menu search recent posts
December 18, 2014 standard

The last two months of every year is what your editor calls silly season, when otherwise-sensible people end up writing less-than-sensible things. This is why your editor won’t devote many words to the latest defense of overusing out-of-school suspensions and other harsh traditional school discipline by Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli. Doing so means giving the data-free claptrap more credence than the unserious piece deserves. Considering that I have torn apart Petrilli’s earlier arguments about the issue so many times before — and has cited decades of evidence to boot — another point-by-point response would just heap on more embarrassment for him.

Nor will I give any more attention than necessary to the shoddy scholarship coming from Fordham last month in the form of a piece by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless arguing that American public education should return to the racialist practice of ability-tracking because it can supposedly help high-achieving kids from poor and minority backgrounds. The fact that the evidence Loveless cites contradicts his hypothesis (and shows that tracking doesn’t help children at all) should have been enough for the piece to be rejected out of hand. At some point, Loveless has to stop trying to revive a legacy of America’s condemning of poor and minority children with low expectations.

I’m not even going to bother with Rick Hess’ latest defense of preserving Zip Code Education policies (and ultimately, the traditional district model), this time during the Education for Upward Mobility conference held by Fordham last month, and his claim that efforts to expand school choice do little more than allow poor and minority families to evade personal responsibility for raising their children. This is a theme he began last year with a piece in National Review last year arguing that reformers were encouraging irresponsible parenting. Conor P. Williams of New America Foundation responded best to Hess’ sophistry by noting that he fails to admit that the very Zip Code Education laws he is effectively defending actually neuters the ability of all families to do the best for their children by taking away their God-given right to structure education for their kids, a point made on these pages ad nauseam. Given Hess’ penchant for look-at-me contrarianism, his argument deserves no serious consideration.

Yet Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess, through their respective polemics and advocacy for traditionalist thinking, raise an important question: Why do traditionalists and even more-sensible reformers advocate for replicating the failed polices and practices of American public Education’s past and present when we must do better for all of our children?

One of the enduring conflicts, both in the battle over reforming American public education as well as within the school reform movement itself, is that there are some outdated ideas that damage the futures of kids to which some hold on to with dear life. Considering the data on how woeful American public education remains — including 33 percent of all fourth-graders in 2013 were functionally illiterate (along with another 33 percent reading at basic levels of literacy) — and that one out of every two dropouts and high school grads without higher ed training aren’t in the workforce, you would think it would be hard to justify holding on to nearly every policy, practice, and institution within it.

Yet as Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess demonstrate in their rhetoric, there are some reformers who are as keen on preserving the worst traditionalist thinking as those opposed to systemic reform. Same is true for some charter school operators such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy who have been rightly called out for out-of-school suspension rates that are often as high (if not higher) than those of traditional districts. Same also goes for centrist and liberal reformers who still oppose expanding vouchers and other forms of school choice. And like most traditionalists, they fight vigorously to preserve institutions and practices ultimately because they believe such policies and practices are worth keeping.

This strain of thinking was given some credence this summer when Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners wrote a series of essays asking why the school reform movement seems hostile to movement conservative thinking. One of Smarick’s complaints was that reformers, especially centrist and progressive Democrats within it, are far too disinterested in conserving institutions and policies within public education that may actually have some social and political value. From where Smarick sits, the technocratic approach embraced by many reformers, which can involve tremendous upheaval can lead to “valuable things [being] lost in the process”. From where Smarick sits, reformers should at least think about the reasons why earlier generations put practices and institutions in place before taking them down.

Your editor understands Smarick’s point, at least when it comes to such matters outside of education such as civil liberties. Certainly there are traditions, policies and practices worth preserving because those who came before us, through their hard-earned experience, figured out that some things work best when it comes to fostering liberty, freedom, and civil society. Freedom of speech, for example, protects minority views that may be unpopular in the times in which they are expressed, while freedom of the press allows for media to shed the much-needed antiseptic of sunlight on governments to protect our society and tax dollars. Then there are institutions such as churches and charities, which help foster a humane society from which we all benefit. Not every long-lived idea or institution should be tossed into the ashbin of history.

At the same time, as I noted last July in a critique of one of Smarick’s pieces, preserving traditional ideas and institutions can be as much a flaw as virtue, especially when they perpetuate injustice that is morally and intellectually indefensible. This is because ills, social, educational and otherwise, is often as much a result of bad structure s and approaches that perpetuate human failings. Just as importantly, there is the reality that tradition, like so much else wrought by man, is based on limited human reasoning; the same humility Smarick counsels in favor of preservation also favors change because few ideas and institutions are ever timeless. As famed conservative philanthropist John M. Olin would likely note, because earlier generations don’t have the benefit of data and knowledge that has come since they left this earth, the correct conclusions for their time may be incorrect today (and, with benefit of hindsight, may have been wrong even then).

Why do some reformers continue to join common cause with traditionalists to defend policies and practices that damage children’s futures?

The blind adherence to tradition, or the democracy of the dead, can often result in people being unwilling to address injustice by those institutions even when it is morally and intellectually justified to do so. More importantly, adhering blindly to traditionalism, especially in American public education, has damaging consequences to all of our children inside of schoolhouses and outside of them. Especially since these practices originate from the state-sanctioned bigotry, racial, ethnic, and religious, that is America’s Original Sin; if anything, these legacy practices can end up perpetuating decades of harm done to children and their communities by earlier laws.

