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December 3, 2014 standard

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
en the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bier crop.

– Abraham Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, a poem-turned-song inspired by a lynching in Marion, Indiana, whose lyrics of state-sanctioned murder of black men resonate as much now as it did when it was written nine decades ago. Dropout Nation prays for — and stands in sympathy with — the family of Eric Garner, whose murder at the hands of a New York City police officer was not given justice by a grand jury today. And reminds all reformers that they have no right to be silent about either the crises of injustice that affect the communities of the children we serve — or how American public education helps perpetuate them through practices such as the restraint of children condemned to special ed ghettos.

May 23, 2014 standard

There is no denying the extraordinary rise in the incomes of the top one percent of American households over the past three decades. Between 1979 and 2012, the share of all household income accruing to the top percentile of U.S. households rose from 10 percent to 22.5 percent. To get a sense of how much money that is, consider the conceptual experiment of redistributing the gains of the top one percent between 1979 and 2012 to the bottom 99 percent of households. How much would this redistribution raise household incomes of the bottom 99 percent? The answer is $7107 per household…

Now consider a different dimension of inequality: the earnings gap between U.S. workers with a 4-year college degree and those with only a high school diploma… the earnings gap between the median college-educated and median high school–educated among U.S. males working full-time in year-round jobs was $17,411 in 1979, measured in constant 2012 dollars. Thirty-three years later, in 2012, this gap had risen to $34,969, almost exactly double its 1979 level. Also seen is a comparable trend among U.S. female workers, with the full-time, full-year college/high school median earnings gap nearly doubling from $12,887 to $23,280 between 1979 and 2012…

To put the numbers on the same footing, consider the earnings gap between a college-educated two-earner husband-wife family and a high school–educated two-earner husband-wife family, which rose by $27,951 between 1979 and 2012 (from $30,298 to $58,249). This increase in the earnings gap between the typical college-educated and high school–educated household earnings levels is four times as large as the redistribution that has notionally occurred from the bottom 99 percent to the top one perrcent of households. What this simple calculation suggests is that the growth of skill differentials among the “other 99 percent” is arguably even more consequential than the rise of the one percent for the welfare of most citizens… Wage inequality has risen throughout the earnings distribution, not merely at the top percentiles…

How much does the rising education premium contribute to the increase of earnings inequality?… Goldin and Katz found that the increase in the education wage premium explains about 60 to 70% of the rise in the dispersion of U.S. wages between 1980 and 2005 and, similarly, Lemieux calculated that higher returns to postsecondary education can account for 55% of the rise in male hourly wage variance from 1973–1975 to 2003–2005. Firpo et al. found that rising returns to education can explain just over 95% of the rise of the U.S. male 90/10 earnings ratio between 1984 and 2004. That is, holding the expanding education premium constant over this period, there would have been essentially no increase in the relative wages of the 90th-percentile worker versus the 10th-percentile worker…

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the rise of income inequality is entirely a market phenomenon. Would this imply that there is no role for public policy? A moment’s reflection suggests otherwise. As the economist Arthur Goldberger once famously observed, the fact that nearsightedness is substantially a genetic disorder has no bearing on whether doctors should prescribe eyeglasses. What is relevant is whether the benefits of addressing myopia exceed the costs. In the case of myopia, the availability of eyeglasses make this an easy call.

Although there is no “remedy” for inequality that is as swift or cheap as eyeglasses, prosperous democratic countries have numerous effective policy levers for shaping inequality’s trajectory and socioeconomic consequences. Policies that appear most effective over the long haul in raising prosperity and reducing inequality are those that cultivate the skills of successive generations: excellent preschool through high school education; broad access to postsecondary education; and good nutrition, good public health… Such policies address inequality from two directions: (i) enabling a larger fraction of adults to attain high productivity, rewarding jobs, and a reasonable standard of living; and (ii) raising the total supply of skills available to the economy, which in turn moderates the skill premium and reduces inequality.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David H. Autor, in Science, explaining why providing all children with high-quality education is critical to stemming income inequality.

