menu search recent posts
January 26, 2016 standard

The question mark is important. Genocide is a loaded term and the act of genocide can take many forms: the slow genocide of American Indians accomplished by thousands of local actions as well as by state power and disease; the comparatively recent genocide in Rwanda inflicted by neighbors with machetes; the classic genocide of the Shoah or Holocaust. The mass killings of young Black men in Chicago, largely accomplished by gunfire from other young Black men, would at first appear to be simply a matter for the criminal justice system of the state. On closer examination it can be seen as a matter of criminal activity by the state.

There were 480 homicides out of 2,986 recorded shooting victims in Chicago in 2015, as counted by the Chicago Tribune. Nearly all these victims were young men; the overwhelming majority were between the ages of 18 and 30. They shoot one another in the streets of the city, usually in the afternoon. Very few shooting victims are females, relatively few are men over 50. Fewer still are White.

The neighborhood ranking first among Chicago’s 77 community areas for violent crimes in 2015 was West Garfield Park. West Garfield Park has a per capita income of $10,951, much less than half of the city average of $27,148. Forty percent of the neighborhood’s households have incomes below the poverty level, more than double the city average. The rate of arrests for prostitution, another poverty indicator, is among the highest in the city. A quarter of the working age population is unemployed, 26 percent have no high school diploma. West Garfield Park is 96 percent Black.

If, for the sake of argument, we attribute each recorded violent crime in West Garfield Park to a different male between the ages of 18 and 64, we can estimate that about 14 percent of that group committed a violent crime in 2015. Of course, some of them committed more than one violent crime, and, on the other hand, few over the age of 45 did so. Fourteen percent will do as an indicator of the prevalence of young men committing violent crimes in West Garfield Park.

North Lawndale, the runner up in the rate of violent crime in Chicago, has similar socio-economic statistics. On the other hand, the neighborhoods with the lowest rates of violent crime have the opposite socio-economic data: per capita incomes many times the city average, poverty levels far below the city average, virtually no unemployment, no arrests for prostitution, few adults lacking high school diplomas and, generally, majority White, non-Hispanic, populations. (Just four percent of Lincoln Park adults, for example, lack a high school diploma, hardly any live in crowded housing, per capita income is between two and three times the city average and more than six times the average of West Garfield Park.)

Why do young Black men in West Garfield Park and similar Chicago neighborhoods shoot one another?

A recent Centers for Disease Control study found that two-thirds of those committing a firearm crime had themselves been victims of violence requiring an emergency room visit. For such young men, who were also unemployed and who, when in school, had qualified for the National Lunch Program, had a record of school discipline actions and had failed to graduate from high school, the percentage committing a firearm crime rose to 90 percent. Those study results, although useful, are merely descriptive. They do not tell us why young Black men are becoming the instruments of their own genocide. For this we can turn, for example, to the classic study, The Cost of Inequality by Judith and Peter Blau, who found that inequalities promote criminal violence.

Chicago has among the highest rates of income and wealth inequality in America. White median household income is twice that of Black median household income. Nearly half, 45 percent, of Black residents of the city have incomes below the poverty level; just 13 percent of the White residents live in poverty. Two-thirds of Black families in Chicago have incomes so low that their children qualify for the National Lunch Program. There is little economic mobility in Chicago neighborhoods like West Garfield Park. Few Black children in Chicago, among those who live to adulthood, grow up to have incomes equal to that of their parents and most will have lower incomes than those of their parents. In addition, 93 percent of Chicago’s Black households have no net wealth, apart from equity in their own homes: they could not pay an unexpected medical bill—or bail—of a few hundred dollars without borrowing.

This leads to the question: Why are race-based inequalities so stark in Chicago and similar American cities? What are the causes of the vast racial inequities in the city? One is easily identified: The operations of the schools.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports concerning the crucial eighth grade level of basic skills achievement show that while the district’s schools have brought half (52 percent) of its male White, non-Hispanic, students to grade-level Proficiency in reading, they have only done so with eight percent of their male Black students. Nearly half of Chicago’s male Black students (3,700) do not graduate from high school. As in many other districts, the reforms of the last decade that improved literacy in the early grades haven’t been helpful in making kids college- and career-ready by high school.

A recent U.S. Department of Education study has found that even if they are given a high school diploma by their school, students who could not read at grade level in eighth grade cannot expect to succeed in college. Of the approximately 3,900 male Black high school graduates, therefore, only three or four hundred can be expected to go on to middle class careers. In other words, from the point of view of the male descendants of enslaved Africans, the Chicago school district fails in a key part of its mission 90 percent of the time.

