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August 19, 2014 standard

The good news for reformers, and ultimately, for the children of Louisiana, is that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards has been kiboshed by a state court judge. But reformers, especially Common Core supporters, must keep in mind that there is hard work ahead to make the promise of the standards a reality for all kids, especially those in the Bayou State long stuck with the worst American public education offers.

Earlier this evening, Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez handed down a preliminary injunction in Navis Hill v. Jindal, preventing the governor from enforcing the executive order issued in June ending Common Core implementation. Writing that Jindal provided no evidence for justifying his move, Hernandez also determined that the governor offered no basis for his claim that Supt. John White and other state education officials illegally contracted with the PARCC consortium to implement tests aligned with the test. Hernandez then noted that Jindal’s move was causing havoc within the Bayou State’s districts, charter schools, and private schools because of the consequences for kids, families, and teachers (the last of which gain bonuses based on performance improvements measured by the exams).

Most importantly, Hernandez noted that Jindal didn’t have any constitutional authority to even interfere with Common Core implementation because the state legislature (at Jindal’s behest) has authorized the state education department to proceed. In the process, Hernandez also laid out Jindal’s flip-flopping on Common Core, showing how he supported implementing the standards before he decided to oppose them. Wrote Hernandez: “The Louisiana Constitution is clear… [the state legislature and education department] supervise and control the public elementary and secondary schools in the state.”

For Jindal, who has already declared that he would appeal Hernandez’s ruling, this is the latest loss he has suffered in his anti-Common Core tirade. Earlier this year, state legislators refused to go along with his effort to halt implementation of the standards, only offering a compromise measure that would allow the Bayou State to amend aspects of the standards it desired. [Jindal rejected that measure.] Last week, his amended motion in Navis Hill asking for the court to cancel the state’s memorandum with PARCC was tossed out of court. Then on Monday, a suit filed against White and the state board of education by a group of legislators allied with Jindal on opposing the standards was also thrown out of court.

In the process, Jindal has destroyed what was until recently a strong legacy on advancing systemic reform during his seven years in office. He also ended up losing allies among reformers and school choice activists, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options (who helped back the Navis Hill suit). By engaging in his political jihad — which has included attempting to destroy the career and reputation of White and state board president Chas Roemer — Jindal has exposed for national display his longstanding penchant of being petty and vindictive in dealing with opponents and otherwise allies. And reformers at the national level are angry with Jindal because his antics have wounded efforts to overhaul how states govern public education (especially in Arizona and Indiana), weakening arguments for placing control of policymaking into gubernatorial hands.

Meanwhile Jindal hasn’t even succeeded in his goal of boosting his likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination: The Bayou State governor is attracting support from only two percent of Republicans and one percent of independents in this month’s McClatchy-Marist University Poll, trailing 10 other likely candidates, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (both Common Core supporters) and Common Core foes such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his colleague in Wisconsin, Scott Walker (who is facing a tough re-election bid).

As your editor noted last month, Jindal’s gambit hasn’t won over movement conservatives otherwise uninterested in education because they know that Jindal has flip-flopped his position on Common Core, and thus, see him as just another cheap-suit politician, Meanwhile Jindal has gained no ground with moderate Republicans and independents, who just don’t see him as a compelling representative of the party. And the antics of late are concerning to those movement conservatives who are already complaining about what they consider to be acts of executive overreach by President Barack Obama; Jindal’s behavior rightfully makes him unsuited for the presidency in their minds.

All in all, Jindal’s future political prospects are likely done. This isn’t to say that Jindal won’t continue his vindictive ways. School choice activists should expect the governor to do nothing on their behalf next year when it comes to the budget for the state’s voucher program. This means they must continue building the already-strong support for expanding choice and continuing the program, including reaching out to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican nominee and Jindal’s probable successor in the governor’s office.