I get asked a lot about how I got involved in this, in education, and advocating for school choice. And the answer for me is pretty much the same as Lisa (Leslie, the former WNBA star who spoke earlier) and Faith (Manuel, the mother of a tax credit scholarship student, who also spoke earlier): I became a mother… And that’s probably the same answer a lot of other people in this room would have. Like every mother, like every other parent, I remember holding my son Eli in my arms for the very first time and looking at him and realizing that the life I knew was over. (laughter) And going forward, my life would be dedicated to caring for this child, and protecting this child, and trying to ensure that he had every opportunity possible to be all that he could be. And Number one on my list, in thinking about this, and thinking about both my kids now, I have two boys, is and was their education.

And I was thinking how fortunate I had been in my life. I had this career in television. And I lived in New York City. And my kids were going to have so many options available to them. I had so many choices and they would throughout their lives have so many opportunities because of this. And I think with that comes the recognition that that’s not the case for most people. And those choices and those options are not available to mothers who care about their kids just as much as I do, and have the same hopes and dreams for their children that I have for mine. And who want their child to have every opportunity in life just like I did. If we believe that education is a fundamental right, then everyone should have that choice.

It never ceases to amaze me that this very simple idea, that a parent who wants to try to find a school, a better school to try to give their child a better life, should have that choice. The idea that this is somehow controversial is amazing to me.

Campbell Brown, at the American Federation for Children’s annual conference, discussing why expanding school choice and Parent Power for all families should be the norm, not the exception, in American public education.

In the end, while [Andy] Smarick and [Juliet] Squire identify a serious roadblock to education reform, they may not have been completely transparent about what is at stake here – exactly the shift away from direct public control that has the critics of the “education reformers” so excised. SEA’s may not be the most efficient, nimble agents of change in education policy – but perhaps that’s the point: they are not supposed to be… This fact constantly frustrates critics of our school system, of course: they want more change, more quickly – and that is really at the heart of this report’s recommendations.

Given this frustration, the major flaw in Smarick and Squire’s proposal is not identifying the agent of change for their recommendations or the constituency that will lobby for a still-powerful but stripped down SEA. But this flaw in turn is connected to another:  what Smarick and Squire propose is a curious hybrid that has neither diminished powers nor fewer responsibilities for the SEAs. The risk of implementing the reforms the authors call for is that the result would be a still more complex structure of management and implementation that far from promoting efficiency, would result in endless friction between public and private organizations.

Peter Meyer of City University of New York’s Institute for Education Policy on why a Thomas B. Fordham Institute proposal for revamping state education governance isn’t exactly as sensible as it should be.

April 5, 2014 standard

A study published in the April issue of the American Educational Research Journal, for example, finds that kindergarten students learn more when they are exposed to challenging content such as advanced number concepts and even addition and subtraction. In turn, elementary school students who were taught more sophisticated math as kindergarteners made bigger gains in mathematics, reported the study’s lead author, Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago.

Another study, published last year by Dr. Claessens with co-authors Mimi Engel and Maida Finch, concluded that as things stand, many children in kindergarten are being taught information they already know. The “vast majority” of kindergarteners have already mastered counting numbers and recognizing shapes before they set foot in the classroom, Dr. Claessens and her co-authors noted, yet kindergarten teachers report spending much of their math teaching time on these skills.

The students don’t gain anything from going over familiar ground: In the article published this month, Dr. Claessens and her colleagues report that pupils do not benefit from basic content coverage, but that all the kindergarteners in the study, regardless of economic background or initial skill level, did benefit from exposure to more advanced content.

Discussions about how to improve learning for young children usually focus on the length of the whole school day or the number of students in classes, but rarely on what is taught during the hours school is in session. Increasing the time kindergarten teachers spend on more advanced math concepts may be a simpler and more cost-effective way to boost learning.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the New York Times, pointing out another reason why arguments against providing all children with comprehensive college-preparatory learning just don’t wash. Every child thrives when given challenging curricula.

The young mother’s voice shook with anxiety. She had just gotten her son’s third-grade test results from his school, and he had scored at the absolute bottom level in reading, and only a little bit higher in math.