Your editor was reminded of these realities over the past five months as the nation became riveted by matters not immediately connected to the nation’s education crisis: The murder of 43-year-old Eric Garner by New York City police officer Dan Panteleo. The execution of 22-year-old John Crawford, who was shopping in a Walmart, by cops in Beavercreek, Ohio. The slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown by now-former Ferguson, Mo. cop Darren Wilson. And the execution of 12-year-old Tamir Rice (who was outside playing with a toy gun, as any child would do) by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann.

Their state-sanctioned murders, along with the grand jury verdicts in the cases of Garner, Crawford, and Brown letting the officers off scot-free, and the mountains of data on how police officers are often allowed to get away with killing unarmed men (especially black men) with impunity, were reminders that reforming criminal justice systems is as important in addressing the nation’s shameful legacies as it is in preserving our civil liberties today. The use-of-force laws that allow police officers to get away with murder this century are no different in effect and substance than the fugitive slave and Jim Crow laws that effectively gave license to murder of black men in the previous two.

If it is important to abandon criminal justice practices that end up making courts and police departments more harmful than helpful to the communities they are supposed to serve, it is doubly important to ditch policies and practices within American public education that help not one child and end up damaging millions more. Especially since the dysfunction of education’s super-clusters, especially traditional big-city and suburban districts, help foster the very conditions of social and economic decay in the communities they serve. Especially since schools, through practices such as overusing suspensions and overlabeling kids as special ed cases, have become the gateways into criminal justice systems and dependence on the welfare state. [Even Smarick, in his arguments to abandon the traditional district model, admits that the preservation argument, is incredibly flawed when applied to the nation’s education crisis.]

What is clear, in short, is that American public education cannot continue to exist in its current form. This doesn’t mean abandoning the concept of public education, at least as the system of financing high-quality opportunities for children of all backgrounds so that their geniuses are nurtured in order for them to choose their own paths to success and happiness. What it does mean is that the failed policies, practices, and institutions within public education shouldn’t be preserved.

This includes ditching traditional school discipline practices that have been demonstrated to be ineffective in helping children behave themselves, let school operators off the hook for failing to provide intensive reading remediation at the heart of their behavioral struggles, and, in the case of use of restraints and . That the practices perpetuate thinking by those in law enforcement that black, Latino, and Native children are criminals, end up making schools gateways to prison (through referrals to juvenile justice systems and school arrests), and, in the case of seclusion and restraint practices used in special ed ghettos, physically endanger kids, should lead reformers to do all they can to push for abandoning them. There’s no reason why reformers such as Petrilli defend Success Academy and other charter school operators for overusing suspensions and expulsions when they can and should do better.

It also means abandoning efforts to revive ability-tracking, which along with the comprehensive high school model and special education ghettos, did little more than allow teachers and other adults to deny poor and minority children college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve. That ability-tracking is a legacy of early 20th-century eugenicist thinking that black children, along with those from immigrant households, we’re less-capable of academic learning than white Anglo-Saxon children should be enough to render it intellectually illegitimate. Folks such as Loveless, who know both the history and the evidence of the damage ability-tracking has done, should not advocate for its revival.

This especially means that we must put an end to school zones, school residency laws, and other Zip Code Education policies that keep families, especially those from poor and minority households, from choosing high-quality opportunities for their children. Not only do such laws keep parents from acting responsibly as they should, they are also another legacy of America’s racial, ethnic, and religious bigotries. By no means can Hess defend policies that originate with such racialist and religiously bigoted laws such as Connecticut’s Black Law (which banned black families from outside of the Nutmeg State to attend a private school operated by legendary teacher Prudence Crandall) and Blaine Amendments (passed by states to stifle the growth of Catholic and other parochial schools).

Reformers should not be in the business of defending policies and practices that should no longer continue. That Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess (along with their colleagues) do so is just plain unacceptable. They should stop, just stop, with this not-so-intellectual madness.

December 10, 2014 standard

There is well-deserved outrage over the decisions by two grand juries in St. Louis and New York City to not indict police officers Darren Wilson and Dan Pantaleo for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The good news is that many of the nation’s school reformers realize that it isn’t enough to transform education. Groups such 50Can Teach For America, and Parent Revolution, along with activists such as Derrell Bradford, Stacy Childress, Alex Hernandez, and James Shuls, realize that reformers must stand up and counted when it comes to addressing the intersection between American public education and our criminal justice systems.

Raising voices is a start. But I declared in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, reformers must also take action by working with criminal justice reform advocates to address how schools and courts end up damaging our children. One area in which reformers can play powerful roles lies in keeping kids out of the nation’s juvenile justice systems and overhauling how those already condemned to youth prisons are treated, educationally and otherwise.

The latest focus on our juvenile prisons comes courtesy of the Obama Administration, which issued guidance on Monday to state superintendents and attorneys general on how to stem the high numbers of children caught up in juvenile justice systems, as well as overhaul how teaching and curricula is provided to the 146,979 kids incarcerated in prisons and jails (including residential treatment centers) as of 2011, according to an analysis of federal and state data by the criminal justice reform-oriented Justice Policy Institute. Certainly there will be some reformers who will argue that the Dear Colleague guidance is another form of federal overreach as they did when the Obama Administration began work on reducing overuse of harsh school discipline. But the administration deserves credit for once again shining a light on how schools and criminal justice systems work together to condemn so many children to the worst America offers.

One aspect of the administration’s guidance has to do with the reality that far too many children from poor and minority households are more-likely to end up trapped in juvenile justice systems than kids from white and middle class backgrounds. This, of course, reflects what happens in American public education. Sixty percent of delinquency cases involving black children, along with 58 percent of American Indian, and 56 percent of Asian kids, were petitioned (or led to formal charges) in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; only one out of every two cases involving white kids led to formal charges.

