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November 25, 2014 standard

To say that I am indignant about yesterday’s ruling by a St. Louis County grand jury to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown is an understatement. From the moment Brown was shot senselessly by Wilson with his body left on the ground for four-and-a-half hours, to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s windy and often defensive announcement of how his office’s unusual presentation of the evidence ultimately led to a delivery of no-bill on five different counts, the case was another reminder that America still struggles with addressing the racial bigotry that is this nation’s Original Sin.

Yet for school reformers, the events in Ferguson offer new opportunities to keep our young black men alive and on the path to lifelong success. This starts by tackling one of the most-pernicious of the racialist policies and practices that remain in American public education: The overuse of harsh school discipline that condemns the futures of so many.

Your editor can go through all the reasons why so many black men and women are saddened, angered, horrified, and disappointed by the Wilson’s non-indictment. Sadness because Brown’s life was senselessly snuffed out just days after he graduated from Normandy High School, his body allowed to sit on the street for nearly five hours before finally being removed. Anger because no justice at all will be sought for Brown; the fact that grand juries fail to indict one-hundredth of one percent of the time in federal cases (and, given that prosecutors at state and local levels rarely have to bring cases to grand juries at all, even less often) makes the failure to bring this case to a jury trial even more shocking. Horrifying because the Brown case is just one serves as another reminder that America has a long history of disregarding — and even sanctioning — racially-motivated murders of young black men; while Wilson’s action may not have been motivated by race (which, given his characterization of Brown as looking like a “demon” is quite unlikely), the growing evidence that police officers are far more-likely to shoot at unarmed black men than any other group casts an especially harsh light on his slaying of Brown three months ago. [Update: Wilson’s statement to an ABC News reporter that he doesn’t regret shooting Brown makes your editor wonder how someone can feel so untroubled about taking an innocent life. May God disturb Wilson’s conscience, and then save him from the torment that will soon come his way.]

Then there is the disappointment, especially among black mothers and fathers. Disappointment about the fact that from the moment Brown encountered Wilson, his life and his body were utterly demeaned by law enforcement officials, as well as put on trial by politicians more-concerned about being supportive of police officers than about an innocent young life. Dismay over the mistreatment of Brown’s mother and father during their time of undeniable grief. Disgust over the fact that even now, another generation of white people continue to fail to understand how centuries of bigotry, state-sanctioned and otherwise, have fostered the debasement of black lives. Dumbfounded that justice always seems to be visited upon those whose skins aren’t dark or brown, while the murders of those who are seem to never be worthy of it. At these moments, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future for our black children.

But as we may be, we must also remember these things: That when black people fight vigilantly for their civil rights, they can help bend the arc of history toward progress, and that out of tragedy can emerge activism and grassroots efforts that can save lives and communities. This is what is happening in Ferguson now. Each day since his death, protestors in the St. Louis suburb and elsewhere over his slaying has continually brought attention to how the militarization of police departments aided by the federal government have exacerbated the long history of antagonistic treatment of blacks by law enforcement that has long been a feature of American life. The efforts of teachers to pull together the Ferguson Syllabus is helping kids gain understanding of civic life in this country that can help address racialism. Because of what has happened in Ferguson, we now have new leaders and voices for social progress such as St. Louis city councilman Antonio French and Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.

What we are seeing now is the second prong of the latest battle for civil rights, one that has the transformation of American public education at its center, but must also include what former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff calls school reform in totality. This means addressing how the nation’s education crisis fuels the social ills that condemn the futures of our children, especially those from black, Latino, and Native households. This is where one aspect of systemic reform becomes especially important: Ending the overuse of the harshest school discipline.

Michael Brown’s life and body has been demeaned for far too long. Let us advance systemic reform for all children like him.

As Dropout Nation noted back in August, the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves this St. Louis suburb, exemplifies how districts throughout the country harm the futures of black children through the use of suspensions and other harsh discipline for nonviolent matters that are better off settled through other means. During the 2011-2012 school year, Ferguson-Florissant meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students versus 4.9 percent of white students, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. None of the suspensions were for violent acts, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; as typical throughout the rest of the country, most suspensions were for disruptive behavior, tardiness to class, and truancy, all matters better-handled through means that actually help kids understand the consequences of their behaviors. Black kids attending Ferguson-Florissant schools were more-likely to be suspended than either their white peers in the district. They were also more-likely to be subjected to harsh discipline than be a victim of violent crimes in their communities.

Harsh discipline is meted out even more punitively on black children condemned to Ferguson-Florissant’s special ed ghettos. The district meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 23 percent of black special ed students, a rate 10 percentage points higher than the (also outrageous) 14 percent for white peers in those ghettos.  Even worse, the out-of-school suspension rates for Ferguson-Florissant’s black special ed students was higher than nearby St. Louis’ 11.5 percent out-of-school suspension rate for such students.

This is not unusual. As Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted last year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 24.3 percent in 2009-2010 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education before earlier this year) is three times the 7.1 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. Even worse, the gap in suspension rates has increased over the past three years; back in 1972-1973, the out-of-school suspension rate of 11.8 percent for black secondary school students was only double the six percent rate for white peers.

At the heart of the overuse of suspensions, both in Ferguson-Florissant as well as across the nation, is the reality that adults in schools often use harsh discipline as easy buttons instead of addressing the underlying issues behind the misbehavior of children. The biggest culprit of all: The struggles children have with their literacy, and the failures of American public education to provide them with the intensive reading remediation they need (as well as high-quality reading instruction and curricula) so they can succeed. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. This fact was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Given that just 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, it isn’t shocking that the district (along with other failing school operators) overuse suspensions instead of dealing with underlying literacy issues.