“All year,” she said, “my son got mostly B’s on his homework and report cards. I monitored every one. And now I learn that all of that was a lie.”

Like many other low-income mothers of color in America’s urban centers, this Portland mother knew what low performance, especially in reading, meant for her son’s future. She’d even heard that Oregon’s prison planners used third-grade reading test data to determine how many new cells to add.

If she and her son’s school couldn’t find a way to turn those results around — and soon — she feared they amounted to a virtual death sentence.

I hear her words — and remember the fear in her eyes — every time I hear about yet another effort to eliminate the longstanding federal requirement that children in American public schools be tested once per year in grades three-eight and at least once in high school. Proponents of this change argue that students should be tested only once, each during elementary, middle, and high school, if that often.

I can only imagine how frightened that Portland mother would be if she didn’t have an objective check on what her son’s school told her at least by the following year — but, instead, had to wait all the way until he hit eighth grade. In the meantime, all she would have are the grades that research and experience tell us too often paint a too rosy picture of student performance.

Yes, I get that a lot of the anti-testing voices are from affluent parents. Certainly, when the results of state tests just reinforce the message (one they so often get) that their children are sailing along just fine, getting that reaffirmed next year doesn’t seem so important… But that so many policymakers don’t see through all this — and can’t imagine the anxiety of that mother and millions like her who can’t afford to wait five years for an honest evaluation of their children’s preparation for the future — is worrisome.

Education Trust President Kati Haycock, in the Huffington Post, offering a reminder of why testing is so important in helping all children get the high-quality education they deserve.

March 27, 2014 standard

I am a proud member of the San Poil Band of the Colville Confederated Tribe. I grew up on a reservation and attended Paschal Sherman Indian School. I have fond memories of learning geometry through basket weaving and studying star knowledge as a part of my science curriculum. My school emphasized the importance of aural learning skills and as a child, I developed the ability to focus and recall information as I listened to elders recite descriptive tribal tales. In the classroom, I excelled and worked hard to learn and exemplify the traditions and values of my tribe.

However, when my family and I moved from the reservation to a town an hour south of Seattle, I was faced with a harsh reality. I was nearly three years behind in reading and writing compared to my peers in my new school. Instead of embracing my differences or working with me to overcome my setbacks, many of my teachers decided that there really wasn’t anything they could do to help me. At school, I had few close friends and felt that even they didn’t quite understand me either. When it was time to apply for college, I received minimal guidance or counseling. In fact, I was never asked about my college aspirations, and no one took the time to explain the college or FASFA applications to me. Upon graduation, I had no college plans or a road map for my life after high school.

It was from these experiences that I gathered the determination to succeed, despite the odds, and recognized that the traditions of life on a reservation did not have to determine my ultimate level of achievement…

When I entered the Crazy Horse School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I knew I would provide a better educational experience for my students than I had received. My teachers looked at my Native culture as a deficit, but I would use my students’ as an asset… I understand how they learn and what obstacles they may encounter along the way, allowing me to exercise their strengths and quell their weaknesses…

I aspire to be a familiar face of hope and an example of promise for students facing adversity. But the work doesn’t end there, because we have so much more to do as a nation to grow culturally responsive teaching of our Native Students. They are diamonds, and they deserve teachers who excavate their strengths and allow them to shine.

Teacher Jamie Gua, on, explaining why we must do more to build brighter futures for Native children — and why we shouldn’t regard any child, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, as not being “college material”.

This March Madness, we’ll be pulling for our favorite teams and celebrating the players for their hard work and commitment – both on and off the court. And, while we may have differences in our final bracket picks, we know one thing is certain: many of the players we’ll be cheering for are student athletes who were given the opportunity to earn a quality education based on their athletic talents… Sadly, in the United States, too many children do not have these same opportunities due to gaps in their educational experience that lead to a lack of fundamental knowledge and skills – those same skills that are necessary to be accepted into college and to succeed in life.

That’s why as we focus our attention on March Madness, I  hope to shed a light on the true “madness” in this country – the fact that every 26 seconds a student drops out of school… To put it into perspective, an estimated 366,369 kids will drop out of high school while we watch the 63 games throughout the tournament. This is madness.