The Obama Administration’s guidance comes both amid the uproar over the Ferguson and Garner grand jury verdicts, and as Justice Policy released its special report revealing that 46 states (along with the District of Columbia) spent $148,767 per child annually on juvenile incarceration in 2011. Based on those numbers, states (along with the federal government) actually spent $22 billion on imprisoning youth, more than four times the official number of $5.7 billion (which only accounts for kids in juvenile prisons, not those in residential treatment where most incarcerated youth will be placed). Concludes Justice Policy staffers Amanda Petteruti, Marc Schindler, and Jason Ziedenberg: “Policies that needlessly confine youth have an immediate cost for taxpayers and our communities.”

This is an understatement. Twenty-five percent of convicted juvenile delinquency offenders and seven percent of convicted status offenders (or children convicted of activities that would be legal if they were 18 or 21), were incarcerated in 2011. Another 64 percent of convicted juvenile delinquency offenders and 56 percent of those convicted of status offenders end up on probation, which can be just as onerous as prison time because probation usually lasts until a child reaches age 18 or 21 (and could lead to prison if they violate — quite likely given high recidivism rates — or if families fail to pay often-exorbitant monthly probation fees to courts). Given that only 4.6 percent of the 1.5 million juvenile arrests made in 2011 were for violent crimes such as murder, and property crimes accounted for just 23 percent of arrests, children end up in juvenile justice systems either for minor offenses that can be solved through better means or because of referrals by traditional districts and other school operators for matters they should be handling on their own.

This is especially troubling for three important reasons.

Children incarcerated in juvenile prisons such as the now-shuttered Al Price in Beaumont, Texas, often never get high-quality education. (Photo courtesy of the Beaumont Enterprise.)

The first: Once a child lands in juvenile courts, they are unlikely to gain the kind of due process granted to adults. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling, In Re Gault, established that juveniles are entitled to legal counsel and due process the same way adults are. Yet as Seattle University School of Law Professor Janet Ainsworth noted in a 1996 report, 47 percent of accused juvenile offenders in three states went through court without any legal representation; a decade later, the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force reported that 40 percent of juvenile cases in Indiana were handled without defense counsel. Just 19 states allow alleged juvenile offenders to have their cases decided by jury trial in at least some situations, according to NJDC.

Because of the lack of due process and legal representation, children can end up being subjected to arbitrary and capricious behavior by judicial overlords — who often control juvenile jails and probation agencies alongside their own courts — whose decisions can end up causing more harm to kids than any possible good. Your editor detailed what could happen in a 2006 editorial series for the Indianapolis Star on scandal that enveloped the Circle City’s juvenile court. An even more-horrific example was revealed three years later, when then-Luzerne County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were charged with (and later, convicted of) racketeering and bribery charges for funneling $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars to cronies operating two private jails by incarcerating alleged youth offenders (many of whom were first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors such as spraying graffiti, writing prank notes, and truancy), often finding the kids guilty in less than two minutes, and denying them their rights to attorneys.

The second reason: Once a child ends up in juvenile prisons and jails, there is little likelihood that they will be safe from harm. Twelve percent of juvenile prisoners report being sexually assaulted by either another inmate or by prison staff, according to a Justice Department study. Last year, the Justice Department revealed that one out of every three children held in 13 juvenile jails and prisons — including the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in Ohio and the Illinois Youth Center Joliet — were sexually abused by guards, other employees, or fellow inmates. And in California, the problems of sexual abuse of children in juvenile prisons was brought to light once again last October when Cesar Navejar, who worked as an officer in Kern County’s juvenile jail, was accused of sexual battery on a child locked up there.

But the damage to kids in juvenile jails extends beyond molestation. Thirty-five percent of juvenile prisoners reported that they spent some time in solitary confinement, essentially being subjected to the kind of psychological abuse that has gotten prisons serving adults into trouble. Because juvenile prisons and jails are ill-equipped to deal with the underlying mental health issues of kids incarcerated in them, suicide ends up being common. The average age of children in juvenile prisons committing suicide between 1995 and 1999 was 15.7 years old, according to a 2009 report from the Justice Department; 72.7 percent of them were locked up for nonviolent offenses, while 65.8 percent had a history of mental illness, and 78.5 percent had a history of physical or emotional abuse. Given that 63 percent of kids incarcerated in juvenile prisons were convicted of nonviolent property, drug, and technical (read: probation) offenses, putting kids into juvenile prisons harms them physically and mentally in the present — and does little to help them change their behavior and become model citizens in the future.

Then there is the reality that most kids in juvenile jails and prisons are unlikely to be provided high-quality education. Just nine percent of children locked up in state juvenile prisons in 2009 graduated with either a high school diploma or lower-quality GED, according to the Justice Department; a mere four percent of inmates were either enrolled or accepted into a higher education program. When they are locked up in juvenile prisons, they are unlikely to get high-quality teaching and curricula; 26 percent of children locked up in juvenile prisons and jails for more than 90 days made any kind of academic progress, according to a report released earlier this year by the Southern Education Foundation. Meanwhile as lawsuits such as one filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center have revealed, few juvenile prisons and jails do much to provide kids with education in the first place.