As researchers such as Russ Skiba have demonstrated over the past three decades, the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline is academic, economic and social failure for kids who are acting out because of the failure to address their learning issues. 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. At the same time, the consequences extend beyond schoolhouse doors. hen districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of some police officers in cities such as Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.

Thanks to the Obama Administration’s efforts on addressing school discipline — including investigations into practices by districts such as Minneapolis, as well as the guidance it issued earlier this year — reformers have opportunity to reduce suspensions for the long haul by addressing literacy curricula and instruction. This can start in Ferguson-Florissant by forcing the district to implement intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. Wang and Algozzine demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach (when paired with an approach called Behavior Instruction in the Total School) in a 2012 study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Implementing restorative justice programs that focus on teaching kids how their behaviors affect themselves and their fellow classmates is also critical. Black school leaders and teachers, who often work in the highest-suspending districts i the country, should take the lead on transforming how we discipline kids (as well as call out colleagues who continue these failed practices); anything other than that is an abject abandoning of our responsibility to all children, especially those who are from our backgrounds.

Ending the overuse of harsh school discipline helps all our children, especially young black men, stay on the path to lifelong success.

This isn’t just a matter for traditional districts alone. As Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard and others have pointed out, public charter schools have engaged in overly harsh school discipline practices for far too long, justifying them as part of developing a culture of no excuses that are geared toward fostering school learning. [Sadly, reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland have also justified such shoddy thinking.] But as I noted last year in my criticism of Success Academy cofounder Eva Moskowitz’s justification of her charter school operation’s overuse of suspensions, the evidence has been proven long ago that overusing suspensions doesn’t lead to improvements in student achievement. If anything, because of such overuse, it allows opponents of school choice to claim that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to efforts in providing kids with high-quality education. Reformers cannot defend failed policies and practices for which we would call out traditional districts.

But addressing school discipline goes beyond the practices of teachers and school leaders within schoolhouses.

As Dropout Nation as consistently noted, districts bring law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Schools account for one out of every five status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies. When districts refer kids into juvenile courts unequipped to help them, our most-vulnerable children are put into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Even worse, poor and minority children regardless of whether they end up in the juvenile justice system end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured.

There’s also the fact that districts have also become as mired in the militarization of law enforcement as police departments in their communities. This is because districts, especially those in big cities, have launched their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The NAACP and Texas Appleseed rightfully raised this issue back in September when they issued a letter to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency complaining how the federal government’s move to hand over military-grade weapons to districts such as Los Angeles Unified was exacerbating arrests of students.

There is no reason why a district such as Compton Unified arms police officers with AR-15 rifles or why L.A. Unified’s police division had grenades in its arsenal. In fact, there is no good reason why traditional districts should operate police departments in the first place. All that does is transform schools into virtual jails where being a child is criminalized instead of communities where a kid is nurtured by high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula. As reformers, we must stand up and work to pass state laws that put an end to the ability of districts to launch their own law enforcement agencies, as well as work to force districts to dispense with juvenile justice referrals and arrests for better approaches to dealing with the children they serve.

By tackling all aspects of school discipline, along with other systemic reform efforts, we are doing honor to the life of Michael Brown and his family, as well as saving the lives of young men and women who deserve better. Darren Wilson may have escaped human justice (even as he will face God’s verdict). But school reformers can help tackle the legacy of racialism that lingers within American public education as well as on the streets where our children live.



August 12, 2014 standard

Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary on why school reform is critical to stemming unwed pregnancy and poverty evoked plenty of e-mail responses to yours truly. Those who view poverty and unwed pregnancy as consequences of bad choices — also known as the Personal Responsibility Myth that is a dominant strain in anti-poverty and education policy discussions — were particularly vexed that your editor didn’t fully validate their perspective. After all, from where they sit, if single mothers and others exercised some form of personal responsibility, be it not getting pregnant until they got married, or spending wisely, then they wouldn’t be impoverished.

Such arguments are seductive, especially to your editor, who is conservative on social issues (even as I am libertarian on economic and political matters, and a creative radical on education policy). Yet as an editorialist and reporter, I’ve learned to dismiss simple answers because they don’t explain everything. This is true when it comes to arguments from those who espouse the Poverty Myth (or that structural and other issues render the poor fully incapable of helping themselves). And this is especially so when it come to Personal Responsibility myths.

If bad choices were the sole or even the predominant reasons why so many people are mired in poverty, then Paris Hilton would be suffering economically and socially from her myriad bouts of misbehavior, my mother (who gave birth to your editor at age 16) would be on welfare, and Watergate player Charles Colson would have died as impoverished and ostracized as most convicted felons. Yet none of these things have happened. Hilton has been greatly rewarded financially and socially thanks in part to her infamous porn tap. My mother is a college-educated second-generation member of the American middle class with a lovely suburban home to boot. And Colson died last year after having spent the last three decades attaining redemption (and even a pardon) through his ministry to his fellow convicts.

