There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race. This is, of course, a Marxist position, one clung to by the Communist Party of the United States to its dying day.
But the basis of American society, as even some Communists admitted, is division by race. This was embodied in the original wording of the Constitution, with its three-fifths rule for counting enslaved Africans and their descendants. It dominated debates in the Senate until the imposition of the “gag” rule, barring discussion of slavery; led to the Civil War, and as Jim Crow, determined social structures and social relations in much of the country until the 1960s.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation, de jure Jim Crow did not vanish; it was transformed into “Jim Crow by another name,” primarily through the operation of schools and prisons. The stronghold of what Michelle Alexander branded as “The New Jim Crow” is the “black belt” of counties in the former Confederacy, running from Norfolk Virginia to, say, Waco, Texas, with satellites in various urban centers, especially in the line from Louisville, Kentucky to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and New York.
Among the northern urban centers, New York City, because of its size and cultural and political significance, is of particular importance. New York City has an African American population of 2,089,000, a larger number than any other city in the country, more than in many states. How well do the New York public schools perform their task of educating all children, including Black children?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the standard by which education is measured in the United States. Among NAEP’s many assessments, that for reading is particularly crucial as an indicator, particularly reading at grade 8, when the schools have had sufficient time to overcome many issues arising from home and community.
Results for grade 8 reading for New York City show that 46 percent of White students are Proficient and above (compared to 42 percent nationally) as are 15 percent of Black students (compared to 15 percent nationally). Forty-four percent of Black students in the city’s public schools and 15 percent of White students were at the Below Basic (difficulty reading) level in 2015.
New York City’s public schools educate three times the percentage of their White students as their Black students to read at grade level in the crucial grade 8 year. And they leave nearly half of Black middle school students unable to read easily, therefore unlikely to graduate from high school “college and career ready,” unlikely to qualify for or to obtain middle class jobs and incomes.
The failure of the New York City public schools to educate Black students is particularly troubling for male Black students, only 9 percent of whom are at Proficient or above in grade 8 reading in 2015. Which means, of course, that 91 percent are not.
Student educational attainment in New York is also sharply divided by income. Thirty-six percent of White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, in the New York public schools reach the Proficient and above levels in grade 8 reading. Other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level 57 percent of the time by eighth grade. Among Black students, 13 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the Proficient level, while 18 percent of those from more prosperous families do so. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in New York is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in grade 8 reading than a Black student from a low-income family.
Notice, however, the different sizes of the gaps between students from relatively poor and relatively prosperous families among Black and White students. It is 21 percentage points among White students, five among Black students. Or, White students from more prosperous families are 58 percent more likely to read at grade level than White students from less well-off families, while with Black students it is 38 percent. NAEP’s records for New York City assessments of this type go back only to 2003, but if we analyze those, we find that the family income differences for White students are pretty steady, over time, but for Black students they are narrowing, from 13 percentage points in 2007 to 5 percentage points in 2015. The reading ability of New York City’s Black middle class students is declining, according to NAEP, while that of Black students from lower income families is remaining relatively flat.
How can this be interpreted? New York is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as are its schools. While since the (Lyndon) Johnson administration formal housing segregation has been illegal, in New York City even middle class Black professionals are ghettoized. Therefore, their children go to the same schools as do the children of the poorest, single parent, families. In theory, this should not matter. In theory, all schools would provide educations of equal—high—quality to all students. Now, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn I want you to look at . . .
If we are done with that, it is obvious that all but 15 percent of Black children (and 9 percent of male Black children) in New York City are being provided with inferior educational opportunities because they are Black. And of those, comparatively successful students, many are the children of school teachers and other highly educated parents, in effect, home schooled: the home environment making up for the deficiencies of the school (rather than the idealized opposite).
