menu search recent posts
July 7, 2015 standard

The old adage of a “picture is worth a thousand words” is oft utilized precisely because it is so often true – especially when it comes to complex data sets. This becomes especially clear when discussing the need to overhaul traditional school funding throughout the nation.

Today, school reform organization EdBuild released an interactive mapping tool that shows some pretty stark examples of some of the patently crazy ways that school districts across the United States have drawn their borders. Surfacing some excellent examples, the EdBuild team clearly delineates the differences between the “haves” and the “have nots”, as measured by the poverty levels of more than 13,000 school districts.

As EdBuild points out, school districts across the United States get a significant portion of their funding from local property taxes. This creates scenarios wherein neighbors send their kids to schools with vastly different financial resources. The result: “these invisible walls often concentrate education dollars within affluent school districts, and ensure that low-income students are kept on the outside.”

As EdBuild points out, Camden, New Jersey has the highest poverty rate of any city in the United States (42.6 percent in 2013). Ninety percent of the kids in the Camden City School District are on free or reduced lunch, while it is almost surrounded by school districts with lower poverty rates. As EdBuild points out, traditional district school boundaries, zoned schooling and other Zip Code Education policies result in keeping poor kids in Camden from being able to access better educational opportunities more easily available (at least in theory) to wealthier peers.

Another example shown by EdBuild is that of the Spencer-Sharples School District in northern Ohio. Considering the racial overtones, it is one that is particularly unsettling.

The Spencer and Harding Townships wanted to split their school system and respectively merge with the Springfield Local School District and the Swanton Local School District. Everything worked out fine with Harding Township’s kids attending school in Swanton. Unfortunately for the kids in Spencer, Springfield rejected the “much larger proportion of low-income, African-American” families from Spencer.

Spencer schools were under-funded and losing enrollment. None of the surrounding school districts would take them. At the request of the state, Toledo Public Schools eventually annexed the Spencer schools, but eventually closed them. To this day, the Spencer kids are bused across two district boundary lines to get to their nearest school.

As one utilizes EdBuild’s mapping tool, it quickly becomes apparent that the disparity in funding creates rather dramatic divides between neighbors. Areas of concentrated poverty, coupled with reduced funding resources, makes it much more difficult for some school districts to provide kids with the high quality education that they have been promised.

I shall not presume to give the solution to these funding inequities, but it is plainly apparent that an over-reliance on property taxes makes it decidedly more difficult to provide an equitable quality of education across all populations. This issue must be addressed. Across the country, lawmakers from both parties need to work together to find creative and fair ways to fund our education system. In states like Pennsylvania, bipartisan efforts to install a student-focused funding formula are well underway. Efforts like this, along with the expansion of school choice and Parent Power (both of which will be helped with the school funding reform), must continue.

It may have been more than 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. But today, it sometimes appears that “separate, but equal” may still be the de facto standard – as long as one ignores the fact that there is little equality.

June 19, 2015 standard

A philosopher once advised that if you want to know the truth about a society, consider the situation of its least privileged. Which brings us to the South Bronx. The situation of the children there speaks volumes about New York society — and none of it is good.

Just over a third of the Hispanic residents of the South Bronx and just under a third of the Black residents of the area have incomes below the poverty level. Median household income is half and the unemployment rate is twice the New York state averages. Twice the national average of residents over 25 years of age report to the U.S. Census Bureau that they have not graduated from high school.

This last is not surprising. According to the New York State Education Department the graduation rate in the South Bronx (New York City’s District 9) is 56 percent and just 12 percent are considered “college and career ready,” which means that three-quarters or more of those students given diplomas won’t be able to do much with them. Fewer than half of the male Black and Hispanic students graduate, which, given the correlation between education and incarceration rates, means that where the road to life-chances divides, these young men are more likely to be propelled along the route that leads through prison rather than that leading through college.

Why is this? Infantile lead poisoning may contribute. There is little a school district can do about that, beyond screening and treatment referrals. Deficiencies in parental education strongly effect student educational outcomes, as does household poverty. But these last two are, as it were, doors not walls: they are entrances to ways in which educational outcomes can be improved.