Jindal’s defeat is good news for Bayou State children — and for those working hard to address its longstanding failure to provide all kids with high-quality education. The challenges are definitely tremendous: Thirty-two percent of Bayou State eighth-graders read Below Basic, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 10 percentage points greater than the national average; only 24 percent of eighth-graders in the state read at Proficient and Advanced levels (read: have been successfully prepared for success in higher education and career), trailing the national average by 12 percentage points. The average Bayou State eighth-grader is a grade level behind his peer nationwide.

But implementing Common Core successfully will be no easy task. There’s Jindal, who will stand in the way of successful implementation (if he cannot stop the effort altogether) by using his budgetary authority. Reformers and Common Core supporters will have to hold his feet to the fire, using every tactic available to keep the dollars flowing and put Jindal into the corner where he belongs.

Beyond Jindal, Common Core supporters must work closely with districts, charter schools, and teachers to ensure that implementation is a success. This starts with ensuring that curricula (including materials used in classrooms) are aligned with the standards. As seen in other states, this can be tricky, especially if teachers use inappropriate or even explicitly political texts in ways that can lead to Common Core foes claiming that the standards are a tool for political indoctrination. Presenting successful approaches used by high-quality teachers in other states in using original texts in their work is key. The move this week by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch, which reviews curricula and other materials, will also help. [That it took so long for Common Core supporters to address this issue is shameful, by the way, and is one reason why opponents have garnered support.]

Another key move lies with setting high test proficiency cut scores on the PARCC tests. This is important for two reasons. The first? Setting high expectations is key to reaping the promise of implementing Common Core and, ultimately, helping our children get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they deserve. Secondly, high cut scores are necessary because families, communities, and policymakers must know the truth about how well school operators and those who work within them are providing our Bayou State kids with high-quality education. Working with White on communicating these expectations and realities to the public — especially to suburban districts which have long-perpetuated the myth that they are providing high-quality education to the kids they serve — is crucial.

Common Core supporters and reformers have scored an important victory against halting Common Core implementation, both in Louisiana and in the nation as a whole. In the process, they have all but mortally wounded a shameless, immoral politician and helped all children get opportunities for high-quality education. Now it is time to get to the hard work of implementation so the promise for kids becomes reality.

Featured photo courtesy of Getty Images.


Two hundred forty-nine black high school children in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri took advanced math subjects such as trigonometry, statistics, and pre-calculus during the 2011-2012 school year, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s a mere 9.3 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s 2,868 young black men and women in the district’s high schools. How bad is it? The percentage of black kids taking these college preparatory math courses is lower than the already-abysmal 13 percent of white high school peers (or 67 out of 527 white children) in those classes. What this means is that far too many kids of all backgrounds in Ferguson-Florissant schools — especially young black men and women who are from poor homes — are not getting the high-quality education they need and deserve for success in adulthood.

But this isn’t shocking. Ferguson-Florissant is like other districts, both in Missouri, and the rest of the nation, in failing to provide all children (especially those from poor and minority households) with college-preparatory curricula. If anything, the district exemplifies the need to advance systemic reform to help all children attain the knowledge they need for higher ed completion and ultimately, to make it into the middle class.

As you know, as part of Dropout Nation’s coverage of Ferguson in the aftermath of the senseless slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown, your editor took a look last week at Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions, noting how it was far more likely for black kids in the district to be suspended than be victims of violent crime in their communities. But the district’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012, a mere five points lower than the state average, gave pause. Not because it was a conundrum: It has long been shown that districts and other school operators can goose graduation rates by pushing out the kids they didn’t want to educate into nearby districts. Not even because Ferguson-Florissant has gone through turmoil over its suspension and then, firing of Art McCoy, the district’s first black superintendent.

No, the high graduation rate became interesting because it raised another question: Whether Ferguson-Florissant was actually providing kids with the college-preparatory learning they needed for lifelong success. As seen with districts such as Houston, it isn’t enough to get kids to the point of graduation. So DN took a look at Ferguson-Florissant’s data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights database. And the answers, though not shocking, were still astonishing.

