menu search recent posts
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?

Sure.

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.

March 5, 2015 standard

Back in August, amid the uproar of the senseless slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown by now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, Dropout Nation detailed how the Ferguson-Florissant School District overused out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. The fact that children attending the district’s schools had a greater chance of being suspended than of being harmed by crime in their communities outraged readers and jump-started a discussion on addressing the intersection between schools and criminal justice systems.

But as it turned out, the traditional district used the Ferguson Police District as a tool to avoid addressing its obligation of providing the kids it serves with high-quality education. This became clear this week thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the widespread corruption and racialism within the law enforcement agency. For school reformers, the details are another reminder of why we must join common cause with criminal justice reform advocates to stem the school-to-prison pipeline.

Justice Department officials found that the three police officers assigned to two of Ferguson-Florissant’s high schools had a penchant for using force to address student misbehavior “when communication and de-escalation techniques would likely resolve the conflict”. More often than not, Ferguson police officers would deal with minor incidents of student misbehavior that could be better-handled through other means with arrests for disorderly conduct and failure to comply. In many cases, the police department engaged in overkill, deploying as many as 21 officers to deal with a fight between students in one of the district’s high schools, when simply acting like parents would do.

During one incident detailed in the report, officers arrested and used a stun gun on a Ferguson Middle School student after he refused to leave a classroom after an argument with one of his peers; the kid was later charged with Failure to Comply, which can lead to juvenile probation and incarceration because probation tends to indeterminate and last for years (as well as because many of the city’s poor families can’t pay the hefty fees that come alongside the sentence). In another incident, officers charged a McCluer South-Berkeley High School student with failure to comply and resisting arrest after a fight with another student. [The other student was charged with peaceful disturbance.]

Ferguson’s police officers see nothing wrong with any of this, according to the Justice Department’s report. As far as they are concerned, the more arrests they make of children, the better they are doing in their job. The fact that arresting kids for minor incidents that would be better-handled by teachers and school leaders sends kids onto the path to poverty and prison doesn’t occur to them. To the Justice Department, the attitudes of the officers are evidence that Ferguson’s police department places low priority on conflict resolution and other approaches more-appropriate for minor misbehavior by children.

But as Dropout Nation has chronicled, the problem doesn’t lie with Ferguson’s corrupt police department alone.

After all, two percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s students — 268 children — were arrested or referred to juvenile court in 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database. This is a slight uptick from the 1.9 percent of students (240 kids) arrested or referred in 2009-2010. The arrest rate for juveniles aged 10-to-17 nationwide for violent and property crimes is just around one percent.

As in every case, kids condemned to the district’s special ed ghetto bore an even greater brunt of the punishment. Four-point-nine percent (89 kids) of students condemned to special ed were arrested or referred in 2011-2012, an increase over the 3.8 percent (or 75 kids) arrested or referred two years earlier. Essentially, Ferguson is arresting and referring to court kids in special ed at a rate four times higher than the average for violent and property arrests.

When considered alongside the high levels of suspensions and other overuse of harsh discipline, it is clear that Ferguson-Florissant is using every tool available — including long arms of the law — to avoid serving children it deems unworthy of high-quality education. Even worse, by allowing officers to engage in overkill, the district and the adults who work within it are teaching Ferguson police officers — a group with a long and now-documented record of racially-driven brutality against adults black and brown — that children from poor and minority backgrounds are little more than criminals and target practice.

Ferguson-Florissant deserves as much scorn as the Ferguson Police Department. But the district isn’t the only one essentially criminalizing the lives of the youth they are supposed to serve.

After all, 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. In Indianapolis, whose troubled juvenile justice system was the subject of an expose I wrote for the Indianapolis Star nine years ago, Indiana Superior Court Judge Marilyn Moores called upon districts there to stop referring 1,500 children to her juvenile courts because all it does is set kids on the path to future criminality. [Eighty percent of kids sent to the court are never convicted of a crime, according to the judge.]

