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.
In Philadelphia, as in Milwaukee and Rochester, young people, especially young African American men, are caught between a school system that will not educate them and a criminalizing legal system that will not leave them alone.
Eighty percent of Philadelphia’s Black families have incomes below the average for White families in the city. The poverty rate for Black families in Philadelphia is two and a half times that of White families. At the other end of the income spectrum, more than a quarter of Philadelphia’s White families have incomes over $100,000 per year, as compared to just 10 percent of Black families. This may reflect the fact that 41 percent of White civilian employed adults work in the managerial group of occupations, compared to 26 percent of Black civilian employed adults. Thirty percent of employed Black adults work in service occupations, as compared to 17 percent of employed White adults: Whites manage, Blacks serve.
It is unlikely that there is much inter-generational family income or wealth upward mobility in Philadelphia’s Black community. There is, on the contrary, much inter-generational downward mobility in both income and wealth. Black Philadelphia does not participate in the same society as White Philadelphia. It is a caste apart.
There are two forces creating and enforcing the caste boundaries in Philadelphia: the criminal justice system and the school system.
The operations of the criminal justice system—chiefly the police, but going all the way up through prosecutors and courts—criminalize young adult African Americans by means of disparate enforcement of irrational drug laws and a form of debt peonage effected through fines for non-appearance, bench warrants and the like. The State of Pennsylvania incarcerates African Americans at nine times the rate at which White residents of the state are incarcerated. Statewide, nearly 30 percent of those incarcerations are for violations of drug laws. The drug laws are a primary vehicle for the enforcement of the lower caste position of the Black community: they are dramatically differentially enforced, even though it is well-established that the level of illicit drug use is similar in the Black and White communities.
A Black resident of Pennsylvania, particularly a young adult male, is at great risk of a five year jail sentence, extendable by another five years or more, for behaviors that are not illegal in, say, Colorado, behaviors that are ignored in White neighborhoods of Philadelphia. As Alice Goffman has brilliantly shown, the Philadelphia police operate like a foreign army in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, sweeping in, brutalizing Black males from early adolescence, making legal employment nearly impossible and removing as many as 20 percent of the young adult Black population from the community to prison or, directly or not, to the cemetery.
The School District of Philadelphia is the partner of the criminal justice system in this endeavor. Approximately three-quarters of all in-school and out-of-school suspensions and arrests are of Black students. It is not only the students who are gone from the classrooms: 35 percent of the district’s teachers are absent ten days or more each year and just 38 percent meet all state licensing and certification requirements. These are both highly unusual metrics. Pittsburgh, for example, has a teacher absentee percentage of 21 percent and 93 percent of its teachers meet state requirements.
The district has a long history of conflicts between teachers and administrators, from elementary schools where principals lock themselves in their offices rather than meet with teachers to prolonged wars between the teachers’ union and the district administration. Spending on support services has trailed inflation. Non-teaching staff, such as counselors and librarians, have been severely cut. Many schools have been closed.
Charter schools should be a way out for Philadelphia students. Charter school enrollment has increased 80 percent for general education students and an astonishing 137 percent for special education students in the last four years. But as Editor RiShawn Biddle will point out next week, students are not benefitting so far, and that is a result of Pennsylvania’s faulty approach to authorizing schools.
The budgetary issues and administrative policies of the state and district are both complex and controversial, but there is little dispute over the ability of the Philadelphia school district to teach its students how to read. It can’t. In Philadelphia only a quarter of White students and 12 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade in 2013. Matters are even worse in regard to students from lower income families (those eligible for the National Lunch Program). Just 19 percent of White students in Philadelphia in this category and 9 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade (as compared to 28 percent and 12 percent of each group nationally). Black students in Philadelphia whose parents had some education after high school match the national average for Black students, 21 percent, and those whose families have incomes too high to be eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch exceed it at 30 percent Proficient or above. Perhaps these children learn to read at home.
A consequence of these and other failures of the school system is an estimated high school graduation rate of 45 percent for Black students and 63 percent for White students in the 2011-12 school year, both far below national averages. In Philadelphia as in Milwaukee, Rochester and similar educational disaster areas, if those students attended schools in suburban districts they would have much better educational opportunities. If they went to school in neighboring Delaware County, they could expect graduation rates of 66 percent for Black students and 88 percent for White students. In nearby Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the Black graduation rate is 82 percent.