If a student’s parents are not highly educated and do not have the economic resources necessary to support the efforts of the school, then the school or other institutions must supply what is lacking. This is increasingly recognized and it is highly laudable that New York City is making an immense effort to provide preschool for all four year-olds. But that is not enough.

Children in households in, say, the upper quarter of the income distribution come into a world surrounded by books, a world in which nearly every toy is in some sense educational. They are read to incessantly and by two-and-a-half or three are being schooled in one way or another, in play groups, preschool, kindergarten, library programs. If these resources cannot be supplied by the impoverished adults of communities like the South Bronx, they must be supplied by the city and its schools.

Once in school, preferably through the gateway of all-day, literacy-oriented kindergartens, the children of the South Bronx must continue to be supported by this emulation of middle class education: challenging, high standards, lessons during the school day and late into the afternoon, on weekends, during the summer; well designed, well maintained, well equipped schools; good meals, health care. None of this is brain surgery (although all of it is typically recommended by neuroscientists). In a city like New York, where $20 million apartments are purchased for weekends or as student housing for the children of billionaires, finding the money for this is only a matter of the will to do so.

A particularly important factor in education—we all know this—is the quality of teachers. In many developed countries, such as the UK, it is axiomatic that the most effective teachers are to be found in the schools serving the students who most need them. What is the situation in District 9, where, surely, the students need highly effective teachers?

The New York State Education Department reports that while 83 percent of teachers in the district are “Effective,” just 5 percent are “Highly Effective.” In District 2, in Manhattan, 17 percent of the teachers are rated as highly effective. We need not get into the complicated issues of teacher ratings to notice that a student in District 2 is three times as likely to have a better than average teacher than a student in the South Bronx. What is going on here? Why is it that these students most in need of excellent teachers are least likely to have them? And what does it say about our society?

It has not always been the case in this country that household poverty condemned children to impoverished educations. It was once our pride that the schools were enriching, open doors through which the children of factory workers and peddlers could pass on their way to more satisfying lives. Increasingly they are not doors but barriers: unaffordable colleges, under-resourced schools. This is the road to generations of increasing inequality, a future in which the South Bronx is not unusual but the typical environment for all but the most privileged.

Featured photo courtesy of Brett Carlsen.

June 18, 2015 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at the lawsuit brought by families of kids attending Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary School to take it over and explains why parents are standing up to transform American public education. Reformers, especially those in the Beltway, must stand and work with families taking power for our kids.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.


The editors and contributors of Dropout Nation offer our condolences and prayers to the families of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other eight victims of last night’s senseless shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. We also offer our prayers and sympathies to the parishioners and their families. Let us all pray for God to give them and the people of Charleston peace beyond understanding.

June 15, 2015 standard

These days haven’t been all that heady for the Chicago Teachers Union. With the Second City’s cash-strapped traditional district demanding a seven percent pay decrease for teachers as part of a new contract, the AFT affiliate may pay an even higher price for backing the unsuccessful candidacy of Cook County Councilman Jesus (Chuy) Garcia over Mayor Rahm Emanuel (as well as the union boss Karen Lewis’ four-year-long effort to halt systemic reform). With Emanuel essentially guaranteed the top job for as long as he chooses, Lewis must figure out whether to moderate the union’s militancy (at a cost of losing support from the hardcore traditionalists that put her in office) or adopt an even harder edge.

But don’t think CTU has no weapons for a long fight with Emanuel at its disposal. It has plenty. One of the little-noticed of them is its eponymous foundation, which has morphed from a barely-funded affiliate that doled out scholarships to a key backer of the union’s allies.

The Chicago Teachers Union Foundation doled out $1 million in grants in 2013-2014, according to its filing with the Internal Revenue Service. That’s 12,661 times greater than the $80 in grants it handed out in the previous fiscal year. This is thanks to $1.3 million in investment income in 2013-2014, an increase from the zero dollars it had generated a year earlier.