Keep in mind that Hilton, my mother, and Coulson are not outliers. Humans being, well, imperfect creatures with a penchant for error, this isn’t possible anyway. From suburbanites in the D.C. suburbs living way above their six-figure means, to movie stars self-medicating their pain through drug and alcohol addictions, to middle-class moms and dads who hire maids to clean up the homes instead of having their kids do some chores, bad decisions are as common as crab grass. This is especially true when you keep in mind that you and your next-door neighbors in Alexandria have engaged in the same vices — including as alcohol consumption and premarital sex — as people who live in Anacostia.

Yet your decisions, and those of Hilton, my mother, and Coulson, haven’t been harmful in the same way as they are for those in poverty. Why? The first reason lies with the fact that unlike most poor people, those of us in the middle class had the resources (from income to health care) available to overcome bad choices. For Hilton, her status as a scion of the most-famous name in the hospitality industry has given her the money and the connections needed to parlay even the worst decisions into profit and fame. My mother? Thanks to my grandparents, whose middle class status and high levels of education were the resources they needed to help care for me during my childhood, my mother could go on to overcome one not-so-great decision (for which I am grateful she made) to make smart decisions. As for Coulson? His friendships in Republican political circles, among with his notoriety and sensible decision to become born again, helped him focus his life away from the amorality of politics and towards helping other ex-convicts change their lives for the better.

The other reason lies with the most-important of resource of all: Knowledge. Not only is it power, it is the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty. This is especially true in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society in which what you know is more valuable than what you can do with your hands.

My mother is a perfect example of how knowledge can keep people out of poverty. Even as my mother carried me in her womb, my grandparents made sure she stayed in high school, and kept her on the path to graduation even after I was born. Because my mother was in a household where my grandmother was also college-educated and my grandfather was an avid reader and learner, she also became a lifetime acquirer of knowledge. A decision she made in the early 1980s to move from working as a claims adjuster for an insurance company into the information technology field put her into a field in which incomes were (and are still) increasing; this gave her the income she needed to support my siblings and I. By the 1990s, she sought her college degree, and then a graduate degree, providing her with

As I pointed out last week, poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. But it is more than that. Poverty is also the consequence of the interplay between resources, knowledge, and decision-making.

For middle class families, bad decisions can be easily overcome because they have the means — from higher incomes to social connections — needed to do so. This includes bad decisions made by laggard teachers and school leaders. One out of every five young white male high school seniors from college-educated read Below Basic on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most middle-class households have more means to ameliorate the consequences of the nation’s education crisis — including the ability to send their kids to tutoring services — while the wealthy can insulate their kids from the worst American public education offers.

The poor aren’t so fortunate. Because poor families are the ones most-likely to attend dropout factories and failure mills — and because Zip Code Education policies such as school zones restrict their options — they are less likely to graduate from high school or even complete any form of higher education, the keys to gaining financial and social capital. As a result, the consequences of any bad decisions are even more pernicious because they have no means to bail themselves out of them. And even good decisions may not be enough if the resources — especially a wide array of high-quality school options — aren’t available for those choices to be beneficial to their lives.

Just as importantly, because poor families have been subjected to educational neglect and malpractice, they also lack the academic knowledge (including understanding of how to ask questions and find resources) they need to even make the best of good decisions. Natural curiosity just isn’t enough; it must be honed by practices of the mind that come from being nurtured by high-quality teaching, college-preparatory curricula, and even religious instruction. The fact that they cannot access high-quality data, either on schools or teachers, that they need to make smarter decisions makes it even tougher for them to emerge from poverty.

In fact, the lack of academic and social knowledge ends up obscuring the ability to make good decisions. The negative becomes the positive because the truly positive isn’t visible. It is why a young woman who dropped out of high school at age 17 ends up pregnant at 20; the better solution may be to avoid pregnancy, go back to school for learning remediation, then attain a high school diploma and a college degree. But you don’t know what you don’t know. So you make decisions blind. The more decisions you make without high-quality knowledge, the more likely the choices will be negative. And without the resources (which come as a result of acquiring knowledge) to ameliorate bad decisions, the consequences are even more pernicious.

[The lack of knowledge also explains why the arguments of Poverty Mythologists that more money is the solution also doesn’t work; as I noted last week, knowledge is critical to managing resources and acquiring more of them.]

This isn’t to say that poor families are helpless automatons in structures that work against them. When poor families are provided the knowledge they need to make smarter decisions, they will often do so because, as the legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker would likely say, strong people emerge from knowledge. This is why systemic reform — from overhauling how we recruit, train, and reward teachers, to expanding school choice — is so critical to stemming poverty and the ills that emerge from it in the first place. In fact, transforming public education can help provide to our poorest kids schools that can nurture them both academically and emotionally, helping their families help them stave off the mental illnesses that can keep them mired in poverty when they reach adulthood. But thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.

Reformers have an opportunity to help anti-poverty activists on all sides engage in more-nuanced thinking about what poverty is and how we can stem it. And it starts by reminding all sides that education is a critical solution to helping poor people help themselves out of poverty.

Featured photo courtesy of Arleen Hodge. Please support her work.




August 6, 2014 standard

Even amid the battles over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, and the sparring over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system, an old debate is flourishing again: How to stem unwed pregnancy and the chronic poverty among out-of-wedlock households that are caused and exacerbated by it. But for all the talk about how to deal with the matter among conservatives and progressives — as well as the policy proposals for dealing with it — neither side have looked at the one critical solution that could stem out-of-wedlock pregnancies and ultimately, is the long-term key to reducing poverty: Systemic reform of American public education.