If an institution fails more often than not to achieve its professed mission, it is reasonable to conclude that its actual mission is to achieve that result.

Compounding this failure, the Chicago school district added another risk factor by suspending or expelling approximately 13,000 male Black students in 2011-2012, the most recent date for which nationally certified statistics are available.

There were 2,986 recorded shooting victims in Chicago in 2015, nearly all of whom were Black males. 3,700 male Black students did not graduate from high school. 13,000 male Black students were suspended or expelled. These are the groups who, according to the CDC, are most likely to become themselves perpetrators of fire-arm crimes. And the shooters, themselves, are of course also victims.

The Chicago public schools do not educate male Black students for success in life. They prepare them for lives of violence. Generally, those lives are short.

What can be done to improve those Chicago schools “serving” Black children so that they learn to read and do math, graduate on-time and college and career ready?

The reform package is well-known: It starts with high quality early childhood education from age two and includes overhauling how we recruit and train teachers along with providing high-quality educational opportunities. Just within the district itself, this could mean a doubling of the instructional budget for schools in neighborhoods like West Garfield Park. Given that nearly half the funding available to the district presently might be said to have been wasted in the process of not educating Black children, a targeted doubling of support for the education of Chicago’s most vulnerable children might even be considered cost effective.

Beyond that, as more male Black students learn to read, are not chronically truant, are not suspended and expelled, do graduate from high school prepared for college and careers, fewer will go out into the streets in the late afternoon and shoot other young Black men. And how much would that be worth?

January 6, 2016 standard

High school graduation rates have reached record levels, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and gaps between graduation rates for White, non-Hispanic, and other students have narrowed. Although the gap between Black and White graduation rates, nationally, is now said to be “only” 15 percentage points, and that between Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students less than 11, there are six states and the District of Columbia where the Black-White gap is 20 points or more. The states are: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Nevada and California. Black graduation rates in these states are below national averages, while White, non-Hispanic, students graduate at higher rates than the national average (except in Nevada). States with very narrow gaps, less than five percentage points, are Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana, the last three of these with very few Black students.

Let’s now look at two of the states with the widest gaps. Wisconsin is able to graduate 93 percent of its White, non-Hispanic, students, but only 66 percent of its Black students. By comparison, New Jersey, which graduates a similar 94 percent of its White students, does much better than Wisconsin by its Black students, graduating 79 percent of its Black students, as do Connecticut, Iowa, Tennessee and Virginia. Minnesota, which graduates 86 percent of its White students only graduates 60 percent of its Black students (and just half of its American Indian students—next to last in the nation).

Wisconsin and Minnesota have high schools that can give diplomas to nearly all of their White, non-Hispanic, students, yet choose—and I use the word advisedly—choose to leave one-third of their Black students without diplomas. The consequences of this are dire for those students, their families and their communities.

For example, a recent Centers for Disease Control pilot study indicates that young people with such “school system events” as dropping out of high school and suspensions, and who are unemployed, have a 43 percent chance of committing a firearm crime. Earlier studies indicate that failure of schools to graduate students leads to a 60 percent chance of incarceration and nearly 100 percent chance of life at or below the poverty line for themselves and their families.

Graduation rates are fairly crude indicators, easily manipulated. Just how good are those diplomas? The U.S. Department of Education has been doing some research on that topic and estimates that to be prepared for college a student, in effect, has to score at the “Proficient” or “Advanced” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 12th grade reading test. There are some questions about the 12th grade NAEP tests (including rather thin coverage), however, they are roughly aligned with the generally accepted eighth-grade tests, which we can then use as our indicator of educational good practice.

The U.S. Department of Defense Educational Activity operates a large pre-k to 12th grade school system, serving 74,000 children of active duty military and Department of Defense civilian families at locations around the world. Like the military itself, these schools are well-integrated. The schools of the Department of Defense teach 33 percent of the male Black students to read at the Proficient and above levels in eighth grade, implying that one-third of their male Black students will be prepared for college on graduation. This compares with 44 percent of White, non-Hispanic, males in those schools. There is a gap there, but not a scandal. The DoDEA schools can serve as a benchmark for the provision of education by public schools.