As Dropout Nation noted in November, more districts, especially those in big cities, are launching their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Because the police departments are caught up in the militarization of law enforcement that was on full display during the protests over police brutality in Ferguson last year, the war-grade weapons now common among cops are now being used in schools. This includes districts such as Compton Unified in California arming their cops with AR-15 rifles and others having grenades in their arsenals.

When districts aren’t starting their own police departments, they are bringing existing police departments (and the blunt approaches to handling matters) into schoolhouses, especially through so-called school resource officers charged with patrolling corridors. The percentage of school resource cops increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at a time when crime in schools have declined significantly. As the Justice Policy Institute notes in a report released in 2011, there is no evidence that increased presence of law enforcement in schools leads to safer schools. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ own analysis show that the school cops are often poorly trained to address problems in schools

When kids aren’t being arrested for behavior that should be settled by schools, they are subjected to the kind of law enforcement tactics that should be reserved for adults outside of schools. This includes 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, according to the SPLC attorney Ebony Howard in an interview last month with Mother Jones. 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.

What is increasingly clear every day is that traditional districts are using police departments and juvenile justice systems to avoid their responsibilities for providing children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with high-quality education. The damage upon children wrought by the failures of districts to address illiteracy (the underlying reason why children act out in school) and the overlabeling of kids as special ed cases (often also resulting from illiteracy), is compounded by discipline practices that subject kids to harsh punishment when restorative justice practices and intense remediation would work better for kids.

But American public education isn’t the only culprit here. The federal government is also part of the problem, thanks to the Community-Oriented Policing Services program originally created by the Clinton Administration to help cities fight crime. The Obama Administration is fueling the problem thanks to its launch two years ago after the Newtown Massacre of a $150 million program to help police departments and districts hire more cops to patrol schools. The administration made the move despite concerns from the Congressional Research Service and others about both its efficacy and consequences on children. The administration’s move on this front is going to complicate laudable efforts by the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department to stem overuse of harsh school discipline.

Thanks to the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, reformers have another opportunity to keep kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline. This means overhauling how we recruit and train teachers, forcing districts to use Response to Intervention techniques to identify struggling students, and pushing for restorative justice practices in place of harsh school discipline and criminalization of youth. At the same time, reformers must join together with criminal justice reform advocates to reduce and ultimately remove the presence of cops except in clear cases of violent crime. This includes pushing Congress and the Obama Administration to halt the COPS program and its school resource officer initiative, which is both wasteful and harmful to kids.

We should all be shocked about the latest revelations about Ferguson. But let’s not think the criminalization of youth in schools there isn’t happening in the rest of American public education. We must go beyond outrage to action. Right now.

 

February 25, 2015 standard

There is plenty to say about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel facing a runoff against AFT-backed Jesus Martinez after failing to gain a majority in yesterday’s mayoral elections. There’s also a few words for the news coming out today that the Obama Administration will veto a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act if it resembles anything like the legislation House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline is likely to pass out of federal lower house by week’s end. But those are discussions for later on.

Right now, however, school reformers need to have an important conversation about the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that sends our kids onto the path to poverty and prison. Especially in light of a series of reports this week detailing how school operators of all sorts are engaging in practices that do little to address the underlying educational woes at the heart of children acting out in school, it is high time for the movement to end its myopia on actions that can only be called educational abuse and malpractice.

Certainly it is good to hear from the California Department of Education that districts and other school operators reduced out-of-school suspensions by 15.2 percent between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Yet plenty of bad news remains. This includes the fact that the out-of-school suspension rates of 11.9 percent for black kids and 8.9 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native peers are more than double the 4.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate overall.

Even worse is that 67 percent of all out-of-school suspensions meted out by school operators in the Golden State aren’t for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession, but for so-called “willful defiance” or what other states call disruptive behavior that school leaders and teachers can address through more-effective means. That willful defiance can be arbitrarily determined by adults in schools — including child asking a peer for a pencil during a classroom exercise (and trying to explain his action) — means that schools are putting children onto the path to academic and social failure for no good reason at all.