What has sparked this latest discussion is the proposed anti-poverty effort unveiled last month by Congressman Paul Ryan as part of his likely run for the Republican presidential nomination. The proposal has gained attention for its plan to increase the number of poor adults qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit program — the most-successful non-educational approach to stemming poverty — and merge all anti-poverty programs into a block grant that is annually distributed to states.

But Ryan’s plan has stoked discussion because it also calls for those on anti-poverty programs to sign life contracts that tie their receipt of welfare subsidies to meeting a series of life goals geared towards getting out of poverty. In some ways, the requirement is similar to both the successful welfare reform efforts of the 1990s as well as the approaches taken by organizations such as the Salvation Army during the 19th century. But the Ryan approach would end up being more invasive and bureaucratic because caseworkers would be charged with keeping families on whatever state and federal governments define as the straight and narrow. Given that the bureaucratic-heavy Great Society programs of the 1960s achieved little success, as well as research showing that in most cases, those receiving welfare cash without strings will spend it properly, that part of Ryan’s plan may not make sense at all.

As you can imagine, Ryan’s proposal have once again focused attention on the divide between progressive and conservative anti-poverty advocates over whether poverty is a result of structural problems resulting from free market systems or bad decisions resulting from a lack of personal responsibility. Which, in turn, has focused attention on the role of unwed motherhood in miring kids and families in poverty.

From the perspective of progressives such as Matt Bruenig of Demos, poverty is a structural problem, one that results from the fact that young families mired in poverty aren’t either paid more by jobs or get more in welfare benefits in order to deal with the burdens of raising children. Particularly for poor women, argues Bruenig, “the mere act of adding a child to a family”, further mires them (and their kids) in poverty. From where progressives sit, simply providing families with cash benefits would do plenty to alleviate the burdens of poverty.

On the other hand, conservatives such as Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy argue that poor women could stave off their plight by delaying childbirth while they are in their early 20s, a time in which they are less likely positioned to earn middle class incomes. By waiting longer before having their first child (and perhaps, getting married before then), poor women and their kids are less likely to be impoverished. Writes VerBruggen: “women might encounter a better marriage market or at least be able to collect more stable child support.”

Both points are compelling. Poverty is in part a result of the interplay between how skills (and the lack thereof) are rewarded in the marketplace, and the choices that result from levels of knowledge. Yet both arguments and the respective solutions are flawed, as is Ryan’s plan overall. Why? Because the solutions ignore addressing the nation’s education crisis, the underlying cause of both unwed motherhood and long-term poverty.

Neither House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan — or the ideas of progressives and conservatives critiquing it — address the education crisis at the heart of poverty and unwed motherhood.

Let’s start with this fact: Fifteen percent of young women age 16-to-24 in 25 of the nation’s big cities are neither working, finishing high school, or studying at an institution or program of higher education, according to Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristin Lewis of the Social Science Research Center in a report released in. This includes 20 percent of young Latino females, 19 percent of young black women, and 11 percent of young white women. These young women are dropping out of school at a time in which knowledge attainment is critical to economic and social success.

Annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008, even as high school grads with some higher ed training, and college graduates have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent. This is because dropouts (and even many high school grads) lack the strong reading, math, and science skills needed to gain entry into high-skilled and knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs that are (and will continue to be) the biggest sources of economic growth.

The news isn’t much better for women (and men) who only graduated with a high school diploma and have no training at the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs that make up higher education. The unemployment rate for young adults age 16-to-24 with just a high school diploma and not enrolled in any form of schooling was 17.4 percent in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the overall unemployment rate for the nation. The average high school dropout earned 35 percent less in median weekly wages in 2012 than a high school graduate who attended college, a gap that has been growing for some time.

The very changes in the economy that have rendered dropouts unemployable is increasingly hurting young high school grads without college experience as well; the fact that they often have little in the way of on-the-job experience (something that grads age 25 and older have attained) is also damaging their employment prospects. The fact that employers, especially those in knowledge-based sectors, have long ago figured out that many high school grads have not been provided with the college-preparatory education that is the baseline needed for tackling high-skilled jobs is also a problem.

As a result, both dropouts and high school grads without some form of higher education training are mired in poverty. Twenty-seven percent of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners were high school dropouts and another 36 percent were high school grads without some form of higher education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; they made up just nine percent of the highest-earning fifth of the nation’s households, and just a quarter of those in the fourth-highest earning fifth of all households.

But the consequences of dropping out or only attaining a high school diploma without some higher ed training extend beyond being unemployable. Particularly for young women, when they unable to attain anything other than the most menial of work, puts them into a vicious cycle. They are more-likely to become out-of-wedlock mothers in part because they see no point in either using birth control or delaying gratification, especially since they are already out of school and in the adult world, the natural stage that comes before starting families.

Thirty-five percent of young women neither working or in school becoming pregnant versus just 10 percent of peers who are engaged in college and career, according to SSRC. Once female dropouts and high school grads without college training have children, they are unlikely to continue on the path to high school and higher education even though achieving those goals will lead them to gain middle class employment. As a result, they remain impoverished for the long term.

Dealing with the nation’s dropout factories and failure mills is critical to addressing the effects of poverty. Cartoon courtesy of California Review.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that American public education continues to subject far too many young men and women — especially those in big cities that are home to the worst-performing districts, as well as poor people in rural areas and increasingly in suburbia — to educational neglect and malpractice. Forty-seven percent of fourth-graders eligible for free- and-reduced lunch, along with 34 percent of eighth-graders from impoverished backgrounds, read Below Basic on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test of student achievement.

