The numbers on the damage done by schools to children in the form of traditional school discipline can sometimes be mind-numbing. Five-point-four million children suspended one or more times every year by America’s public schools. Two hundred sixty thousand more referred to law enforcement and juvenile courts. Ninety-two thousand additional kids arrested. Seventy thousand restrained, either with handcuffs or other devices. Thirty-seven thousand put into seclusion or solitary confinement. At least 28 injured, maimed, or killed by police officers working in schools.
Rarely do we ever put a name or face to these barbaric acts of educational malpractice. But today, Ahmed Mohamed became a more-public example of what we do to children, especially those black and brown. And another example of why the overuse of such harsh approaches to discipline must come to an end.
As many of you know by now, the 14-year-old young man from the Irving Texas, was arrested in school by police after showing his teacher at MacArthur High a digital clock that he built on his own. The teacher believed that Ahmed had built a bomb, and after referring the incident to school leaders, had him arrested and taken down to the suburban Dallas city’s police station, where officers were annoyed that he wouldn’t call the clock anything other than a horological device that it was.
While Ahmed has been released without being charged with a crime — a sensible thing for law enforcement to do since the clock was a clock — Irving’s police chief somehow blames the young man for not being “forthcoming” about building a tool for telling time. Ahmed has also been suspended from school by the Irving Independent School District until tomorrow morning. The district, of course, argues that there’s another side to the story. It also declares that Ahmed wasn’t targeted because he is Muslim and, therefore considered a terrorist. But it won’t say more under the guise of protecting student privacy. [The fact that the district will likely face a well-deserved civil tort from Ahmed’s family also factors into the silence.]
Unlike most children subjected to harsh school discipline, Ahmed has been feted by the likes of the President of the United States and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He has also become the darling of Arab and Muslim activists tired of being the latest of a long line of religious and ethnic minorities subjected to America’s time-honored tradition of state-sanctioned bigotry. Unlike so many children who have (and will be) suspended this year, there may be a happy ending to Ahmed’s predicament.
Yet Ahmed’s story, while different in both the circumstances and its conclusion (so far), isn’t that much different from what happens with so many children in American public education.
Few children are ever suspended for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. This has been consistently proven over the past two decades by researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba and Linda Raffaele Mendez of the University of South Florida. More often than not, kids are more-likely to be suspended for non-violent offenses such as disruptive behavior, which are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders depending on how they view the children in their care.
Children from poor and minority backgrounds, especially young black men and women as well as kids condemned to special ed ghettos, are more-likely to be suspended than white peers in regular classrooms. As a team led by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted earlier this year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 23.2 percent for black middle- and high schoolers in 2013-2014 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education) is three times the 6.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. This, too, has been consistent in analysis of data, this time that of state governments.
As with the overlabeling of young men as special ed cases, a key reason why so many children black and brown have been suspended lies with the perceptions of adults in schools about the kids they are supposed to teach. Recent studies of the perceptions of children held by their teachers echo Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s longstanding point that adults in schools end up deeming kids as unworthy because they think they are destined to end up that way. This is one reason why a team led by University of Pittsburgh researcher John Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be referred dean’s offices — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended — for the same offenses than white peers.
The overuse of harsh discipline has become even more-problematic thanks to zero-tolerance policies and the expanded presence of police officers in schools driven by the federal Community Oriented Police program and rare incidents of mass shooting such as the Columbine Massacre. The number of cops patrolling schoolhouses increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This has resulted in incidents of children being suspended and arrested for writing fictional accounts of hunting dinosaurs, as well as being choked and brain-damaged by school cops for helping to break up fights in hallways.
What has been proven ad nauseam, over the insistence of traditionalists such as the National Education Association’s Texas State Teachers Association, as well as so-called reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is that school discipline as practiced by both traditional districts and far too many charter schools, damages the futures of children. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Because schools are the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies, they are also putting out children, especially the most-vulnerable, into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge.
What has also been clear, thanks to data, is that the overuse of harsh school discipline doesn’t improve school cultures or even help children learn. If anything, the worst-performing schools and districts are the ones that mete out such penalties the most. This shouldn’t be a surprise. High levels of suspensions, seclusions, and restraints are both a sign of the failures of adults within school systems to address underlying learning issues such as literacy as well as a signal that teachers and school leaders have little empathy or concern for the children in their care.
