The Obama Administration’s move last month to award $1.2 million in Tribal Sovereignty grants to six American Indian tribes to help them take over Bureau of Indian Education schools on their reservations is just the latest step in its belated overhaul of the agency. While there are questions as to whether the administration’s overall plan for the federal government’s school system — including handing over the 58 remaining schools it operates to tribes — will pass muster with a Congress that will soon be fully under Republican control, the grants are a key step toward executing it.
Yet as the Government Accountability Office noted late last week in its latest report, BIE’s financial affairs (along with its overall operations) are still in shambles. School reformers need to pressure both the Obama Administration and Congress to do right by Native children by fully overhauling BIE’s operations.
The failures of the federal agency, a hybrid of traditional school district, charter school authorizer, and state education agency, has been well-documented. A scathing GAO report released last year detailed how the U.S. Department of the Interior has thoroughly mismanaged BIE’s operations. This includes six top executives since 2007, and Interior’s unwillingness to give BIE control — either through in-house management or even sophisticated management of contracts with vendors similar to that done by private-sector companies through its procurement and outsourcing functions — over its own operations. These failures on Interior’s part is one immediate reason why BIE has done so poorly in providing Native students with high-quality education.
But as GAO notes in its latest report, BIE’s failures extend even to simple monitoring of the 115 schools operated by tribes. Such failures on the oversight front bode poorly for the Obama Administration’s plan to fully transform the agency into a state education department.
Thanks to audits conducted annually, BIE knows that 24 schools have misspent $13.8 million in federal Indian School Equalization Program funding on unallowable expenses. Yet the agency has done nothing to follow-up on the evidence, either by conducting second audits to determine the weaknesses of the schools’ financial controls, or to sanction the schools and tribes that operate them for the malfeasance. For example, the BIE found out four years ago that one school gave a no-interest loan to a local school district using $1.2 million in federal ISEP funding, yet has done little to either recover the money or “ensure that its funds are not misused again”. BIE has also done little to sanction or increase oversight over another school, which had to materially restate its financial reports by $1.9 million over three years.
This isn’t exactly shocking because BIE doesn’t actually have a financial monitoring system in the first place. Written procedures to oversee school spending are non-existent. The monitoring schools with shaky financial controls are rarely written down. BIE can’t even answer conclusively whether it even conducts site visits of schools caught misspending money. It is little wonder why BIE didn’t notice that one of its schools failed to submit audit reports for the past three years — until GAO analysts alerted the agency to the oversight. [BIE still hasn’t followed up with either sanctions or auditing.] Even when the agency does notice schools and tribes engaging in shoddy financial management practices, it does little to stop them. So a tribe can divert $900,000 in federal funding that was supposed to be used to serve kids in a school’s special ed ghetto into a savings account and likely get away with it.
As a result, much of the $402 million in ISEP funding spent by the federal government on BIE schools (along with millions more in Title I and other federal dollars) is likely being misspent. This can be seen in the fact that BIE spends $15,391 per pupil a year (excluding capital expenditures and debt service), 56 percent more than the average traditional district. Certainly some of those higher costs can be attribute to the high transportation costs tribal schools, which are located on reservations in rural communities, have to bear; the average BIE school spends $1,014 per pupil on transportation versus the $444 per pupil spent by traditional districts. But in light of BIE’s lax oversight and the shoddy financial controls of tribe-operated schools, the costs are also a result of wasteful spending.
At the heart of BIE’s failures in financial monitoring is Interior’s longstanding mismanagement of the agency itself. As state education departments and charter school authorizers can attest, oversight is as much a matter of manpower as it is a result of systems and practices in place. Yet Interior’s structuring of BIE’s operations have all but ensured that the agency can’t even do something as simple as follow up on a qualified audit. Just 13 staffers were charged with overseeing the financial affairs of both agency- and tribally-controlled schools in 2013-2014; that’s down from 22 in 2010-2011. The lack of manpower, along with nonexistent financial controls, all but assures that the agency will fail at its most-basic monitoring tasks. While Interior has begun moving to restructure BIE’s operations and give it full control over its operations, the department has failed to address the agency’s financial oversight woes.
But the problem doesn’t lie just with BIE alone. It is also a failure of the federal government to structure the operation of BIE schools in a sensible manner. While tribes technically operate all but a smattering of BIE schools, the reality is that their education departments aren’t often the ones actually operating schools. In many cases, the schools are managed by boards who play upon legitimate desires of Native communities to control their own educational destiny, but often end up resisting accountability efforts of both BIE and their parent tribes. For tribes looking to overhaul failing schools such as Navajo Nation, the most-populous tribe in the country, the byzantine governance structure often impedes their efforts; in July 2013, for example, one school board successfully rebuffed Navajo Nation’s effort to take over control of its three schools. Even when the tribes operate the schools, the lack of capacity of their education departments to manage operations properly (a result of the federal government’s inattention to this matter) often means they can end up making costly financial decisions.
The 48,000 Native children forced to attend BIE schools suffer the dire consequences of this fiscal mismanagement. When tribes and their school boards mismanage much-needed federal subsidies, kids end up losing out on high-quality teaching and comprehensive-yet-culturally relevant curricula. This ends up being compounded by BIE’s own failures on fiscal oversight. Add in BIE’s other failures — from not repairing and replacing 65 hazardous and unsafe school buildings, to snafus on academic accountability — and it is no wonder why 59 percent of BIE eighth-graders scored Below Basic in math on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress while a mere 10 percent were numerate at Proficient levels.