These woeful results are the consequence of shoddy reading, math, and science instruction, often by teachers poorly trained by the nation’s ed schools and protected by near-lifetime employment laws that allow laggard teachers to stay in classrooms. There’s also the fact that our children, especially those from poor and minority households, are being provided shoddy curricula, exacerbated by a century of rationing education — especially the comprehensive high school model, gifted-and-talented programs, and special ed ghettos used to condemn young men considered unteachable by those unwilling to instruct them.

The consequences of low-quality education have been reaped by the young women of today — and will eventually be borne by their own kids. This is a problem because poverty doesn’t naturally determine academic destiny. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. But they are unlikely to progress any further so long as they are condemned to failing schools that don’t nurture their talents or even address the literacy issues plaguing struggling peers.

This isn’t to say that providing cash benefits isn’t a good idea. It certainly is. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit — which provides money (in the form of tax refunds) in exchange for working — is a good idea. But as with most anti-poverty programs of the last century, pure cash payments will only ameliorate the effects of poverty for the short term — even when they spend money properly. To paraphrase the old proverb, teaching a young woman to fish (through high-quality education) will do her more good in the long run than just handing her food.

Given that education — specifically the premiums given to collegians for attaining higher education — accounts for between 60 percent and 70 percent in the variations in wages, according to Harvard University professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, it is critical to address the long-term educational issues that has resulted in so many young women (along with young men) into economic and social despair. [This would also help address income inequality.] Reforming education will also help their children get onto the path out of poverty.

As for delaying childbirth? Women should do this, and civic society (especially in black and Latino communities) should encourage this; in fact, community groups already do. But there’s no way any government anti-poverty program can make this a condition of receiving benefits without either greatly expanding welfare state bureaucracies beyond a level tolerable to the public or violating the U.S. Constitution.

More importantly, the best way to encourage young women to delay pregnancy (and help them, along with young men, attain jobs that can pay them middle class wages needed to sustain families) is to get them back into school. Young women, along with young men, will delay short-term gratification when they can attain long-term goals. Just as importantly, they will then keep their kids on the path to graduating from high school and higher education, keeping them from remaining poor.

This is where systemic reform of American public education comes in. This can start in the short term by expanding the array of charter schools and other school operations that can help dropouts and those who merely graduated with a diploma get back on the path to educational success. Academy of Hope, a charter school in D.C., and the See Forever group of charters, are among the operators engaged in such work. In fact, anti-poverty programs can reward women and men receiving benefits for attending remedial education programs that address their illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as complete higher education.

Creating a tax credit program modeled on EITC that would reward poor women for skipping out on low-wage employment and going back to school would also make sense. Expanding early childhood education programs (and even offering them at night) so that kids can learn while poor women go to school is also critical. [By the way: As Ellen Galinsky, the author of Mind in the Making, would note, both adult education programs and early childhood education offerings should include focusing on the seven executive functions that are key to both kids and adults making smart decisions.]

Then there’s addressing elementary and secondary education for the long haul. Within urban and even many suburban communities, this means moving away from traditional districts that have long ago proven incapable of providing kids with high-quality education, and expanding a wide array of school options — including charters as well as private schools operated by churches and community groups. This also includes overhauling how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers and school leaders; as well as implementing Common Core along with developing of high-quality curricula aligned with them.

The most-important solutions for stemming unwed motherhood and poverty for the long haul start with addressing the ills of American public education. Better-educated women are less likely to end up having children before their educationally and economically ready to do so.

June 30, 2014 standard

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically measures literacy skills at grades four, eight, and 12. The results are reported at four levels: At Basic and below Basic; at Proficient and at Advanced for each grade level. As reading is the basis for all other education, and as by grade eight schooling has had ample time to be effective, grade eight reading proficiency can be taken as a good indicator of the quality of education available to students. The quality of the data made available by NAEP allows us to identify those factors most significant in determining whether a child will grow up in the virtuous circle of good educational opportunities and class mobility, or the vicious circle of poor educational opportunities and caste sedimentation.

In 1992, nine percent of black students in grade eight read at the Proficient level and for all practical purposes no black students read at the Advanced level. Twenty-one years later, in 2013, 16 percent of black students read at the Proficient level in grade eight and one percent read at the Advanced level. Although the percentage of black students reading a grade level or above in grade eight has doubled, 83 percent of African American students still read below the level expected at grade eight. According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent available, there were 586,231 black students and in eighth grade. Therefore, there were nearly half a million black students reading below grade level and almost exactly 100,000 black students reading at or above grade level in grade eight, which is one-third the number that would be expected if Black students had equal educational opportunities to those afforded white students.

NAEP allows further refinements in analysis. We can, for example, look at results within race by income, parental education and school location. By doing so we can examine the crucial variables that influence the disparate learning outcomes just outlined. What becomes clear in the analysis is that while there are correlations between income and achievement, there are even stronger correlations between how well black parents are educated as well as where their kids attend school, and the achievement of black children.

First , let’s look at the correlation between family income and student achievement. NAEP uses eligibility for National Lunch Programs (free and reduced cost meals) as an income indicator. The cut-off between those eligible for National Lunch Programs and those less poor families that are ineligible is about $35,000, which happens to be the median income for Black families. While 28 percent of black students who are less impoverished are now reading at grade level, nearly 90 percent of black students from poorer families are not able to do so, and the gap between the two is widening.