This isn’t to say that every child suspended or arrested is just like Ahmed. Not at all. The reality is that there will be those rare occasions on which a child behaves violently enough to deserve being removed from schools. But we have enough evidence to know that the key word should be rare. Far too often, we are suspending far too many children, and condemning their futures to the economic and social abyss. Ahmed Mohamed’s situation should be a wake-up call to all those who say they care for building brighter futures for children to actually do so. And that can start with ending the overuse of traditional discipline practices that just don’t work for that very purpose.
You can expect few school reformers, especially those in Beltway think tanks, to pay any mind to yesterday’s release of recommendations for criminal justice and school reform by the Ferguson Commission formed last year after the murder of Michael Brown by now-former Police Officer Darren Wilson. After all, there are still far too many in the movement that still don’t understand that it is as important to discuss the issues outside of schoolhouses that are as important (and are affected by) what happens inside them.
But there are plenty of reasons why reformers should pay plenty of close attention to the recommendations in Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equality. One reason? The Ferguson Commission offers some important thoughts, especially when it comes to expanding school choice as well as stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline. Another: Because the approach of tackling both criminal justice and educational issues undertaken by the panel should be done by reformers as part of systemic efforts on the ground.
Plenty of scrutiny has been placed on the law enforcement agencies, courts, and school districts within St. Louis and its 89 immediate suburbs in the year since Brown’s slaying on the streets of Ferguson. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko and others revealed how the patchwork of municipal courts in St. Louis County were exorbitantly fining poor and minority citizens for minor driving offenses (and in many cases, putting them in jail) in order to generate revenue generator for city governments; in some cities, as much as 40 percent of city dollars were generated from putting residents into criminal justice systems. The U.S. Department of Justice further highlighted these problems this past March with its scathing review of the Ferguson Police Department’s racialist policing practices.
Meanwhile the failings of traditional districts within St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs, an issue that has been widely-discussed in Missouri for years, garnered even more national attention. Dropout Nation, in particular, detailed how Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves the community in which Brown was murdered, has been a massive failure mill that metes out-of-school suspensions to one out of every seven black students in regular classrooms and 23 percent of black kids condemned to its special education ghettos.
The continuing battle over whether to allow kids trapped in nearby Normandy‘s traditional district to escape into better-performing districts has also gotten plenty of attention. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has deservedly earned scorn for his handling of the Brown affair last year, garnered more ire last month when he vetoed a proposal contained in House Bill 42 that would provide intra-district choice to children in Normandy and other failing traditional systems. That move has led to another row between Nixon and his fellow Democrats who backed the measure, including the governor’s longtime nemesis, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Normandy and Ferguson- Florissant.
Given all the scrutiny, the Ferguson Commission certainly had a lot of ground to cover to get it right. After all, the panel would be deemed a failure if it didn’t offer any concrete solutions. With 17 policymakers, activists, and community leaders (including Brittany Packnett of Teach For America) serving on the main commission and dozens more serving as experts and task force members, the final report could have also been a muddle of compromises worth nothing to everyone. But for the most part, the commission did its job properly and offered solutions worth implementing.
This isn’t to say that the final report doesn’t have flaws. The fact that the Ferguson Commission supported Gov. Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42 — even as it supports intra-district choice (more on that later) is puzzling and unfortunate. The panel’s partial embrace of the “Whole Child” rhetoric championed by traditionalists as a way to avoid overhauling the superclusters of failure, both in St. Louis and nationwide, that sustain their pockets and ideologies, means that it didn’t take on such matters as Missouri’s near-lifetime employment laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms of districts such as Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy.
Another major flaw is that the commission didn’t offer any recommendations on expanding high-quality charter schools, which are key to building brighter futures for St. Louis children. This is an especially egregious oversight, especially when you consider that Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes noted last year that children in special ed attending charter schools in the Gateway City (many of whom are black) gained as much as 86 days in math and reading performance over peers in traditional district schools.
Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. Charters in St. Louis aren’t as high-performing improving reading as counterparts in 26 of the 41 other cities CREDO surveyed. As in Ohio, St. Louis has also proven that the concept of multiple charter school authorizers on its own hasn’t led to high-quality school operations; the ability of low-quality charter school operators to shop for favorable authorizers is a clear problem that must be addressed. But given that far too many kids in St. Louis area districts are stuck in failure mills, the Ferguson Commission should have devoted at least a couple of pages to both arguing for increasing the number of charters and overhauling how they are regulated.
Another flaw lies with the failure of the Ferguson Commission to recommend that Missouri legislators pass a Parent Trigger law that would allow families to take over and overhaul failing schools. Even if school choice fully flourishes in St. Louis and its suburbs, families will still want to have high-quality educational options in their own communities. Just as importantly, many of these families don’t just want to be passive players in education decision-making. They want to be able to structure the curricula, instruction, and school cultures in which their children will spend the most-critical times of their youth. As evidenced in Ferguson-Florissant, where the district’s board is hardly reflective of the black and brown kids who make up the majority of its students, the traditional district model does almost nothing to give families such power.
For the Ferguson Commission, arguing for passage of a Parent Trigger law would not only have been helpful to families, it would have also helped its own goals of transforming criminal justice and other systems that have done damage to St. Louis communities. This is because Parent Trigger laws help families understand that they can transform public education for their children. When mothers know they can build better schools for their kids, they will take on the other challenges outside of schoolhouse doors that also damage futures.
Those flaws aside, A Path Toward Racial Equality offers some important recommendations for transforming public education and criminal justice in St. Louis that can help children thrive into adulthood.
The Ferguson Commission’s call for districts in St. Louis to use restorative justice approaches to school discipline is not only sensible, it aligns with evidence that shows that such approaches do more to improve school cultures and help kids improve behavior than traditional harsh discipline approaches. There is no reason why districts in St. Louis and the rest of Missouri should be overusing suspensions and expulsions. Show-Me State legislators should pass a law restricting districts and other school operators from meting out suspensions to children in kindergarten-through-third grade, as the panel recommends. They should also pass a law that meets the panel’s recommendation of developing a more-comprehensive system for tracking data on suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to juvenile courts.
The creation of early-warning systems that track how children are falling off the path to high school graduation and higher ed completion is also an important recommendation. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has noted, 43 percent of children on the path to dropping out of school can be identified before reaching sixth grade. Missouri state officials, along with school operators in St. Louis, should have long ago come together to develop such systems. More importantly, thanks to existing tools such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (or DIBELS) test, which can be used to identify struggling readers before they reach first grade, this can be don.
Meanwhile the commission’s deserves credit for its forceful call for the state to implement intra-district choice, even though it unfortunately called for Nixon to veto H.B. 42, the best path currently available. Even more impressive is that the panel thought through the infrastructural issues that can make it difficult for families to exercise choice on behalf of their children. Calling for state officials to identify conveniently-located high-quality schools — and ease the transportation burden on families and children — makes plenty of sense. So does its call to restrict the excuses that districts can use to stop kids from transferring into their schools. The commission’s report should spur Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to override Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42. As for the governor? The report should also embarrass him for being so willing to sacrifice the futures of children.
Again, the Ferguson Commission’s report isn’t perfect. Reformers in St. Louis and the rest of the Show-Me State should follow up on the panel’s recommendations with solutions that are more fleshed-out than the body, primarily focused on addressing criminal justice and law enforcement, could make on it own.
At the same time, the Ferguson Commission’s report shows another approach reformers can take to transforming American public education in every municipality and region: Addressing the issues outside schools that are affected by what happens within them.
From the fact that schools account for the second-highest number of referrals to juvenile courts, to the failure of districts to provide all children with the college-preparatory learning they need to be economically and socially successful, schools are the gateways into failure for so many children on their way into adulthood. By teaming up with criminal justice reformers, Black Lives Matter activists, and others, reformers can advance solutions that can improve the conditions in which our children and their families live, learn, and work.
