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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.

February 9, 2015 standard

Few would quarrel with the proposition that the purpose of schools is to educate children. And yet every day the educations of young Black women are disproportionately interrupted, if not terminated, by corporal punishment, arrests, expulsions and out-of-school suspensions.

Research has shown that teachers, school and district administrators are much more likely to punish young Black women than they are to punish White and Asian female peers for similar activities. These actions by teachers, school and district administrators make it much more likely that the school careers of Black girls subjected to them will end before high school graduation.

The red herrings that are all too often immediately deployed to defend these disparities in school discipline data are that discipline is needed for schooling to take place. This usually comes in the form of statement like: “We can’t let a few disruptive students keep others from learning”. Others tend to argue these days that overuse of harsh school discipline is much worse for young Black men than for female peers.

But based on the evidence, both assertions are invalid.

The massive, in-effect “double-blind,” study of discipline issues in Texas by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments has proven as conclusively as possible in these matters that the school discipline activities of adults do not correlate with the activities of the children: they correlate with the racial attitudes of the teachers and administrators.

The frequency of student actions requiring intervention is described by the data concerning White and Asian students. The differences between that baseline and the school discipline data concerning young Black women is itself a measure of the racism and ethnic prejudice expressed in this way—consciously or not—by teachers, school and district administrators.

As to the second red herring, that school discipline disparities are worse for young Black men —they are not, as a matter of fact, worse proportionately within gender and, in any case, the fact that young Black men are treated appallingly does not justify treating young Black women badly. It could be argued that given the enormous damage done to the Black community by the operations of the school-to-prison pipeline for Black men and the limited earning capacity resulting from it, not to mention the much reduced longevity of Black men, it is all the more important that young Black women do well in school and graduate career- and college-ready. Racially- and ethnically-based school discipline actions stand in the way of this goal.

There are enormous, racially- and ethnically-based disparities in the application of school discipline procedures in districts with large numbers of young Black women. Districts that expel or suspend disproportionate numbers of Black girls are also likely to disproportionately send them to the police. Some districts, such as Caddo Parish in Louisiana; Memphis; the Atlanta, Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb districts in Georgia; Chicago, Baltimore and New York City are particularly liable to resort to actions that push young Black women out of school.

Other districts continue to use “corporal punishment,” that is, beatings. Administrators in the school districts of Montgomery County, Alabama, and Richmond County, Ga., between them, used wooden paddles on 115 Black girls and just two White girls in 2011, the most recent year for which national data is available. Caddo Parish, Louisiana, school officials paddled 79 Black girls and ten White girls.

Adults in the District of Columbia paddled fourteen Black girls and no White girls. The policies of these districts seem to permit and even encourage actions that are indistinguishable from sexual battery as defined by their state laws.

Less sensationally, but, in the long run, perhaps more damaging, Fulton County, expelled without educational services, proportionately eleven times as many young Black women as young White women. Memphis and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, expelled more than six times the percentage of Black as of White girls. Cobb and Chatham counties, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville expelled four times as many Black as White girls. Chicago expelled 85 Black girls and no White girls; Atlanta expelled 39 Black girls and no White girls.

[The African American Policy Forum released a report last week that focuses on how American public education pushes out young Black women. I contributed research to it.]

What can be done? Districts with excessive reliance on expulsions and suspensions can be reformed. For example, the Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice Program utilizes a three-part model to decrease referrals for suspensions and expulsions and increase the feeling of safety in schools. The model includes “prevention, repairing harm & alternatives to suspension, and supported re-entry.” Staff and students are trained on alternatives to suspension and expulsion, to build community and prevent violence. Teachers and other staff are encouraged to talk with students in order to find ways to keep them in school, rather than talking only with one another about how to push students out of school.

Of course, programs like that in Oakland have a basic requirement: local policy-makers—superintendents, members of boards of education, school-site administrators—must wish to end racially-based disparities in the way that students are viewed and treated.

Don’t forget to check out Michael Holzman’s latest book, The Chains of Black America:  The Hammer of the Police, the Anvil of the Schools.

February 5, 2015 standard

Some 645,575 seventh- and eighth-graders are took Algebra 1in the seven states that have mandated it, in 2011-2012. The good news is that eight percent more middle-schoolers are taking course than in 2009-2010. But it still means that just 29 percent of all middle-schoolers in those states — and even fewer from poor and minority households — are taking this critical college-preparatory course. The result: Far too many of our children are not getting the challenging curricula they need for success in adulthood.

These are just some of the lessons gleaned by Dropout Nation in its latest analysis of U.S. Department of Education data on the success and failure of states and districts in providing Algebra 1 to children. And reformers should take these lessons to heart in their efforts to help all children attain the knowledge they, their families, and their communities need and deserve.