There are approximately 250,000 black students in grade eight eligible for National Lunch Programs, 33,000 of whom are reading at or above grade level. Of the approximately 334,000 black eighth grade students ineligible for National Lunch Programs, 94,000 are reading at grade level. Other things being equal, National Lunch Program eligibility appears to account for a difference of 15 percentage points for black students in grade eight reading. Reading achievement at grade level in grade eight appears to be correlated with family income, but as I have established, there are clearly other factors in play.

NAEP reports parental education as “Did not finish high school,” “Graduated high school,” “Some education after high school” or “Graduated College.” Black students who told NAEP that their parents did not finish high school scored at Proficient or above 8 percent of the time in 2013. Black students who reported that their parents who had graduated from high school were at or above grade level 9 percent of the time in 2013. For black students who said that their parents had some education after high school, 21 percent were at Proficient or above in 2013. The black children of college graduates were at or above grade level 22 percent of the time.

Looking just at reported parental education, the difference between scores of students reporting parents as having educational attainment at the “no high school diploma” level and those reporting parents as having educational attainment at the “college degree” level is 14 percentage points for black students in grade eight reading. The effect of increasing parental education for black students is approximately the same as that for higher family income. Increasing parental education from the lowest to the highest category triples the percentage reading at or above grade level for black students.

We can look at this another way by calculating the numbers of students reading at grade level (Proficient and above) with parents at various educational attainment levels, that is, the percentage of students at a given combination of reading proficiency and parental education. Seventeen percent of black adults over 25 years reported to the Census that they had less than a high school diploma, equivalent to NAEP’s “Did not finish high school.” [A caution: the numbers of adults in these categories, as reported by their children, are not necessarily the same as those self-reported to the Census or those that might be obtained from school and college records.] Thirty-one percent of African Americans said that they were high graduates with a diploma or GED, equivalent to NAEP’s “Graduated high school.” Thirty-three percent of African Americans reported some college or associate’s degree, equivalent to “Some education after high school” and 19 percent of African Americans reported attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher: “Graduated College.”

Since 8 percent of grade eight black students reporting parents with no diploma read at grade level or above, and 17 percent of black adults report that they did not graduate from high school, we can estimate that just one percent of grade eight black students read at grade level in spite of having parents who did not finish high school. Three percent of black students report that their parents completed high school while they themselves read at grade level. Seven percent of black students read at grade level in grade eight and have parents who had some college. And four percent of black students at grade eight read at grade level and report that their parents have a college degree. [The percentage of black students at grade eight 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 fewer adult black college graduates.]

Cross-tabulating parental education and National Lunch Program eligibility, we find that for black students whose parents did not graduate from high school there is no difference in the low percentage of students scoring at or above Proficient, each is 7 percent. On the other hand, black students whose parents graduated from college have great differences in reading proficiency at grade eight related to family income. Fifteen percent of those eligible for National Lunch Programs (in itself nearly double the level of those whose parents did not complete high school) and 32 percent of those ineligible, read at the Proficient or above levels. This compares to 17 percent for all black students in grade eight. The effect of increases in the family income category at each additional level of parental education are particularly strong at high school and college completion.

NAEP data also allows us to test for school location effects: city, suburban, town and rural. City and suburban locations appear to be the effective variables. Fourteen percent of black students in city schools in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, while 20 percent of those in suburban schools did so, nearly a fifty percent advantage for black suburban students. Moving from city to suburban schools increases the percentage of students at or above grade level for black students by nearly 50 percent.

Cross-tabulating school location and National Lunch Program eligibility, we find that 1one percent of black students in city schools who were eligible for National Lunch Programs in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, as did 25 percent of those from more prosperous families who were ineligible. Fifteen percent of black students in suburban schools who were eligible for National Lunch Programs in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, as did 30 percent of those who were ineligible. The percentages of black students scoring Proficient or above in grade eight reading in suburban schools, for both eligible and ineligible students, were double those in city schools.

Finally, cross-tabulating school location by parental education, we find that for black students, of those attending city schools whose parents had not graduated from high school, 7 percent were proficient and above as were just 5 percent of those in suburban schools whose parents had not graduated from high school. Of those black students whose parents had obtained a high school diploma, the percent Proficient or above was an identical 9 percent in city and suburban schools.

But for black students the advantages of attending suburban schools is clear for those whose parents had some college (from 18 percent city to 24 percent suburban) as well as for those whose parents graduated from college (17 percent and 25 percent). This effect is more apparent when we look at the change in percentages scoring at or above Proficient as a percentage of the percentage for students in city schools. The advantage for black students whose parents had some college is 33 percent and for those whose parents graduated from college 47 percent.

Twenty percent of black students, without regard to family income or parental education attainment, attending schools in the suburbs, as compared to 14 percent in city schools, read at or above grade level. Twenty-two percent of black eighth graders whose parents had completed college were at least proficient readers as compared to 8 percent of those whose parents had not completed high school. And 30 percent of black students ineligible for national lunch programs, that is, with family incomes over $35,000, and who attended suburban schools, were at least proficient readers, as compared to 11 percent of black students eligible for national lunch programs who attended city schools.

As $35,000 is approximately the median income of black families, the difference in educational outcomes is most likely an artifact of the difference in the quality of schools between urban and suburban systems.