At the same time, by working on the ground with communities, listening to their concerns, and addressing their school and non-school issues reformers can also build the trust and gain the buy-in needed to sustain the overhaul of public education in communities. As your editor notes in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, education is as much a part of politics as criminal justice systems, so reformers must master coalition-building. Given how reformers have been beaten in Newark, and the rancor that remains over the transformation of New Orleans’ public education system, the movement should be more-active in combining the best ideas from within it with the solutions from the communities we are helping.
There’s a lot that reformers can learn from the Ferguson Commission report and its approach to addressing St. Louis’ criminal justice and educational crises. The movement should pick up a copy of the report and come up with some new approaches today.
What ultimately shapes children and adults, regardless of genetics, is the environment in which they are immersed in their formative years. Family environments help mold our children into who they become in adulthood. But society plays as much, if not a greater role, in forming who our children become. That society includes our nation’s public schools, not only playing integral roles in fostering talents, but also in building our children’s self-worth.
This is why how schools handle — and mishandle — discipline is so important. What we adults in school do can either be the right answer or the wrong solution to shaping children into the people they become.
When one student is causing a classroom disruption, the traditional way to address the issue has been removal – whether the removal is for five minutes, five days or permanently. Separating the “good” students and the “bad” ones has always seemed the fair, judicious approach. On an individual level this form of discipline may seem necessary to preserve the educational experience for others. Whether it is or not in reality is a different matter entirely.
If all children come from homes that implement a cause-and-effect approach to discipline, removal may be the right answer. Maybe. If all children are reading at grade level and aren’t struggling with learning, removal may be the right answer. Again, maybe. Unfortunately, not every child come from such homes or are reading at grade level. For these students, removal from education is simply another form of abandonment and leads to the phenomenon called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The numbers represent a modern-day segregation. An estimated 40 percent of all students that are expelled from U.S. schools are black, making black children over three times more likely to face suspension than their white peers. Black and Latino children account for 70 percent of all in-school arrests. Consider the strong correlation between school discipline and what happens when children become adults out of school: Sixty-one percent of the incarcerated population are black or Latino – despite the fact that these groups only represent 30 percent of the U.S. population. Nearly 68 percent of all men in federal prison never earned a high school diploma. The fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world is no surprise and the road to lockup starts in the school systems.
Sally Powalski, who has spent 10 years working in juvenile jails and prisons in Indiana, took some time two years ago to describe what she sees every day: Young men who don’t expect to improve academically or economically, and therefore, no motivation (or education) to escape the school-to-prison pipeline. Wrote Sally:.“They have been given the message for several years that they are not allowed in regular school programs, are not considered appropriate for sports teams, and have had their backs turned on them… Why should they strive for more than a life of crime?”
Sally is right. Children are products of their environments and the expectations placed on them. Parents on a first-name basis with law enforcement officials certainly influence the behavior, but so do teachers and school leaders with preconceived negative expectations who create environments of failure. As educators, we are learning more and more about how to recognize the signs of textbook learning disabilities such as dyslexia. But what about the indirect impact that factors like poverty, abuse, neglect or simply living in the wrong neighborhood have on a student’s ability to learn? Where are the intervention programs that keep these students on academic track without removing them from classrooms?
“Zero tolerance” and “no excuses” may sound like the best ways to handle all offenses in public schools. But they really do disservice to students. Not every infraction is a black and white issue and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled “disruptions” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for other, “better” students. I suppose there is an argument to be made for protecting straight-and-narrow students from the sins of others. But at what cost?
High profile instances of school violence in recent years have led to a higher presence of law enforcement officers in public schools, often politely labeled as “resource officers” or a similarly vague term. Of course the presence of guns and other immediate dangerous items in schools are cause for arrest, or at least temporary removal of the student. But as the American Civil Liberties Union reports, children as young as five throwing tantrums have been removed in handcuffs by these officers. Rather than addressing the heart of the individual problems, it is easier for public schools to weed out troublesome students under the umbrella of protecting the greater good. Convenience triumphs over finding actual solutions.
People who fall outside this fringe group of perceived misfits may wonder why the school-to-prison pipeline should matter to them. Outside of caring about the quality of life for other individuals, it matters in more tangible ways. Each federal prisoner costs taxpayers $28,284 per year, which is about $77 per day. That’s a measurable cost. What isn’t measurable is the indirect impact those incarcerations have on the economy in terms of those prisoners not contributing to the work force.