Certainly the Obama Administration’s plan to overhaul BIE will help address these shortcomings. But not if the agency’s failures as an oversight agency aren’t addressed. The administration must request and work with Congress on getting the talent and the financial management systems in place to track spending and hold schools accountable; this is as important a move as implementing a unified academic accountability system in order to track the progress of schools in improving student achievement. Crafting written procedures for financial spending, both for BIE and for schools, is also important. Meanwhile the Obama Administration should end Interior’s control of BIE and place it under the U.S. Department of Education. This won’t please some Native education activists. But it is clear that BIE needs to be run as a proper school operator, which is something that Education can do.
Meanwhile Congress must play its part by overhauling how BIE schools are managed by tribes. This starts with amending the various laws governing the schools — including the Tribally Controlled Schools Act of 1988 — to encourage schools to be moved from local board control to tribal education departments better-suited for the job. But that isn’t enough. While the Obama Administration’s Tribal Sovereignty grants will be helpful in allowing tribes to build up the capacity of their education departments, the money isn’t enough. The administration should bring in high-quality private and charter school operators such as Cristo Rey and KIPP to serve as consultants (with the emphasis on consult and advise) to tribal education departments who can then use their advice to build up their capacity to run schools.
The GAO’s latest report is another reminder of this country’s continued educational abuse of Native children. It is high time to stop it.
Back in September, Dropout Nation took a hard look at Minneapolis Public Schools’ overuse of suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline, detailing how Supt. Bernadeia Johnson’s move to halt the overuse of suspensions and expulsions on kids in its early childhood education, kindergarten, and first grade classes only scratched the surface of the district’s problem. Your editor called upon Johnson to go further and address the underlying instructional, leadership, curricula and diagnosis issues that were the underlying reasons why so many kids were suspended in the first place.
Some good news came from Johnson last week when she announced that her central office staff would review any suspensions of black, American Indian, and other minority children for nonviolent offenses recommended by school leaders on the ground. This can be a sensible interim step in overhauling Minneapolis’ school discipline practices if done properly. Your editor would have recommend that the district also review suspension recommendations for white kids as well because it is both the right thing to do — no child, regardless of their background, should be subjected to harsh discipline that is inappropriate for the behavioral issue at hand — and because it would allay any concerns from white families about reverse discrimination. But it does make sense for the district to monitor what school leaders and teachers are doing on the ground on this front.
Johnson deserves credit for taking another step. Of course, she’s not doing this just of her own accord. Thanks to an investigation by the Obama Administration as part of its efforts to halt overuse of suspensions and other harsh discipline — one that has been senselessly criticized by conservative reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (who doesn’t think that the disparate impact of overusing suspensions is a civil rights issue) as well as movement conservatives opposed to anything done by the administration on everything — the district is now being forced to deal with a problem it has long swept under the proverbial rug. [One of Petrilli’s staffers at Fordham, Jessica Poiner, rightfully chastised him for his less-than-thoughtful position.] Johnson’s move is an important validation of the Obama Administration’s sensible decision to address a civil rights issue (as it is constitutionally required to do) that is also a culprit of the nation’s education crisis.
But as your editor noted two months ago with the moratorium on suspensions of kids in the early grades, the review process isn’t enough. For one, the review will likely involve staffers who have been as much a culprit in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions in the first place; unless Johnson launches a division staffed by outsiders who can take a fresh look at how school leaders and teachers mete out discipline, the review process will just be a rubber stamp of status quo actions.
There’s also the fact that the review process doesn’t deal with another aspect of school discipline that is also a problem in Minneapolis: High numbers of referrals of black and Native kids to Hennepin County’s juvenile justice system, along with arrests by law enforcement. Two-point-six percent of Native kids attending the Twin City district’s schools, along with 1.3 percent of black peers, were either referred to juvenile courts or arrested, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s higher than the two-tenths of one percent of white kids, four-tenths of one percent of Asian and white schoolmates either referred or arrested. The good news is that none of these kids were arrested.
The juvenile court referrals and law enforcement arrests are especially high for black and Native kids condemned to Minneapolis’ special education ghettos. Eighteen-point-three percent of black kids in special ed, along with 11.1 percent of Native peers were either referred or arrested in 2011-2012. This was higher than the 2.4 percent of Latino and white students in special ed, along with 3.2 percent of Asian schoolmates referred or arrested. On average, 6.6 percent of Minneapolis’ special ed students were referred or arrested, a rate nine times higher than the eight-tenths of one percent average for kids in regular classrooms. Reviewing suspensions alone isn’t enough to address the totality of the district’s school discipline issues.
The more-important reason why the suspension reviews aren’t enough lies with the fact that the review process doesn’t address the cultural problems at the heart of Minneapolis’ problem in the first place. As Dropout Nation noted back in September, the district is dealing miserably with the underlying illiteracy that is the key culprit for student misbehavior. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. With only 47 percent of black third-graders and 45 percent of Native peers in Minneapolis reaching the North Star State’s (rather lowly-set) level of reading proficiency according to its 2012 exams, it is no surprise that those kids are acting out in school; they know that the schools that they attend will never provide them the reading remediation they desperately seek.