The failures of public education in juvenile justice systems is especially problematic for kids who have been condemned to the nation’s special ed ghettos when they were attending traditional district schools. Thirty percent of incarcerated youth surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice were diagnosed as being special ed cases. University of Florida professor Joseph C. Gagnon and his team determined in a 2009 study that between 38 percent and 44 percent of juvenile inmates were taking special ed classes. As Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader of the Hechinger Report detailed this past October in a report on Mississippi’s juvenile prisons, the likelihood of a juvenile prison following up on an incarcerated child’s individualized education plan is slim to none.

Certainly the complex nature of juvenile justice systems can make it difficult for school reformers to even discuss, much less devote energy to it. As I noted four years ago, the complex behavioral and psychological issues alone are harder to grapple with than matters of teacher quality. Yet reformers must work hand-in-hand with advocates for overhauling juvenile justice systems. Why? Because far too many children are condemned to juvenile systems for problems that have as much to do with the failures of American public education as they do with bad parenting and a fraying civic society.

Corruption and denial of due process to children by juvenile justice officials such as now-convicted former Luzerne County judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella is far too commonplace.

As Dropout Nation has noted over the past few months, schools account for three out of every 10 status referrals to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the Justice Department. This includes 65 percent of truancy referrals, which account for 33 percent (or the single-largest share) of all status cases handled by juvenile courts. Given that juvenile court judges are incapable of handling matters that have to do with the failures of traditional districts to provide high-quality education and families not keeping their kids in classrooms, there is little reason why truancy cases are even be adjudicated.

The failures of traditional districts on the literacy front are another reason why so many kids are ensnared by juvenile justice systems. Forty-four percent of incarcerated children in state juvenile prisons were at least a grade level behind in reading. As Stanford University researchers Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles determined in a 2006 study, low literacy levels in first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems by third grade; essentially kids act out because they realize that they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it. This was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Thanks to low-quality literacy instruction and curricula (especially in the early grades), along with the lack of intensive identification and remediation of functionally-illiterate children, kids who would otherwise stay out of trouble in and out of schools end up on the path to incarceration.

The failure of districts to help illiterate children end up leading to another problem that ends up in juvenile justice systems: The overlabeling of children, especially young black and white men, as special ed cases. As Dropout Nation noted in reports on school districts in Ferguson, Mo. (where Michael Brown was slain), districts in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and Minneapolis, children in special ed ghettos are at least twice as likely to be arrested or referred to juvenile justice systems as peers in regular classrooms. Because districts fail to address literacy issues, and because teachers and other adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as special ed cases because they think they are destined to end up that way, far too many kids end up being put on the path to juvenile and adult prisons. That many special ed ghettos embrace many of the worst practices of those prisons — including use of seclusion (or solitary confinement) and restraints on kids — essentially conditions kids to being mistreated in juvenile justice.

Then there’s the role that state education departments fail to play in regulating schools and other educational programs operated in juvenile prisons and jails. Because education agencies often fail to fulfill their mandates to oversee juvenile correctional schools — as well as because of their struggles in developing robust data systems that can provide data on their performance (as well as allow them to get information from districts) — jails and prisons end up doing little for the kids in their academic care.  In fact, as a 2009 study by team led by Gagnon determined, more than half of principals running juvenile detention schools believe that kids in their care should not be expected to learn at grade level; which means that incarcerated children are being subjected to the soft bigotry of low expectations by those who should do better by them. The neglect of state education departments on this front is one reason why the Obama Administration’s guidance extends to them as well as to attorneys general.

The failures of our schools and juvenile justice systems spill out onto our streets — especially in the form of black kids essentially condemned to lives of incarceration. So overhauling juvenile justice systems must be a priority for school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates alike.

This starts with reformers and juvenile justice advocates, along with the rest of the criminal justice reform community, coming together to support reforms that can keep kids out of juvenile justice systems in the first place. This includes ending mandatory sentencing for all but the most-violent acts of delinquency, as well as backing laws requiring jury trials and legal counsel (in a manner similar to the guardian at litem system for kids going through child welfare systems) for all alleged juvenile offenders. These moves, along with greater oversight of juvenile incarceration (including putting operation of juvenile jails in the hands of city and county jail agencies and out of the hands of judges) should be undertaken.

Youth in detention are routinely searched, at some facilities six times a day is standard procedure. (Photo courtesy of Richard Ross)

 

Directly addressing the intersection between public education and juvenile justice systems, reformers should support juvenile justice reform overhauls being advanced by outfits such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation. Casey, in particular, has worked diligently in cities such as Indianapolis to reduce the numbers of kids referred by districts to juvenile courts. Crafting laws that require state education departments to keep better tabs on juvenile prison schools must also be a key priority.

Yet there will still be some kids who will be in juvenile prisons and jails because of violent offenses. This is why reformers must play powerful roles in overhauling the schools that serve our kids locked up in juvenile prisons and jails. This is where charter school operators such as KIPP can come in. Outfits such as the See Forever Foundation, which operates schools serving the District of Columbia’s juvenile jail (as well as other charters serving ex-dropouts) have shown that incarcerated kids can and should receive high-quality teaching and curricula. Online and blended learning players such as Rocketship should also help out on this front. Universities, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs can also help by providing kids in juvenile jails the postsecondary education they will need to avoid poverty and incarceration upon adulthood.

Meanwhile juvenile justice advocates should support reformers in transforming American public education. After all, if we ensure that all kids are reading proficiently and on the path to lifelong success, we keep them out of juvenile justice systems. This includes high-level reforms such as implementing Common Core reading and math standards; implementing techniques such as Response to Intervention (which can keep kids from landing in special ed ghettos and help them get reading remediation); building school data systems that can help all schools inside and outside juvenile justice systems serve children well; and expanding school choice and Parent Power, especially for poor and minority families affected most by the dysfunctions of public education and criminal justice.