So what can be done to help these students, and really the common good? Schools are the first line of defense against this early form of pigeonholing, but the communities within them — teachers, school leaders, even families — need to embrace the concept. Students with discipline problems are individuals that need customized learning experiences to succeed academically, in the years ahead.
Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment. – US Department of Education (1993)
Discrimination against the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States is a cradle-to-(all-too-early) grave affair. Black infant mortality is higher than White, Black school readiness is lower, as are Black levels of educational attainment. Black incomes are lower at equivalent levels of education, Black wealth is for all intents and purposes non-existent. Black life-spans are shorter than those of White Americans and Black incarceration rates are unspeakably higher. In every case these outcomes are the personal responsibility of those who have the power to change the circumstances, rules and policies, leading to them.
American public education has always been and continues to remain one of the most powerful instruments for racial discrimination. Schools that have predominate Black enrollments are underfunded in comparison both to schools predominately attended by White children as well as in comparison to their needs. Gifted and Talented programs are an example of how this diversion of resources is accomplished. Special programs for children designated as gifted and talented receive superior resources and prestige. They are also discriminatory on their face.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights 2009 report (the latest available) 12 percent of Asian children in public schools are enrolled in Gifted and Talented programs, as are eight percent of White, non-Hispanic children. Just five percent of Latino children receive that special treatment, as do just four percent of Black children. That’s half the proportion of White non-Hispanic children; a third of the proportion of Asian children. These numbers were essentially the same as in reports from the National Center for Education Statistics in 2004 and 2006.
What accounts for these variations in the percentage of children allowed to take advantage of the superior resources of Gifted and Talented programs? The difference between the proportions of Latino, Asian and White gifted and talented students is a powerful counter argument to racist explanations. After all, none of these categories is homogeneous. Latino or Hispanic, who, as the Bureau of the Census reminds us, may be of any race, are distinguished only by national origin, which may be remote. The category of “Asian” is utterly useless as a basis for analysis, comprising Han Chinese and Turks, Tamils and Tibetans. And “White, non-Hispanic” is simply a residual category, about the same as “Other,” including the descendants of many immigrants once considered racially inferior, such as southern and eastern Europeans. So it is with Black Americans, who also may be of any “race,” descended not only from enslaved Africans, but also from their White enslavers, Latinos, and American Indians.
The racial and ethnic explanation for the gross under-representation of Black children in Gifted and Talented programs fails unless the “one drop” of blood once defining membership in the caste is taken to carry with it overwhelming genetic disadvantages, something it is doubtful any responsible scholar would wish to argue in the twenty-first century.
The most reasonable explanation seems to lie instead in the classification system and procedures themselves — especially in light of evidence, including recent results for Black and Latino students when they take Advanced Placement courses. As with the fundamental Texas study of school discipline, along with research on special education, this would point to something other than the performance and potential of children, to the prejudices of adults, expressed if not in so many words but in actions: the action of classifying twice as many White and three times as many Asian students as gifted or talented as Black children. When this happens repeatedly, when this happens year in and year out, it is only reasonable to assume that it is being done deliberately. Otherwise, the responsible adults—teachers, counselors, school and district administrators—would look at the data, notice the problem, and correct the procedures and policies responsible for this form of discrimination.
They do not.
Although there are perhaps twenty times as many children enrolled in Gifted and Talented programs, nation-wide, as it so-called “exam schools,” the latter are highly visible. Arguably the most visible is Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a subject of earlier discussions on these pages.
This is a large school, enrolling 3,300 students. It is housed in a new, state-of-the-art facility near the World Trade Center. It epitomizes the advantages of Gifted and Talented programs and their ilk. It also epitomizes their discriminatory character. Twenty-two percent of Stuyvesant’s students are White, 73 percent are Asian (who may be of any racial group), two percent are Latino and one percent, perhaps 33 individuals, are Black. Last year one percent of Stuyvesant’s students were Black and 2 percent were Latino. The previous year one percent of Stuyvesant’s students were Black . . . and so forth.
Every few years the media notices the racist outcomes of the admission process to Stuyvesant and other specialized “exam” schools. Various reasonable proposals for change are identified, such as admitting, say, one percent, of the top students from each middle school. But it always seems terribly difficult and the system is left unaltered.