Then there’s news out of New York City this week, courtesy of analysis by the local branch of the Chalkbeat collection of news sites, that 11 public charter schools meted out-of-school suspensions to three out of every 10 children attending the schools in 2011-2012. While Chalkbeat‘s determination that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy collection of charters suspended 17 percent of its students was no surprise at all; after all, Dropout Nation editorialized two years ago on its shameful approach to school discipline and the ardent defense of it by Moskowitz and an amen corner that includes Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But the fact that other big-named charter operators such as KIPP (whose D.C. branch was scrutinized along with other Beltway districts by Dropout Nation last October) and Uncommon Schools were suspending as many as 25 percent of their students, often for behaviors resulting from learning issues, is both shocking and appalling. [Uncommon says it has since overhauled its school discipline approaches.] Even worse, the news comes on the heels of a report released last week by Advocates for Children of New York that discipline policies for some charters may actually be in violation of Empire State law. Especially given the fierce debate over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to expand charter schools, the news is allowing traditionalists to argue that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to providing kids with high-quality education.

Meanwhile, as a report issued this week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows, overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t limited to school operations on the coasts. As a team led by Daniel Losen shows, three of the highest-suspending districts in the country are located in Missouri, which has become an epicenter of the battles over overhauling criminal justice and public education systems since Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson last July. [Dropout Nation noted the overuse of harsh discipline by the Ferguson-Florissant and other issues in St. Louis-area districts.] This includes the traditional district in the St Louis suburb of Normandy, whose schools Brown attended before his tragic and senseless slaying, which meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 21.7 percent of students in 2011-2012. In fact, the Show-Me State has the nation’s highest suspension rate for black children in elementary grades as well as the widest disparity in rates in suspensions between black and white students.

The overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t just borne upon children black and brown. Children in the nation’s special ed ghettos, already subjected to barbaric practices such as restraints and seclusion (also known to prisoners as solitary confinement), are suspended at rates double those of their peers in regular classrooms. In Florida, where school operators meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 37 percent of middle- and high-schoolers in special ed in 2011-2012, nearly double the already-high 19 percent average; the Sunshine State’s suspension rate for kids in special ed is the highest in the nation. Children in English Language Learner programs are also subjected to overuse of harsh school discipline. Districts in Montana, for example, meted out suspensions to 19 percent of ELL students, nearly three times the average for the overall population; since ELL students in Big Sky Country tend to be those from Native tribes, this means that a children already subjected to the worst American public education offers are abused even more.

The news of the past two weeks, along with reports on lawsuits such as that filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of eight children against the Birmingham district for using pepper spray on children, should horrify the school reform movement. The fact that some charter school operators, who should be innovating on the school discipline front, are embracing the worst of traditionalist practices should anger them especially. Given the decades of evidence from researchers such as Indiana University’s Russell Skiba and John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh that traditional school discipline practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer, reformers should be demanding charter school outfits such as Success to stop damaging children in their care.

In fact, the movement’s leading lights should be teaming up with researchers on school discipline and criminal justice reform advocates to work on addressing the underlying causes of overusing harsh discipline: The failure to provide functionally-illiterate children with intensive reading remediation; low-quality teaching and classroom management; shoddy, arbitrary school leadership; and the belief among adults in schools that kids from poor and minority backgrounds are troublemakers and thus, unworthy of high-quality education.

Yet as has always been the case when it comes to school discipline (as well as on many issues involving the school-to-prison pipeline), there is silence from many reformers when there should be outrage and action. Certainly this isn’t true of all reformers; from former California State Senator Gloria Romero (with whom your editor has co-written a series of pieces on ending the school-to-prison pipeline) to Educators4Excellence, there are reformers demanding better for our kids. They should even be applauding moves by the Obama Administration to force districts overusing suspensions to overhaul their school discipline practices as well as backing efforts such as California’s move last year to restrict schools from suspending kids for willful defiance.

Neither traditional districts nor charter operators such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy can defend subjecting our children to school discipline practices that fail to help them succeed.