The good news, sort of speak, is that Ferguson-Florissant is providing a plurality of middle-schoolers with introductory algebra, a key college-preparatory course for our children. Some 625 black seventh and eighth-grade children in the district, or 40 percent of the 1,575 black middle-schoolers there, took Algebra 1 during the 2011-2012 school year. Forty-six percent of Ferguson’s white middle-schoolers — or 115 of the 251 white children served by the district — also took the math course.

But Ferguson-Florissant falls down on the job once kids get into high school. Just 432 black high-schoolers, or 15 percent of them, took Algebra II in 2011-2012; a mere 16 percent of white peers (84 of them) took the college prep course. Only 18 percent of black high-schoolers took geometry, lower than the paltry 21 percent of white peers taking the course. Meanwhile a mere 19 black high school students and 14 white peers took calculus in that same year, resulting in, respectively, just six-tenths percent of black high schoolers and three percent of white peers taking the course.

Matters get worse when you look at how few kids in Ferguson-Florissant are being provided science courses. Especially young black men and women, scientific illiteracy means losing out economically and socially in the increasingly knowledge-based world. Just 24 percent of Ferguson’s black high-schoolers took biology in 2011-2012, slightly lower than the 27 percent rate for white high school peers. But only 7.3 percent of black high school students took chemistry, a key college prep course; 14 percent of white peers took chemistry that year. And just 2.1 percent of black high schoolers — that’s 63 young black men and women — took physics; 5.5 percent of white high school students (5.5 percent of them), took physics that year.

One could surmise that perhaps Ferguson-Florissant isn’t providing its own math and science courses because they are directing them to Advanced Placement courses that are also key to preparation for success in higher education and career. This isn’t true. Just 1.4 percent of black high schoolers (40 kids) and three percent of white peers took A.P. math. Just 10 black high school students and two of their white school mates took AP Science. All in all, just 4.2 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s black high schoolers and 11 percent of their white peers were taking A.P. courses. Which means that most of the kids were languishing in low-quality courses that weren’t preparing them for success in outside of the schoolhouse doors. Since the district doesn’t offer International Baccalaureate courses, not one kid was taking them.

What all this means is that most of the kids graduating from Ferguson-Florissant aren’t getting any form of college-preparatory curricula. Sixty-seven percent of Ferguson’s graduates were admitted to higher ed institutions, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, a rate slightly lower than the Show Me State’s 71 percent average. But there’s little chance that most of the kids will graduate in six years with associate, baccalaureate, and technical school credentials. Just 35 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s vocational school graduates land jobs, a rate far lower than the 53 percent for all such students statewide.

Especially for the black children, who make up most of the district’s student population, the lack of high-quality education means being locked out of the economic and social mainstream, which doesn’t bode well for either Ferguson or the rest of the St. Louis region. You can say that Ferguson-Florissant’s decision this week to not open its doors to serve kids — a move done in response to the protests and militarized policing being done in the city — is terrible. But even when the district’s doors are open, it isn’t serving children well.

There are three reasons why Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide kids with college-preparatory learning matters so greatly, both for the people who live in there as well as for the rest of the nation.

For one, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson points out (and as Dropout Nation has illustrated in its Why Systemic Reform collection), far too many black children from poor households (along with those from Latino, Asian, and white backgrounds) are being left behind economically and socially. This is because they are not being provided the college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching, and cultures of genius) they must have in order to gain high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based world. Particularly in Ferguson, where the median household income of $36,121 in 2012 is $9,101 less than the average for Missouri and $14,896 less than the national average (and even in Florissant, whose median income of $49,612 keeps it in the ranks of middle-class communities in Missouri), the shoddiness of the traditional schools serving it will condemn its economy and society to long-term failure.

There’s also the fact that Ferguson-Florissant’s failures to provide kids with college-preparatory curricula exemplifies the failure of the Show Me State to do well by all children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. The move last month by the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — along with the mishandling of the outrage surrounding Michael Brown’s slaying, and Brown’s alleged murder itself — shows that the state’s political leaders are uninterested in building brighter futures for poor and minority kids. The fact that so few white kids in Ferguson are getting college-prep learning makes one wonder if state and district leaders even care about children that look like them. No one in the Show-Me State can morally justify denying all kids college-preparatory learning.