The foundation’s grantees include many of the Chicago AFT local’s key allies in its efforts against the school reform efforts championed by Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley. Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the progressive outfit which also received $60,000 from the national AFT in 2013-2014, received a $30,000 grant from CTU Foundation last fiscal year. Pilsen Alliance, another group who has been a loud and vocal backer of CTU’s opposition to Emanuel’s regime, also received $30,000 from the union’s foundation. CTU Foundation handed out a $30,000 to Action Now Institute, an education advocacy outfit which has been active in the parent union’s protest marches; last week, Action Now joined together with CTU, Pilsen, Kenwood Oakland, and a branch of the influential Amalgamated Transit Workers Union to protest the district’s proposed contract terms.

Much of the money given out by CTU Foundation is going to the Second City’s neighborhood associations, nearly all of whom are membership-based (and therefore, unlike your typical homeowner’s association, not necessarily representative of everyone in those communities). This includes Brighton Park Neighborhood Association, which participated alongside CTU and its other vassals in last week’s protest; it collected $30,000 from the union’s foundation last fiscal year. Another neighborhood group, Blocks Together Chicago based out of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, received $20,000 last year, as did Enlace Chicago, which is based on the mostly-Latino Little Villages Neighborhood.

A big winner: Southwest Organizing Project, which is based in the Second City’s southwest side communities. CTU Foundation gave it a direct grant of $20,000, while giving $50,000 to its Grow Your Own Teachers initiative. The latter program, part of an effort in Illinois to help communities to help parents and other non-traditional types get into classroom teaching, is certainly admirable. But let’s remember that it can also help CTU gain new activists within its rank-and-file.

But CTU Foundation’s giving extends beyond those small groups. Raise Your Hands for Illinois, which is pushing against the use of standardized testing and student test score growth data used in teacher evaluations the union opposes, picked up $20,000 from the foundation last fiscal year. Illinois Justice Foundation, which funds progressive efforts, also collected $20,000 from the foundation last year. And the Network for Public Education, the outfit headed up by once-respectable education historian (and Lewis pal) Diane Ravitch, picked up a $20,000 grant.

CTU Foundation’s more-activist giving is a 180-degree change from past years. Long-dedicated to handing out scholarships to children of CTU’s rank-and-file — it gave out $13,000 of them last year (or little more than the $12,000 ladled out in 2012-2013) — the foundation became a key arm of the union’s political efforts two years ago. Under Lewis, who presides over its board, the philanthropy sold some of its real estate for $12.7 million, then began redirecting those proceeds toward the union’s favored few.

Considering that many neighborhood associations and small nonprofits lack the financial wherewithal (even such resources as printers, copying machines, and conference space) to hold meetings and conduct business — and that reformers often fail to extend their considerable resources to help them — the grants from CTU Foundation (along with the other help provided by CTU itself) are more than enough to win them over to the union’s cause. Little wonder why CTU has managed to portray itself as some sort of grassroots outfit even when information (including April’s mayoral election runoff results) say otherwise.

CTU Foundation’s political in all but name spending may work in the union’s favor, so long as it doesn’t run afoul of the federal tax man. After all, the Internal Revenue Code (along with private letter rulings and other IRS decisions) prohibit philanthropies affiliated with organizations from funding activities that provide more than an incidental benefit to parent organizations. Given the strong ties between CTU and the outfits funded by the union’s foundation (and the even closer ties between Lewis and Ravitch), you can easily argue that the union is getting more than an incidental benefit from the spending.For reformers in Chicago, as well as compatriots in the rest of the nation, the spending activities of the CTU Foundation show that it makes good sense to take a look at how foundations affiliated with AFT and NEA affiliates (as well as those of the parent unions) are using what are supposed to be public benefit dollars for what could be their own private purposes beyond just a little publicity.

June 13, 2015 standard

Plenty enough has been said about Michelle Malkin’s op-ed this week calling for Congress to cut federal funding to Teach for America because it is supporting the criminal justice reform activism of alumni and staffers such as Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett. Yet let’s keep in mind two matters that few have mentioned — and that Malkin has conveniently ignored for her own ideological purposes.

The first? That the nation’s university schools of education, which train the majority of instructors going into classrooms, have done an absolutely shoddy job of recruiting and training aspiring teachers.