Left unaltered by whom? Not by some vaguely indicated “government officials,” but by very specific individuals who are responsible for maintaining these racist outcomes: the Governor of New York; the leaders of the legislature; the Mayor of New York City; the chancellors of the State and City Departments of Education. They, and their equivalents in other cities and states, fail to reform Gifted and Talented programs, of which Stuyvesant is perhaps only one of the most egregious examples, and failing to do so contribute to maintaining educational Jim Crow.
Featured photo of Stuyvesant High School courtesy of the New York Post.
American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten constantly professes concern for ensuring that poor and minority people have real voice and control over the direction of public education in their communities. She and her union (along with the front groups it finances) also spend plenty of time criticizing reform efforts in places such as New Orleans, Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia on those grounds.
So you would think Weingarten and AFT would be protesting all day and night in East Ramapo, N.Y. After all, the district’s black and Latino communities, whose children make up 87.6 percent of the 8,109 students attending its schools, have been subjected to educational malpractice by the board, which is majority white and Jewish. The fact that Weingarten has been silent on the abuse heaped upon East Ramapo’s children says plenty about where her concerns — and that of the union — truly lie.
Since 2005, when a coalition of Orthodox Jewish residents (whose children, who would otherwise attend traditional districts, go to parochial schools) gained control of the board, East Ramapo has essentially done all it can to deny high-quality education to poor and minority children. This includes cutting instructional time for the district’s kindergarten classes by half, and the elimination of Advanced Placement and English Language Learner programs; the latter is especially problematic since many of the children attending its schools are emigres from Haiti and Latin America.
Thanks to reductions in teaching and school leadership staffs, children in the district’s high schools find themselves spending more time in lunch rooms (five lunch periods during the school day in some cases), than in classrooms. Little wonder why 55 percent of East Ramapo’s students in third-through-eighth grade performed at level one, or below basic proficiency on the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests, double levels statewide.
While starving the children educationally, East Ramapo’s board has done plenty of what can politely be called self-dealing on behalf of synagogues and other Jewish organizations within the district. In 2010, the district unsuccessfully attempted to sell the building that housed the former Hillcrest Elementary School to Congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov for $3.2 million, $7 million less than its assessed value. New York State’s education commissioner would stop that sale, and the state’s attorney general would later charge the appraiser selected by East Ramapo to handle the deal with taking a $5,000 bribe from the synagogue. [East Ramapo would eventually sell Hillcrest to Avir Yakov for $4.9 million, still far less than its assessed value.] A year later, the district’s attempt to sell another school building, the former Colton Elementary, to Congregation Bais Malka for use of its Hebrew Academy for Special Children, was also stopped by Empire State officials.
Another aspect of East Ramapo’s self-dealing lies with an otherwise-legitimate concern: The desire of Orthodox Jewish residents to provide children with real physical and cognitive disabilities such as Cri-du-chat (which can cause severe speech and intellectual delays) with high-quality education. Within the past 10 years, East Ramapo’s move to pay for private-school tuition for Jewish children in special education has accelerated to a point that the district spends more money on them than on the children it serves in traditional districts. In 2012-2013, the district spent $30.4 million on salaries and contracts for special education programs versus $5.1 million on salaries for teachers working with kids in the traditional district itself. This, by the way, doesn’t include the millions spent on providing public transportation for the kids attending the parochial schools.
The self-dealing by East Ramapo’s board has, in turn, reflected itself in its fiscal mismanagement. Four years ago, New York State’s comptroller chided the district for giving out $2.4 million in no-bid contracts for professional services, allowing board members to receive health insurance without paying required premiums, and failing to maintain proper inventory records for $2.4 million in textbooks handed out to synagogue-run schools. Declared the state comptroller in that report: “[East Ramapo’s] Board, along with District officials, failed to fulfill its stewardship, oversight, and leadership responsibilities.” Two years later, the state comptroller cited East Ramapo again for failing to come up with realistic budget numbers. And last year, the state pointed out that the district spent $7.3 million on legal services the previous school year, a six-fold increase over levels five years earlier. All of this ultimately means children, families, and taxpayers are constantly being shortchanged financially and educationally.