The highest scoring states for White males in eighth grade reading are Connecticut and Massachusetts, at 47 percent and 48 percent respectively. However, while these results for the Department of Defense schools and those of Connecticut and Massachusetts are similar, their results for male Black students are vastly different. Connecticut can manage to prepare only 10 percent for college level work, Massachusetts just 14 percent. The best results for male Black students are those of Indiana, at 15 percent, but even these are less than half the benchmark DoDEA score.

Minnesota prepares 37 percent of its male White, non-Hispanic, students for successful lives and Wisconsin does so for 38 percent. These states can educate students if they choose to do so. But Minnesota prepares just 11 percent of its male Black students for college; Wisconsin just 7 percent. Only Mississippi and Arkansas do worse by their male Black students than Wisconsin and then only by a single percentage point. Mississippi, it seems, is Wisconsin’s benchmark for educational quality in regard to its male Black students.

Such outcomes are sometimes referred to as evidence of institutional racism. This is true, in its way, but it may be more useful to fix individual responsibility.

The Governor of Minnesota is Mark Dayton. The Commissioner of Education of Minnesota is Dr. Brenda Cassellius. The Board of Education of Minneapolis Public Schools has recently selected Serio Paez as the new Superintendent there. Those individuals and the members of the boards of education of Minnesota and Minneapolis are responsible for the failure of the Minneapolis schools to educate Black students.

The Governor of Wisconsin is Scott Walker. Dr. Tony Evers is Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Darienne Driver is Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools. Those individuals and the members of the boards of education of Wisconsin and Milwaukee are responsible for the failure of the Milwaukee schools to educate Black students.

Thomas Brady, incidentally, is Director of the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity. His telephone number is (571)372-0590, for those interested in how high quality education can be equitably provided.

December 9, 2015 standard

This morning’s passage by the U.S. Senate of the Every Student Succeeds Act puts an unfortunate nail in the coffin of the No Child Left Behind Act and the strong accountability provisions that helped spur reforms that have helped more children attain high-quality education than at any other time in the history of American public education.

But the death of No Child came long before the passage and President Barack Obama’s seemingly inevitable signing of this legislation. In particular, today’s passage is just one of two dates that correspond to major mistakes in national education policy that should be remembered by people who care about building brighter futures for children.

The earliest date was in September of 2011. That is the time when now-former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his grand waiver scheme to deal with problems arising from implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law was then four years overdue in being reauthorized. More schools were at risk of being identified as in need of improvement than the authors had intended in 2001, when the Act was passed. Instead of addressing this problem through legislation or administrative action, Duncan used the problem as leverage to force states to accept input policies he, along with the Obama Administration and centrist Democrat reformers, favored.

The administration had a choice about how to resolve the problem. It could have gone one of two directions. Unfortunately, the manner in which it implemented its decision represented a huge mistake that has had and will continue to have serious negative consequences for our nation’s schools and its students.

The Obama Administration could have, absent legislation, chosen to give states flexibility specifically to avoid over-identification in return for improvements and strengthening of their accountability systems. This would have been a superb occasion to advance and further refine the accountability provisions already in federal law.

Had this been the basis of administrative action, several good results would have likely occurred. First, accountability would have been improved. Second, relief would have been appropriate to deal with problems that were then arising from NCLB. Third, the Congress would likely have accepted the action because it fit within the legislative intent behind No Child. And finally, making accountability work smarter and better would have likely lessened the public opposition to accountability that has developed in the wake of a system that has not been updated and improved.

Instead the Obama Administration chose a different, fateful path. It weakened accountability. It did so by reducing the scope of accountability to a very few schools, permitting super-subgroups to be used to mask subgroup problems, and arbitrarily voiding certain consequences permitted under No Child. Further, the Administration decided without any Congressional authority whatsoever to create its own quid pro quo requirements for granting the waivers. Among other things, it demanded that states adopt certain content standards, which were generally deemed to be the Common Core standards. And it required that states develop certain kinds of teacher evaluation systems. None of this was authorized by the Congress, and all of this was highly controversial.

Even worse, the administration’s process for vetting proposals from states under the waiver process has been a demonstrative failure. As Dropout Nation has documented throughout the past four years, Obama and Duncan granted waivers to states that didn’t have reforms in place to make their plans successful, often over the   objections of its own peer review panels. Anyone who has spent time working on issues at the state level knows how difficult it is to implement anything amid opposition from teachers’ unions and school districts who rarely want to do the right things for children.