The racism of the New York City public school system is more or less overt, as witness the unspeakable racial imbalance of the system’s selective high schools, which year after year admit so few Black students that those could be accounted for by the number of children of Black United Nations diplomats. The outcome of all this is that the 65 percent of Black students entering grade 9 in New York City who were given diplomas four years later include about 40 percent who could not read at grade level when they were in grade 8 and probably could not read eighth grade material when they were given diplomas. More than one-third of the system’s Black students do not graduate from high school, two-thirds or more of those who do are far from “college and career ready.”
If a system fails in its professed purpose—say, educating children—more often than chance would indicate, and continues to do so over time, it is probable that it is, in fact, achieving its actual purpose, in this case, perpetuating racism.
There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.
The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.
A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools. That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.
There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools. There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.
However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other. This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school. Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.
In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City. Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.
So far, so good.
Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results. First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty. That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present. Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents). Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.
The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities. They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches. Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.
However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools. Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively. In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between every four and five years for the local traditional schools.
The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees. The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond. In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.
Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?
One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive. There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..
The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.
The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools. There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children. It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.
Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success. In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries. We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.
Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.
Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.
What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.
During the first part of Dropout Nation‘s study of the value of high school diplomas, we looked at graduation rates and eighth grade reading proficiency for Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. We will now look at five more districts: Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, in the north, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida, in the south. As none of these had statistically significant Asian enrollments, we will consider only Black, Latino and White students.
Black student graduation rates are reported by these districts to the U.S. Department of Education as 64 percent in Cleveland, 77 percent in Detroit and 55 percent in Milwaukee; 87 percent in Charlotte and 71 percent in Duval County. Latino students are reported as graduating at a rate of 61 percent in Cleveland, 81 percent in Detroit and 59 percent in Milwaukee; 80 percent in Charlotte and 74 percent in Duval County, while White students are reported as graduating at a rate of 82 percent in Cleveland, 62 percent in Detroit and 68 percent in Milwaukee; 94 percent in Charlotte and 81 percent in Duval County.
The difference between White graduation rates, on the one hand, and Black and Latino rates, on the other, is rather small, as these things go nationally, varying from about 20 points for Cleveland to about 10 points for the others, except for Detroit, where the difference is inverted—higher Black and Latino than White graduation rates. Charlotte’s graduation rate for Black students is higher than that for White students in the other districts. Detroit’s graduation rate for White students is lower than that for Black students in all the other districts except Milwaukee. All of these districts graduate most of their Black, Latino and White students. Charlotte’s success in this matter is quite notable.
We can now assess the degree to which those districts are successful in actually educating those students, providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary for college and career preparation. Here, again, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ assessment of eighth-grade reading proficiency will be the yardstick.
At eighth grade, 19 percent of Cleveland’s White students read at or above grade level (“Proficient” and “Advanced”), as compared to 12 percent of the district’s Latino students and just 8 percent of the district’s Black students. Too few of Detroit’s White students to measure tested at or above grade level, but 16 percent of the district’s Latino students and a quite astonishing 5 percent of the district’s Black students did so. Charlotte’s results were 25 percent for Latino, 18 percent for Black, and 59 percent for White students scoring “Proficient” or above on eighth grade reading. In Duval County, the district’s schools also taught just 18 percent of Black students to read proficiently by eighth grade, as compared to 30 percent of their Latino students and 41 percent of their White students. Milwaukee did not report data for the most recent year. In 2013 the district reported 7 percent of Black students, 19 percent of Latino students, and 29 percent of White students reading proficiently at eighth grade.
Only Charlotte taught most of any group to read proficiently by eighth grade, 59 percent of its White students. This was three times the level of the district’s Black students. Yet Charlotte’s results (and those of Duval County) compare well with those of Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, which had results so bad for their Black students that chance effects may have accounted for any success in the districts’ reading efforts for them.
Now, with this information in hand, we can arrive at some kind of judgment of how well-educated are students receiving diplomas from these cities.