Certainly this is a problem resulting from shoddy reading curricula. But it is also a problem of low-quality teaching. As your editor continually argues, the consequences of laggard instruction are borne both in the struggles of kids in academics, in their perceptions (as well as that of school leaders) of the potential of black and Native children, and how their learning issues are dealt with through overuse of harsh school discipline. Johnson herself made light of this last week when she revealed that 13 of the district’s schools — all of whom serve mostly poor and minority kids — were staffed by the highest levels of laggard teachers. This included Bethune Elementary, where one or more suspensions were meted out to 20.6 percent of black kids attending the school, nearly double the district’s already high 13.1 percent average, as well as Anishinabe Academy, where 13.6 percent of Native students were suspended one or more times, slightly higher than the district average of 12.6 percent.
For Johnson and the district to end overuse of suspensions and other harsh school discipline, they will have to address literacy and instruction. This means intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. The district will also have to push hard, especially at the state capital as well as at the bargaining table with the American Federation of Teachers’ local (which has defended overuse of school discipline) in order to undertake steps to address low-quality teaching. Systemic reform, in short, is key to reducing overuse of suspensions for the long haul.
Johnson (along with the Obama Administration) deserves praise for tackling this problem head-on. But more needs to be done beyond suspension reviews to address discipline practices that condemn far too many Twin Cities children to the abyss.
Some of you know my story. Others do not. But I can tell you why, as both a native Washingtonian and a teacher in Los Angeles, why so many students don’t get the access to high-quality math instruction they deserve, an issue featured last month on Dropout Nation‘s report last month on the lack of college-preparatory opportunities for kids attending D.C.-area schools.
My mother and father taught in D.C. Public Schools from the 1960s through the 1980s. Because our family were practicing Catholics, my brother and I attended Catholic schools our entire secondary lives. I didn’t take Algebra 1 in middle school. But I still ended up taking A.P. Calculus by my senior year at a very competitive high school (or, as my former pastor described, the good Jesuit one downtown versus the expensive one in the ‘burbs).
I’ll start off by saying this: Algebra 1 in middle school should not be a prerequisite for access to higher mathematics in high school and beyond. What is needed and deserved for all students is a continuum of quality, committed educators who can teach the math they require.
Teaching in urban schools here in L.A., I can tell you that many schools choose not to instruct math in the sequence they should for two reasons. The first has to do with students unprepared for math. It is hard to teach Algebra 1 to 13-year-olds, or even high school students who cannot multiply fluently as well as lack a deep and broad vocabulary. How students are getting out of 3rd grade without multiplying through their 12’s should be a crime, a crime that’s committed with regularity in our urban schools.
The other has to do with the dearth of qualified teachers. Stanford, USC, Alabama and Oregon have an easier time finding 5-star football recruits than urban schools have finding high-quality, committed math teachers. We know what high quality is. Committed is a different story. When I talk about committed, I mean educators willing to hang around in urban schools for an extended period of time, as well as help a school build and maintain a culture of expectation and excellence.
Back when California required Algebra 1 instruction in eighth grade, you still had many students not taking Algebra 1 because schools and districts feared that the poor performance of the students would hurt the scores on the Academic Performance Index. Just 30 percent of eighth-graders took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis last year. Of course in the long run it would help the student; even if they failed in eighth grade, they would excel in ninth and still be on the path to calculus. But, of course, student needs often become secondary to the edu-bureaucracy’s needs.
One lesson for families and others in the D.C. metro area is that if districts (and teachers’ unions) aren’t willing to put educators where they need to be to fix this problem, then families must have the flexibility and freedom to demand other educational options that will work for this purpose. This includes launching charter schools, voucher programs, and other choices.
Another lesson can be seen on the boots on the ground level where I work. Give me some students who can multiply and reduce a fraction, and I’ll have them ready for high school. Then I can pray they will get the same commitment from other teachers that they have gotten from me when they leave me — instead of the “could you come teach at our high school?” request I get way too unacceptably often.
Even as Dropout Nation continuing covering the results of this week’s elections, your editor has given plenty of thought to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for turning around the Big Apple’s worst-performing schools. There have been plenty of sparring between the new mayor and staffers for predecessor Michael Bloomberg (whose approach included shutting down failure mills and replacing them with smaller operations), while the New York Times and other outlets (along with former Chancellor Rudy Crew, who attempted a similar overhaul before Bloomberg succeeded in taking control of the district 11 years ago) have weighed in with their own skeptical conclusions about the effort.
But then came Chalkbeat reporter Patrick Wall’s report this morning that one of the schools being targeted for turnaround, the long-woeful Boys and Girls High, has already undertaken the effort in its own special and rather old-fashioned way: By coercing struggling kids to transfer to other schools. Instead of working hard on providing struggling kids with reading and math remediation as well as revamping teaching staffs, the new principal of the high school, Michael Wiltshire, is allegedly working with guidance counselors to coax the kids into the Big Apple’s notorious collection of alternative high school ghettos (where kids are even less likely to be provided high-quality teaching and curricula). So far, according to Wall, 30 students have agreed to the “voluntary” transfers, which will help the school magically boost its performance (in the form of graduation rates as well as test scores) because those kids aren’t counted in the cohort. Unless de Blasio and his schools czar, Carmen Fariña, fire or discipline Wiltshire, even more kids will be pushed out by school year end.
From where your editor sits, none of this is surprising. Pushing out students is as old a trick as socially promoting struggling students from grade to grade — and one that can be especially effective for high schools because of how graduation rates are calculated. A child who “transfers” to an alternative high school ghetto or goes into “homeschool” won’t count against official numbers (even though they probably should since, well, the transfer is often a result of systematic failure to provide kids with high-quality education). This is why so many districts are so diligent in launching alternative high schools and General Education Development programs in the first place. A report released three years by A Better Way Foundation on Connecticut’s pushout activities determined that one-third of the 30,000 students in the Nutmeg State’s GED programs were aged 16-to-18, essentially should have been in high school; only 17 percent of them ever left those programs with a not-good-enough diploma.
