menu search recent posts
April 21, 2015 standard

Choice has been getting a lot of good press lately. Ever since Mr. Kellogg began making corn flakes, Americans have been told that many brightly colored packages of slightly differing products are better than one. (“Would you like corn syrup and dehydrated strawberries with your cattle feed?”) Mr. Ford’s offer of the Model T in every color as long as it was black quickly gave way to automobiles in every possible, and some impossible, colors. Victorian black in winter and white in summer are only seen in certain districts of Manhattan and otherwise identical tract-houses and apartments are distinguished from one another with names intended to convey status and romance.

Which brings us to schools.

There are some 14,000 school districts in the United States and most have only a few high schools, often enough North, South, East and West, with their bitter football rivalries. Larger districts, almost from their beginnings, have differentiated some of their schools by curriculum and the class status of students. Boston Latin with its classical curriculum, serving the children of the wealthy and well-born, was complimented by vocational schools, on the one hand, and common schools, on the other. Eventually there were systems with different varieties at each level: classical and science elite schools, five or six types of vocational schools, perhaps a music and arts school. Students (actually, their families) didn’t exactly choose these schools—“Well, Jackie, do you want to go to Bronx Science or Aviation High?”—but the variety of schools in many large districts presented the thought of an alternative to the common school.

This thought was available for use when direct desegregation efforts failed and authorities attempted to lessen segregation by means of magnet schools, each excellent in its own way. These were much more a matter of choice, for White families, who could choose to send their children to one or another or to none at all. For Black children, magnets weren’t much of a choice at all. Meanwhile the schools that predominantly served them were almost never improved.

Today, many large districts offer secondary schools (and even primary schools) with bright and shiny grocery store packaging: The School for Advanced Study in Sub-Prime Mortgages, The School for Olympic Sports Commentary, and the like. There are also public charter schools and other forms of choice operating outside of districts; in New Orleans, those are the dominant forms of schools, while in most other places (namely New York and Chicago), they serve less than a fifth of the student population. But the vast majority of what some can (vaguely) call choice still exists within the confines of traditional school districts.

None of these schools, especially those operated by districts, are intended to serve the children in their neighborhoods. So as a result, choice operates district-wide. Sometimes it serves as a desegregation strategy. Other times, as resegregation by various other names. Occasionally, especially outside of the traditional school district, even as a way to provide Black and Latino children with high-quality education.

There is evidence that when structured properly, school choice can improve learning outcomes for our children. But as my Dropout Nation colleague, RiShawn Biddle, has pointed out, the infrastructure for choice – including school data – isn’t robust enough in some places for it to help children. In some places, intra-district and out-of-district choice doesn’t even work as a lever for high quality education. In the last case, it’s meant to be that way.

Take New York City. Yes, I’m calling it out again. The traditional district’s medical-school-admissions-style process for high school admission is extraordinarily complicated and driven by the actions of families, who, in an adaption of University of Chicago School of Economics rational-choice theory, are assumed to be uniformly well-informed and highly (and similarly) motivated. What is the result? Schools that somewhat well-informed (and often, usually wealthy) parents ascertain offer the best educations are filled with the children of the well-informed and highly motivated. Other children are consigned to other schools.

Wealthy, well-informed parents do not complain about the (woefully inadequate) quality of those other schools and the voices of the children in those other schools are inaudible in the corridors of power. Which allows the continuing diversion of public resources from schools serving the children with the lowest level of family resources to those serving children with greater family resources.

When school choice is structured like it is in New York City, school choice can end up validating the unequal distribution of economic opportunity that has been a problem since the days of Horace Mann. But those kids had their chance, didn’t they? Those children without parents, with parents working two jobs, with parents afraid to have their children travel out of the neighborhood. They must like things this way.

Would you like whipped cream on those corn flakes?

April 4, 2015 standard

Historians such as Wilma Dunaway are now establishing that slavery was a highly profitable business for the slave owners as well as for the northern banking and commercial interests that supported them. Popular culture has left behind the romantic and highly deceptive images of slavery in the last century projected by The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to provide in their stead the realism of movies like Twelve Years a Slave and Django Unchained. Especially for those of us who have never watched Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, there is the profound sense of shock that we realize that, in this context, Quentin Tarantino is a realist.

