEP guidelines. ELL students weren’t included this time around because only five states identified enough young adults in those programs to determine whether they should participate in NAEP in the first place. Based on the analysis, it is clear that some states are excluding high percentages of their most-vulnerable children, and in the process, being disingenuous about how they are serving all kids.

Michigan topped this year’s dishonor roll in reading in the reading category. The Wolverine State excluded 38 percent of high school seniors in special ed ghettos from NAEP. That’s two out of every five seniors condemned to special ed ghettos excluded from the test. Michigan’s exclusion rate is by far the highest of the 13 states participating in the exam. In fact, Michigan’s level of exclusion was 10 percentage points higher than for Tennessee, whose 28 percent exclusion rate was second-worst this year. By the way: Both states are new participants in the NAEP 12th grade this year.

Altogether, nine of the 13 states participating in NAEP 2013 excluded more than 15 percent of special ed high school seniors from the reading portion of the exam. This includes Florida, which should be the most-ashamed for landing on the list because of its otherwise-stellar reputation for advancing systemic reform. The Sunshine State excluded the third-most percentage of seniors in special ed from the reading portion of the test, keeping 24 percent of its seniors in special ed from test participation. This high level of exclusion may partly explain why the average scale score for the Sunshine State’s seniors in special ed increased by one point (from 250 to 251) between 2009 and 2013 and why the state’s overall scale score increased by three percentage points (from 283 to 286) in that same period.But it gets worse. The Sunshine State is also tied with Tennessee for second-highest level of excluding high school seniors in special ed from the math portion of the NAEP high school test. Twenty-four percent of Florida’s special ed high school seniors were excluded from the exam.

Meanwhile Arkansas earned the unenviable status of excluding the most special ed seniors from the math portion of NAEP’s high school exam. Arkansas. The Diamond State excluded 25 percent of high school seniors condemned to special ed ghettos. The test cheating apparently helped Arkansas boost its average scale score for special ed seniors by six points (from 231 to 237) and its overall scale score by five points (from 280 to 285). Overall, eight of the 13 states participating in NAEP’s exam for high school seniors excluded more than 15 percent of special ed high school seniors from the math portion of the test.

Not all states landed on this year’s honor roll. New Jersey stood out this year for excluding the fewest high school seniors trapped in special ed ghettos on both portions of the NAEP high school exam. Just 10 percent of the Garden State’s high school seniors in special ed were kept from taking the reading and math portions of the federal exam. The state also proved that it made tremendous gains in improving achievement for special ed kids without gaming the system; the average reading scale score for the Garden State’s special ed seniors increased by nine points (from 251 to 260), or nearly a full grade level, between 2009 and 2013.

But the latest NAEP data shows once again that far too many states are excluding the performance of their most-vulnerable children from being measured. When that happens, those states are admitting in deed that they are doing poorly by these children. More importantly, the states and the districts they oversee are engaging in another form of test fraud. It’s time for reformers to call out these states for permitting educational fraud and abetting academic abuse.

Photo courtesy of the Lansing State Journal.





The just-released National Assessment of Educational Progress report on 12th grade performance in reading and mathematics shows no progress from 2009 and in some cases a decline since 1992. Which means far too many of our students are not being prepared for success in higher education and in life.

First, a word about NAEP’s Grade 12 exam. Some people believe that high school seniors don’t try to do well on these tests, as they do not count for graduation and high school seniors have other things on their minds. That may be true, but relative performance between racial and ethnic groups or between students whose parents are highly educated and those whose parents did not complete high school would not, on the face of it, be affected by proms and other high school senior pastimes.

More importantly, high school seniors are, by definition, the group of students who did not leave school before reaching that grade and, very likely, the group of students who will in fact receive diplomas. Of the black students in eighth grade in the 2007-2008 school year, 83 percent were in grade 12 for the 2011-2012 school year. Similarly, of the white students in grade 8 in 2007-2009, 90 percent were in grade 12 for 2011-2012. In other words, NAEP tests grade 12 students who are most probably better at school work than many of those tested in grades 4 and 8.

That said, what did NAEP find? Looking just at reading, nationally, scores were unchanged from the most recent prior assessment in 2009 and have decreased from the first round of testing in 1992. Twenty-one years with no progress.

While white scores in reading were the same in 2013 as in 1992, Black scores have declined. The white-black achievement gap, then, has increased by 25 percent over the past 21 years. Twenty-one years with no progress.

The actual level reached was not bad for white and Asian students. Forty-seven percent of these groups were at the Proficient or above levels. Students who were the children of college graduates did slightly better: Forty-nine percent of these middle class students were at least Proficient readers by their senior year in high school. On the other hand, only 23 percent of Latino seniors and just 16 percent of Black seniors could read at the Proficient or above levels. While half of Asian and white high school seniors have been prepared by their schools for college and careers, the schools of three-quarters of Latino students and 84 percent of black students have failed to prepare them for college or intellectually demanding careers. They have prepared them for unemployment and incarceration.

The scores of black high school seniors whose parents completed college are the same as those of white students whose parents did not complete high school. While the scores of all students increased with increasing levels of parental education, the scores of black students increased the least. This is particularly troubling, as the transmission of cultural capital, such as education levels, from one generation to the next is vital for socio-economic mobility.

There is some good news in the report. Connecticut has taught all its students to read at higher than average levels for the nation and has narrowed the White-Black gap. Twenty-six percent of black students in the state read at the Proficient or above levels, as compared to the national average of 16 percent (and Tennessee’s abysmal 12 percent). As there is no reason to believe that black students in Connecticut are profoundly different from black students nationally (or in Tennessee), perhaps the difference is in the quality of schools available to black students in that state, in spite of the fact that its schools are highly segregated as an artifact of the state’s geographical socio-economic segregation. Bad schools in Connecticut are better than good schools elsewhere.

Of course it would be better if black students in Connecticut were allowed to attend good Connecticut schools, even if they do not happen to live in Darien or Westport. Unfortunately, as mothers and grandmothers such as Tanya McDowell and Marie Menard have learned the hard way, that is illegal.