At the same time, it is almost hard to blame Wiltshire for his alleged atrocious actions. After all, the school turnaround plan his bosses at the old Tweed Courthouse and City Hall are putting in place — a rehash of failed approaches tried by others both in New York City and elsewhere — give him few options to actually undertake a successful turnaround.
Under de Blasio’s School Renewal Program, the Big Apple will use something akin to the transformation model allowed under the federal School Improvement Grant program in order to revamp 94 perpetual failure mills. The city will spend $150 million to develop partnerships with community groups, extend instructional time in schools by one hour, develop “strong parent-community collaboration”, and provide teachers with more so-called professional development. The hope is that these steps will somehow lead to schools improving their performance without having to take tougher steps such as replacing laggard school leaders and low-quality teachers working in those classrooms.
As you would expect, de Blasio and Fariña offered few details on how the New York City Department of Education would develop these partnerships, how the schools would collaborate with families and communities, or what kind of professional development the teachers would attain. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing — if done properly.
The mayor could build upon the arrangement struck between the city and New Visions for Public Schools, which works with 75 of the city’s schools to improve student achievement (as well as run its own charters), as well as team up with Johns Hopkins University’s Talent Development initiative. But that would mean giving those organizations (along with community outfits on the ground) control over school operations and even letting them hire and fire teachers; given de Blasio’s adherence to the traditionalist line (as well as his desire to keep happy the United Federation of Teachers branch of the American Federation of Teachers, this isn’t going to happen.
The city could actually build strong ties to families by implementing a Parent Trigger provision allowing for them to either take control of failure mills or force the district into developing programs that will help their kids. This is something that some families in the Los Angeles Unified School District have done so far with some success, as have families in Adelanto, Calif. But again, this would mean giving families real decision-making power in schools and letting them lead on rebuilding cultures. That won’t sit well with de Blasio, Fariña, or with the UFT. So that is also a nonstarter.
Even the professional development idea would work — if such training actually were effective in the first place. Decades of data have proven that this isn’t even close to reality. Just 132 of 1,200 professional development programs surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education focused on reading, math and science; only nine actually met federal What Works Clearinghouse standards for quality and outcomes. Meanwhile there is little evidence that site-based professional development teams — in which teams of teachers meet to brainstorm and learn from one another — works either. Given that most professional development is done by university schools of education and their professors (who have done such an awful job of training teachers in the first place), this isn’t shocking.
Meanwhile de Blasio’s plan doesn’t actually address some key problems that go far beyond the failure mills. This starts with the Big Apple’s continuing struggle to ensure that eight-graders, especially those from black and Latino households, are reading proficiently and on grade level before entering high school; that issue, by the way, is why Boys and Girls (along with other high schools in the Big Apple, are struggling mightily in the first place). As Contributing Editor Michael Holzman would say, focusing on early literacy would help in the long run. But the city just decided to bring back Balanced Literacy, the failed approach to reading instruction, despite evidence that it does little for kids in most need of help on this front.
There is also another approach de Blasio and Fariña could embrace: The shutdown of failing schools and replacing them with smaller operations staffed by new leaders and teachers. The success of this approach was validated once again last month by MRDC in its continuing research on that effort. That, however, won’t happen, because de Blasio thinks shutting down failure mills is the worst possible thing — even when it is evident that keeping them open isn’t working for kids, their families, or their communities.
So the likelihood of de Blasio’s plan working out is zero and none. But again, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Districts have used the approaches offered up in de Blasio’s plan for decades — and have failed miserably. As Dropout Nation noted last year in its review of results for schools in the SIG program — most of whom use the transformation model being applied by de Blasio — just three out of every five middle- and high schools being turned around under the $3.6 billion program have made some sort of progress in improving student achievement in reading; in fact, a third of schools being turned around under SIG actually experienced declines in their performance.
The long-term evidence is cause for even more disillusionment about de Blasio’s plans. A mere 11 percent of California elementary schools forced by state officials to undergo turnarounds made “exemplary progress” three years later, according to Andy Smarick (now of Bellwhether Education Partners) in his famed Education Next treatise on school turnarounds. Just eight percent of laggard traditional district schools and nine percent of failing charter counterparts identified in 2003-2004 were successfully turned around six years later, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Meanwhile the education landscape is littered with numerous examples of school overhauls that haven’t made educational death traps any better for kids. This includes Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis and Eastside High School in Patterson, N.J., of Lean On Me fame.
There are plenty of reasons why school turnarounds fail to work out. One lies with the fact that the turnarounds are overseen by the very districts that managed the schools into academic failure in the first place. Expecting a failing district with incompetent central office staffers to somehow revamp failing schools — especially when it isn’t overhauling its own operations — is simply insane. Even in the case of New York City, which has succeeded under the tenure of Bloomberg and his cadre of school czars in improving student achievement, the obstacles to turnarounds in the form of near-lifetime employment laws and teacher dismissal policies that keep even criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms, make overhauls harder to undertake than they should be.