Nearly two years ago, Dropout Nation took a look at this issue as a response to the contention by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution that that there was no evidence that increasing enrollment in Algebra 1 and other advanced math courses led to improvements in student achievement. At the time, your editor noted that a critical flaw in the education scholar’s argument is that he never bothered to consider one of the most-important reasons why introductory algebra course-taking didn’t have any impact: Because few middle-school students are actually being taught introductory algebra in the first place.

As seen in California, where districts spent 16 years opposing that state’s Algebra 1 mandate, obstruction by bureaucrats and politicians, along with traditionalists including affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, can easily render reform initiatives meaningless. This reality cannot always be derived from analyzing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (as Loveless had done). It did become clear from looking at reports submitted to the federal government by the Golden State, along with Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia, and Washington who also mandate Algebra 1 coursework.

Two years later, and after numerous reports on the need for our kids to get on the path to traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that are the key training grounds in American higher education, Dropout Nation has taken a look at the issue to see if the seven states surveyed have improved upon their woeful numbers. While Loveless has doubled-down on his assertions (especially claiming that half of eighth-graders are taking Algebra 1, a statement made without any citation), your editor actually looked at real data. This involved using data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights database, the most-comprehensive collection on whether states, school operators, and schools are providing high-quality education, as well as enrollment information from the Common Core of Data. Once again, the results were revealing.

Only Two States Provide Algebra to More Than a Third of Middle-Schoolers: One of the states, Minnesota, made tremendous progress on this front, with two-fold increase in the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking introductory algebra. Even more importantly, the Land of Lakes is the only state which provides Algebra 1 to a third or more of children in every subgroup. Forty-three percent of black middle-schoolers and 41.5 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1, more than double the 16.4 percent and 16.1 percent rates for both groups two years earlier.

The other state with more than a third of middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 is California, which had a mandate for districts to provide the course from 1997 to 2012. Thirty four-point-eight percent of all Golden State seventh- and eighth-graders took introductory algebra in 2011-2012, a 16 percent increase over levels two years earlier. This includes 32.2 percent of Latino middle-school students and 34 percent of black students, along with 36 percent of white middle-schoolers and 41 percent of Asian peers.

Five States Bolstered Algebra 1 Providing by Double-Digits: Along with the aforementioned California and Minnesota, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington State also increased the percentage of kids taking introductory algebra. The Evergreen State, which had implemented its Algebra 1 mandate in 2008 (or two years before reporting its numbers for the first time to the federal government in 2010), increased the percentage of middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 by 59 percent between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012.

Meanwhile the Bay State increased the percentage of middle-school students taking introductory algebra by 29.5 percent over a two-year period. And the Old Dominion increased the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1 by 26 percent in that same period; this includes a 33 percent increase in the percentage of black middle-schoolers taking the course, and a 42 percent increase in Latino middle school students.

But the good news in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington State isn’t good enough. This is because none of the states have succeeded in providing Algebra 1 to at least 25 percent or more of black and Latino middle-schoolers. Just 18 percent of black seventh- and eighth-graders in Washington State took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012, the third-lowest course-taking rate among the seven states on the list; the Evergreen State also has the third-lowest course-taking rate (14.2 percent) for Latino students on the list.

Florida and Pennsylvania Are Trailing Behind: The Sunshine State has led the nation on advancing systemic reform for most of the past three decades. But save for implementing Common Core, it has long-failed its children when it comes to providing college-preparatory math. It hasn’t turned things around on the Algebra 1 front. Just 19.2 percent of all Florida middle-schoolers took the course in 2011-2012, a one percent increase over the previous two years. Even worse, just 13.6 percent of black middle-schoolers and 16.4 percent of Latino peers taking Algebra 1 in 2011-2012, declines from, respectively, 13.9 percent and 16.6 percent for each subgroup two years earlier.

Meanwhile 22.6 percent of Keystone State middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1, unchanged from levels two years earlier. Even worse, the percentages of black and Latino students taking the course declined significantly. Just 11.1 percent of black middle-schoolers took introductory algebra, a 55 percent decrease over levels in 2009-2010, while the 11.6 percent of Latino seventh- and eight-graders taking Algebra 1  is a 48 percent decline from levels two years earlier.

Common Core Implementation Hasn’t Led to Declines in Algebra 1 Course-Taking: An underlying reason for opposition to implementing the reading and writing standards from some Algebra 1 activists such as Stanford University’s Williamson C. Evers is the fear that fewer middle-schoolers would be provided introductory algebra. This is because Common Core doesn’t require instruction in the subject until freshman year of high school, and therefore, make it less likely that children (especially those from poor and minority households) will take other advanced mathematics before graduating. Yet as the data shows, this hasn’t happened so far.