Your editor suggests to reformers and Common Core supporters on the ground that they take to the courts to hold the state responsible for its constitutional obligation to provide kids in Ferguson and elsewhere with high-quality education. At the same time, they must team up with community leaders and families on the ground to build political support for reviving the standards. As Education Next‘s latest survey shows, 60 percent of black people queried were supportive of Common Core implementation in their states; rallying black and Latino families and communities is critical to making this effort work.

Finally, Ferguson-Florissant’s shoddy curricula (and likely, laggard teaching) also makes the strong case for expanding school choice in both St. Louis and the entire state as a whole. Doing so has been a struggle. The state’s move last year to allow kids from the failing Normandy district to attend schools in other districts has been fought hard by both officials in that district (who don’t want to lose the state dollars that come with those kids) and by counterparts in districts such as Francis Howell (who don’t want those kids and don’t want to have school choice become a reality for their kids either). Normandy beat back efforts to keep choice going for more kids in June when it successfully convinced the state’s board of education to ignore its unaccredited status and keep kids trapped in its failure mills. While Ferguson-Florissant is technically functioning well according to state law, this data makes clear that kids forced to attend its schools should also have the ability to escape.

Bringing high-quality charter school operators, launching voucher programs, and even passing a Parent Trigger law allowing families to take over failing schools in their community are key steps. Requiring all districts in the state to allow families to choose college-preparatory courses instead of them having to go through gatekeepers who often don’t want those kids to get into those classes is also important. The most-critical step of all: The Show Me State taking full responsibility for funding schools. Because the state only provides 42 percent of the $10 billion spent on public education in 2012 (the latest year available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), traditional districts can justify opposing any form of choice and Parent Power, both to families outside of their boundaries and even to those who live within them. By taking full control of school funding, Missouri can voucherize those dollars, expanding school options for every kid.

Ferguson-Florissant’s failure to provide all children with college-preparatory learning is almost as shameful as the slaughtering of Brown’s life. The children there — and all kids everywhere — deserve curricula fit for their futures.

August 18, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle further examines incidents such as Michael Brown murder in Ferguson, Mo., as well as the slaying of three year-old Laila Miller in Landover, Md. — and reminds reformers that they must continually remember that their mission is to build brighter futures for all 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.

August 17, 2014 standard

Your editor has been a tad too busy focusing on the impact of Michael Brown’s alleged murder in Ferguson, as well as other pieces, to think much about Michelle Rhee’s departure from StudentsFirst. Others, as you know, haven’t ignored it. As you would have expect given the divisiveness that surrounds anything regarding Rhee, Stephanie Simon of Politico an inside-the-Beltway-stenographer-like not-for-attribution-quote laden gossip piece about Rhee’s tenure at the outfit. That piece, in turn, has been rightly lambasted by This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo and Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk (along with Rhee’s soon-to-be former underlings) for being way below Simon’s usually-higher standard of reporting. Traditionalists such as once-respectable educational historian Diane Ravitch are also celebrating Rhee’s departure from the school reform outfit. So are, given how Rhee’s presence in the school reform movement crowded out so many aspiring big names, her friendly rivals as well.

Certainly Rhee didn’t accomplish all that she could during her tenure overseeing StudentsFirst. Rhee’s infamous lack of collegiality, along with the envy among rival groups, meant that StudentsFirst wasn’t always successful in building coalitions on the ground needed to advance critical reforms. This was clear in Florida two years ago when its effort to pass a Parent Trigger law was defeated in the Sunshine State senate. Under Rhee, StudentsFirst didn’t hit what I determined to be the sweet spot in advancing reform: Merging policy savvy with hard-core, grassroots activism and entrepreneurial (and operational) drive.