These strands come together on the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the blacksmith shop of which was used as the setting for the scene in Django Unchained in which Django is tortured.

The recently restored Whitney Plantation is one of a series of plantations along the Mississippi above New Orleans. The tours of the others celebrate their white columned houses and the leisure of the White owners of those houses, their imported furnishings, their gardens and their gracious way of life. John Cummings, the attorney whose project the Whitney Plantation has been, takes a different approach, making it into a monument for the enslaved Africans themselves, their horrific lives, their early deaths.

Cummings has placed a large, now rusted, iron cage between the blacksmith shop and the big house. About six feet high and twenty feet long, it was used to display the sufferings, and often enough the death throes, of slaves bull whipped in front of their fellows and families for defiance, attempting to escape, or for nothing at all. They were left to bleed in that cage in the Louisiana summer heat, in the winter rain, in the clear line of sight from the covered porch in the rear of the second floor of the big house. One can visualize the Haydel family, owners of the plantation, the men and women, the children and their visitors, taking tea on that porch on a summer’s afternoon, talking among themselves of the doings of their relatives and neighbors along the Great River Road or about the politicians in the capitol, Baton Rouge, just across the Mississippi, while one of their slaves, perhaps one of their mulatto daughters, screams as the bull whip strips the skin from her back and she is tossed naked into that iron cage.

Each member of the Haydel family, of the families of slave owners all along the river, had a personal slave, often given to them when each—owner and owned—was a child. The slaves slept on the floor, at the foot of the owner’s bed or just outside the bedroom door. White infants were nursed by enslaved Black women, who slept on the floor next to their cradles, in some cases forming life-long relationships. White people of the former slave-owning class in the South had similar upbringings not so long ago, or may even have such experiences today. The memory of some of these relationships were (and still) viewed sentimentally by their White participants. These sweet stories are part of the myth, the ideology, of the Southern way of life. Of course they are no longer stories about master-slave relationships, and yet even master-servant relationships are not true human relationships based on a mutual recognition of equality. They are stories of domination.

The legacy wrought by slavery and White Supremacy upon black children of the Whitney Plantation still haunt their descendants (and those who claim ancestry from other slave children) today thanks to American public education.

That cage behind the big house on the Whitney Plantation, perhaps replacing one worn-out from use, was manufactured in Philadelphia. The owners of the Philadelphia iron works profited; the plantation owners gained an instrument to help preserve the Southern way of life. Just as that exchange united the North and the South in a common cash matrix, so did it and the persistent exchanges on other levels infect Northerners as well with the racism of Southern slave owners (thinking again on the popular culture level of Gone with the Wind and the like, and on the political level of the Fugitive Slave Act and continuing White Southern dominance in Congress).

The tour of the Whitney Plantation begins at a church, built by and for ex-slaves elsewhere in the region and moved to the plantation as an entrance to the lessons taught by the docents. The church contains statues of slave children, reminiscent of those created by the artist Kara Walker, standing at the ends of the pews, witnessing. In a corner there is a bust of Pope Nicholas V, he of the Papal Bull justifying the enslavement of Africans. The next exhibit, a few dozen yards around the back of the church, is a set of memorial walls with the names of those who had lived as slaves on this property and the next is a set of Vietnam Memorial-style walls covered with the names and ages of the children who had died there before their fifth birthdays.

After this there are slave cabins, that blacksmith shop, the carriage house, mule stable, kitchen and the pigeon towers, the cage, and finally the big house, with its genteel atmosphere. The tour is a form of adult education. It is a course in American history, in the sociology of the plantations, in the morality of the owners of those plantations, their influence on race relations even today.

Education is not limited to elementary and secondary grades. It begins at birth and continues throughout life. Some of it is formal, some not. It is difficult to distinguish education in the usual sense of the word—reading, writing, arithmetic; quantum mechanics and philology—from education as the transmission of ideology or as the promotion of commercial products. Proctor & Gamble spends half a billion dollars or more on one form of education: making their products known and attractive to consumers. Political parties and those paying for them spend billions of dollars on another form of education, which also has the purpose of making their products known and attractive to the people they wish to influence.