None of the five states surveyed that had implemented Common Core’s math standards — California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington State — experienced declines in the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1. More importantly, California, Massachusetts and Washington increased the percentage of middle-schoolers taking the course by an average of 34.8 percent.

One reason why Common Core implementation had no negative effect on Algebra 1 course-taking? With Massachusetts and Washington State, , it was because both states still required districts to provide those courses to middle-schoolers — and made adjustments to the standards to allow for it. Contrary to the arguments of Common Core opponents, states can implement high-level standards and still meet their introductory algebra mandates.

California did end the Algebra 1 requirement as part of its Common Core implementation effort; but as I noted two years ago, this came after a decade-long battle in which the Golden State’s districts successfully opposed the state’s effort to implement the introductory algebra mandate. The move was all but a done deal by the time the state board of education voted in 2013 to end the requirement. So fears of Common Core foes that the standards would set kids back are unfounded so far.

Black and Latino Children Are Still Losing Out on College-Prep Opportunities: Twenty-three point-six percent of black middle-school students and 21.7 percent of Latino peers in the seven states surveyed took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. This is better than the levels of 17.2 percent and 16.8 percent for black and Latino students two years earlier. But fewer black and Latino children are being provided this key college-preparatory course than 38 percent of Asian students and 31 percent of white peers.

Sadly, this isn’t surprising: Black and Latino children are less-likely to attend schools providing Algebra 1 than other peers, are often kept out of gateway gifted-and-talented courses by teachers and guidance counselors who control access to those classes, and are often subjected to low-quality math instruction and curricula in the early grades. As a result black and Latino children are often kept off the path to higher ed completion and ultimately, economic and social success.

The good news is that American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander children, who have also been shortchanged of college-preparatory curricula, are actually getting access to Algebra 1 coursework. One out of every two Native Hawaiian children and 36.3 percent of Native peers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. Native Hawaiian children were included among Asian students before 2011-2012, so there is no comparison data from 2009-2010. But for Native students, the numbers is nearly a three-fold increase from levels two years earlier.

Certainly there are many reasons why middle-school Algebra 1 course-taking levels matter. One reason: Because so few kids will take any other college-preparatory course in high school if they haven’t taken introductory algebra during their middle school years. The other: Because taking Algebra 1 in seventh- and eighth-grade (as well as in high school), with healthy doses of support and high-quality math teaching, can help kids achieve success later on. As the work of Peter A. Cookson Jr. (now of the American Institutes for Research) and Constance Clark (formerly of the now-defunct Education Sector), as well as Allan W. Gottfried of California State University, Fullerton), have shown, more-challenging curricula (along with high-quality teaching) actually works.

There’s also the reality that far too many children from poor and minority households who are high-achieving– including the 3.4 million identified by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in 2007 — are rarely provided such courses. This is because of the very gatekeeping by teachers and guidance counselors that begins in early grades. As the National Math and Science Initiative and others have proven in efforts to bring more low-income and minority children into Advanced Placement courses, opening the doors to all expands opportunity to nurture their potential.

But providing introductory algebra in middle school remains a controversial issue, with Loveless and others arguing that doing so does little more than damage struggling students. While at least one study shows that students struggling with Algebra 1 in eighth-grade do end up passing the course by sophomore year of high school, other studies so far raise questions about how introductory algebra is being implemented in real time.

Yet Loveless and others fail to address a few inconvenient questions. The first: Whether kids are getting such coursework in the first place. As the data shows, just because states (along with districts) mandate Algebra 1 doesn’t mean it actually happens; as shown in the case of Charlotte Mecklenberg County district in North Carolina (where accelerated algebra was briefly implemented), struggling middle-schoolers had just a one-in-six chance of taking the course, which meant few students actually took it.

The second issue undiscussed? That students are rarely getting the support (in the form of intensive math remediation, high-quality teaching and additional algebra courses during middle school) they need in the first place, especially as a result of low-quality teaching. As shown in a 2013 study of Chicago high school students by Kalena Cortes of Texas A&M, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University, and Takako Nomi of St. Louis University, double-dosing is particularly helpful in helping kids gain the preparation needed to graduate from K-12 and higher ed down the road.

So it is important to provide all middle schoolers with Algebra 1. This includes developing programs that can support even kids struggling in math as they take on the challenge of college-preparatory coursework. Embracing a model such as that of legendary civil rights activist Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, which helps kids in high school master algebra, could be helpful at the middle school level.