The other reason why de Blasio’s plan won’t work is that it doesn’t address the underlying toxic cultures that are a root reason why schools are failing in the first place. Culture, especially that which is toxic, will overcome any one individual’s effort to go against the grain and can even overcome the efforts of a rival culture to put it asunder; this is especially true in situations in which the methods by which one can easily remove the elements of culture cannot be used easily (if at all). A principal who cannot remove laggard teachers from classrooms will have almost no success in fostering cultures of genius that nurture the potential of struggling and high-performing kids alike. [Update: Today, de Blasio struck a deal with the UFT that technically requires teachers at the schools to reapply for jobs; but given that there are no limits on the number that can be rehired, don’t expect much in the way of personnel changes.] Given de Blasio’s and Fariña’s unwillingness to push hard for systemic reform — and the mayor’s explicit rejection of the successful efforts of the Bloomberg era — school leaders on the ground are being asked to perform miracles without the tools to make realistic progress.
What will likely end up happening under de Blasio’s plan is what is starting to happen now with Boys and Girls High: Principals being discouraged by Tweed from kicking laggard teachers out of classrooms and into the displaced teacher pool will simply resort to coaxing struggling students out of their schools into alternative school and GED programs that serve as way stations toward dropping out. In some cases, they will use “voluntary” transfers. In others, they will use the city’s complex and arbitrary school discipline code to suspend as many of the kids deemed unteachable as encouragement to flee. The performance of the schools will improve dramatically even as the lives of the children they no longer serve do not.
The kids, especially those from poor and minority communities (who, by the way, look like de Blasio’s own progeny), will be condemned to the economic and social abyss. The communities in which they live will continue to suffer. But at least de Blasio gets to say that he’s not doing what Bloomberg has done. Not that this is worth anything to any of our children.
New Orleans is a relatively small American city that sometimes seems not to be part of the United States at all. Until Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was glamorized by images of black jazz and white dissipation. After Katrina, as if a curtain had been ripped away, it was revealed as a particularly extreme example of the continuing subjugation of the descendents of enslaved Africans.
Today, New Orleans is two cities. One is white and prosperous; the other, black and poor. Caste is presented in a most literal manner in New Orleans: White neighborhoods are on higher ground than the predominately Black neighborhoods of the city. This became a crucial difference after the hurricane, when the ill-constructed levees broke, as the authorities knew that they would, and the lowest-lying parts of the city were flooded 20 feet deep, many of their inhabitants drowned, others driven out of the city. Reconstruction, as well, was conducted on racial lines, abetted by and abetting private profit, almost as if the ill-constructed levees, the botched emergency measures, and the vulture reconstruction were intended to alter the demography of the city. Which is what happened. Post-Katrina, the black population declined by 119,000 people, more than the current white population of the city, half of whom did not live there before Katrina.
Those remaining black residents of New Orleans, especially men, die much younger than their white counterparts. Life expectancy for the average white person is 76.2 years; for blacks, it is 67.4 years. For blacks in the city’s poorest communities, life expectancy is 54.5 years – or nearly a generation shorter than that of their White fellow citizens.
Income disparities in New Orleans are also quite extreme. White per capita income in the city is $43,022 and quite concentrated at the top: a quarter of New Orleans White families have incomes over $150,000 a year. And fifteen percent of White families – 3,154 families – have incomes over $200,000 per year, a higher level than the six percent national average. On the other end of the income distribution, the poverty rate for white people in New Orleans was 13.5 percent in 2010, with just seven percent of white residents receiving food stamps and SNAP benefits, while only eight percent of white children under age 18 lived in poverty.
This picture of prosperity contrasts with the poverty of African American New Orleans. Black per capita income is $15,243; only two of black families earn more than $150,000 a year, and hardly any earn over $200,000. The poverty rate for black families was 30 percent in 2010, more than twice the rate for whites. Twenty-eight percent of black residents collect food stamps and SNAP benefits, four times the proportion of white counterparts. Forty-six percent of black children under age 18 live in poverty, nearly six times the rate for their white peers. More than half oof black families and no husband present live in poverty, more than twice the percentage of white families without husbands.
This extreme downward compression of Black incomes in New Orleans is a manifestation of the limited types of employment opportunities for African Americans in the city. In White New Orleans, 55 percent of the civilian employed population are managers, business and professional people, while just 14 percent work in service populations. In Black New Orleans, only 24 percent are managers, business and professional people, while 28 percent work in service occupations. Black New Orleans serves White New Orleans. You might say it has always been thus. There are just fewer, poorer, African Americans in town these days.
Wealth, the “real” property of housing and financial assets, is crucial to the well-being of people living in a non-socialist economy. Wealth is a cushion against adversity (such as a hurricane or unemployment) and is crucial for intergenerational economic mobility. As with incomes, there are stark disparities in wealth between black and white communities in New Orleans. Thirty-seven percent of white households held interest, dividends, or net rental income in 2010, as compared to seven percent of black households. The largest asset of most American families is an owner-occupied house. Vincanne Adams has documented the catastrophic effects of Katrina and the privatized “recovery” actions, which have left many families without the homes in which they had lived for generations. The wealth of the average white household in New Orleans is at least twenty times larger than that of the average black household. This is not a difference of class; it is a demarcation of caste.
There is little intergenerational family income upward mobility in New Orleans’s black community. The odds are two-to-one against a black child in New Orleans doing much better in life than that child’s parents. In Black New Orleans, 60 percent of the children are born into the bottom national quintile in income, 80 percent are born in the bottom two. Two-thirds of the Crescent City’s Black American population live at poverty level with little wealth and even less hope of improving their lots in life.
What are the forces at work forcing black people in New Orleans into a subordinate caste? They can be found in the city’s education and criminal justice systems.