The Philadelphia public schools do not educate any group of their students as well as national averages for each group. They fail to come anywhere near to providing the quality of education given to students in nearby districts. Although family income and parental education levels have some effect on student achievement, this simply defines the task of the schools. The extent of these failures in Philadelphia is too great to be attributed to anything other than the quality of the schools themselves.
Further education outcomes for Black residents of Philadelphia are consistent with this record. In addition to its distinguished arts and music schools, Philadelphia has two major national research universities: the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. Not all Black students attending these universities are from Philadelphia and not all Black students from Philadelphia who go to college go to Penn or Temple, but a rough estimate of how well—or how poorly—the Philadelphia school district prepares its students for college and career can be gained by looking at their records.
In the fall of 2012 the University of Pennsylvania admitted 2,453 first-time undergraduate, degree-seeking students, 8 percent of whom were Black. Just 73 of those were male African Americans. Temple University admitted 4,132 first-time students, 10 percent of whom were Black. Just 139 of those were male African Americans. The major local two-year institution, the Community College of Philadelphia, admitted 4,067 students in 2012, 1,838 of whom were Black; 743 of those were men. That year, 49 Black students received Associate’s degrees from the Community College, 17 were men. The University of Pennsylvania together with Temple University awarded 8,502 Bachelor’s degrees to students within 150 percent of normal time to completion: 598 were Black, 202 of those were men. This output, as it were, is just 14 percent of the estimated postsecondary “input” of high school graduates. Fewer than half of Philadelphia’s Black students graduate from high school four years after grade 9; just 14 percent of those graduate with an Associate’s degree three years later or a Bachelor’s degree within six years of receiving a high school diploma.
White students in Philadelphia, following the same path, were much more than twice as likely to reach the same goal. Of course they were also twice as likely to be taught to read at grade level by the time they were in eighth grade.
If the schools of Philadelphia functioned as well for African American children as the not very impressive way they function for White children (or as well as the suburban schools function for Black children) and if drug law enforcement were equitable, life in and for the city’s Black community would be quite different.
However, the values of the Pennsylvania state government run in the other direction. It has begun building a new $400 million prison outside Philadelphia.
First, the New York State Education Department is to be congratulated on moving to a policy of truth in testing and honesty in reporting. The new state tests align with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard in American testing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good tests. But at least they are honest.
For any state, achievement on the eighth-grade reading test is a key indicator of the success, or lack of it, of the schools. By grade 8 the schools have had many years to work with their students and reading is the central skill for which schools are responsible. This year’s New York State tests show that 29 percent of New York City’s eighth-graders were reading at or above grade level. That is, 71 percent had not learned to read well enough to read, say, the articles about education in The New York Times. And just 19 percent of black and Latino students (the latter of whom may be of any race) had been taught to read at grade level.
We can also look at the results divided between those students whose family incomes are low enough to make them eligible for free or reduced price lunches and those whose families have higher incomes. Fifty-one percent of eighth-graders from higher income households were taught to read at grade level, while just 24 percent of peers from poorer homes were taught to read at proficiency. These results do no vary much between third and eighth grade.
In Manhattan’s higher-income Community School District 2, 30 percent of the district’s black and Latino students read at grade level in grade 8. In lower-income District 7 in the Bronx, just eight percent of black and Latino students were able to do so.
This brings up three important questions. The first: What is going to happen to the other 92 percent of black and Latino in the Bronx who can’t read at grade level? Two: If reading skills are only dependent on family income what value is added by the New York City Department of Education? And finally, how long is this disgraceful situation going to continue?
Your editor gives one cheer to Minneapolis Public Schools Supt. Bernadeia Johnson for her decision last week to halt the overuse of suspensions and expulsions on kids in its early childhood education, kindergarten, and first grade classes. After all, by doing so, Johnson recognizes that harsh school discipline does nothing to help kids learn the consequences of misbehavior, and worse, allows teachers and school leaders to avoid addressing the underlying illiteracy at the heart of students acting out.