But as evidenced by Petrilli in some claptrap written for the New York Times in December proclaiming that kids suspended by charters don’t care about their education, as well as in pieces from colleagues such as former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland, there are far too many instances of reformers making excuses for overusing suspensions as well as for discipline practices that should never be used by any adult proclaiming to care for kids.

These reformers will argue, as Petrilli has done in the past, that poor and minority children are somehow worse-behaved than peers from white and middle class households. Yet three decades of evidence disproves the assertion. Losen and his team once again point this out in their analysis, noting that 51 districts meted out suspensions to fewer than three percent of black kids (as well as children overall); that black students account for 25 percent or more of enrollment further proves the reality that the problem lies not with the children, but with the teachers and school leaders charged with helping them succeed.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Given that most out-of-school and in-school suspensions are meted out for what are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders to be disruptive behavior, the use of harsh school discipline is less about the children than about the adults making the decisions. And in nearly all cases, school operators use harsh school discipline as ways to excuse themselves from dealing with the learning issues of the children they are supposed to serve.

The so-called reformers will proclaim that overusing harsh school discipline helps schools maintain order. Yet as Skiba and others have pointed out ad nauseam, the highest-suspending school operations in the nation also tend to be the worst of American public education’s dropout factories and failure mills. This includes the Pontiac district in Michigan (a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary on the problems of laggard black teachers and school leaders), which meted out suspensions to 31.7 percent of elementary students in 2011-2012, the highest levels of such educational abuse in the nation.

The fact that some charter school operators are outliers to the trend doesn’t justify overusing harsh discipline, especially when restorative practices that do a better job of teaching kids how to behave are available. As charters in New Orleans (at the behest of the Recovery School District and community activists) have shown in reducing suspensions, and as charters in New York City have proven in their reduction of kids labeled special ed, charters can actually provide kids with high-quality education without resorting to traditionalist practices that should be used only for the worst situations (if at all). School choice cannot help all kids succeed if it simply means subjecting kids to bad practices

Meanwhile these reformers will even try to declare that the views of teachers and school leaders towards poor and minority children isn’t the reason for high levels of suspensions meted out to them. Such arguments are belied by the evidence. This includes Wallace’s 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices, which showed that 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 — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts.

When you look at how American public education damages black children (especially in overlabeling them as special ed cases), sensible reformers can’t help but agree with Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s determination that adults in schools  end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. By against the evidence, reformers such as Petrilli end up engaging in the intellectually sophomoric thinking that policies and practices are only racialist or biased if they explicitly targets a race or ethnicity. As history has shown over and over again, the consequences of policies and practices can be as biased against particular people as overt and explicit acts.

But reformers must understand the consequences of overusing school discipline extend beyond classrooms. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. This matters because schools account for the second-most referrals of status cases into juvenile courts as well as because districts have come to use law enforcement agencies (including the 250 police departments they control) to handle discipline. The results of this criminalization of youth (especially young black men) by schools can be seen in Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Steve Loomis argument to Politico‘s Connie Schultz that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “menacing” because he was the height of an average grown man, and thus, deserved to be murdered by police officer Timothy Loehmann within seconds of arriving on scene for playing with a toy gun.

What reformers must remember that we are like born-again Christians, having publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. This means we cannot defend harsh school discipline practices that cannot be defended empirically or otherwise. Particularly on this key culprit in pushing kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, reformers can’t take positions that even a teachers’ union such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union would look askance.

So reformers can’t remain silent on addressing overuse of harsh school discipline, or worse, aid and abet those practices. We must push all school operators — especially those with who we share common cause — to do better by all of our children.

February 24, 2015 standard

We like to say that Black lives matter, Latino lives matter, poor children’s lives matter, even English Language Learner lives matter. Yet families, especially those of children of color, have to fight so long and hard so that our children get the educational opportunities they need. This is because there are other people who don’t think their lives matter.