Families of children forced into East Ramapo’s schools, along with others, have fought vigorously to push the district into doing right by children. But the district’s board has done whatever it can do to keep the status quo ante. Four years ago, the board’s vice president at the time, Aron Weider, was charged with violating state election laws after he was caught photographing and intimidating potential voters during a budget vote. With seven of the district’s nine board members coming from communities with nearly all kids (including their own) attending private schools, the district has essentially become captured by those who don’t have any reason to care for the issues affecting black and brown children. The lack of respect for those kids was demonstrated in a scene reported by New York two years ago, in which the lawyer for East Ramapo’s board called a high school student protesting a round of cuts by the district “a piece of s—.”
With the district’s board doing all it can to not serve poor and minority children and behave with fiscal prudence, Empire State officials have had to step in. Two years ago, now-former Education Commissioner John King appointed a special monitor to push an overhaul of the district. Former New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott who has since succeeded Greenberg in the role, has made it clear that he won’t tolerate the district’s shortchanging of children. But the state education department’s hands are tied. Last June, a proposal by State Assemblypersons Ellen Jaffee and Kenneth Zebrowski to allow state education officials to seize control of East Ramapo was killed by state senators at the behest of Orthodox Jewish groups.
One can easily understand why East Ramapo hasn’t grabbed the attention of reformers; after all, it is one of the smallest of the nation’s perpetually-failing districts. But there are plenty reasons why they should pay East Ramapo mind now. The district exemplifies the educational failures of traditional education governance, the obsolescence of the traditional district model, and why local control defended by traditionalists and movement conservatives unconcerned with education is almost always undemocratic in practice. The failure of the Empire State to seize control of the district the way Louisiana officials did with New Orleans a decade ago exemplifies the importance of states undertaking their proper, constitutional role in overseeing public education and stamping out the failures of districts in serving children.
East Ramapo’s move to pay private school tuition for Orthodox Jewish children in special ed while shortchanging equally-disadvantaged poor and minority peers offers cautionary examples of how not to expand school choice and why any overhaul of American public education must be done thoughtfully. The struggles of families of children attending the district’s schools to stop this educational neglect shows why all states should pass Parent Trigger laws that allow families to overhaul failure mills and negotiate forcefully with school leaders. Even reformers focused on English Language Learners can find plenty of reasons to be concerned about and learn from what is happening in East Ramapo.
Most-importantly of all, reformers should be mad about East Ramapo. Outraged because the district’s board and leadership are essentially engaged in the kind of educational malpractice that can easily be compared to that of Jim Crow segregationists in the American South six decades ago. Angered because the board members are doing to the children they are supposed to serve is educationally abusive, intellectually indefensible, and morally unconscionable. Incensed because one historically-discriminated minority, one which has seen the worst that man can do to man, is engaging in state-sanctioned bigotry against other minorities. Indignant that almost nothing is being done about it. Reform outfits should be in East Ramapo right now protesting what is going on there.
But one has to wonder: Why isn’t Randi and AFT in Ramapo now? After all, the teachers’ union’s local, the East Ramapo Teachers Association, has been hit hard by the district’s budget cutting. There’s also the fact that Weingarten grew up in Rockland County, where East Ramapo is based, in fact, grew up near the district in New City (which is serve by the Clarkstown Central district). Given that personal connection, you would think Randi would be leading protests in East Ramapo and getting herself arrested for the cameras as she did in Philadelphia two years ago.
But so far, neither Weingarten nor AFT has said a peep about East Ramapo, even as it has spent millions on beating back reform efforts in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago. Neither has the union’s Empire State affiliate, New York State United Teachers; as it has in the past few years, it spent nearly all of this year focused on opposing overhauls of teacher evaluations, expansion of charter schools, and fighting against the use of standardized test score growth data in transforming education for children. In fact, it did nothing to support the passage of Jaffee’s and Zebrowski’s plan.
Perhaps Weingarten and AFT have said nothing about East Ramapo because the union is stretched too thin with other concerns. Given the sums it lavishes on demagoguery attacking the successful reform of public education in New Orleans, the $902,103.20 spent on Jesus Garcia’s failed bid to unseat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the millions spent so far on opposing reform in Philadelphia, and the $29 million spent in 2013-2014 on preserving its influence, this explanation doesn’t suffice.