October 18, 2013 standard

Back in 2005, then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers infamously speculated that the gender inequalities in the sciences at his institution may be genetic. Put simply, Summers thought that women were not as talented as men in mathematics.Researchers have been assiduously looking for a math gene since he made those remarks, but have not yet reported success.Those efforts, no doubt, are taking place in parallel with the effort to find the gene that prevents men from asking for directions.

A review of the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and enrollment patterns at flagship institutions of higher education, such as Harvard, might be helpful while we wait for definitive results from genetic and phrenological studies. In fourth grade, 10 percent of White, non-Hispanic, males score at the Advanced level on the NAEP Mathematics assessment, as compared to seven percent of White, non-Hispanic, females.One percent each of Black male and female fourth graders score at the Advanced level.Two percent of Hispanic males and one percent of Hispanic females reach the Advanced level, while 19 percent of Asian males and 20 percent of Asian females reach the Advanced level in fourth grade math.  

Two aspects of these results concerning students at the beginning of their schooling stand out:  the gender differences are small and do not all point in the same direction; gender differences are dwarfed by differences in students from different race/ethnicities.Of course the race and ethnicity categories are themselves highly questionable.“Asians,” for example, include Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Afghans, Laos, Uighurs and others of diverse backgrounds and genetic heritage.Hispanics are similarly diverse, as are White, non-Hispanics, and Black students.

After four more years of schooling we find that 11 percent of male White, non-Hispanics, reach the Advanced level in eighth grade, as do nine percent of female White, non-Hispanic, students.Up one for males; up two for females.Black students are still at one percent and one percent. Hispanic male and female students are up one percent each to three percent for males and two percent for females and the percentage of male Asian students scoring at the Advanced level has gone up four percent to 23 percent, while female Asian students have gained just one percent, losing their advantage.Again, Asians are twice as likely to score at the Advanced level as White, non-Hispanic, students, while the percentages of Black and Hispanic students at the Advanced level remain very small indeed.

Turning to postsecondary education, we are astonished to find that Summers’ own Harvard University graduates more than twice as many men with math undergraduate degrees as women (24 to 10) and equal numbers of White, non-Hispanics, and Asians (ten each). Within those last two categories White, non-Hispanic, men out number White, non-Hispanic, women six to four, while Asian men outnumber Asian women eight to two.This is quite odd if math talent is genetic.How does it happen that while at grade 4 the percentage of Asian students at the Advanced level in Mathematics is twice that of White, non-Hispanic, students, but by the time they go through Harvard, the numbers are equal?And how has the gender disparity among Asians—Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Afghans, Laos and Uighurs—become so large?  Perhaps the gene in question only “expresses” itself after admission to Harvard.

However, the situation is even more extreme at the University of California, Berkeley, than at Harvard.  There 65 male students received degrees in Mathematics, as compared to 12 female students and 28 White, non-Hispanic, students did so as compared to 20 Asian students.  This in a region and university with an unusually high concentration of Asian-Americans. Nationally, only a quarter of those receiving undergraduate degrees in Mathematics are women.  Black students are the only group with equal gender shares.

Which brings us to how we don’t provide high-quality science and math education to black and Latino children, especially young black and Latino women.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2001 Harvard awarded 74 Bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and statistics, and, for example, MIT, a few blocks down river, awarded 93. Only three of the Harvard graduates were Latina women, and none were Black women. No Black or Latina women received degrees in Mathematics from MIT in that year. The story is disappointingly similar for 2009, the latest year for which data is available.  Out of a total of 173 Bachelors degrees in Mathematics awarded from these two institutions, only 4 went to Black or Latina women. Not much progress to be seen there.

At least since President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, the wage gap between men and women in the workplace has again risen to prominence in our national discourse. Serious efforts to close that gap must address both the persistent concentration of women, and specifically Black and Latino women, in lower income occupations, and continuing gender inequities in wages across all occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60 percent of employed Black women are in the sales, office and service occupations, as are 65 percent of Hispanic women. In the prestigious management, professional and related occupation sectors Black and Latina women work for much lower wages than do White, non-Hispanic, men: $812 and $789 per week compared to $1,273 per week.

The high road to occupational and income equity runs through the STEM fields, especially math. Once a specialized and somewhat arcane field, math is now required for many, if not most, business and governmental management positions and it is essential for careers in the sciences. Black and Latino students nationally have less access to key opportunities that prepare them for school and ensure they continue to succeed once they’re there. All children should, but many don’t, have access to high quality early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum or equitable instructional materials. In many middle schools with predominant Black and Latino enrollment, there are no “gateway” courses to college preparatory math offered.  On top of that, young Black and Latina women must often contend with gender and racial stereotyping that pushes them down a school-to-low-wage-work pipeline. What America needs is a continuous K-12 pipeline of opportunities and resources giving young women, especially young Black and Latino women, access to the STEM fields.

June 8, 2013 standard

These days, there is plenty of debate over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, and sparring over the future of the No Child Left Behind Act and its strong accountability measures. But the unemployment data released yesterday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics should once again remind us why we must overhaul American public education: Because the prospects are bleak for high school dropouts and even those high school graduates without some form of college education, especially in an age in their low levels of reading, math, and science proficiency renders them unfit to take on high-paying knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs. And their slide into the economic and social abyss will weigh down heavily on the nation’s economic future.