Yet your editor cannot give Johnson credit for doing only part of the right thing — especially given that she been a key player in Minneapolis’ school leadership for most of the last decade, and had ample opportunity to address suspensions and expulsions. This is especially clear after a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by Minneapolis to the U.S. Department of Education shows wide disparities in who is subjected to the harshest school discipline. The district should have long ago addressed the underlying issues behind its overuse of suspensions and other discipline that damages the futures of children.
Nine hundred eighty-three young black men and women attending Minneapolis’ regular classes were suspended once during the 2011-2012 school year. This means that eight percent of the 12,392 not condemned to special ed ghettos attending Minneapolis’ public schools were kept out of school. Another 504 black children — or 5.1 percent of the district’s African American student population — were suspended more than once. [Another 33 black students were given in-school suspensions.]
Meanwhile 134 young black men and women were referred to law enforcement in 2011-2012; given that none of those kids were arrested in school (Minneapolis didn’t have any arrests on school grounds that year), that means that the district sent 1.1 percent of its black students to the juvenile justice system, likely for status offenses such as truancy that can (and should) be handled by the district’s school leadership. Essentially, Minneapolis is often putting kids on the path to the criminal justice system for reasons that have nothing to do with actual crimes.
Minneapolis’ school discipline levels weren’t the highest Dropout Nation has seen. But the disparities between punishment meted out to black kids and kids from white households were particularly egregious. The district meted out one out-of-school suspension to just 133 white kids or a mere 1.2 percent of the 11,392 Caucasian Americans served by the district. The district meted out multiple suspensions to another 57 white kids, or five-tenths of one percent. [In-school suspensions were meted out to just six white kids.] As for referrals to law enforcement? Just 34 white students, or three-tenths of one percent.
Put bluntly, a black child attending the Minneapolis district has a one in eight chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, while their white peer face only a two in 100 chance.
This disparity in school discipline isn’t just a problem for Minneapolis’ black students alone. The district meted out one out-of-school suspension to 7.8 percent of the 1,577 American Indian students attending its schools; another 4.8 percent were suspended more than once that year. [The district meted out in-school suspensions to four Native kids under its care.] The district also referred 2.6 percent of Native students to law enforcement, with those kids likely ending up in juvenile court for status offenses.
But as bad as the overuse of harsh school discipline — and the wide disparities — are for Minneapolis’ black and Native kids in regular classrooms, it is even worse for those condemned to the district’s special ed ghettos. The district meted out one suspension to 512 black kids in special ed — or 17.2 percent of the 2,984 black kids stuck in the ghettos. It also meted out multiple suspensions to another 513 black kids, or another 17.2 percent.
Minneapolis gave out in-school suspensions to a mere 16 black kids. That’s good news, I guess. But the district then referred 208 black kids in special ed to law enforcement; that means seven percent of all black kids in special ed were referred that year, mostly to juvenile justice systems. Another 99 black kids (or 3.3 percent) were arrested on school grounds.
Compare this to Minneapolis’ treatment of white kids in its special ed ghettos: The district meted out just one out-of-school suspension to 91 white kids, or 5.4 percent of the 1,675 white kids in the district’s special ed ghettos; it only meted out multiple suspensions to another 54 white kids (or 3.2 percent of those condemned to special ed). Only two white kids were given in-school suspensions by the district.
As for referrals to law enforcement? Minneapolis only referred 33 white kids in special ed to law enforcement; that’s a mere two percent of Caucasian Americans forced into its special ed ghettos. Only eight white kids in special ed were arrested on the district’s campuses.
Black special ed kids weren’t the only ones more-often subjected to harsh school discipline than white peers. Minneapolis meted out one suspension to 25 percent of the 315 American Indian kids forced into its special ed ghettos; another 13 percent were suspended multiple times by the district. [Two were given in-school suspensions.] Native students were the most-likely to be referred to law enforcement by the district, with 8.6 percent of them sent to juvenile courts in 2011-2012; another 2.5 percent were arrested on the district’s campuses.