We must keep our children out of juvenile justice systems and help them, along with those already trapped in them, get the high-quality education they need and deserve. Reformers can’t stand on the sidelines any longer on this matter.

Featured photo courtesy of Richard Ross. Check out his Juvenile in Justice series.

December 9, 2014 standard

As a child, my father taught me how protest, civil disobedience and labor unions were used so farmers would stop spraying our families with pesticides while they worked the fields. We had heroes: They included Cesar, Martin, and J.F.K.

I became a freshman in high school in the fall of 1988. I remember wondering why the next Martin or Cesar never showed up and if I’d ever see another compelling civil rights activist in my lifetime. Instead of taking messages to the streets, activists tried to take to the airwaves, but their messages were lost in an increasingly noisy, short attention-spanned, media industry that was undergoing its own radical transformation and on a public that grew weary of talk about race.

I have spent the past few days processing the New York City grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer for killing Eric Garner. I didn’t have a single coherent thought. Just anger and two rap lyrics from albums that were released my freshman year of high school. The first, from NWA: They have the authority to kill a minority. The second, from Chuck D and Public Enemy: Five O said, “Freeze” an’ I got numb Can I tell ‘em that I really never had a gun?

It wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talking about the relationship between minority communities and the criminal justice system when I was a kid. It was Chuck D and Ice Cube – 26 years ago. I grew up questioning a justice system that didn’t seem to work for black and brown communities. Chuck D and Ice Cube appeared prophetic when the Rodney King riots broke out just a few weeks before I graduated from high school.

Another institution that didn’t seem to work for us was our schools. My high school had 900 freshman — and only 330 seniors on the path to graduation. No one could say where the other 570 kids went; there was no high school with three times as many graduating seniors than freshmen. As we walked around campus listening to our Walkman radios, our eyes told us that most of us wouldn’t make it to graduation.

Beyond the obvious human rights implications, Eric Garner’s case matters because millions of people are watching to see whether the system works for them or is stacked against them. Every time we interact with our justice system, our public schools, our medical system, our churches and other public institutions, it either confirms or denies a narrative about our relationship with society.

Because if a society works against me and my loved ones, I behave differently. I stiffen. I resist. I despair. I resent. I protect.

We had Dr. King in the 1960s, Chuck D in the 1980s, and now Eric Garner in 2014. A good friend pointed out in disbelief that an unarmed man had to die on video in order to spur the latest call-to-action around civil rights. Why does an innocent man need to die for us to generate a sense of urgency? I also wonder if the Eric Garners of the world will be our leaders going forward exactly because social media is too difficult to ignore.

I need to stop waiting for the next Dr. King, and forget about finding the next Chuck D. This goes for you, too. Because we are the leaders — and the leaders are now us.

I kind of hoped that our society would mature to the point where some of our current racial issues would get resolved. Maybe this is because society began to work very well for me and it was easier not to talk race or civil rights. But we also made this mistake in education reform when we thought everything would work itself out if we just ran good schools. We are realizing in education that running good schools is not enough. We need to match and exceed the political will of those who steal the possible when it comes to children’s education. I think the same is true for civil rights. We just have to fight.

We have a chance to battle demons in 2014 that we brushed away in 1988. My friend Marc Porter Magee recently quoted Winston Churchill’s aphorism that “The United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having first exhausted all possible alternatives.” It sure is taking a long time to exhaust all the alternatives. I’m marking my calendar for 2040. We have a lot do between now and then.

December 5, 2014 standard

As Dropout Nation hinted on Wednesday, there is nothing just or moral about the decision by a New York City grand jury to not indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner. As with last week’s grand jury decision in Ferguson over Michael Brown’s slaying, we have all been rudely reminded that state-sanctioned murder of black men is at the heart of the racial bigotry that is America’s Original Sin. Just as importantly, we are once again warned about the consequences of militarizing law enforcement agencies as well as giving them too much carte blanch in how they patrol our communities.

Yet one of the more-positive developments from the Garner grand jury’s appalling act of injustice is that it once again shines light on how state laws and the cultism among those wearing the badge often act to protects corrupt, even murderous police officers from being removed from beats. School reformers and criminal justice reform advocates can come together to help each other get rid of professionals who shouldn’t be trusted with our kids or with protecting our neighborhoods.

The fact that Pantaleo managed to escape even an indictment on a lower level charge such as manslaughter or criminally-negligent homicide is certainly shocking. This is because 83 percent of 98 homicides by officers led to charges of murder or manslaughter, according to a recent study from Bowling Green State University. But even if Pantaleo was indicted, past cases of homicide-by-cop — including the 2006 murder of Sean Bell by a New York Police Department undercover squad who mistakenly thought he was a suspect in a case they were investigating — serve as grim reminders that he (along with former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson) wouldn’t have likely been convicted. Just one-in-three officers charged with a crime were convicted while a mere 12 percent of them (or one-in-eight) ever served time, according to data released in 2010 by the Police Misconduct Reporting Project; both are, respectively, two and four times lower than for indicted suspects in the general population.

Certainly the natural sympathy among the public outside of black and Latino communities for what can be dangerous work of policing is one reason why bad cops such as Pantaleo and Wilson are often allowed to kill with impunity; even though the number of cops slain in the line of duty (along with other crimes) have declined for most of the past three decades (and are at their lowest levels in more than a century), it is easy to understand why officers will have to pull out their weapons in order to protect communities and themselves. But as the reaction of even more law-and-order oriented movement conservatives such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat shows, even those sympathies fall by the wayside when video clearly shows an unarmed citizen such as the 43-year-old Garner being choked to death by Pantaleo with so much malice. Add in the video of Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shooting to death 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun, and the trust that the legendary Sir Robert Peel argued was key to support for law enforcement falls away.