Efforts to educate White people to accept racism as natural began in Europe as early as the sixteenth century Papal Bull of Nicholas V and rapidly took root in the Americas. Those efforts have been, continue to be, highly successful. The White police officers shooting Black children have been educated in this way so that they do not think that they are doing anything wrong. The school superintendents preferentially funding schools attended by White children do not think they are doing anything wrong. The school principals paddling or suspending Black girls and not White girls for similar behaviors do not think they are doing anything wrong. They have been carefully taught.

Different lessons are taught by the Whitney Plantation.

Visitors to the Whitney Plantation leave with images difficult to get out of one’s mind: Those artfully decorated rooms in the big house. That cage. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

March 23, 2015 standard

The U.S. Department of Education is celebrating improvements in United States high school graduation rates overall and its finding that the graduation rates of Latino and Black students are improving faster than the national average. Putting aside the dubious measure used – four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate – and the serious conceptual and technical issues in the calculations (don’t ask), the data accompanying the announcement directs our attention to some matters of interest at the state level.

For all the debate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, we must remember that primary and secondary education are state responsibilities, administratively, fiscally and in terms of policy, except insofar as the federal government takes a role in these matters, which is sometimes quite minor and never predominant. The quality of education available to students therefore varies among the states and, because of differences in state policies and practices, opportunities for education vary within states.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education has recently found that funding within states between districts with high rates of poverty and those with low rates of poverty can greatly differ. In fact, the gap between per-pupil spending between our poorest and wealthiest districts have increased over the past decade. Wealthier districts spent 10.8 percent more than high-poverty districts in 2002; they now spend 15.6 percent more today.

In 23 states districts serving the highest percentage of students from low-income families are spending fewer state and local funds per pupil than districts that have fewer students in poverty. In 20 states, districts serving a high percentage of minority students are spending fewer state and local funds than districts that have fewer minority students. Now school spending isn’t everything – and lots of districts regardless of demographics spend money badly. But it is clear that nearly half the nation’s state governments have decided to spend more of taxpayers’ funds on White and comparatively well-off students than on children from low-income and minority families.

But then there are other examples of how poorly political leaders and others think of Black, Latino, and low-income children. This can be seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both are prosperous states with progressive histories; Minnesota even has a self-proclaimed reputation for “niceness.” But neither state are all that nice for Black, Latino, and poor children or for their families.

Minnesota’s traditional public schools work very well for White children, with 85 percent of them graduating in four years according to the federal government’s adjusted cohort graduation rate. But they don’t work so well for other children. The graduation rate for Minnesota’s black students is 28 percent lower than that for Whites, while the graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students are, respectively, 26 and 36 percentage points below that of Whites.

Wisconsin’s public schools are also highly successful for White children, graduating more than 92 percent of the adjusted cohort of White children in four years. But the schools are also not very nice for poor and minority children. Black students graduate at levels 26 percent lower than White students. The graduation rates for Latino and Native students are also in the pits.

How bad are the gaps in graduation rates between White and Black students in both states? Their gaps are, respectively, 15 and 13 percent greater than that for Mississippi, and 18 and 16 percent greater than that for Alabama. Based on the data, you can ascertain that opportunities for high-quality education in the Deep South are greater than in two of our most “progressive” states. You can also say it the other way: That Minnesota and Wisconsin are twice as racist as Mississippi and Alabama. Either way, how nice is that?

But this isn’t a surprise. Minnesota and Wisconsin also have astronomical incarceration rates for Black men, as well as astronomical disparities between incarceration rates for Black and White men. As I wrote in 2013 about Milwaukee and Wisconsin, a Black family would be better off in Mississippi than in the Dairy State, and this also holds true when it comes to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But are the conditions for Blacks and other minorities in Minnesota and Wisconsin examples of institutional racism. Though they could be unforeseeable racist outcomes of blind institutional forces, I wouldn’t say so. These are examples of the decisions made, every day, by individuals in both states as well as throughout this entire country.

Just as a new police chief in Ferguson or New York City can simply order the police to behave toward Black men as they behave toward White men, so in Minneapolis and Milwaukee the police chiefs and prosecutors could do the same. But they don’t. Similarly, it is the individual responsibility of chief state school officers, superintendents, school boards and others to give Black students the same educational opportunities, schools of the same quality that they provide for White students. But in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, they don’t.