The district also meted out one suspension to 6.6 percent of the 244 Asian students condemned to special ed ghettos; another 4.1 percent were suspended multiple times by the district. [In-school suspensions were meted out to just two Asian kids.] Another 1.6 percent were referred to law enforcement (and ultimately, in most cases, to juvenile court), while eight-tenths of one percent were arrested on school grounds.
Let’s just say it: If you are a black kid in Minneapolis’ special ed ghettos, you have a two-in-five chance of being suspended, arrested, or referred to the juvenile justice system, and if you are Native, that chance is one-in-two. On the other hand, if you are white or Asian, the chances are at most, one in ten. All these numbers are horrible. But even more so for the most-vulnerable of our children in this Twin Cities district.
This data explains why the U.S. Department of Education, which is following up on its issuance of guidance earlier this year on addressing overuse of school discipline by districts throughout the country (a matter opposed by some misguided reformers and defended by Dropout Nation), is investigating Minneapolis for civil rights violations. And why Johnson, facing both federal heat along with embarrassment from a Star-Tribune report last month showing massive increases in numbers of kids in early grades being suspended, belatedly decided to do part of the right thing.
At the heart of the problem is that Minneapolis 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, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills. Children with strong reading skills in the early grades tend to also have good social habits (including the executive function of self-control), while those who are functionally illiterate tend to struggle with discipline.
Minneapolis, along with the rest of the urban districts in Minnesota, is dealing poorly on this front, especially for poor and minority kids. Fifty-two percent of black kids in the North Star State’s big city-districts (along with 39 percent of Asian kids) read Below Basic according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Just 47 percent of black third-graders and 45 percent of Native peers in Minneapolis reached the North Star State’s (rather lowly-set) level of reading proficiency according to its 2012 exams. This isn’t shocking. As Dropout Nation noted in 2012, the district is doing poorly in providing high-quality education to all of the children under its watch.
While the district has implemented a program focused on improving literacy in the early grades, it is using Fountas & Pinnell’s guided reading system, which doesn’t actually help students build up their comprehension by providing them with either challenge or much-needed background knowledge critical in building literacy. As Timothy Shanahan, one of the nation’s foremost researchers on literacy, points out, guided reading’s goal of matching kids to books they can easily read is little more than “relegating them to training wheels forever” This means that the district’s efforts are doing more than putting kids on the path to suspension and, ultimately, academic as well as economic failure.
Another problem lies with the perceptions of Minneapolis’ school leaders and teachers towards children from black and Native households. Essentially many of the adults in the district believe that certain racial and ethnic groups of students are discipline problems because they think they are destined to end up that way. This can be seen in another problem for the district: The overlabeling of black and other minority kids as special ed cases.
Twenty-four percent of Minneapolis’ black students — 66 percent of them young black men — were placed into Minneapolis’ special ed ghettos in 2011-2012, double the national average. Twenty percent of Native students — 70 percent of them young American Indian men — were also labeled as special ed cases. Overuse of school discipline and overlabeling of kids as special ed cases are signs that Minneapolis (along with other districts) are subjecting them to the soft bigotry of low expectations.
[By the way: Don't think that white kids are necessarily any better off. Sure, Minneapolis is less likely to label white kids as special ed cases -- or subject them to harsh discipline -- than their black and Latino peers. But the fact that 15 percent of white kids in the district -- 70 percent of them young men -- are in special ed ghettos is disconcerting to say the least. And for all kids, such levels should be unacceptable.]
But Johnson and her charges in Minneapolis’ school leadership aren’t the only culprits. After all, kids don’t end up in principal’s offices unless referred by teachers, especially those who lack the strong training in classroom management (as well as empathy for kids regardless of background) to keep wayward kids in line as well as diagnose underlying learning issues.
These teachers are protected by the American Federation of Teachers’ Minneapolis local, which strongly oppose even Johnson’s weak effort to reduce some of the overuse. The fact that the local argues that the district should instead hire guidance counselors and mental health professionals betrays the union’s sole concern for protecting laggard members instead of looking out for the futures of kids. That the new hires it proposes the district to hire would be new rank-and-file members, and therefore, contributors to its coffers, is especially cynical.