Comparing NAEP Eighth grade Reading Proficiency for the Charlotte groups, we found the following: NAEP Eighth grade Reading percent at or above grade level: 18 percent for Black students; 25 percent for Latino students; 59 percent for White students. And these for high school graduation rates: 87 percent for Black students; 80 percent for Latino students; 94 percent for White students. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: 4.8 for Black students; 3.2 for Latino students; 1.6 for White students.
Close to twice the percentage of White students, more than three times the percentage of Latino students and nearly five times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Charlotte schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Cleveland, we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: eight percent for Black students; 12 percent for Latino peers; 19 percent for White students. The high school graduation rates? Sixty-four percent for Black students; 61 percent for Latino peers; and 82 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: 8.0 for Black students; 5.1 for Latino students; and 4.3 for White students.
More than four times the percentage of White students, five times the percentage of Latino students and eight times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Cleveland schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Detroit, we found the following for the two groups for which we have NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Five percent for Black students and 16 percent for Latino peers. The high school graduation rates: Seventy-seven percent for Black students and 81 percent for Latino peers. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we get these ratios: For Black students, it’s 15.4, and for Latino peers, 5.1.
More than five times the percentage of Latino students and more than fifteen times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Detroit schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Duval County , we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Eighteen percent for Black students; 30 percent for Latino peers; and 41 percent for White students. And this for high school graduation rates: Seventy-one percent for Black students; 74 percent for Latino students; and 81 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: For Black students, 3.9; Latino students, 2.5; and 1.99 for White peers.
Twice the percentage of White students, two and a half times the percentage of Latino students and four times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Duval County schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
Finally for Milwaukee, we found the following for NAEP Eighth grade Reading percentages at or above grade level: Seven percent for Black students; 19 percent for Latino peers; and 29 percent for White students. This for high school graduation rates: Fifty-five percent for Black students; 59 percent for Latino peers; and 68 percent for White students. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: Black students, 7.9; Latino students, 3.1; and 2.3 for White students.
More than twice the percentage of White students, three times the percentage of Latino students and eight times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Milwaukee schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
On average, then, these districts graduate about two and a half times the percentage of White students than are reading at grade level in middle school, while they graduate nearly four times that of Latino students and eight times that of Black students. Unless remarkable gains are made in reading proficiency in the schools of these cities between grades 8 and 12, there is only a one in eight chance that their Black high school graduates read at grade level, one in four that their Latino graduates do so and less than fifty-fifty that their White diploma recipients can read proficiently. (And given national data, it is unlikely that there are enough gains, if any, between grades 8 and 12 to make a difference.) Of course, those students who are not given diplomas will face bleak futures indeed.
Given the NAEP data on reading proficiency, there is a reasonable assumption that most graduates from the Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Duval County and Milwaukee, like those from the Chicago, New York and Philadelphia systems, and, in particular, their Black and Latino students, initially enroll in community colleges. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, just 29 percent of White, 30 percent of Latino and 20 percent of Black students graduated within 150 percent of normal time in two-year postsecondary institutions. Or, in other words, 80 percent of Black, and 70 percent of Latino and White students who attempted an Associates degree were not prepared to succeed.
In Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Duval County and Milwaukee, as in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, the vast majority of Black and Latino are either not graduating or are being handed diplomas that mean little. Those diplomas falsely represent preparation for adult life, for further education and training. They are false promises.
The federal government has recently taken a firm line with private vocational schools that give out worthless diplomas. It might be appropriate for the U.S. Department of Education to do something similar with districts that give diplomas to their students whom they have qualified for little beyond remedial education.
If the signs reflecting stagnant student achievement in the US were only coming from the Program for International Assessment, I might not be as worried as I am. You know the argument: Since our standards are not generally aligned with those of PISA and our teachers thus don’t teach to them, PISA results may not be an accurate measure of teaching and learning in these United States.