America made a stand for equity and for all lives when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act 13 years ago. Obstruction from states and school districts limited execution of some of those provisions. But the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision has shined important light on how many schools, including those in suburbs in states such as Connecticut (where my kids and I live) are poorly serving our children, especially those of color.

Now thanks to the Obama Administration’s No Child waivers granted to states such as Connecticut, the educational and civil rights of our children are being waved goodbye.

Thanks to the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver process, states like Connecticut, which has one of the nation’s most-persistent socioeconomic achievement gaps to ignore No Child’s Supplemental Educational Services provision and gut tutoring and other afterschool programs. Certainly states and districts have done everything they can to avoid setting aside 20 percent of Title 1 dollars for those services – and haven’t fulfilled the promise of the law. But for our children, especially in poor-performing districts such as Bridgeport, those services could help them improve their reading and numeracy.

Because of the No Child waivers, Connecticut now takes those SES dollars and hands them to locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to fund so-called professional development programs. This now means that teachers in my state can take culinary classes instead of working on improving instruction in reading and math on behalf of our children. Cooking classes over reading? Where is the accountability in that?

Even more shameful, the No Child waivers allow states to relegate poor and minority children into super-subgroups. In Connecticut, this takes the form of the “high needs subgroup” consisting of ELL students, low-income students, and kids in special ed. This essentially defeating No Child’s original intent of disaggregating data on how our children are performing so we can know how schools are serving them. Thanks to super-subgroup gamesmanship in Connecticut and elsewhere, districts can continue to funnel our children into the school-to-prison pipeline, harming children of color and those who are poor.

What is so disheartening about the No Child waivers is that the Obama Administration could have avoided all of this damage. As Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has chronicled over the past few years, peer review panels have determined that there were problems with nearly all the waiver proposals submitted to the federal government. Particularly in the case of Connecticut, the peer review panel concluded that the state department of education provided “limited information” on how the performance of subgroups would be tracked under the state’s new accountability system. The state’s super-subgroup subterfuge “could make it more difficult to identify specific subgroup needs” and let districts hide their inattention to our neediest students by overemphasizing the success of high-achieving kids from wealthier homes.

In spite of these concerns, the Obama Administration approved Connecticut’s waiver as well as those of other states at the expense of our children. Even worse, as the state moves today to convene parents and others to get the blessing for a waiver extension, it is unlikely that it will make any changes to its waiver that will actually expand accountability, choice, or help for our children most in need.

So let me be clear: Thanks to the No Child waivers, a wealthy state that home to some of the nation’s most-prestigious universities can continue to ignore one of the worst achievement gaps the country. Thanks to the waivers, the state can ignore the socioeconomically disadvantaged in its cities, the children of color in its persistently-failing schools, and the kids endangered by unsafe and poor-performing schools. Thanks to the waivers, Connecticut gets a free pass on its failure to provide high-quality education to 50,000 children, who will eventually become the adults who are underemployed and unable to qualify for meaningful work.

As a Democrat and as a black woman, I have to say the Obama Administration’s waiver effort has set our state back and has set the nation back. The waiver effort is one reason why discussions in Congress are now focused on further rolling back accounting and leaving children in color and kids in poverty behind. There’s no way we can call the waivers nothing less than a violation of our promise to our children to protect their civil rights, an abrogation of educational equality, and a setback to our communities.

It is hard enough in Connecticut to fight teachers’ unions and other entrenched interests uninterested in providing my children and kids like them with great education. This is why other parents and I are fighting this year to build upon the nation’s second Parent Trigger law and beat back efforts to place a moratorium on expanding charter schools. But thanks to the No Child waivers, the fight we are waging is even harder.

February 10, 2015 standard

Few states have done as poorly on expanding school choice as Virginia and Maryland, the two states that are home to many of the Beltway players in the school reform movement. Thanks to opposition from suburban districts such as Fairfax County and charter authorizing policies that essentially give traditional districts say over whether charters can be opened in the locales in which they operate (which is akin to allowing McDonald’s decide whether Wendy’s can open restaurants next store) just 58 charters operate in the two states, far fewer than Colorado alone (which is home to 197 of them).