Minneapolis is simply over-suspending far too many kids, especially from black and Native households who are the most-vulnerable. As former district board member Chris Stewart rightfully noted yesterday, Johnson’s moratorium isn’t going to do much to address that problem. The district needs to address the underlying instructional, leadership, curricula and diagnosis issues at the heart of its condemning of kids to the abyss. And it must start now.
“And then I got to Memphis.”
Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968
Recruitment for jail in the Memphis area begins in the schools. In 2011-2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights counted 26,000 out-of-school and 11,500 in-school suspensions and 4,400 expulsions, over 90 percent of which were of black students in the 100,000 student Memphis schools. There were also 100 each of referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests. In that single year, nearly 1,000 black students in the Memphis area became known to the police, while at least 40,000 others had school discipline records. New York City, with ten times as many students, had fewer than 14,000 out-of-school suspensions and exactly 332 expulsions.
Three-quarters of Memphis’ black students are not reading at grade level by ninth grade. In the suburban Shelby County district (which finally merged with Memphis in a controversial consolidation last year), black students are nearly twice as likely to reach grade level in reading as in the city’s schools. The state lists the graduation rate for African American students in Memphis in 2012 as 71 percent, roughly the same for males and females. These graduation rates are quite extraordinary. One explanation might be found in the ACT data for the districts. (The ACT is a standard test used for college admission.) The 2013 mean composite ACT score for the Memphis City School District was 16.2. The state average was 19.3 and that for Shelby County (outside Memphis) was 20.9. Half of students, nationally, taking the ACT, scored between 20 and 21. Just 23 percent scored at or below Memphis’s 16.
One can only conclude that while 70 percent of Memphis students may graduate from high school, few of them are career or college ready. After all, three-quarters of black students in Memphis could not read at grade level when they were in eighth grade.
This is borne out by some data about the two largest local postsecondary institutions: Southwest Tennessee Community College and the University of Memphis. Let us assume that all the black students at Southwest Tennessee Community College and the University of Memphis were graduates of the Memphis city schools. (Of course some were from other districts and some students from the Memphis city schools went elsewhere, but for the sake of the argument, we will assume that these factors approximately balance.) This gives us 8,000 black students in grade 9, including 4,600 black males.
Four years later 7,000 black students graduate, including 3,400 black males. Of these, 2,000 go to Southwest Tennessee Community College and 835 go to the University of Memphis, 700 and 265 of whom, respectively, are Black males. Forty-five black students graduate with Associate’s degrees from Southwest Tennessee Community College within 150 percent of normal time, 16 of whom are Black males. Two hundred black students graduate from the University of Memphis with Bachelor’s degrees within 150 percent of normal time, 70 of whom are black men. Of 8,000 black students in grade 9, 45 eventually receive Associate’s degrees, 200 receive B.A. degrees, a success rate of 3 percent.
If the progression from the first year of high school in Memphis for black students through graduation, college matriculation and degrees is anything like that indicated by these approximations, it cannot be said that the district is preparing its students well for college and careers. Presuming that the goal of the Memphis educational system is that its students attain at least Associate’s degree and that many will obtain Bachelor’s degrees, it is failing to achieve those goals 97 percent of the time.
As things stand in Memphis, many of those students, especially young black men, do not go to college. They go to jail.
Although the number of adult white residents of Memphis is evenly divided between men and women, that of adult black residents shows 22,000 fewer men than women. Where are those missing young black men? According to the 2010 Census, there are about the same number of white men in Shelby County college dorms as in the county’s jails and prisons and nearly four times as many white women in the dorms as in cells.
The situation is quite different for the county’s black residents. There are ten times as many black men incarcerated in the county’s jails and prisons as in college dorms and less than twice as many black women in the dorms as in cells. Or we can notice that the Shelby County jail in Memphis booked 54,000 people last year. Most of those were young adult black men. There are about 50,000 black males in Memphis between the ages of 18 and 34. No doubt some of the bookings were of white men and women, some of black women and some people were booked more than once. No doubt.
In Tennessee, as in other states, the largest category of prisoners are those incarcerated for drug offenses. The average prison sentence in Tennessee for drug law offenses is eight years, except for cocaine offenses. The average prison sentence for cocaine offenses is 17 years. Eight years is a long time to spend in prison for activities that are now legal in two other states. Seventeen years in prison for an activity common among upper income white people is unspeakable.