But isn’t enough to provide algebra As the National Council on Teacher Quality and others have shown, far too many ed schools are poorly preparing aspiring teachers to do the hard work of teaching algebra and other math in the first place. There’s also the reality that the path to college-preparatory coursework must start earlier by providing all children, especially those from poor and minority households, with high-quality math curricula and instruction during the early grades.

As Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago, along with  Mimi Engel and F. Chris Curran of Vanderbilt University, determined last year, providing kindergartners with instruction in advanced number concepts, and basic arithmetic such as addition and subtraction usually taught in first grade, helps children begin the important mastery of mathematics they will need to take on algebra years later. And as a team led by Maria Blanton of TERC determined in a study released in December, even third-graders can master algebra if given the proper instruction and curricula.

Our children need to be introduced to algebra and other college-preparatory coursework as early as possible. It can be done successfully. And it should be.

January 10, 2015 standard

There is little hope that the Obama Administration’s proposal this week to subsidize community college attendance for any student who enrolls at least part-time and maintains a 2.5 grade point average will be passed in the next two years. The fact that congressional Republicans have made it their goal to keep the administration from attaining anything other than the most-minor of legislative victories means that the plan is dead on arrival; that movement conservatives activists are already criticizing the plan for reasons legitimate and otherwise also make its passage unlikely. Beyond the opposition, there’s also the fact that the administration’s plan will do more for children from middle class households (who can already afford the cost of community college) than for those from poor and minority backgrounds who are denied high-quality education (and thus, opportunities to attain any kind of higher education).

Yet in offering the community college plan, the Obama Administration deserves credit for reminding all of us, especially some reformers who have lost their way, about why all children need to complete higher education: Because the prospects are bleak for high school dropouts and even those high school graduates without some form of higher education.

This reality, emphasized by the Obama Administration plan, was further highlighted yesterday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic with its release of December employment numbers. The news that seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate officially declined by two-tenths of a percent (to 5.6 percent) is belied by the woeful job numbers for dropouts and high school grads who never have never attended (or completed) the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education.

The unemployment for dropouts aged 25 and older of 9.1 percent is just 1.3 percentage points lower than reported numbers for the same period last year. More importantly, the unemployment rate for dropouts is almost double the 4.8 percent rate for high school grads who attended or completed some form of higher education, and four times the 2.7 percent rate for collegians with baccalaureate and graduate degrees. That’s just for the dropouts who are in the workforce: Three-fifths of dropouts aged 25 and older aren’t in the workforce at all — and because of their lack of skills, won’t likely return.

Meanwhile the 5.3 percent unemployment rate for high school grads aged 25 and older without some form of higher education is 1.8 percent lower than in the same period last year. This seems like good news until you keep in mind that more of them are likely to be unemployed than peers who have some higher education and collegians with baccalaureate and graduate degrees. Just as importantly, with 45.4 percent of high school grads without higher education not in the workforce at all, many of them are likely never going to re-enter the workforce anytime in the future.

The long-term prospects for dropouts and high school grads without higher education haven’t gotten better over the last eight years. The unemployment rates for both groups are, respectively, 2.3 percentage points and one percentage point lower than levels in December 2006, just before the financial meltdown that led to the nation’s slowly-retreating economic malaise. Workforce participation rates have also declined; the percentage of high school grads without higher education in the workforce has declined by 5.4 percent within the last eight years.

Since dropouts and high school grads without higher education are among the 2.8 million unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, their prospects for future employment is even dimmer. While there are officially 1.1 million fewer long-term unemployed Americans than in 2013, this is only because of the decision last year by the federal government (resulting from sparring between the administration, Senate Democrats and House Republicans) to not extend unemployment benefits to them. Those out of work for longer than six months still make up 31.9 percent of all unemployed Americans, versus 16.2 percent of unemployed workers in the same period in 2006.

Also keep this in mind: Dropouts and high school grads without higher education also make up many of the 2.3 million so-called marginally attached Americans (or unemployed job-seekers not counted in official unemployment numbers because they usually cannot collect any more jobless benefits and, thus, not considered looking for work); those numbers haven’t improved within the last year and in fact, the number of marginally-attached workers is 1 million more than in the same period eight years ago.

Certainly the hangover from the economic malaise — including the shortcomings of the stimulus efforts undertaken by both the Obama Administration and that of George W. Bush, as well as the consequences of the Affordable Care Act — is one reason why so many dropouts and high school grads without higher education are unemployed. But it isn’t the predominant factor. The reality is that for both groups, their low levels of reading, math, and science proficiency renders them unfit to take on the middle class wage-paying knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs in fast-growing sectors. That the industries that used to be their go-tos are either contracting or not growing economically — including construction (which employed 2.5 million fewer employees last year than in 2006) and retail (which employs 1.7 million few workers last year than eight years ago) — means that those dropouts and high school grads who are unemployed will remain so.