We know by now that levels of educational attainment are correlated with income, wealth, economic mobility and probability of incarceration. Nearly a quarter of New Orleans’ black adults, ages 25 and over, do not have a high school diploma; only six percent of white residents are high school dropouts. . Fifty-six percent of white residents of the city have baccalaureate degrees or higher, as compared to only 15 percent of black residents. The low levels of educational attainment for blacks in New Orleans limits their economic attainment, and given the unusually high degree of educational attainment of the White community in the city, is significant for the disparities between those communities.
For decades, the Orleans Parish School Board supported large numbers of black teachers and staff, but didn’t necessarily serve well the predominantly-black children attending its schools. But after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana state government took control of the majority of those schools from the board and placed them under the supervision of the Recovery School District. Today, both districts exist alongside each other as well as alongside a diverse collection of public charter schools. The situation is made all the more-unusual by the state’s voucher program, which now sends 18 percent of New Orleans’ black students to private schools ranging from those run by the Catholic Church to operations not recognized by the state’s education department.
There has been plenty of praise for the efforts of Recovery School District and the other school reform efforts in New Orleans. I have my own thoughts. But I do keep in mind that the state’s decisions have led to thousands of black employees losing their jobs, devastating the meager black middle class that did exist. More importantly, what matters most is whether the educational attainment of black children is improving for New Orleans as a whole. The data offers a somber story.
Just four percent of the eighth-graders served by both Orleans Parish and Recovery reached “Advanced” level on reading portion of the 2014 Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, while another 15 percent showed “Mastery”. This means that the remaining 81 percent of eighth-graders were reading below grade level. Despite this massive failure to teach the overwhelming majority of students to read and write at grade level in grade 8, the State Department of Education reports that the Orleans Parish public schools graduated 1,137 students in 2011-12 and the Recovery School District graduated 1,134. Of those 2,271 graduates, according to the state, 1,306 (58 percent) enrolled in college the next semester; 438 of them in two-year colleges and 869 in four-year colleges.
The larger of the local universities, the University of New Orleans enrolled 1,259 first-time students in 2009, 200 of whom were black, 82 of whom were black men. In 2012 it graduated 328 students within 150 percent of normal time, 31 of whom were black, 6 of whom were black men. Southern University at New Orleans enrolled 437 first-time degree-seeking students in 2009, of whom 429 were black and 167 of those were men. In 2012 it graduated 32 students within 150 percent of normal time, all of whom were black, 10 of whom were men. Therefore those two institutions together enrolled 629 black students, graduating 360 of them. Only 16 of the graduates were young black men.
If the state’s data on college attendance is accurate, it would appear that three-quarters of the New Orleans high school graduates who enrolled in four-year colleges attended those two schools and very few graduated within six years. (This accords with the fact that 58 percent of black New Orleans residents ages 25 years and over reported to the Census that they had gone no further in their education than a high school diploma.) Some graduating high school seniors went to other schools, some students in these schools came from other cities. There is a rough balance in these assumptions, given which, the data from the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans provides a reasonable gauge of the effectiveness of public education in New Orleans.
At which point we can turn to the issue of justice in Orleans Parish. Cindy Chang, writing in The Times-Picayune in 2012, reported that “Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts . . . Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.” Meanwhile the New Orleans Police Department has been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for arrest practices that leads to “an atmosphere in which discriminatory policing can occur unchecked.” This includes more than 500 black men under age 17 being arrested for serious offenses while just eight young white men being arrested on the same charges.
There are 26,000 young black men in New Orleans between ages 20 and 40. If we believe that about 60 percent of those graduated from high school, leaving at a minimum, 10,400 who did not. This is the group, nationally, most likely to suffer incarceration “in their life course,” as Bruce Western puts it. As the average prison sentence in the U.S. is about five years, it would seem that over the 20-year span of that cohort, it is highly likely that all black men in the city who did not graduate from high school would at some point by age 40 have been incarcerated, on parole, on probation, with limited employment opportunities and greatly damaged social relations. All those and a good few other black men in the city as well.
It is not therefore surprising that in 2010 the Census counted 3,090 African Americans in New Orleans in correctional facilities for adults – and just 1,761 in higher ed student housing.
The nationally funded and privately profitable “recovery” of New Orleans has decimated the city’s black community, clearing broad areas of the city of black people. Four out of every five (mostly-black) children are still unable to read at grade level nearly a decade after Katrina. Most of those who do manage to graduate are so ill-prepared for college that just a few hundred of them – nearly all women – graduate within six years. The men who drop out end up being available for jails and prisons, in some cases, run as for-profit enterprises.
General Sherman, when asked how to treat an enemy, advised that “they should be left with nothing but eyes with which to weep.” Do we wish it said that post-Katrina New Orleans is how the United States of America treats its own citizens at their most vulnerable?
Featured photo courtesy of James Van Dellen.
In many of my early memories, my mom told me about her work as a teacher as I sat on a makeshift wooden platform between the front seats of my family’s Volkswagen van. As we drove through the tough neighborhoods of Richmond, California in the 1970s, she told me she became a teacher to work for a world where people were no longer judged by the color of their skin. She also told me she was in a union, like her grandmothers who’d been seamstresses in New York City in the early 1900s.
Over the following decades, however, she became frustrated. She became a union rep, and pushed to have the union make student achievement its primary goal. She was shocked to find that her fellow union reps seemed to only care about job protection and salaries. Later, when she worked with other senior teachers to push for pro-student scheduling changes, she was surprised at how much resistance she found among some of her colleagues.