Then there’s the fact that Rhee hasn’t been successful (or even had enough time to) build StudentsFirst from a personality-driven outfit to an institution that will survive long beyond her departure. StudentsFirst has more than enough money to survive for the time being, and after a period of high turnover, now has a top-notch staff that includes chief operating officer Rebecca Sibilia and policy czar Eric Lerum. But Rhee’s failure on the institution-building front is especially shocking, especially when you consider the lasting success of teacher quality reform outfit TNTP and the continuing work of reforming D.C. Public Schools undertaken by Rhee’s successor there, Kaya Henderson.

Yet you also can’t deny that Rhee’s work at StudentsFirst did achieve some important results for our children. The organization’s success in backing strong systemic reformers in statehouses deserves praise. Her embrace of the bipartisan single-issue voter approach in politically advancing reform, an approach that differed greatly from that of groups such as Democrats for Education Reform that have spent most of their time only trying to win support from respective party circles, is one that other reform groups should embrace. This is because Rhee realized, as other reformers have figured out the hard way, that bipartisanship is the only way to break through the ideological sparring and power relationships at the state and district levels that often complicate efforts to advance systemic reform.

Under Rhee, StudentsFirst also succeeded in developing the State Policy Report Card, which has proven to be a comprehensive-yet-simple report on what states are doing (or, in many cases, not doing) in the area of revamping public education. Even better, the report card has shown how even the most-aggressive reform-minded states have not taken on the school finance and pension reform overhauls that are as critical to reforming American public education as expanding school choice and revamping teacher evaluations. Other reform groups should embrace StudentsFirst’s effort and craft their own.

Meanwhile we must keep in mind that Rhee’s impact on the debate over transforming American public education extends beyond her short time at StudentsFirst. Certainly, this can be hard to consider. After all, the clash of egos, both between reformers and traditionalists, as well as among the movement’s players (especially when one of the their own gains heightened public stature as Rhee has), colors every consideration of Rhee’s legacy so far. But we must acknowledge that without Rhee, the school reform movement’s most-renown public figure, and one of its few from minority households (whose second husband is also from that background), the movement would have not advanced its efforts as far as it has.

One of the points your editor always make is that movements succeed in part because of divisive figures who stand by their moral principles, strongly challenge policies and practices that are immoral and abominable, force people to clarify where they stand on matters of great moral importance, and embrace true leadership. Divisive figures such as Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi are the ones who force the positive changes that have improved the world for all of us. And Rhee deserves to be considered among them.

After all, without Rhee (along with Teach for America cofounder Wendy Kopp), there would be no TNTP, whose reports and work with districts on addressing their shoddy hiring practices have provided us with new models for bringing high-quality teachers to every classroom. Without TNTP’s studies, there wouldn’t be the Vergara lawsuits that are challenging morally repugnant near-lifetime employment laws that harm poor and minority kids. For the existence of TNTP alone, Rhee deserves our thanks.

Without Rhee’s strident rhetoric in challenging traditionalist thinking, along with her willingness to use her own bully pulpit to take on traditionalist thinking, discussions around transforming American public education would still be mired in the anti-intellectual civility of false consensus, phony collaboration, and embrace of “best practices” that only serves to keep the status quo ante. While some reformers find this to be discomforting, Rhee’s willingness to call things and people as they are provides much needed-clarity in a battle in which sophistry and demagoguery from the likes of Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is the norm.

Then there’s the presence of Rhee herself. Certainly some may have been discomforted by the photo of Rhee holding a broom on the cover of Time. But that very image also attracted much-needed new voices into the school reform movement and galvanized the support among those who never gave much thought to the possibility that systemic reform of public education could be done. Every movement needs its Churchills, its Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs, the controversial big faces who can attract attention needed to drive its cause forward, who can take the barbs of opponents, while others work on the ground to make things happen. Without Rhee (and without figures such as Kopp, Howard Fuller, John Norquist, Virginia Walden Ford, Steve Barr, and Joel Klein), the school reform movement would still be a coterie of wonks, chamber of commerce members, and southern governors. And you can’t transform education without a wide array of voices from all backgrounds fighting for brighter futures for all children.