As the National Council on Teacher Quality determined last year in its second annual review of ed schools and other teacher training programs, just 107 out of the 1,612 ed school programs it vetted provided the instruction aspiring teachers needed to be successful in teaching children. This data isn’t surprising. As NCTQ determined in 2006, just 11 out of 71 ed schools surveyed at the time taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction; these results have changed very little within the last nine years.

Even worse, as NCTQ revealed in a study released last November, half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Two hundred ninety-five of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation.

The results of this low-quality training can be seen in the fact that three out of every 10 fourth-graders in the nation read Below Basic in 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s test of student achievement. Especially for poor and minority children, the shoddy training provided by ed schools almost all but ensures that those taught by their graduates will learn little and suffer educationally as well as economically down the road.

This low-quality teacher training comes at a high price to taxpayers. States, along with the federal government and aspiring teachers, spend $7 billion annually on sustaining ed school operations. When you consider that teacher salaries are based on attaining additional degrees (which is often funded by districts and states) and not on performance, the costs of laggard ed schools borne by taxpayers are even greater.

The second: That no organization has done a better job of setting a higher standard for recruiting and training teachers as well as showing how much better teacher training can be than Teach For America.

A decade of data has pretty much shown that Teach For America does a better job than ed schools in recruiting and training aspiring teachers. A 2013 study on Teach For America conducted by research outfit Mathematica determined that its recruits outperformed ed school peers; in fact, the average student taught by a Teach for America recruit gained an additional 2.6 months of learning over a peer taught by a traditionally-trained teacher. Particularly for poor and minority kids, with which Teach For America works with the most (and whose needs the outfit is geared toward serving), the outfit’s recruits are helping them gain the high-quality teaching they deserve (and taxpayers of all ideological stripes should expect).

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin has moved on from fact-free opposition to Common Core to a senseless jeremiad against Teach For America.

At the same time, Teach For America has shown new and better ways for recruiting and training aspiring teachers. Over the past three decades, the outfit has shown that teacher training programs should deliberately recruit entrepreneurial self-starters with strong leadership ability (alongside subject-matter competency in the subjects they teach and empathy for children of all backgrounds) needed to lead classrooms. At the same time, Teach For America’s focus on quickly and comprehensively training aspiring teachers in how to actually teach in classrooms exposes the damage wrought by ed schools and their emphasis on unproven instructional theories. Meanwhile Teach For America’s success in recruiting high-quality black and Latino collegians into teaching (with one out of every two recruits in 2014 coming from minority backgrounds) has proven lie to the arguments of ed schools that they just can’t provide children with teachers who look like them.

With two out of every three of its recruits remaining in education — and becoming school leaders, policy players, activists, and social entrepreneurs — the benefits of Teach For America’s efforts aren’t just seen in classrooms. From the work of Michelle Rhee in forming TNTP and launching the so far successful reform of D.C.’s traditional district, to Kaya Henderson’s continuation of those efforts in the nation’s capital, to the work of the likes of KIPP founders Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin in launching charter schools, Teach For America has helped advance the very efforts in advancing systemic reform that are helping more kids succeed in school and in life.

All of this comes at little comparable cost to taxpayers. Federal funding and contracts with districts account for just 20 percent of Teach For America’s revenue of $211 million in 2013-2014. The rest of its support comes from reform-minded philanthropies who understand the critical need for overhauling how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers.

Given the low quality of teaching in the nation’s schools and the success of Teach For America in providing high-quality teachers, you would think that Malkin would call for states and the federal government to stop funding the former and  praise the quantifiable and qualitative successes of the latter. But given her fact-free jeremiads against implementing Common Core reading and math standards, neither her claptrap against Teach For America nor silence about the failure of ed schools is shocking. Malkin has proven in the past that she doesn’t do her homework — and her ideological blinders (including a thoughtless and overly-sentimental allegiance to institutions of law and order regardless of misbehavior) assure that she wouldn’t put the work in this time around.