My mom retired early, exhausted. Like so many of my friends and family in teaching, she remains concerned about ineffective teachers.
Over the course of my life, I have tried to understand why so many teachers felt these frustrations. I have gotten to know my own public school teachers. I became a volunteer teacher in public high schools during and after college. In grad school, I focused on education law and policy. I served school systems as a pro-bono consultant, and periodically left the private sector to work in education policy. I entrusted my own child to a public school.
And in that time, I have learned four things:
1) In both word and deed, most teachers are pro-children
Data show how America’s teachers think and behave. A Public Agenda survey of teachers shows that three quarters of teachers believe that good teachers “can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents;” two thirds of teachers entered the profession to help put “underprivileged kids on the path to success.” Many teachers, like my mom, take work home and work long hours. An earlier survey of the broader public concluded: “Parents, the public, principals and superintendents say that almost all teachers are caring and qualified.”
A close look shows that many teachers believe in parent engagement and choice. When the chips are down – in other words, when it comes to their own children – public school teachers are twice as likely as other parents to send their kids to private schools. When I had an ineffective teacher as a child, my mom pinched pennies to put me into a private school for a few years. Teachers do this for reasons eloquently explained by Ray Salazar, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who wrote about his choices for his own children and why public education should offer more choices for all parents.
Teachers also share my mom’s specific frustrations. Teachers hold wide-ranging views on reform. The majority believe that tenure is automatic, not dependent upon quality. A plurality believes that unions should focus more on teaching quality and student achievement. On average, teachers believe that about 10 percent of their colleagues are ineffective. Three quarters of all teachers and an even higher percentage of highly recognized teachers believe it needs to be easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. Unfortunately, teachers feel that they have no voice outside their classrooms.
2) Historically, unions have given only lip service to kids
The personal sincerity of proud unionists can be mesmerizing. Consider legendary American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker endorsing reforms in the wake of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk; or current AFT President Randi Weingarten pushing the anti-reformers within her caucus; or new National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García showing humor as a parent and grace as a social justice advocate. At the local level, Dr. John Thompson of Oklahoma, Xian Barrett of Chicago, and Ben Spielberg of San Jose all believe their union-driven reforms would have succeeded, but for the so-called “corporate” reformers that Shanker endorsed. For years, optimists have believed in these individuals, and predicted that they will make the unions more focused on students. Dana Goldstein defends unions as “potent advocates for many of the education policies that most benefit disadvantaged children, from tuition-free pre-K to better training for teachers.”
My mom’s experience, however, alerted me to the sincerity of those who have concluded that reform unionism is a mirage. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who concluded that teachers’ unions have been an “unwavering road block to reform,” started his career as a teachers’ union organizer. Civil rights leader Howard Fuller traveled a similar path: starting his career as a public sector union organizer, but eventually concluding that the unions prioritized political power over student interests.
Unfortunately, history has thus far favored the pessimists. The unions have unparalleled political influence over the best-funded public education system in human history. As reported over the last two weeks, the AFT alone spends millions annually to preserve that influence; the NEA devotes even more. If the optimists were right, the unions would have directed their lawyers, think tanks, communication operatives, and staffers to deliver results in many evidence-based areas, from overhauling schools of education, to promoting hands-on learning in science, technology, and math, to substantially higher salaries for the best teachers, to universal arts programs.
Unfortunately, state legislators and superintendents do not report union emphasis on these items. Aside from occasional lip service, pro-student movements within the unions disappeared as quickly as they’ve arisen, and have rarely ever delivered.
Instead, the unions pick only two real fights. First, unions attack charter schools and oppose direct scholarships for students. Second, they critique meaningful differentiation among teachers as well as defend policies such as last-in-first-out layoffs, lockstep pay, and tenure. Even teachers know the NEA and AFT don’t push for meaningful evaluations. To take one high-profile example, they opposed John McCain’s effort to cut corporate welfare and redirect the proceeds to pay more to great teachers and teachers in poor schools. In picking these two fights as their demonstrated priorities, the unions have chosen to defend a century-old industrial model of labor that casts teachers as interchangeable assembly-line cogs.
The question is why.
3) Unions are structurally biased against student interests
To see why, start with the truisms that union defenders will themselves admit. Some teachers are great, many are middling, and some are terrible. Some work very long hours, some work very few. And although money isn’t everything, it matters.
Now consider two different teacher profiles to see how incentives skew average union engagement. Imagine a fifth year teacher named Pat, who has outstanding skills and works long hours. At $50,000 per year in compensation, Pat would likely see hourly compensation go up if fired and forced to obtain a different job. Pat has very little near-term financial reason to get involved in union politics. Now imagine a veteran teacher named Ronni, who has a weaker skill set and works contract-minimum hours. Close to a generous retirement and earning six figures or more, Ronni would likely see a significant drop in hourly compensation if fired. Ronni has an immediate and strong personal financial stake in making sure that the local union takes a strong stance against accountability and choice. As a result, Ronni votes a lot more often than Pat, especially if a district considers reform.
The result is that union leaders tend to be unrepresentative. A 2005 survey of membership and leadership by the National Education Association found that only 15 percent of teachers are actively involved with the union. The same survey also showed that the larger the local affiliate, the less likely the local affiliate president will reflect the demographics and political views of their members.