Meanwhile Rhee’s impact can be seen in Washington, D.C., where she gained fame and infamy during a four-year period as overseer of the district’s turnaround. Certainly Rhee is likely disappointed by successor Kaya Henderson’s less-than-sensible this week to temporarily halt the IMPACT teacher evaluation regime –the hallmark of her tenure and the most-successful performance management effort in the nation — in order to alleviate concerns about the district’s transition to tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards. [Your editor will have more thoughts on this later this week.] But even with IMPACT halted for the time being, the data shows that Rhee’s reform efforts have been successful in helping more kids in the nation’s capital get high-quality education. The concerns expressed in 2010 by then-Contributing Editor Steve Peha have proven to be unfounded.

The percentage of DCPS fourth-graders reading Below Basic as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 61 percent to 51 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education; the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 25 percent in that same period. The average DCPS fourth-grader reads a grade level higher in 2013 than they did six years earlier. Black and Latino children showed the greatest improvements. The percentage of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by five percentage points (from 67 percent to 62 percent), while the percentage of them reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by four percentage points (from nine percent to 13 percent) in that same period.

While the percentage of Latino fourth-graders reading Below Basic remained unchanged, the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 26 percent in that time. The percentage of kids from poor households reading at levels of functional illiteracy have also declined. Between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of fourth-graders eligible for free and reduced lunch reading Below Basic declined from 71 percent to 63 percent, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels doubled from six percent to 12 percent; the average fourth-grader on free- and reduced priced lunch read at half a grade level higher in 2013 than six years earlier.

This isn’t to say the work begun by Rhee and being continued by Henderson has been an unqualified success. Like other traditional districts, DCPS has not done well on preparing kids for success in higher education and career that is the key marker of success in this stage of reform emerging a decade after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. But that is understandable. After all, DCPS’ overhaul began long after districts such as Houston and New York City began their efforts. There’s also the unwillingness of Rhee and Henderson to address the allegations of test cheating that occurred during the former’s tenure, which continues to cast a cloud on the successes they have achieved. Rhee should have displayed more candor on this front. Period.

There’s also the fact that DCPS is still struggling with improving literacy for young black men, especially those from poor households. Getting this right is critical to the Rhee’s reform efforts yielding lasting fruit. The percentage of low-income young black men in fourth grade reading Below Basic did decline by three percentage points between 2007 and 2013 (from 76 percent to 73 percent), and the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by two percentage points (from four percent to six percent). But the average scale score declined by two points (from 183 to 181); the average young black fourth-grade young man educated in DCPS reads at a grade-and-a-half level below that of his peer nationwide.

Yet Rhee helped spur the reforms needed to help the district toss off its status as the Superfund Site of American public education  — and has given black and white families the possibility that they can send their kids to high-performing schools. IMPACT has shown the way on how districts can effectively use school data in evaluating and ultimately, improving the quality of teachers working it classrooms. Ultimately, Rhee, along with former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and Boston’s Tom Payzant, has shown that traditional districts can be overhauled. Whatever your views on whether the traditional district should continue to exist as a way to provide education (your editor’s views are well-known on this front), Rhee has proven that failure clusters need not be immortal. Rhee has also proven lie to the traditionalist argument that only so-called experts should be charged with operating districts and schools. We need great leaders who understand the challenges facing them, yet are willing to take them on for our kids.

All in all, the school reform movement needs more challenging and divisive figures like Michelle Rhee to continue the transformation of American public education. We also need Rhee to continue playing her part. Our children needs all the strong voices they can get to fight on their behalf.

August 15, 2014 standard

If you want to understand why a strong federal role is needed in advancing systemic reform of American public education — and why arguments for a so-called “energized retrenchment” or backsliding in that role from some conservative reformers like Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education are unconvincing — consider what happened in 1946 after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Morgan v. Virginia.