The problem is that PISA trends have begun to mirror – at least broadly – what we have seen in the last decade in our own National Assessment of Educational Progress. From 2009-2015, we saw absolute stagnation in the NAEP. One can see this generally in both national and state trends. Shockingly, even in the vast majority of states that were deemed as “doing things right” by the federal government and given additional funds under the Race to the Top program, there were no gains. This is contrast to the gains we made from 1999 to 2009, especially during the full implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
While one wants to be very careful about asserting cause or correlation, there are similar patterns in the PISA results. The 15-year-olds in the US who were assessed in science and math on the PISA improved from 2006 to 2009 by 13 points. Had our students made similar gains in subsequent years, we would have passed PISA averages and the results of many nations that have been ahead of us in the past.
Yet, from 2009-2015, US students fell back on PISA, by a depressing 18 points in math and 6 points in science. Thus, over the decade, we lost half our earlier gain in science and the entire gain and another 5 points in math. This backward motion is no way to catch up against our competitors. It certainly is no way to excel.
There are – to be sure – some data in PISA that show a decade-long improvement in the achievement of our lowest-performing students. This could be a sign that the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on addressing achievement gaps continued to provide great benefits beyond the years of full implementation. But we don’t see a positive impact at any percentile level or in the overall achievement data. So, this little piece of progress is positive but of too little comfort to overcome the significant losses we experienced in the past six years.
The big question arises: what caused this recent stagnation in both NAEP and PISA?
We must be modest in trying to answer that question. There are no scientific studies that are definitive. We do not know causality with certainty. But we can suggest hypotheses, based on earlier research and reason that merit consideration.
We know that, as indicated in abundant research, that accountability drives improvement in student achievement. Accountability in the states and the nation reached its high point in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. And student achievement gains in that period far exceeded those of both prior and subsequent years.
But starting in 2009, the Obama Administration began weakening the accountability measures contained in No Child. Instead of addressing aspects of the law that could have been fixed with simple tweaks (or with a full reauthorization), the administration’s leadership at the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers that allowed states to water down accountability requirements in numerous important ways. Tragically, the waivers that brought about the weakening proved to be a true pig in a poke. Accountability was significantly lost, and the “reforms” for which it was waived either have never materialized beyond the paper they were written on or have gradually dissipated.
It’s particularly sad that the only “good news” that’s cited in the midst of these awful recent trends is the improvement in graduation rates. Yet, grad rates are the consummate lagging indicator. All the graduates who walked the stage since 2009 and by 2015 were 7th graders or older in 2009. There’s little evidence that policy in recent years improved the graduation of these students – and even worse, there is some evidence that states are once again gaming graduation rates. Instead of unjustified high fives, we ought to worry that our reduced accountability since 2009 will actually retard further improvements in graduation rates as today’s students approach high school.
I regret being pessimistic. But the truth is I see things getting worse in future years.
Awful recent policy decisions, such as the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act, will weaken accountability and slow progress even more. Unbelievably, the newest ideas flowing from this past election cycle may portend a less coherent and more harmful policy going forward. All this has yet to be “baked in the cake.” So, is it possible that we’ll see greater deterioration in future NAEP and PISA results? I believe we will.
Your editor isn’t exorcised, as some reformers and charter school advocates seem to be, about Friday’s New York Times report that fewer homeless children attend the Big Apple’s public charter schools than traditional districts. Nor do I think that Kate Taylor’s report is some sort of “hit piece” on the charter operators such as the deservedly-controversial Success Academy, as those reformers, as well as editorialists at the New York Post, think it is.
Save for a brief mention of one of Success’ charter schools, as well as a quote from the operator’s public relations staff noting its outreach to 30 homeless shelters throughout the city, Taylor didn’t give the outfit much consideration at all. What she did do was honestly note that there was some pretty legitimate reasons why only homeless children made up seven percent of enrollment versus 10 percent for the Big Apple’s traditional district. One reason: The lottery system of charter admissions which often disadvantages homeless children and their families. Based on that reason alone, reformers can actually make a strong case for expanding the number of charters serving children in the Big Apple; more charters equal greater opportunities for all families, especially those who are homeless, to choose high-quality schools fit for their kids.