Charter school operator and former NBA star Jalen Rose, a member of the University of Michigan’s legendary Fab Five of the 1990s, pointing out on the pages of RedefinEd why expanding choice is critical to helping children attain brighter futures.

Loads of interesting stuff in this new New America Foundation report on graduate student debt–a major and under-acknowledged contributor to sky-high national student debt levels. But what strikes me is that a lot of the growth in this sort of graduate debt is directly related to public and licensure policies.

Consider: Fully 16 percent of graduate student debt holders hold a master’s degree in education–many as a direct result of certification policies that require individuals to earn such credentials to become teachers through alternative route programs and/or to earn a certain number of graduate credentials every so many years in order to keep their credential. Others earn masters degrees because of the incentive to do so embedded in most teacher collective bargaining agreements. The crazy thing is, research suggests most of these master’s degrees aren’t doing anything to improve their recipients’ actual skills or effectiveness as educators!

Sara Mead, in< Education Week, noting how traditional teacher recruiting and compensation is both costly for kids and teachers, too.

March 26, 2014 standard


Last week’s Dropout Nation commentary decrying Thomas B. Fordham Institute boss Mike Petrilli’s call to subject poor and minority children to the soft bigotry of low expectations certainly generated responses thoughtful and otherwise. At the same time, the piece and the discussion surrounding it is a reminder that far too many adults continue to make artificial distinctions between the knowledge and skills needed for traditional four-year colleges and what is required for technical colleges and internships. More importantly, what is forgotten is that all children need comprehensive curricula that helps them succeed and understand the world in which they live outside of work. In short, there are plenty of reasons why plumbers should be well-versed in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and understand algebra and calculus.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Los Angeles teacher Peter D. Ford III succinctly explains why all children should get high-quality comprehensive curricula — and what it should look like. Read, consider, and offer your own perspectives.

Attending Catholic schools in the 1960s and 1970s, my schoolmates and I received a ‘college prep’ education without realizing it. This education demanded we acquire a body of knowledge and skills that prepared us to seek education and employment opportunities beyond the secondary level. And it is the way it should be.

What we call ‘college prep’ today should be what every child learns from K-12 so as to expand their future academic or occupational options. The goal should not be college and career readiness alone, but to develop knowledgeable, skilled, and participatory citizens in our democracy and marketplace.

From the moment every child enters K-12, they should be reading literature; learning about the history of their community, country, and world; and learning a foreign language (or two). They should be studying and applying mathematics in every grade; studying and applying at least the big three sciences of chemistry, physics, and biology; and participating in art, music, sports, and mechanics. The fundamentals of everything they learn in one course will eventually apply to other endeavors inside and out of school.

We should not just be preparing young people for college, but preparing them to participate and prosper within their community, country, and world.

December 5, 2013 standard

Our fight is against real, and not imaginary, hardships or, to use the language of the state prosecutor, “so-called hardships”. Basically, we fight against two features which are the hallmarks of African life in South Africa and which are entrenched by legislation. These features are poverty and lack of human dignity, and we do not need communists or so-called “agitators” to teach us about these things… The whites enjoy what may be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery… The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation. There are two ways to break out of poverty. The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring a greater skill at his work and thus higher wages. As far as Africans are concerned, both these avenues of advancement are deliberately curtailed by legislation… Approximately 40 percent of African children in the age group seven to 14 do not attend school. For those who do, the standards are vastly different from those afforded to white children. Only 5,660 African children in the whole of South Africa passed their junior certificate in 1962, and only 362 passed matric.

The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion… When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that they have emotions – that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school…

Children wander the streets because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go, or no parents at home to see that they go, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to violence, which erupts not only politically, but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous. Not a day goes by without somebody being stabbed or assaulted. And violence is carried out of the townships [into] the white living areas…

Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society. Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent… Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, in a speech during his 1964 trial for attempting to bring freedom and liberty to Africans living under the nation’s apartheid racial segregation regime. The words spoken by the freedom fighter, who died today at age 95, are ones that school reformers should embrace in their efforts to build brighter futures for all of our children no matter the color of their skin or content of character.