Sure, President Barack Obama may be a tad happy about the relatively positive news that 175,000 people found jobs in the economy last month (on a seasonally-adjusted basis). But the reality is that the nation’s unemployment rate of 7.6 percent is just six-tenths of a percentage point lower than at the same period last year, which means that few Americans are attaining jobs. More disturbing is that there are 4.4 million Americans who have been out of work for longer than 27 weeks  — and may never find the kind of middle class-paying employment that will allow them to sustain themselves and their families. And that number, by the way, doesn’t include the 2.2 million “marginally attached” citizens who were unemployed, but didn’t seek either jobs or unemployment benefits in that month — and often gave up looking for work.

As bad as the data on long-term unemployment seems to be, it is actually worse when one looks closer at the long-term data. The current level of long-term unemployed is four times higher than the 1.1 million who were out of work in May 2007, just months before the financial meltdown and the current economic malaise. The long-term unemployed also make up a larger percentage of all those on hiring lines, accounting for 37 percent of all unemployed workers versus a mere 16 percent six years ago. It isn’t as if the long-term unemployed can simply string together two part-time jobs (or one full-time and part-time gig) just to make ends meet; the percentage of Americans working two or more jobs declined by 7.4 percent between 2007 and 2013.

Certainly the hangover from the economic malaise — including the tightening up of home mortgage and commercial lending after the meltdowns of the housing and financial markets– along with the myriad shortcomings of the stimulus efforts undertaken by both the Obama Administration and that of George W. Bush — are among the culprit for long-term unemployment. So is the Federal Reserve Board’s sometimes misplaced focus on using monetary policy to stimulate consumer demand and stave off inflation. But as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pointed out in a study released last year, the housing collapse has actually had little to do with the nation’s unemployment woes, and, as it had happened after similar recessions in 1973 and 1979, a good number of unemployed workers will return to the workforce. And contrary to arguments made by economists such as Stanford University professor (and one-time adviser to former president George W. Bush) Edward P. Lazaer, neither the increased duration of unemployment benefits (currently as long as 73 weeks) nor a 13 percent increase in the number of dependents on Social Security’s disability welfare program since 2009 offer a full reason for the high levels of long-term unemployment.

What is clear is that many unemployed workers will remain so because they don’t have the high-quality education needed to succeed in an increasingly global economy. The unemployment rate for high school dropouts aged 25 and older, now at 11.4 percent, is nearly double that in 2007  — and that’s not including the fact that 55 percent of all dropouts are not in the labor force at all. But things aren’t much better for high school grads without some college education. The 7.4 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates without some form of higher education, though 4 percentage points lower than that for dropouts, is still nearly double unemployment levels in 2007; one out of every two high school grads without a diploma are out of the workforce, versus two out of every five six years ago.

This is a particular problem for workers from poor and minority backgrounds, who are the most-likely to not have been provided high-quality education. After all, black high school dropouts and high school grads without any college experience account for 49 percent of all African-Americans in the civilian population age 25 and older and a whopping 64 percent of Latinos; just 42 percent of whites and 30 percent of Asians were dropouts and high school grads without college experience. The lower the levels of education in a community, the more – susceptible it is to economic and social distress. Unemployment rates for black high school dropouts 25 and older stood at 24.8 percent in 2012, double the levels of unemployment in 2007, while the 13.4 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates in that age range without college experience is nearly double the rate at the end of 2007; the percentage of black dropouts in the labor force declined from 39.1 percent to just 36.5 between 2007 and 2012, while the percentage of black high school grads in the workforce declined from 65.4 percent to 61.9 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile dropouts and high school grads without some college education face a daunting challenge. The sectors that used to be their go-tos are either contracting or not growing economically. There are 2.8 million fewer jobs in construction in 2012, according to BLS data, while the retail and transportation sectors have, respectively, shed 388,000 and 379,000 fewer jobs in that same period. While high-skilled jobs in manufacturing such as welding and machine tool-and-die making  are in demand — and go unfilled because of the lack of talent to fill those positions — the overall sector has shed 1.6 million jobs over the past six years thanks to decades of innovations that have rendered low-skilled assembly line jobs obsolete. Even when the economy recovers, low-skilled Americans will have dwindling options for high-paying employment. The average high school dropout earned 35 percent less in median weekly wages in 2012 than a high school graduate who attended college, a gap that has been growing for some time.

With the nation’s current and future economic growth (and that of the global economy overall) coming from knowledge-based sectors that demand strong math, science, and literacy skills, dropouts and high school grads without college education are stuck in the economic abyss. The consequences aren’t just borne by themselves, their children, and the communities in which they live. Because dropouts and low-skilled high school graduates will likely end up on welfare and Medicaid, they will add to the fiscal burdens (including $1.1 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs) being borne by taxpayers and the nation’s economy for decades to come.

The only way to help the children of dropouts and high school grads avoid economic struggle — and keep the nation’s economy strong — is to continue the overhaul of American public education. Contrary to the arguments of Common Core foes, implementing the standards is a key step toward providing all children with the comprehensive college preparatory curricula they need to succeed in traditional colleges and other forms of higher education (including apprenticeships, which require the same levels of knowledge for entry as traditional higher ed institutions).

But high quality standards standards alone won’t lead to better outcomes for kids. Districts and other school operators have to be held accountable for improving student achievement. This is where the accountability provisions of No Child come in. By tracking how districts are providing teaching and curricula to children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — states, families and reformers can advance efforts that will lead to kids getting the knowledge that they need to succeed in the knowledge-based world.

The latest jobs data is another reminder that systemic reform is critical to helping our children and the nation as a whole. We can not afford to do anything less.