In Tennessee, as in other states, African Americans are much more likely than White Americans to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses, even though drug usage is much the same between the races. It would seem from Census figures that if the laws were equitably enforced in Shelby County there would be 10,000 more White men in jail, or maybe at least 4,500 fewer black Shelby County men incarcerated. No one wishes to see 10,000 more white men in jail, especially for drug offenses. Perhaps the criminal justice system could concentrate on incarcerating fewer black men.
In all these matters in Memphis, black men are extraordinarily disproportionately represented: from school suspensions to arrests to seventeen-year prison sentences for victimless crimes. And they are disproportionately under-represented in higher education.
This matters—need it be said?—because higher education is an entry point to civilization itself. Once through that door a person can travel through science, the arts, the humanities, coming into contact with entire worlds far from her or his family’s neighborhood and quite possibly bringing what they learn there back to that family and neighborhood to further enhance human development.
There are also the issues of employment, income and wealth. In the United States today, except for the inheritors of great fortunes, these are interconnected.
Adults without a high school degree can look forward to an unemployment rate of more than twice the average and an income of less than half the average. Each additional educational level decreases the first and increases the second. The black/white education differentials in the Memphis area are considerable, in part because most black children attend schools in Memphis and most white children attend schools in the suburbs.
If black educational attainment were at white levels, there would be many more black adults with baccalaureate degrees and many more with further degrees, significantly lowering the unemployment rate of the black community and raising its income level. It would also, other things being equal, lower the rate of incarceration.
Featured photo courtesy of Joe Spake.
The Rochester City School District enrolls just under 30,000 students, 61 percent of whom are African American and 25 percent of whom are Latino. [There are approximate 10,000 school-aged white residents of the city, two-thirds of these are not enrolled in the city’s public schools.] Eighty-five percent of the district’s students are listed as “economically disadvantaged.”
In 2012-13 there were approximately twice as many students enrolled in ninth grade as in 12th grade because of a “gate” assessment at ninth grade. This high ninth grade enrollment is common among schools and districts serving children living in poverty, nearly unknown in wealthy communities. The large number of children spending more than one year in ninth grade can both be attributed to a lack of academic achievement in earlier years and be said to be a factor leading to the absence of a high school diploma four years later.
In the 2011-12 school year, the turnover rate of teachers with fewer than five years of experience was 51 percent. The turnover rate of all teachers was 28 percent, double the state-wide average. In a typical Rochester school, comparatively few teachers are highly educated, few teachers new to teaching are in the classroom after their second year, few of any teachers after their fourth year.
Statewide, 31 percent of New York students reach the National Assessment of Educational Progress Proficient (grade level) status in eighth grade reading, and four percent reach the Advanced level. White students score at Proficient or above 46 percent of the time; black New York State students reach Proficient or above 18 percent of the time. The New York State Department of Education believes that the new Common Core tests begun in 2013 are now aligned with NAEP.
In the 2014 administration of these tests, 5.7 percent of all Rochester eighth grade students scored at grade level in reading, level 3 or above (up from 5.6 percent the previous year). This was the lowest percentage at grade level of any of the state’s large cities. Among white students, 12 percent reached level 3 and 8 percent reached level 4. Among black students, four percent reached level 3 and none reached level 4 (due to rounding, the combined levels 3 and 4 totaled five percent). For black male students, 3 percent reached level 3 and none reached level 4. The failure of the district to teach its black students to read and write by eighth grade is nearly total.
There are many ways to calculate high school graduation rates, some more exotic than others. There is little difference in results among them for successful districts. On the other hand, they can produce widely differing results for less successful districts because of the ninth grade gate issue. If we wish to focus on the record of the school in educating its students, rather than, say, the “resilience” of individual students to the effects of an inadequate education, the commonsense method of dividing the number of diplomas by the number of students enrolled in ninth grade four years earlier will tell us what we want to know.
There were 2,505 black students in ninth grade of the Rochester public schools in the 2008-09 school year. There were 671 black recipients of New York State’s regular, and Regents, diplomas in 2011-12, a graduation rate of 27 percent. There were 1,330 black male students in ninth grade of the Rochester public schools in the 2008-09 school year. There were 323 black male recipients of New York State’s regular and Regents, diplomas in 2011-12, a graduation rate by this method of 24 percent. Ironically, this is a significant improvement on previous years.