The point here is not to debate whether these were good or bad policies. The point here is simply to say that the Obama Administration weakened accountability in return for demanding state action to adopt policies based on its favored input strategies, using un-repaired features of No Child as the basis for the deals.

This strategy has failed. Not only has state performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress been stagnant in the four years this waiver scheme was put in place. As a result, the improvements in student achievement in the last decade (as measured through NAEP) have stalled.

Now, we have this date in this ending year, when both houses of Congress, with the Obama Administration’s blessing, gutted accountability with the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act. While annual testing and the provision for states to put together accountability plans with certain features continues to be required, this legislation fundamentally finishes off the evisceration of accountability begun by Obama and Duncan four years ago.

The federal government will have virtually no authority to enforce the meager “requirements” that remain. It will also have no power whatsoever to require any consequences for schools that fail to lift student achievement or close achievement gaps. The law has substantially weakened the rightful civil rights role played by the federal government in ensuring that children from poor and minority households, young men and women from black and Latino households long served poorly by public education, are provided high-quality education.

There are those reformers now cheering the passage of the bill who hope that states and districts will become accountable on their own. But this isn’t happening. As seen in Texas, California, and even in strong reform-oriented states such as Indiana and New York, traditionalists have been successful in weakening standards for high school graduation, getting rid of accountability measures, and ditching tests that are key in observing how well schools are serving our children. Opponents of reform have been successful in getting more money for doing less for our students — and that is all that has happened. And that can be credited to the Obama Administration’s decision four years ago to abandon strong accountability.

The celebration that those reformers who wanted an end to No Child, especially those in the Beltway, are doing right now will eventually turn to jeers and tears as they recognize what has been lost. The tools needed to provide high-quality education to children in our schools and beat back traditionalists who want anything but are now gone. What has replaced them will serve neither them nor our children any good.

Let’s hope for the best, and let’s work toward a far better end than I am predicting. But, from this month on, we must be exceedingly vigilant about the policies and practices that are adopted across the nation in the absence of federal pressure to improve and reform. We must watch all measures of student achievement, and if this month indeed proves to be the second red letter date marking the continuation of a long period of stagnation in student achievement, we must vow to bring news of such stagnation to the awareness of our fellow countrymen and women. And we must then press with all our strength for a return of the accountability we must bear if our young people are to be educated effectively to the high standards that are required for their success.

November 26, 2015 standard

There’s no good reason why it took 13 months for prosecutors in Chicago to indict police officer Jason Van Dyke for murdering 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Not at all. There’s also no reason why the Second City’s police department withheld and even deleted video evidence that the 14-year veteran fired 16 bullets within 15 seconds into the body of the unarmed youth as he was walking away. No good reason at all. There’s no justifiable reason why Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel allowed his police bureaucrats to do everything possible to cover-up what Van Slyke did to McDonald — including paying out a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family in order to keep matters hush hush. None at all. There’s clearly no reason why Van Dyke even pulled out his gun in the first place — especially when his fellow officers didn’t view McDonald as a threat to their own safety. Not one good reason whatsoever.

Calling Van Dyke’s murder of McDonald immoral and indefensible is a grand understatement that fails to fully consider the damage he has done. The officer took the life of a fellow child of God and member of the Family of Man for no good reason. Because of Van Dyke, Laquan now joins Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other innocent black men and women who have been slain at the hands of venal and morally debased men in uniform. The murder is also another reminder that state-sanctioned murder of black men is at the heart of the racial bigotry that is America’s Original Sin. As demonstrated by the efforts of Jamie Kalvern of the Invisible Institute and University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman to reveal and publicize the existence of the tapes, this case is a lesson on why no government can be trusted to do right by any human being, much less the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to this continent so long ago.

The only good thing that can be said is that with Van Dyke’s indictment, there’s at least a chance of justice being done on behalf of McDonald and his family. This is because few rogue cops are ever indicted, much less convicted, of their criminal misdeeds. Once again, Van Dyke’s indictment is another reminder of how incompetent police bureaucracies, state laws, and the cultism among those wearing the badge often act to protects corrupt and murderous police officers. Particularly for the school reform movement, the problems of removing rogue cops mirror the struggles to rid classrooms and schools of laggard and criminally abusive teachers. Which is why we must join together with criminal justice reformers to keep rogue cops and laggard teachers from damaging our children.