So it is good to see the Washington Post call out politicians in both states for their failures to expand choice for children, especially those from poor and minority households who have long been denied high-quality teaching and curricula. It is also good to see that the Old Dominion’s Republicans in control of the state legislature are looking to pass a constitutional amendment creating a state charter school authorizing body to bypass obstruction by traditional districts, and that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is proposing to overhaul the Old Line State’s restrictive charter school law.

Yet the need for systemic reform in Virginia and Maryland extend beyond increasing the number of charters. Political leaders in both  states must address the barriers that keep so many children, especially those black and Latino, from attaining the college-preparatory learning they need for lifelong success.

As you know, Dropout Nation touched upon these issues within both states last year in a series of reports on how districts in the Beltway (including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland as well as Fairfax and Arlington in Virginia) provided far too few kids with college-preparatory coursework while subjecting them to overuse of harsh traditional school discipline. Yet the issues facing the districts within the D.C. suburbs merely exemplify the problems within both the Maryland and Georgia when it comes to addressing the education crisis within both states.

As Dropout Nation revealed two years ago, Maryland has a history of excluding high numbers of kids from special ed ghettos and English Language Learner students from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, if those students weren’t excluded from the federal test of academic achievement, it is likely that the Old Line State’s performance on NAEP would have declined significantly — and so would its illusory reputation as home to the nation’s best-performing districts.

Virginia’s own dishonesty has been well-documented. This includes how its proficiency cut scores on state tests are inflated to Lake Woebegone levels. It was also caught setting Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that essentially allowed districts to get away with subjecting poor and minority children to low expectations. Only the embarrassment faced by the Obama Administration for blessing the mess as part of the Old Dominion’s No Child waiver forced the state to back off that plan.

Now, as Dropout Nation‘s analysis of college-preparatory data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection shows, both Virginia and Maryland are doing poorly in helping kids gain the readiness they need for success in the traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up the nation’s higher education system:

Far Too Few Children Are Taking Advanced Placement Courses: When high schoolers take A.P. courses, especially those in math and history, they are gaining critical preparation. Just as importantly, for black and Latino children, A.P. course-taking boosts their chances of graduating high school and moving on to college; as former National Math and Science Initiative President Tom Luce noted a few years ago, when more black kids take A.P., graduation rates increase by 10 percentage points.

Yet just 25 percent of Maryland’s high school students and 21.1 percent of peers in Virginia took A.P. courses in 2011-2012. This means that as more than three-quarters of high schoolers in both states didn’t take A.P. during that school year. Even worse, the levels of A.P. course-taking for black and Latino children, as well as for those considered to have Limited English Proficiency (and thus, are English Language Learners), is even lower than statewide averages. Just 16.9 percent of black high schoolers in Maryland, along with one in five Latino high peers, and 9.1. percent of LEP high schoolers took A.P. courses; meanwhile 51.2 percent of Asian high schoolers and three-in-10 white peers took A.P. that year. The numbers are even worse in Virginia: Only one-in-10 black high school students, 15.6 percent of Latino peers, and 5.5 percent of LEP students took Advanced Placement courses that year, versus 39.6 percent of Asian high school students and 24.5 percent of white counterparts.

Not Enough Kids Take Advanced Math Courses: As you already know, trigonometry is critical for kids who want to get into high-paying blue-collar jobs such as welding, while statistics is an increasingly important skill for those who want to get into marketing and other white-collar careers. These, along with other forms of advanced math, are especially important for kids from poor and minority households to master in order to move out of poverty into the middle class. But in both Virginia and Maryland, few kids are being provided them.