But the more-important reasons why bad cops get away with corruption or worse have to do with state laws and court rulings, police evaluation structures that fail to weed out bad apples, and the proverbial thin blue line of silence (and support) from fellow police officers who are often willing to defend even the worst of their allies.

Beginning in 1985 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Garner v. Tennessee, state laws such as Article 35 of New York State’s Penal Code and Chapter 563 of the Missouri Revised Statutes have given 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 (as Wilson did in his testimony to the St. Louis grand jury), than 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.

Bad cops such as Dan Pantaleo, who murdered Eric Garner, destroy communities.

Then there are the shoddy processes for selecting police officers and evaluating their performance. Police departments generally use a process that includes filling out a job application, passing a physical, going through criminal background checks, and polygraph examinations. When done properly, this process can weed out aspiring officers who are too out-of-shape to chase down robbers on foot or have past convictions; when not, (as seen in Miami during the Cocaine Cowboys crime wave era of the 1980s), this can lead to spectacular corruption. But it doesn’t actually do much to determine if they have the proper temperament and judgement needed to do the job. This is especially problematic in community-oriented policing, in which officers have to be trusted with making short- and long-term judgments on their own.

Even worse, as in the case of Loehmann (who was sacked by the Independence, Ohio, police department for dismal gun handling before becoming a Cleveland cop), officers forced to leave other departments because of past misbehavior or incompetence can end up back on the job with another police agency. As the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services noted in a 2008 study, “law enforcement agencies have been unable to successfully develop a system that can identify… which individuals will become the most effective officers.”

Adding further complication 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. 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 (which led to the famed Knapp Commission cleanup of the police department) — forcefully pointed out this reality in a piece on Ferguson in Politico Magazine. 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. This was clear Wednesday after the Garner grand jury decision to not indict Pantaleo, when participants on one police bulletin board cheered it.

But the culture extends beyond the precinct walls. Police unions such as New York City’s Patrolmen Benevolent Association 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 stretch out for years. [Update: The Daily News touched on the role of unions in protecting bad cops when it reported that one rookie NYPD officer, Peter Liang, immediately texted his union representative after he shot and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley.]

As seen in the cases of Pantaleo and Wilson, prosecutors mindful of the importance police union endorsements in winning and keeping office (as well as maintaining an image of being tough on crime) will often do all they can to not obtain indictments or convictions. Particularly in the case of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, his, well, unorthodox approach to presenting his case to the grand jury investigating Wilson’s murder of Brown has been widely criticized for essentially making it easy for the now-former officer to walk away scot-free from human justice.

As a result, few bad cops ever get sacked. Just 1.9 percent of NYPD’s men in blue were dismissed between 1975 and 1996, according to a 2005 study by James Fyfe of City University of New York’s John Jay College and Robert Kane of American University. Those who remain on the job can often end up walking the beat even in the departments where they committed offenses. Michael Carey, one of four officers who shot 41 bullets into the body of Amadou Diallo in 1999, got his gun back to patrol Big Apple streets just two years ago. For all citizens, especially for poor and minority communities with long memories of state-sanctioned murder, the presence of bad cops means immediate danger to their lives and civil liberties.

If any of this sounds familiar to those of us in the school reform movement, it should. Because the ways bad cops are protected and enabled are parallel to how American public education keep laggard and criminally abusive teachers in classrooms.

As Frank Serpico would say, there are few differences between the Blue Wall of Silence and the Thin Chalk Line.

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. Thanks to the fact that all but eight states allow teachers to attain tenure in less than five years — and in the case of California, within two — laggard teachers end up getting into jobs regardless of their performance. Adding to the burden are teacher dismissal laws such as those of California (which can cause firing processes to last seven years and cost a district as much as $7 million), that make it difficult to toss even the criminally abusive out of classrooms.

Just like police departments, the nation’s university schools of education do a shoddy job of recruiting and training aspiring teachers. As your editor noted last month, this was made clear again by the National Council of Teacher Quality in the latest of its reports on the low quality of ed school preparation. Thanks to both bureaucratic incompetence as well as state laws that have, until recently, restricted the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations (and have only allowed subjective observation-based evaluations that don’t actually measure how teachers improve student achievement), districts have failed miserably in evaluating and managing classroom instructors. Just 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires were evaluated by Los Angeles Unified School District during the 2009-2010 school year, according to NCTQ in a 2011 report.

Meanwhile the cultism that pervades police departments can also be found in teachers; lounges in traditional public schools. 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 the sexual abuse scandal still enveloping L.A. Unified; former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt’s “lewd conduct” against children in the school went unreported by his colleagues. In some cases, teachers will even defend the worst apples among them. One example can be seen in Rochester, N.Y., where teachers at School 19 rallied failed to cooperate in the investigation of Matthew LoMaglio for second degree sexual conduct an eight-year-old boy, they even  wrote letters to a judge begging for leniency on his behalf.