The especially sad thing about McDonald’s murder is that it didn’t have to happen in the first place. Even before he slayed the young man, Van Dyke had a well-deserved reputation as a thug in a uniform. During the course of his career, 18 complaints were filed against him for using excessive force, engaging in illegal searches, and uttering racial slurs during arrests. The Second City had to pay out $500,000 to one of Van Dyke’s victims in order to address his misdeeds. With such a lengthy record on his personnel file, Van Dyke should have lost his badge and gun. Yet Van Dyke was never disciplined.

One likely reason: The Second City’s arduous and cumbersome process for disciplining and firing rogue cops. Because several different units of the police department — including the internal affairs unit, the Independent Police Review Authority, and the Police Board (which decides whether to mete out discipline in the most-serious cases) — are in charge of investigating and addressing misconduct, the misbehavior of rogue cops can fall through the cracks. It can take as long as 328 days to investigate an incident of misconduct, according to a report produced last year for Chicago by a team led by Ron Safer, a partner for law firm Schiff Hardin. In one case, it took the IPRA five years to determine that an officer, Bruce Askew, should be fired and charged with excessive force after he cracked the skull of Greg Larkins during an arrest. [The city’s police board dismissed that complaint because it was filed after the statute of limitations ran out.] Little wonder why IPRA recommended the firing of just two out of 400 officers brought before it in the last eight years.

Adding to the bureaucratic morass: The fact that Chicago’s police superintendent is barred from being the ultimate decisionmaker in the disciplinary process. While the superintendent can recommend a firing after being given the right to do so by the IPRA, it is still up to the Police Board to make the final decision. Because of the labyrinthine process and lack of clear oversight, commanders who directly oversee rogue cops take no responsibility for holding them accountable.

Then there are the state laws and court rulings that allow for police officers to use excessive force with impunity. Beginning in 1985 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Garner v. Tennessee, state laws give officers wide leeway in how they use deadly force in stopping criminal activity. Officers can shoot to kill if they “objectively reasonable” probably cause to “believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others”. The problem is that it is almost impossible to determine what is objective or reasonable, and thus, objective becomes subjective and unreliable. More often than not, if a police officer says he fears for his life, then he is let off the hook. Since state laws rarely require the objective standard to be based on physical evidence, even a videotape isn’t enough to lead to an indictment, much less a conviction.

Illinois took a step in the right direction on this front this past August when state legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner passed a police reform law that bans officers from using choke holds as well as restricts use of deadly force. But having law in place doesn’t mean that rogue cops will be held accountable for their criminality — especially since prosecutors (who depend on support from cops and police unions) and mayors (who are charged by the public with addressing quality of life issues) have little incentive to root out corruption. This is clear from the fact that Van Dyke is the first Chicago cop to be indicted for murder in 36 years — even as the city has spent millions (including $250 million between 2010 and 2014 alone) settling cases involving officer-involved killings and other forms of police brutality.

Meanwhile there is the reality that police officers often view themselves as bands of brothers who will protect each other even at cost to the integrity of their profession. This was pointed out forcefully by famed police detective Frank Serpico — who carries a bullet in his head as a result of his decision to shed light on the Big Apple’s drug war-driven police corruption in the 1970s — in a piece on Ferguson he wrote last year. Not only will officers do nothing to help weed out the worst (and even merely bad) within their ranks, they will shun (and even endanger) those few brave officers who dare to break the Blue Wall of Silence.

But the culture extends beyond the precinct walls. Police unions such as the Chicago branch of the Fraternal Order of Police as well as affiliates of the International Union of Police Associations work overtime to keep even the worst officers on the job. This includes termination processes that can often last years. In Chicago, for example, rogue officers can lodge several appeals of any finding, challenge the length of a suspension, and even file a grievance against a supervisor for daring to mete out punishment. Before the Second City finally convinced FOP and other police unions to slightly amend the process, it could take at least 1,009 days (or more than three years) for a finding of misconduct to be fully resolved. The pressure police unions also exert on prosecutors dependent on their endorsements all but ensure that few rogue cops will ever face justice. For the police unions, who depend on compulsory dues from cops regardless of their desire for membership, a dollar from a rogue cop is as good as one from a law-abiding one.

School reformers and criminal justice reform advocates must both protest state-sanctioned murders and advance policies that will safeguard the futures of poor and minority children.

For school reformers, all of this sounds all too familiar. It should be. Because the way American criminal justice systems protect and enable rogue cops is similar to how public education keeps laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.