Just 18.4 percent of high school students in Maryland and 17.6 percent of peers in Virginia took advanced math courses in 2011-2012. Essentially, this means that four out of every five high schoolers didn’t take any kind of advanced math that year. The numbers are even worse when you look by subgroup: In Maryland, 13.2 percent of black students, 14.4 percent of Latino peers, and 5.9 percent of LEP students took some form of advanced math; this is versus 29.9 percent of Asian high schoolers and 22.9 percent of white peers. Meanwhile in Virginia, just 11.1 percent of black high schoolers, 12.9 percent of Latino peers, and 5.6 percent of LEP students took advanced math; this is versus 27.9 percent of Asian high school students and one-in-five white peers.

Physics Courses Are Rarely Provided: In an age in which careers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine are the gateways into the middle class, it is important for children to take physics and other science courses. As Harvard University’s Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Thai (now of the University of Virginia) determined 15 years ago, two years of physics learning (along with calculus instruction) can make the difference between success and failure for high school grads taking physics in college.

But Maryland and Virginia do poorly in providing physics coursework to high school students. Just 9.3 percent of Maryland high-schoolers and 9.5 percent of peers in Virginia took physics in 2011-2012. Put simply, four out of every five high school students in both states didn’t take a physics course that year.

As you can expect, even fewer kids from poor and minority households took physics. In Maryland, a mere 7.5 percent of black students, along with 5.5 percent of Latino peers, and three percent of LEP students took physics that year. This is versus a whopping one-in-two Asian students and a low one-out-of-10 white peers. Things are little better in Virginia: Five-point-five percent of black high school students, 9.9 percent of Latino peers, and 7.6 percent of LEP students took physics; 17.5 percent of Asian students and an amazingly low 9.5 percent of white peers took physics.

Not Enough Middle-Schoolers Take Algebra 1: The road to college-preparatory learning in high school begins early. One key step: Introductory algebra courses which kids can take to gain the math knowledge and preparation needed to take on higher-level work. But both Virginia and Maryland do poorly in providing Algebra 1.

If you read Dropout Nation‘s report last week on Algebra 1 course-taking, you know that Virginia has made some strong strides in providing kids with the college-prep course. Still, only 29 percent of the Old Dominion’s middle-schoolers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. And with only a fifth of black and Latino seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1 (versus two-fifths of Asian middle-schoolers and 31.6 percent of white peers), poor and minority children are being shortchanged of opportunities for college-prep learning. [Dropout Nation is developing data on LEP middle-schoolers since the Department of Education doesn’t properly break down those numbers.]

As for Maryland? Twenty-nine percent of seventh- and eighth-graders in the Old Line State took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. So far so good? But this still means that seven-in-10 middle-schoolers never took the course. Maryland also does slightly better when it comes to providing introductory algebra to black and Latino children: Twenty six-point-seven percent of black middle-school students and 25.8 percent of Latino peers take Algebra 1 versus 27.8 percent of white and 22.5 percent of Latino peers. But while there is relative equality in course-taking in the Old Line State, it doesn’t mean that kids are getting what they deserve. The reality is that far too few middle-schoolers in the state are getting college-preparatory math.

Certainly these data points alone don’t provide a full picture of how districts and other school operators in the two states are performing in providing all kids with college-preparatory curricula and high-quality education. But they does illustrate what other data has shown for a while.

The first? That all children in Maryland and Virginia are poorly-served when it comes to being provided the college-preparatory learning that is critical for lifelong economic and social success. This is especially true for black and Latino families in Fairfax County and Montgomery County, both of which continue to rest on their (mostly-undeserved) laurels as bastions of academic excellence. As sociologist Karyn Lacey revealed in Blue-Chip Black, her study of black life in the D.C. suburbs, families have found themselves fighting hard against school leaders and teachers unwilling to help their kids take challenging college prep courses that will help them attain future success.

This is especially shameful when you consider that both states are home to some of the nation’s most-prestigious institutions of higher education, as well as the home bases of the school reform movement’s high-profile players. Particularly for Virginia, the fact that it continues with its low-quality reading and math standards instead of adopting Common Core’s higher-quality standards means that it is assisting districts in denying college-prep learning to kids stuck in district schools.