But that point, of course, got lost amid the rancor that once again, Taylor, who broke news over the last two years about Success Academy’s woeful overuse of harsh school discipline, once again mentioned the outfit in her reporting. The chain’s public relations chief, Ann Powell, unsuccessfully tried to argue that homeless children make up nine percent of overall enrollment, a point shot down by Taylor (who came bearing receipts). As you would expect, traditionalists also tried to weigh, including American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, who discreetly tweeted out the Times piece to her rabid band of followers.
Yet the much more-interesting story, one that both traditionalists and reformers have danced around, isn’t about whether or not charter schools are serving fewer children. It’s about whether homeless children are being served properly at all by traditional and other public schools within American public education. The sobering answers should force all of us who care about the futures of children to help more of our most-vulnerable gain the high-quality education they need and deserve.
Two-point-five million children, or 3.4 percent of all children 17 and younger were homeless in 2013, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by the American Institutes for Research. Of them, 1.2 million of them (or 49 percent of all homeless children) attending America’s traditional district and charter schools, making up 2.4 percent of all children attending public schools that year.
More often than not, the parents of these children themselves are poorly-educated. As Angela R. Fertig of the University of Georgia and David Reingold of Indiana University noted in a 2006 national study of homelessness in 21 cities based on data from the federal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, one out of every two homeless mothers surveyed a year after entering the survey were high school dropouts (as were 40 percent of mothers who were “doubled-up” or sharing residences with other households). Four out of every ten homeless men and women in Los Angeles were high school dropouts, according to a 2004 study by the Weingart Center.
Seven percent of homeless children are considered “unaccompanied” or without a parent or guardian. As with children in foster care, this group of kids especially struggle in American public education because there is no caring adult who can advocate for them, much less care for them outside of schoolhouse doors. Another 15 percent are English Language Learners; these children end up being especially vulnerable because of their struggles with English fluency and literacy.
What happens to these children once they get into American public education? They often end up on the path to academic and social failure.
Just 77 percent of homeless children were regularly enrolled in school. Even when they can register for school, showing up can be an arduous task. Thirty-six percent of homeless children attending New York City’s public schools were chronically absent (or missing more than 18 days of the school year) in 2013-2014, according to a study by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.
The result for homeless children is condemnation to the worst public education offers. As Amy Dworsky, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, pointed out in a 2008 study, 22 percent of homeless children in Chicago were labeled as special ed cases, often at twice the rate of students from more-stable homes depending on grade level. Nationally, 20 percent of homeless children are labeled special ed cases, seven percentage points lower than the national average, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. The condescension experienced by families with greater levels of affluence is magnified for mothers and fathers struggling to find housing and with getting better education for their kids.
In turn, these children are less-likely to get the high-quality education they need for lifelong success. Seventy five-point-three percent of all homeless children in grades three-through-high school read below proficient (or grade level) as measured on state tests, according to NCHE. Given that proficiency cut scores on state tests are usually far lower than the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it means that even more homeless children are struggling with literacy.
Even worse, the likelihood of these children graduating from high school (or even being ready for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships that make up American higher education) is slim to none. In the Big Apple, just 52 percent of homeless high schoolers in the Class of 2015 graduated on time, 18.5 percentage points lower than the city’s overall graduation rate.
As with other aspects of poverty, homelessness doesn’t have to be academic or social destiny. As ICPH points out, 89 percent of homeless high school students in New York City who are put into stable housing and school conditions graduate on time. This is 37 percentage points higher than the average. So why do so many homeless children struggle?