These police chiefs, district attorneys, district and state superintendents, go to their offices each morning and decide to arrest, prosecute and imprison much higher percentages of Black than White people, to provide better schools for White than for Black children. Don’t they? Of course they do. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.

The education officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota have, no doubt, read the press releases from the U.S. Department of Education containing this latest batch of data telling of their shame. And now they could, if they wish, improve the prospects of the Black children in their care. Or they might, as they have been doing, simply encourage their colleagues to build more prisons.

March 11, 2015 standard

Like some other urban school districts, New York City has a system of elite, specialized, high schools, admission to which is governed by a test. As Dropout Nation readers already know, I have documented the role these schools play in perpetuating the racial caste system that condemn so many black and Latino children to poverty and imprisonment. And once again, the data shows that this continues.

As the New York Times reported last week, of “the 5,103 students offered placement in eight specialized high schools [in 2014-2015], five percent were black and seven percent were Hispanic, the same as last year . . . At Stuyvesant High School, historically the hardest to get into, black students earned 10 of the 953 seats.”

That is, one percent, in a school system in which 30 percent of the students are Black. Of course, “black” students are not necessarily African American and students admitted to New York’s specialized high schools have not necessarily attended the district’s middle schools. All 10 of those “black” new freshman at Stuyvesant could be the children of foreign diplomats. At the one percent level, anything can happen.

Year after year the city administers an admission test claimed to be objective and year after year the result is on the face of it discriminatory. What do we say about a situation in which the professed objectives and the actual outcomes differ so greatly? We say that the actual goal of the process is that which is achieved: to exclude African-American students from the best educational opportunities available.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools has released a policy brief on the issue. The authors, Sean Corcoran and Christine Baker-Smith, found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just five percent of the City’s public middle schools.” Were those excellent middle schools located in the three extraordinarily segregated neighborhoods in which most of the city’s Black students live?


Corcoran and Baker-Smith tested various alternatives to the current system as paths to equity. They found that an “admissions rule that would substantially change the demographic mix of the specialized high schools—and reduce the concentration of offers in a small number of middle schools—is a rule that guarantees admission to all students across the City who are in the top 10 percent of their middle school.” This approach has been used in Texas for admission to that state’s elite university.

The present system of admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools is damaging in many ways.

It, along with the entire structure of school choice and gifted and talented education, validates the differences in the quality of education offered by the city’s schools, putting the onus for a student’s educational opportunities on the student’s family, rather than on the system itself. In other words, it helps maintain the inferior quality of education available to students from impoverished, less highly educated, families. That is on the input side, as it were. On the output side, it limits lifetime opportunities for Black students, denying them access to the educational and social networking opportunities of the elite high schools.

In this way, racial discrimination in the United States is supported by the nation’s education system as a full partner in that effort with the nation’s criminal justice system. What happens in Ferguson, Mo. – where the district and law enforcement come together to condemn the lives of Black people – also happens in the City of New York.

The top 10 percent rule would require a change in the law. Perhaps Mayor Bill de Blasio could add that to his legislative agenda. How hard could that be, at least to try?

Meanwhile, 95 percent of New York City’s Black students are denied the opportunity of the world-class education offered by the city’s outstanding specialized high schools, one of which is attended by the mayor’s son.

March 5, 2015 standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, districts accounted for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies. In Indianapolis, whose troubled juvenile justice system was the subject of an expose I wrote for the Indianapolis Star nine years ago, Indiana Superior Court Judge Marilyn Moores called upon districts there to stop referring 1,500 children to her juvenile courts because all it does is set kids on the path to future criminality. [Eighty percent of kids sent to the court are never convicted of a crime, according to the judge.]

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

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

When kids aren’t being arrested for behavior that should be settled by schools, they are subjected to the kind of law enforcement tactics that should be reserved for adults outside of schools. This includes police officers in Birmingham, Ala., using Freeze +P pepper spray against eight children attending the traditional district there (the subject of a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center); some 110 incidents of pepper-spraying occurred in the district since 2006, according to the SPLC attorney Ebony Howard in an interview last month with Mother Jones. Because half of school resource officer programs (and other law enforcement) are patrolling elementary school hallways, it means that even kids in kindergarten and first grade are being criminalized at early ages.

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

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

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

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