But as with the Blue Wall, the Thin Chalk Line extends beyond teachers’ lounges. Thanks to affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, removing laggard and criminally abusive teachers can be too onerous for districts to undertake. Because the two unions are the biggest players in school board races and, thanks to state laws, can force districts into bargaining, they have worked closely with administrators to structure contracts that keep principals from removing laggards or stop those with seniority from bumping out better performing-yet-less senior counterparts. At the same time, low-performing school leaders in school buildings, who couldn’t even get jobs checking coats at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, often do such a terrible job of managing teaching staffs as well as even aid and abet laggard teachers through practices such as overusing harsh school discipline.

As a result, few laggard and criminally-abusive teachers are ever tossed out of classrooms. In New York City, cases such as that of Steven Ostrin, who was found guilty of sexually harassing students, yet he was only given a six-month suspension and a reprimand, have  become commonplace. Overall, just 1.4 percent of tenured teachers were removed for poor performance, while less than seven-tenths of one percent of newly-hired instructors are ever fired. And like bad cops, bad teachers damage the futures of communities, especially those black and brown, and the lives of the children who are forced to sit in their classrooms.

Criminally-abusive teachers such as former L.A. Unified instructor Mark Berndt do as much damage to children as bad cops do to their families.

But unlike criminal justice reformers, school reform advocates can say that they are making some headway on addressing teacher quality issues. From the teacher evaluations using objective test score growth data in measuring performance, 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 such as New York City to aggressively evaluate newly-hired teachers before they attain tenure, small positive steps are being made to provide all children with the high-quality teachers they deserve.

What this means is that reformers can team up with criminal justice reform advocates are share lessons on how to address their parallel issues. After all, reformers have taken some of the more-successful aspects of policing — including the development of early warning systems based on the Broken Windows Theory used to great success in the Big Apple — in systemic reform efforts. More importantly, it is important for reformers to be concerned about what happens outside of schoolhouses, especially since the nation’s education crisis fuels the crises that happen daily on our streets. Just because criminal justice reform isn’t a primary focus of transforming public education doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a concern.

One way school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates can work together is on police recruiting and training. Criminal justice reformers, for example, could apply some version of the teacher recruiting model developed by Teach For America, which has not only helped provide kids with high-quality teachers, but has also led to diversity in the teaching ranks. One can imagine how a Teach For America-style corps for police officers could help stem police brutality as well as build trust between law enforcement agencies and black communities.

The Garner grand jury decision, along with that in Ferguson, once again offer reformers an opportunity to stand up and be counted for the very communities of the children for who we advocate. Sharing lessons with counterparts working to end police corruption and brutality will help our kids and their families outside of classrooms as well as in them.

December 2, 2014 standard

Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on focusing on overhauling school discipline in the wale of Ferguson caused me to think about how we can stem the use of out-of-school suspensions. One solution lies with our classroom teaching.

I have a theory I call the ’95-5 Rule.’ Let’s say you have a 500 student school, and every period of every day, 95 percent of students behave appropriately. That also means every period of every day you’d have 25 students in the dean of discipline’s office: There is no school in the country equipped physically and in personnel to manage 25 students out of the classroom, 3-6 times a day for 180 days. You can do the math for a 1,000 or more student school; a 3,000 person high school would have the equivalent of our school’s entire 8th grade class in the dean’s office every period.

This would apply to discipline over tardiness, too: The moment you have 25 students every period standing in line at the attendance office to get a late slip, the teachers get a memo saying to ‘not send students to the office who are tardy,’ even if the school rules state that clearly as the procedure.

Being unprepared to handle discipline issues like these lead to the harsh penalties for what seem to be small infractions, which has partly created the discipline crisis we have in our urban schools particularly.

To my knowledge there is no teaching program in California, especially in Los Angeles (which is home to the ed schools run by UCLA and that University of Southern California), that has a stand-alone classroom management class. My very first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Teachers are not prepared to manage students well coming out of the schools, and often have to rely on extra professional development, their own efforts, or trial by fire to develop those critical classroom skills. For example, teachers in a school I worked at started improving their classroom efforts a year after I handed the former principal for whom I worked a copy of Douglas Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, (a Dropout Nation Top Eight book).

Teachers must be trained to create a classroom environment where there is neither time nor opportunity for that behavior to occur. They must also be trained to address misbehavior with immediate-yet-fair consequences for that behavior. Those steps would greatly improve student behavior and school environments.

But improving school discipline isn’t just about better teaching. Schools must have the personnel and resources (space) to manage that 5-to-10 percent of kids who aren’t behaving well that day. that on any given day cannot function in a classroom. We already know that sending them home, especially if they are going into chaos, won’t work. Schools must also create a climate where students feel no need to have their shields raised every day, where they know that every adult is committed to their safety, welfare, and learning.

December 1, 2014 standard

There are a lot of institutions in Cleveland that make it seem like a world-class city. There’s the fact that the city of 400,000 people is at the center of a metropolitan area with a population of two million. There’s also the fact that Cleveland is home to a world-class orchestra and an equally fine and renowned art museum. Then you have the presence of Case Western Reserve University, one of the highest-ranking research universities in the United States, and world-renowned medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic, which bring the international wealthy and famous there to the city for treatment.

Yet none of these institutions have helped end the caste system in which more than half of Cleveland’s residents (including 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whose slaying by a police officer is now being investigated), the descendants of Africans physically enslaved until the end of the Civil War, have been placed since before the birth of this nation.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District enrolled 42,500 students in 2011, 68 percent of whom were African American, 15 percent White, non-Hispanic, and 14 percent Hispanic. The average salary of teachers then was $69,000. Perhaps because of this, the student to teacher ratio was a quite high 17:1. All those comparatively well-paid teachers met state licensing and certification requirements and hardly any were in their first or second year of teaching. On the other hand, a remarkable three-quarters of the district’s teachers were absent more than 10 days of the school year. All of these data in regard to the teaching staff are most unusual, the salaries higher, the proportion of new teachers lower, the student to teacher ratio and teacher absenteeism unusually high.