By focusing solely on the fact that Teach For America alumni are playing their proper (and laudable) roles as participants in civil society on behalf of children and communities, Malkin fails to pay any mind to the great work that the organization and its recruits do on a daily basis in providing kids with high-quality teaching. At the same time, she ignores the much-bigger problem of low-quality teacher training that goes on in ed schools and the consequences on America’s public school systems. If anything, Malkin seems to be more in common cause with traditionalists and teachers’ unions opposed to Teach For America’s very existence than with the taxpayers (including families and their children) for whom she expresses so much concern.

Meanwhile Malkin seems to ignore the reality that the nation’s criminal justice systems are in as sore a need of reform as public education — and that as school reformers, Teach For America alumni and staffers can no more ignore the consequences of those woes on children outside of schools than the crises within them.

The high-profile slayings of black men such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray just exemplify the problems of overmilitarized police departments, overcriminalization of youth, perpetuation of state-sanctioned racial bigotry, drug war overkill, and violations of civil liberties by law enforcement that have been detailed at length by progressives, conservatives, and libertarians alike.

Teach For America alum such as Deray McKesson are rightfully standing with criminal justice reformers on behalf of children who must deal with issues outside as well as inside of schools.

If anything, the deaths of these young men have galvanized bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. So arguments by Malkin (as well as those by conservatives within the school reform movement such as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute) that McKesson and Packnett (along with Teach For America) are “agitating” for a “leftist agenda” ignores reality.

As with school reform, there are plenty of good reasons for such bipartisanship. As Dropout Nation has detailed over the last year, the enabling of incompetent and criminally-venal cops by state laws and criminal justice bureaucracies parallels the protection of laggard and criminally-abusive teachers by state education agencies and traditional districts. The use of excessive force laws that allow rogue officers to murder young black men with impunity are little different from the tenure and teacher dismissal laws that keep even child abusers in classrooms. The only difference between the actions of police unions such as New York City’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and those of NEA and AFT affiliates is that the former carry guns.

As with the consequences of failing and mediocre traditional districts, the consequences of abusive criminal justice systems are borne hardest by the communities in which poor and minority children live. As Balko and others reported within the last year, the use of courts and cops by municipalities as revenue generators (in the form of arbitrarily handed out traffic ticket and rulings that often double those initial penalties) essentially impoverish already poor families. The U.S. Department of Justice’s probes of police practices in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland have also revealed how racial bigotry and faulty policing bears out in use of excessive force (including murders in all but name) of young black men and women.

But the consequences for kids aren’t just outside schoolhouse doors. Traditional districts (along with some charter school operators) have long played a pernicious role in fostering a school-to-prison pipeline that condemns far too many kids to despair. School districts accounted for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.

Now, thanks to the law enforcement agencies districts have formed on their own (as well as bringing in cops from the outside to serve as school resource officers to handle student misbehavior better managed by teachers and school leaders), American public education has also become key players in the police militarization plaguing our communities. With help from the federal government, districts such as Compton Unified in California are arming their cops with AR-15 rifles and grenades that should never be anywhere near classrooms.

The results can be seen in districts in cities such as Birmingham, Ala., where police officers in Birmingham, Ala., using Freeze +P pepper spray against eight children attending the traditional district there (the subject of a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center); some 110 incidents of pepper-spraying occurred in the district since 2006. Because half of school resource officer programs (and other law enforcement) are patrolling elementary school hallways, it means that even kids in kindergarten and first grade are being criminalized at early ages.

There’s no way that any school reformer, much less those black and brown such as McKesson and Packnett, can avoid standing in common cause with criminal justice reformers of all stripes to advocate against these abuses of state power. Considering that Teach For America is has been dedicated from day one to providing poor and minority children with high-quality education, it also cannot ignore the injustices happening outside schools to the students their recruits serve. And as Atlantic Monthly‘s Conor Friedersdorf declared last month in a piece on police brutality, no conservative or liberal, much less a moral human being, can ignore the pressing need to seriously address the reality that there are police officers acting as thugs against people of all backgrounds — especially young black men and women — under the guise of enforcing the law.

Seems like the problem lies not with Teach For America or its alumni, but with Malkin’s immorality and that of her amen corner.