One reason why: Zip Code Education policies that require families to prove residency in a traditional district, something that homeless families cannot possibly provide. The rules violate the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (part of what is now the Every Student Succeeds Act), which requires schools to allow children to attend school in their “school of origin” so long as they remain homeless (and allows for the child to remain in school, whether or not he lives with their parents or “has been temporarily placed elsewhere”).
But districts such as that of Hawaii (the only one that serves an entire state) and Steelton-Highspire in Pennsylvania often violate the law with impunity — and few families have the resources to file suit to hold them accountable. [That the federal government spends just $49.35 for every homeless child through McKinney-Vento, versus $1,743 for each kid condemned to special ed, ensures that districts will focus their time on where the money’s at.]
As mentioned earlier, the lack of high-quality charter schools and caps on the expansion of them essentially mean that homeless children end up being bereft of options. But it isn’t just about expanding choice. McKinney-Vento requires all public schools to provide transportation so that homeless children can attend school. Yet just 15 of the 42 states in which charter schools are allowed to operate require either the operators (or the district that authorizes it) to provide transportation. For homeless children in New Orleans (in which charters serve 92 percent of all students) and Detroit (where 53 percent of students attend them), this means choice is illusory.
Another problem lies with the failure mills that often serve homeless children (and in many cases, served their parents long ago). In New York, just 26 percent of third-graders in districts with high levels of homeless children read at proficient levels on the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests in 2013-2104, worse than the already-abysmal 34 percent level for districts with low levels of homeless children, according to ICPH. The lack of high-quality teaching and curricula combine with the instability at home to foster academic disengagement.
Meanwhile the very lack of nurturing school cultures for children in the nation’s foster care ghettos — a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary five years ago — is also a problem for homeless youth. The lack of teachers with both empathy for all children as well as strong subject-matter competency that damages all poor and minority children is especially tough on those without homes. That districts, including New York City, as well as charter schools, struggle mightily with addressing the particular needs of these children means that homeless children find themselves isolated from peers who don’t have to worry about sleeping in shelters or “double-up” in temporary housing.
Certainly, as your editor noted four years ago, systemic reform can’t address all of the issues that feed into homelessness. The issues of mental illness, housing policy, and even welfare play prominent roles in making the lives of homeless children even less secure than they should be. As with so much about poverty, homelessness is explained by neither the Poverty or Personal Responsibility myths perpetuated by so many hardcore progressive traditionalists and conservative reformers.
At the same time, there are concrete things school reformers, both in New York and in the rest of the nation, can do to help our most-vulnerable.
One critical step starts with districts and charters working together (as well as on their own) to meet their obligations under McKinney-Vento. The common school applications now being used in Newark and other cities can be used to get much-needed information on the needs of homeless children. Another step lies with transportation. Last year, Center for Reinventing Public Education highlighted the need for charters to address transportation; the obligations under McKinney-Vento make it paramount that charter operators to team up with districts or with each other to improve the ability of homeless families and others to exercise choice for their children.
As your editor mentioned, expanding charters and other forms of choice is critical to providing homeless children with high-quality and caring school cultures. At the same time, they should team up with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure that all public schools serve homeless children. As you can expect, such suits won’t be welcomed by conservative and centrist Democrat reformers within the movement for various reasons. But reformers can’t claim to work zealously for all children if they won’t use all the tools available to help them get justice in and out of classrooms.
Reformers can also team up with the grassroots organizations, churches and even courts who deal with homeless children on improving the quality of instruction, leadership, curricula, reading remediation, and school cultures in schools. Working with advocates for homeless children to ensure that unaccompanied children are given support is also important. These steps would also further the other reforms that the movement has been advancing for so long. Especially at a time in which federal action will be limited at best (and, given the incoming Trump Administration, corrosive at worst), such activities build alliances for transforming the futures of all children.
Homeless children, both in New York City, and the rest of the nation, deserve better. The bickering over news reports would be better-utilized toward actually helping our most-vulnerable at all times.
Featured photo courtesy of the New York Times.