Maybe it’s because East Ramapo is too small a concern to land on Randi’s radar. But AFT manages to issue streams of e-mails about the protest in Chicago over the three-year-long closing of the Walter H. Dyett High School (enrollment: 160 kids as of 2012-2013), and spend lavishly on its Reconnecting McDowell public relations campaign (which is focused on a West Virginia district that served 3,537 in 2012-2013, or less than half of East Ramapo’s enrollment). So,no.
So why, pray tell, has Randi and AFT ignored East Ramapo? It could be because the district’s failure to properly represent poor and minority children exemplifies why the myth of local control the union perpetuates is exactly that. It may be because East Ramapo demonstrates the wisdom of states such as Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan launching state-run districts charged with overhauling public education, as well as the sensible nature of moves by New Jersey to take over existing traditional school systems. It might be because the inability of AFT’s East Ramapo local to protect its rank-and-file shows the impotence of the outdated model on which the union is built. It is even possible that it has to do with the realization that what East Ramapo’s board treatment of poor and minority children (along with their families) is no different in substance than what AFT has done since the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle of six decades ago.
Or perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, when it comes down to the concerns of poor and minority children, Randi Weingarten and AFT just couldn’t care less. Black and brown people are merely tools for the preservation of the union’s declining influence.
I am not surprised by Dropout Nation‘s reports on how schools and districts handle (or mishandle) discipline. I am not surprised that too many schools have abdicated their discipline to police officers. I have lived through the experiences and the data. Harsh discipline data doesn’t tell everything. But it does shine light on what needs to be fixed in the classroom as well as in society.
For many, many years I technically violated our union contract by going out on the yard during lunch and after school. This is because supervision wasn’t part of our duties as teachers under our contract. Over that time, I deterred or broke up my share of altercations. In my classrooms, I also found that I can maintain order. Over time, I have learned this: A committed, caring teacher can discern a goof-ball from one with malicious intent; in fact such a teacher can soften the edges of those hardened young people because they relate to them more respectfully than adults even in their life, and they appreciate that.
The ability of a committed caring teacher extends into the classroom. When I started out, my first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Any parent knows that if you keep children occupied you reduce the opportunities for dumb things to happen. A classroom is no different. Schools can improve their discipline with better trained teachers and leadership creates an environment that encourages learning and deters disruptive behavior.
The 500 lb Silverback Gorilla in the room people don’t want to acknowledge is the dearth of prepared, qualified, and committed educators where they’re needed most. Teachers who only drop worksheets or lecture incessantly will invite mischief, or worse chaos. Teachers who do that tend to be the least qualified and least committed, and sadly those teachers end up where they shouldn’t be: in schools where committed, caring teachers who know how to manage classrooms are needed most. Harsh discipline can also be a function of how and why it’s meted out, as well as what you do after the harsh discipline. The problem begins before teachers go into classrooms. If you do a survey of education schools you’ll find very few that have a stand-alone course in classroom management.
Again, I am not surprised that too many schools abdicate their discipline to police officers. There are far too many schools that simply don’t have enough supervision during those non-classroom hours — from lunch time to recess — when incidents occur that might lead to discipline and worse. Especially incidents of police officers shooting students happen. I’ve also always thought that most of these tragic officer shootings are a function of their inexperience with young people. That is all the more reason not to have traditionally-trained police officers walking the corridors of schools.
There will still be situations where harsh discipline must happen. I’ve known students disciplined harshly for dumb stuff. At the same time, I’ve also known students who indeed needed to be removed from the school environment, and not allowed to return until they came with a parent. If the consequences for behavior are clear and consistent, what may seem as harsh from the outside will be accepted by the student and family. What the adults do in a school AFTER harsh discipline goes far to limiting repeat behavior. Acceptance, commitment, and support to those young people is necessary to counterbalance their burdens and manage the learning environment for everyone else.
That this sounds like what good parents do should be no surprise, and a bell-ringer: You’ve got to love these young people as your own children. If not, seriously consider another line of work.