Secondly: That the restrictions on school choice extend beyond the low number of charters or the lack of vouchers, education saving accounts and tax credit programs. The gatekeeping to college-preparatory courses (most-notably gifted and talented programs) by teachers and guidance counselors, which begin in elementary school, keep far too many kids (especially those black and brown) from getting onto the path to higher ed completion and success in adulthood. Districts even find ways to get around mandates like that of Virginia requiring middle-schoolers to take Algebra 1 by eighth grade.

Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County, Va., is one of the Old Dominion’s few charters. But lack of independent public schools is just one example of restrictions on choice for kids in Virginia and Maryland.

These restrictions on choice, both resulting from the obsolete traditional district model that predominates in both states (along with its penchant for scale over quality), along with the practices of rationing high-quality education (based on the racialist belief that only white middle-class children deserved high-quality education), are damaging to these states at a time when both are slowly becoming majority-minority. In Maryland, white students already account for just 43 percent of K-12 enrollment (as of 2010).

The third reality: That black school leaders in Maryland and Virginia, along with politicians who are supposed to do well by black children, are doing little to help our children gain the knowledge they need for success. This is especially clear when consider that just 6.8 percent of black high-schoolers Baltimore City and 13.6 percent of peers in Prince George’s County — both of which are led by black school leaders and politicians — took A.P. courses in 2011-2012, levels lower than the 23.7 percent for Montgomery County (which has never done all that well by black children, either).

When these facts are considered in light of such antics as Virginia State Sen. Henry Marsh’s help in voting down a proposed school choice law four years ago, the inaction of black leaders on helping black children succeed is just plain unacceptable.

Finally, Maryland and Virginia are continuing a legacy of shortchanging minority children that began long before the advent of American public education. From the move by Maryland’s colonial government in 1664 to enslave all black people brought into its borders, to the Massive Resistance efforts in Virginia after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, both states condemned generations of black and brown children to the economic and social abyss.

While slavery and segregation are no longer on the books, the inaction (and in some cases, active opposition) of political leaders on systemic reform is damaging another generation of children from minority households. It is high time for both states to make amends for the harm done to generations of children.

Expanding charters and other forms of choice are important steps in advancing systemic reform. For both Maryland and Virginia, it means passing laws allowing for state governments to authorize charters as well as allow for other players (especially the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland) to do so. Given that districts are both unwilling (and in many cases, unable) to do a proper job in authorizing and oversight, it is time to end their ability to do so.

But charter school expansion isn’t enough. Both states must get serious about other reforms. This means giving families the ability to choose an array of college-prep courses from an array of providers (including online outfits as well as charters and those few traditional districts serious about providing high-quality education). Though Maryland Gov. Hogan must deal with other education-related fiscal issues, he should offer up legislation that allows for course choice.

It also means overhauling how children are provided teaching and curricula in the early grades so they can be on the path to success in higher education. Particularly for Virginia, adopting Common Core would go a long way toward improving curricula in districts; the passage of legislation last month by the state senate to ban any attempt to adopt the standards (a move that, unfortunately, wasn’t going to happen anyway) shows an especially egregious lack of seriousness on systemic reform.

Another step lies on the leadership front. Maryland made an important step two years ago when it gave Prince George’s County’s main government and its executive, Rushern Baker, partial control over the operations of the school district. The state should move to hand it full control, as well as place other county governments in charge of district operations; along with Virginia, the Old Line State already gives counties fiscal approval over district budgets and revenue. Both states should also develop new ways to overhaul districts that aren’t making the grade; this includes passing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over schools within their own communities, as well as create special districts similar to that of the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

Finally, reformers who live in both states (especially the Beltway crowd) need to stand up and be counted. It is absolutely hypocritical for those in the movement to loudly pushing for systemic reform in other states while staying silent in the communities in which they live. Given their influence and connections within their states, as well as skills on the policy and institution-building fronts, they should be cajoling,and shaming politicians and school leaders in both states.

Maryland and Virginia have lagged on systemic reform for far too long — and to the detriment of our children. This must end. Now.