For poor and minority communities, higher levels of education equal lower levels of poverty and unemployment.

This is a problem because high levels of education are key to the poor emerging into the middle class. Twenty-seven percent of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners were high school dropouts and another 36 percent were high school grads without some form of higher education, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. High school dropouts and high school grads with no college education made up only nine percent of the highest-earning fifth of the nation’s households, and just a quarter of those in the fourth-highest earning fifth of all households. The median weekly wage of $472 for a high school dropout is 35 percent lower than that for a high school graduate with some form of higher education and three-fifths lower than that a high school grad with a baccalaureate; the median weekly wage of $651 for a high school grad without higher education training is half that of a peer with a baccalaureate.

As your editor noted nearly two years ago, lack of higher education is particularly problematic  for workers from poor and minority backgrounds, who are the most-likely to not have been provided high-quality education needed to gain it. After all, black high school dropouts and high school grads without higher ed experience account for 40 percent of all African-Americans in the civilian population age 25 and older and a whopping 58 percent of Latinos; 34 percent of whites and 23 percent of Asians were dropouts and high school grads without college experience. The lower the levels of education in a community, the more-susceptible it is to economic and social distress. Unemployment rates for black high school dropouts 25 and older stood at 20.5 percent in December, 3.8 percentage points higher than at the same time in 2013.

Simply put, higher education is critical for lifelong success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. But it isn’t just about economics alone. The more children from poor backgrounds attain higher levels of education, the more-likely they are to avoid the pernicious cycle of bad decisions, lack of knowledge, and dearth of resources that keep them in poverty.

As Dropout Nation pointed out last August, higher education is key to keeping young women from falling into out-of-wedlock childhood and ending up in poverty; this is because a longer a young woman is in school, the more-likely she will delay pregnancy until she attains the education needed to gain middle class-paying jobs critical to sustaining marriages and raising children. Higher education also keeps young men out of the school-to-prison pipeline, stopping them from ending up in the woeful economic positions that lead them to makethe kind of desperate decisions to put food on their table that land them in prison, a point highlighted on Thursday by Contributing Editor Michael Holzman in his piece on Chicago’s educational and criminal justice woes. Hoping that earning a high school diploma and avoiding pregnancy alone will keep poor kids out of poverty, an argument offered up by some traditionalists and reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (along with the claim that only some children should attend and complete higher education), ignores economic and social reality. Higher education is key to transforming communities and those who live in them.

So the Obama Administration’s theory behind its effort to subsidize community college learning is correct. But it won’t work without addressing two issues. The first? How higher education institutions fail to aid first-generation collegians, many of whom come from poor and minority households that have no previous experience with such matters as annually filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The second: Continually tackling the nation’s education crisis, the underlying reason why just 18 percent of high school freshmen graduate with a baccalaureate by age 25 (and why college graduation rates for children from poor and minority backgrounds are even lower).

This starts with providing all children with the kind of high-quality teaching and comprehensive, college-preparatory curricula and standards children need to attain knowledge needed to succeed in higher education and in career. [The Obama Administration deserves credit for advancing reform efforts on this front, especially through Race to the Top.] This includes continuing the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, along with overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and manage teachers; that Common Core’s standards are higher quality than those most states had in place before its development should give pause to politicians in states such as Tennessee, where fores of Common Core are pushing to halt implementation. Aligning curricula with high-quality standards is also important to making the promise of the standards a reality for our children.

But the focus cannot be on standards, teachers, and curricula alone Districts and other school operators must be held accountable for improving student achievement. This is where the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been weakened substantially by the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit (and could end up being eviscerated altogether if congressional Republicans and traditionalists have their way) come in. By using annual test data to track how districts are educating children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, states, families and reformers can advance efforts that will lead to kids getting the knowledge that they need to attain higher education and lifelong success.

Meanwhile we must also provide families with the school choice and Parent Power they need to provide high-quality education to their children. This includes developing data systems that allow for families to make smarter choices, implementing Parent Trigger measures that allow parents to overhaul schools in their own neighborhoods, expanding high-quality charter schools, and launching online learning options. Considering how poorly traditional districts do in providing kids with guidance counselors who can help them stay on the path to higher education success, allowing families to choose alternatives would be helpful.

The Obama Administration’s community college plan won’t become reality. But the proposal, along with the latest unemployment data, is another reminder of the need to help all kids get on the path to higher education and success in an increasingly knowledge-based world.