Cleveland is one of the urban districts analyzed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Eighth grade reading, a key factor, has varied since 2003 for White students in the district from 14 percent scoring at or above grade level (Proficient and above) in 2003 to 26 percent in 2007, and then back down to 19 percent in 2013. Results for the district’s Black students have been less variable: Eight percent at grade level in 2003 and nine percent in 2013. Broken down by gender, just 12 percent of young Black women and six percent of young Black men read at or above proficiency.

Put this another way: Cleveland fails to teach 94 percent of young Black men to read at grade level by eighth grade. For Ohio as a whole, 16 percent of Black students read at grade level in eighth grade, as do 43 percent of White students. In Ohio’s suburban districts, 19 percent of Black students read at grade level, as do 47 percent of White students. In Cleveland, as elsewhere, Black students can at least double their opportunity of learning basic skills by moving to the suburbs.

We can look at this another way by calculating the numbers of students reading at grade level (Proficient and Advanced) with parents at various educational attainment levels by aligning NAEP and Census data. Twenty-three percent of White and 25 percent of Black adults in Cleveland age 25 and older reported to the Census that they had less than a high school diploma; this is equivalent to the NAEP category of “Did not finish high school.” Thirty-five percent of Whites and 36 percent of African Americans said that they were high school graduates with a diploma or GED, equivalent to NAEP’s “Graduated high school.” Twenty-four percent of Whites and 31 percent of African Americans reported some college or associate’s degree, equivalent to “Some education after high school” and 17 percent of Whites and 8 percent of African Americans reported attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher: “Graduated College.”

None of the 2,100 eighth grade Black students whose parents didn’t finish high school read at or above grade level. Thirty Black students report that one of their parents completed high school while they themselves read at grade level. 131 Black students read at grade level in eighth grade and have at least one parent who had some college. And 15 Black students at eighth grade read at grade level and report that at least one of their parents has a college degree. [The number of Black students in eighth grade reading at grade level who are the children of college graduates is lower than that of those whose parents have “some college” because there are few adult Black college graduates in in the city.] Whichever way you calculate it, fewer than 10 percent of eighth-grade Black students in Cleveland have been taught to read at or above grade level.

Ohio state prisons such as Lebanon State near Dayton are where Cleveland’s dropouts go.

But Cleveland has a “Plan for Transforming Schools” which was the subject of a Dropout Nation commentary two years ago. It has as its goal “to ensure that every child in Cleveland attends a high-quality school and that every neighborhood has a multitude of great schools from which families can choose. This includes expanding public charter schools. This only works if charter schools in Ohio were of high-quality. Sadly, in part because of shoddy authorizing, this isn’t so. Just 17 percent of eighth-graders attending Ohio’s charters in 2013 were at or above Proficient in reading; this is lower than for traditional public and other schools, where 40 percent of students read at or above Proficient. Just 10 percent of Black charter school students read at or above Proficient in reading, versus 19 percent of peers in traditional and other schools.

High school graduation rates for Cleveland students in 2011-2012 were 42 percent for both Black students, that is, nearly 60 percent of those students enrolled in grade 9 in 2008-09 did not graduate at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Given that 90 percent of Black students in eighth grade cannot read at grade level, it is remarkable that the district manages to graduate as many students as it does.

Perhaps we should look at this more closely: How well-prepared are those graduates?

Cuyahoga Community College is the area’s postsecondary institution of first resort, as it were. In a recent year it admitted 2,100 first-time students. 90 of these received Associate’s degrees. 780 of those admitted were Black, 316 of whom were men. Eleven of those Black students, 4 of whom were men, received Associate’s degrees in the standard 150 percent of normal time. Those 11 of 780 Black students were not necessarily all from Cleveland, nor were all four of the Black males who benefitted in this way.

Other students attend Cleveland State University, hoping to obtain baccalaureate degrees, which is increasingly vital for employment, middle class incomes and, for Black men, avoidance of incarceration. Cleveland State University’s first-time degree-seeking undergraduates in fall 2006 totaled nearly a thousand, 241 of whom were Black; 73 of those were men. 318 of that cohort, 39 of whom were Black, seven of whom were young Black men, received baccalaureates. Not all those 32 Black women and seven Black men who grasped the brass ring of a four-year degree from Cleveland State University were necessarily from Cleveland. Some of those successful Black undergraduates probably came from elsewhere in Cuyahoga County, elsewhere in Ohio, or further afield. Finally, to round out the sample, Case Western Reserve, a national research university, admitted 1,015 first time undergraduate students in fall 2006, 66 of whom were Black and 22 of whom were young Black men. Nearly 800 of that group received Bachelor’s degrees. Fewer than 50 of those were Black, just 14 were Black men. Not all of these, as well, would necessarily have been graduates of the Cleveland public schools.

Given the nature of these results, exact percentages hardly matter. We have something like 3,000 Black students going into the district’s high schools, 1,600 graduating, 11 receiving Associate’s degrees and 89 Bachelor’s degrees within six years. It is clear that the district almost totally fails to prepare its Black students, and, in particular, young Black men in its schools, for college or careers likely to produce an income sufficient to support a family, or provide them with the type of background necessary to fully appreciate the remarkable holdings of the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the offerings available during the season in Severance Hall.

It does, however, “prepare” many young Black men in the city for incarceration. Which is hardly world-class.