Just like police departments, traditional districts do an abysmal job of evaluating and dismissing low-quality and criminally-minded teachers. Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, evaluated just 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality in a report released four years ago. As with laws governing deadly force, state laws granting near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure all but ensure that teachers remain on the job regardless of performance, while teacher dismissal laws work to keep even the most-abusive teachers in schools. The presence of incompetent school leaders, who have little incentive to remove low-quality teachers (and are sometimes engaged in abusive behavior themselves), often means that they help perpetuate cultures of abuse, educational and otherwise.

The cultism that pervades police departments is also a poison in traditional districts. Like the Blue Wall of Silence, the Thin Chalk Line not only keeps good and great teachers from calling out the incompetents in their midst, it (along with near-lifetime employment) also lead otherwise-honorable teachers to protect the criminally-abusive among them. This was clear in Rochester, N.Y., where teachers at School 19 failed to cooperate in the investigation of Matthew LoMaglio for second-degree sexual misconduct against an eight-year-old boy, then wrote letters to a judge pleading for leniency on his behalf. As in the case of police unions, affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers extend this cultism, both by making it almost impossible to remove  removing laggard and criminally abusive teachers, as well as through their roles as the biggest players in school board races and state legislative politics. And like police unions, NEA and AFT affiliates benefit from keeping as many bodies, be they high-quality, incompetent, or criminally abusive, on payrolls.

The good news for school reformers is that they have made some headway on addressing teacher quality issues. From successfully implementation of evaluations using objective test score growth data, to efforts such as the lawsuits inspired by the Vergara v. California (in which a state court judge tossed out the Golden State’s tenure and dismissal laws), to efforts by districts to aggressively evaluate newly-hired teachers before they attain tenure, reformers have made small positive steps in providing all children with the high-quality teachers they deserve.

So reformers should team up with criminal justice reform advocates are share lessons on how to address their parallel issues. The most-important reason of all: Because what happens to our outside of schoolhouse doors also affects them within them. As Dropout Nation has documented over the past few years, American public education has been responsible for the criminalization of youth (especially the lives of black children) that have led to incidents such as Van Dyke’s murder of McDonald. That the nation’s education crisis has also fueled the crises that happen daily on our streets makes reforming criminal justice systems an important consideration in our efforts. No reformer can claim that criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter movement that has made it a critical public policy issue over the last year isn’t a matter about which we must be concerned.

Jason Van Dyke may still avoid the human justice he deserves. More importantly, we cannot bring Laquan McDonald back to life. But we can save the lives of more young black men and women like him from the villainous and immoral behavior of rogue cops and bad teachers. We must do this now.

November 24, 2015 standard

In no normal enterprise would leadership eviscerate policies, even flawed policies, if the policies effectively promoted the goals of the enterprise. But, of course, American public education is no normal enterprise.

Consequential accountability emerged as a major policy direction in education in the nation in the mid-1990s. Through the force of the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, accountability was extended to all the states in the early 2000s and deepened in its impact. This deepening was achieved principally by measuring student achievement each year (which made determinations of growth possible), insisting upon progress of key subgroups of disadvantaged students, and requiring consequences where adequate progress was not made.

Despite imperfections in the implementation of the policies and increasing resistance by forces of the status quo, some of the greatest gains ever on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were recorded during the peak of the consequential accountability movement. Whether one looks at the Long Term Trend data from 1999 to 2008 or the Main NAEP data from 2000 to 2009, the trajectories are impressively up for all subgroups in all subjects for students whose education was most affected by these policies.

Yet for a variety of mostly political reasons, policymakers began to wander off in unfortunate directions at the beginning of this decade. Declaring that No Child was “broken,” the current Administration made fateful decisions that weakened accountability instead of fixing the law’s problems. Unable to lead the Congress to a reauthorization of federal education law, the Obama Administration chose to waive the provisions of the law that were in need of repair as well as certain provisions it didn’t like.

Now here’s where the fatal move was made. Instead of demanding better, stronger, more effective and workable accountability from the states in return for relief from requirements that needed to be waived, the Obama Administration simply weakened accountability and instead demanded action on favored input factors, especially the adoption of certain content standards and teacher evaluation practices.

This was disastrous in several respects. First, it was disrespectful of Congress. The Congress had legislated on accountability for student results. It had not legislated in favor of one type of content standards versus another; nor had it called for teacher evaluation systems. Second, it further fanned the flames of hostility from various powerful interests who opposed the actions the Administration was taking unilaterally. And most importantly, it weakened accountability by limiting its application in a large number of schools, its coverage of all subgroups, and the range of consequences available.