To see how reform-minded teachers are systematically under-represented in union elections, consider Washington, D.C., as a case study. In 2010, George Parker, the president of the AFT’s Washington Teachers Union, negotiated a lucrative-yet-reform-oriented contract. But some teachers expressed fears about job security. Parker lost his seat shortly thereafter to challenger Nathan Saunders in an election with 25 percent turnout. Afterwards, Saunders declared in his victory comments, “this is a race about job security.” Unfortunately, 25 percent is not a particularly low turnout for a union election. Last year, in the election held by the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in New York City, retirees cast more votes than current teachers (only 17 percent of working classroom teachers voted); this year, during an election held by the union’s United Teachers Los Angeles local, an anti-reformer won with just 22.5 percent turnout. The combination of low turnout, and systematic under-representation of pro-student voices, has decimated the viability of pro-reform unionism.
No matter the personal sincerity of leaders like Weingarten and García, they remain subject to the politics of their unions. When a fast-growing splinter group pushed unions to militantly oppose reform, the AFT spent millions on a “national day of action” to that end. As Stanford University Professor of Political Science Terry Moe concluded in a comprehensive 2011 study, “union leaders are never going to [reform, because] their incentives are heavily front-loaded and short-term.”
The structural biases against reform do not work perfectly. Across tens of thousands of districts, pro-student constituencies occasionally gain control, such as in San Jose, Calif. Unfortunately, the power structure of the unions makes such exceptions irrelevant. This is because neither union holds direct elections for senior offices. A few thousand of the most active and invested union politicians attend national conventions to choose the national leaders. Within these conventions, dissent is rare. Weingarten earned a 98 percent margin in her recent re-election to lead the AFT, while García earned 94 percent of her convention’s vote. Union leaders elected in this environment tend to intervene against reform-minded locals. In the San Jose case, the local’s parent union, the NEA’s California Teachers Association, pushed the state board of education to stall the affiliate’s request to modify local tenure rules.
4) The hope is that eroding traditional union power will empower pro-student teachers
Overcoming these structural and cultural barriers will not be easy. But changes are taking place that might, finally, give real weight to the pro-student voices within the unions.
For starters, reformers may be outgunned, but they are gaining momentum. Philanthropists finance radically disruptive technologies, charter schools, and direct scholarships (also known as vouchers). These changes increasingly create pro-reform parent constituencies among traditional labor allies such as civil rights organizations. Public opinion favors reform, and parents opt out of the system through private schools and by homeschooling. All of these trends threaten the $600 billion in annual taxpayer expenditures that finance the unions, and thus compel reform.
Second, as we learned in the cases of leaded gasoline and cigarette toxicity, evidence can overcome well-funded adversaries. As bad charter schools have closed and good ones have expanded, evidence has accumulated that new schooling models can deliver better results for students in poverty, black students, Hispanic students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. As a result, we see the rapid growth of high-performing nonprofit charter school operators such as Success Academy, along with high public approval of charter schools.
With great charter schools proving how much all children can learn, public deliberation is also making progress on improving traditional schools. Consider the recent Vergara v. California case, in which a neutral state judge rejected a well-funded union legal team and ruled that California’s teacher work rules violated the rights of students. The unions launched a full PR fusillade, endeavoring to make support for Vergara into a litmus test for whether someone was anti-teacher. Despite this, the decision was endorsed by virtually every major editorial board in the country, including the New York Times, and the Washington Post. And longstanding union allies such as House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller agreed.
These trends are weakening the unions’ clout within the progressive movement. NEA was exposed as toothless when its resolution condemning Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was widely ignored. The AFT’s two affiliates in New York snubbed Gov. Andrew Cuomo to no avail. As I have written elsewhere, progressives have strong reasons to oppose public-sector unions, and private-sector labor is splitting from NEA and AFT. Thanks to private-sector unions, Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo won the Democratic primary for governor in spite of opposition from NEA and AFT affiliates. Meanwhile in California, superintendent candidate Marshall Tuck faces heavy opposition from NEA and AFT affiliates, but is winning union households by a 2-1 margin.
As this dynamic accelerates, it compels the unions to pick winnable fights, such as the NEA’s fight against standardized testing. If this push by the unions leads to more holistic, sophisticated evaluation systems for students and teachers and schools, the whole country will be better off.
Even more powerfully, changes legal and fiscal are eroding the unions’ structural bias against reforms. In the past few years, several states – including Tennessee, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana – have passed laws dismantling the ability of NEA and AFT affiliates to compel teachers into paying dues. Indeed, this might soon be the national norm. As Dropout Nation noted in July, the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that it may soon strike down compulsory dues in the public sector as a violation of free speech. A case filed in California last year could trigger that ruling relatively soon, which would essentially eliminate the anti-reform leaders’ advantage within their unions. Union leaders who wish to earn the dues of their members in such states will need to be much more solicitous than in the past of pro-reform teacher sentiments.
As these financial changes happen, the last defense of the status quo – district-level implementation – will begin to crumble. Pro-reform local unions will be free to innovate. Idealistic and entrepreneurial teachers will be attracted to those districts. We will learn from their experiments, and voters in other localities will notice.
After listening to my mom’s stories about teaching, I briefly spent time working in high school classrooms with legendary teachers Tommie Lindsey of James Logan and Cathy Berman of El Cerrito. Perhaps my proudest moment as a professional was when Tommie told me, “It’s obvious that great teaching is in your blood.” But after hearing my mom’s frustrations, I chose not to enter the profession myself. Today, my daughter wants to be a teacher. By the time she enters the workforce, I believe that teaching will be much more welcoming to her voice.