The New York State Department of Education calculates an “Aspirational Performance Measure,” in effect, its judgment of whether students are well-prepared for careers and college. The state judged 5.1 percent of Rochester graduates in June 2013 as satisfying this measure. The percentage of black students was 2.9 percent.
As Princeton University’s Bruce Western and his colleagues have determined, the lifetime chances of incarceration for a young adult African American man without a high school diploma is as high as 60 percent, more – many more – black male students are being prepared by the Rochester schools for jail than for good jobs or college.
Rochester’s education results can be compared to those in a nearby working class suburban district, Greece, which has a k-12 enrollment of 11,281, 13 percent of whom are African American and 72 percent of whom are white. In 2012-13 there were approximately equal numbers of students in all high school grades, that is, the ninth grade “gate” was open. The teacher turn-over rate was 13 percent (half of that of Rochester).
The district’s eighth grade English Language Arts outcomes for 2014 were that 32 percent of the district’s students scored at levels 3 and 4 in the state English Language Arts test; 15 percent of the district’s black students did so, nearly four times that of black students in Rochester. The “four-year graduation-rate total cohort for accountability” of the Greece school district was 84 percent, 76 percent for black students.
Black students in the Greece district are as likely to graduate from high school as the national average for White students. Black students in the Rochester school district have about one-third that chance. As with many districts like Rochester, a black student can double his or her chance of learning to read and write and graduate from high school by taking the bus to a nearby suburban district.
This brings us to the next question: How well prepared are these Rochester school district graduates?
We might first look at Monroe Community College for an indication of the postsecondary preparation and success of black students educated in the Rochester schools. Eighty-two percent of Monroe Community College’s 50,000 credit and non-credit students are Monroe County residents; 4,328 are listed as Rochester residents (which of course does not necessarily mean that they are graduates of the city school district).
The U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System counts 4,119 first-time students in fall 2006, 670 of whom were Black, 296 were black men. Completers within 150 percent of normal time (2012) total 938, 62 of whom were Black. Fourteen of those were men. Approximately nine percent of Black students enrolling in Monroe Community College and five percent of black men graduate within 150 percent of normal time. As noted, not all of those graduates attended Rochester city schools.
Looking at the University of Rochester, we find that in 2006 there were 1,219 first-time, undergraduate, degree-seeking students, 50 of whom were black. Each year the University enrolls, on average, four Black students from the Rochester school district, one of whom is male. In 2013 the University awarded 1,441 Bachelor’s degrees to students, 59 of whom were black. It is possible that two or three of these were from the Rochester school district, but the “Rochester Promise,” which funds tuition for graduates of the city school district, cannot find enough such students for the funding available.
In 2006 there were 2,368 first-time, undergraduate, degree-seeking students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the region’s other nationally-rated postsecondary institution. 108 of these were black, 32 of those were transfers-in. In 2013 the University awarded 2,478 Bachelor’s degrees to students, 102 of whom were black. Perhaps some of them were graduates of the Rochester schools.
It appears likely that only about one or two dozen male black Rochester school district graduates go on to receive Associate’s degrees each year and something on the same order, at most, receive Bachelor’s degrees. If we compare these educational outcomes for African American residents of Rochester to those for White residents of Monroe County (including Rochester) we can see that nearly four times the proportion of the latter as the former have attained education to the Bachelor’s degree level or above and that the proportions reverse for the populations without high school diplomas. It is not too much to say that a college education for Rochester residents is a white privilege.
The Rochester school district brings relatively few of its black students to grade level in reading in eighth grade. It graduates just over a quarter of them. A few dozen earn Associate’s degrees, a relatively few Bachelor’s degrees and above. Without those qualifications their opportunities for successful careers are quite limited, their chances of economic mobility beyond the station in life of their parents scant.
At the end of the day, the only thing Rochester does well is reinforce a socioeconomic caste system that keeps young black men and women at the bottom. Thanks to the district, they will have a good chance of being known to the criminal justice system.