Thus, instead of repairing and strengthening accountability, those in charge weakened accountability. And, in its place, they pushed favored input policies that have been weakly implemented, while further arousing ire and opposition to reform.

To what effect? NAEP scores have been largely flat on the Main NAEP since 2009. And the states that participated in the much vaunted, expensive Race to the Top program have neither raced to the top or anywhere near; nor have they generally made any progress at all since 2009.

In the midst of a breaking down of the law, an executive “doing its own thing,” and increasing dissatisfaction in the public, one might wonder where the Congress has been all this time. Reauthorization is now eight years overdue. Until very recently, there were occasional moans but no action. Now, suddenly, there appears to be coalescence around new legislation dubbed the Every Student Achieves Act.

What collection of policies merits this name? Essentially, the legislation keeps just a very few features of No Child (annual testing and meager pieces of accountability), purports to consolidate a few programs, adds a few new programs, keeps to current funding, adds no real choice, and reduces federal pressure on accountability, virtually to the very low level of that of the late 1980s.

Are key groups happy with this old approach that masks as a new approach? Certainly, conservatives aren’t. We’ll have the same level of borrowing and spending at the federal level. We’ll have no more parental choice. And yet we will get new programs.

Reformers aren’t happy either. The force that advanced civil rights is being seriously eroded. The law’s accountability features which helped lift student achievement and close achievement gaps are being virtually totally eviscerated.

Well – who then are happy with the legislation? The unions and other traditionalists, who despise the pressure of accountability, like the legislation. The states and local districts that want the money but would prefer to have it free of strings like it. And faux federalists, those who seem okay with borrowing and spending billions of federal dollars and keeping a massive federal machine in place to give states all this money basically free of criteria or requirements to get results for the money, support it.

The question arises: how in the world could anyone think this legislation could lead to every child achieving? At least No Child worked in the direction of its goal, and, while many children are still behind, distinctly fewer are today than when it was passed.

What reasoning could support the notion that what is essentially a return to policies that were in place when the NAEP scores were considerably lower than they are today would drive to every child achieving, even indeed to more children achieving than are today? I trust, as certain state chiefs have pledged, some states will keep up the work of reform. But where’s the evidence now of any abundant commitment to improvement that registers in distinctly better results? Other than in a handful of states and districts, one sees no forward motion on the NAEP anywhere.

While we are considering the matter of deception in words, let’s look at what may very well be the worst single feature of the new legislation.

The accountability that data and research have shown contributes to improved student achievement has been grounded predominantly in the expectation of improved student outcomes. We have had standards of learning, measures of progress in learning, and consequences for success or failure in improving learning outcomes. In virtually all systems of accountability at all levels, during the entire period of the accountability movement, accountability has been measured on the basis entirely, or virtually entirely, of outcomes.

If the measures of outcomes show deficiencies, the theory of action has been that inputs ought to be adjusted to get better results. In response to bad results, decision makers could deploy more effective strategies, better or more personnel, improved climate, better engagement of key players, or other inputs to effect improvement.

So, what does the new legislation permit? Up to 49 percent of the accountability criteria can be based by the states on any one or a combination of input factors, including school climate. This means (somebody’s judgment of) school climate could count more than, say, black students’ progress in math or Hispanic students’ proficiency in reading. Indeed if any input can drive 49 percent of an accountability rating, particularly if it gets an “A”, the input could totally dominate and determine ratings, even if real outputs get low to mixed marks.

This essay is intended to be a serious critique of recent moves to weaken accountability. Yet, as to calling it accountability when “the 49 percent input loophole” is permitted, I can think of no better technical term to use than to say this is disgusting.

Beginning in 2010 and accelerating through this legislation, we are witnessing a terrible retreat in the nation’s accountability for educating all its children, especially its disadvantaged children. We began to see signs of stagnancy in recent years, and we see them vividly today. I foresee continued stagnation well into the future, if not actual declines. This is nothing short of tragic. Our children require, and urgently so, that we continue, indeed speed up, the gains we made in the 2000s. Now, with this action, regardless of the misnomer people give it, we will languish in the years ahead.

The future will judge this turn harshly. But, worse, the children who fail to make needed further gains will be hurt by what’s being done, and the nation, as a whole, will suffer.