The case, which stemmed from the arrest of Irene Morgan, a Baltimore woman who had just gotten over a miscarriage, by Hayes Store, Va., police in 1944 for refusing to hand her seat on a Greyhound bus to white riders, would be one of the first blows against Jim Crow segregation. Under the ruling, the high court ruled that it was unconstitutional and illegal for southern states to segregate bus stations and other transportation hubs. For civil rights activists of the time, there was hope that southern states would obey the ruling and stop enforcing these set of Jim Crow laws.

This didn’t happen. Southern states continued to enforce Jim Crow in bus stations and train terminals for another 15 years, ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling. Governors and state legislators, along with the Klansmen and ancien régime of plantation owners who backed them, there was no reason for them to end the segregation laws and policies from which they benefited politically, ideologically, and financially. More importantly, from where they sat, black people were not human, and thus, not deserving of equality under the law. Morgan would not be enforced until 1961, when U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in response to the violence against civil rights activists during the Freedom Rides, successfully pushed the Interstate Highway Commission to enforce the high court’s order.

For civil rights activists of that time, and for school reformers of today, there are several clear lessons from the Morgan experience, several of which I have illustrated over the past few years. But one of those lessons is crystal clear: That without a strong, active, federal role, states will rarely do the right thing when it comes to addressing policies and practices that are damaging to blacks, Latinos, and other minorities (as well as to poor whites). And that is especially true when it comes to American public education. Which is why arguments by Smarick and others for a less-active federal role don’t square with reality. You can’t be a reformer and think that you can do the right thing by all children by simply relying on activism at the nation’s statehouses.

Why is this even a discussion? You can, in part, thank Smarick, who has done a service for reformers by writing a series of pieces on the role of movement conservative thinking in the school reform movement. In his latest essay, Smarick takes a wrong turn by arguing that it is time for what he calls an “energized retrenchment” that involves scaling back the federal role in advancing systemic reform embraced since the 1980s by Ronald Reagan and his successors. Anticipating that Republicans will capture control of the U.S. Senate, noting the disdain for expansive federal role among movement conservatives within the party’s political base (especially with their opposition to everything the Obama Administration undertakes), and pointing to opposition to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, Smarick argues that the next wave of reform will feature less-active federal policymaking.

There are a number of problems with Smarick’s argument. There’s the assumption that the reforms undertaken by Obama, most-notably Race to the Top, haven’t worked out. Tell that to the school choice activists who have successfully passed voucher measures in more than 13 states, the children who attend the 1,091 new charter schools opened between 2010 and 2013, and families in cities such as Adelanto, Calif., who have taken over failing schools using Parent Trigger laws passed as a result of the competitive grant competition. This isn’t to say Race to the Top has been a qualified success — and it will be another few years before we know for sure. [Let's not even bother with the administration's waiver gambit.] But this big initiative, like the No Child Left Behind Act, has shown that big initiatives at the federal level lead to the success of smaller efforts spurred by it.

There’s also Smarick’s failure to acknowledge that the dissatisfaction among movement conservatives has far less to do with principles than with their disdain for the Obama Administration, and their desire to roll back anything associated with the Second Bush Administration. More than likely, a Republican president will embrace the reformer-in-chief role because they will understand, as Reagan and his successors did, the consequences of the nation’s education crisis on its economy and society. The fact the federal government should hold states accountable for the subsidies they are given under No Child — part of the whatever government is doing it should do well that is an oft-forgotten tenet of modern conservatism — also forces it to take a more-prominent role in education policymaking.

But the biggest problem with Smarick’s argument comes crystal clear in his declaration that scaling back the federal role in advancing reform doesn’t mean “do-nothing-ism” that leads to “the most disadvantaged kids will be forgotten”. That doesn’t square with history, that stubborn thing that interferes with all elegant theories. What American history has long ago shown is that without strong federal action, state governments rarely do the right thing by poor and minority children. Especially black children and their communities.

As Ilya Somin of the libertarian Cato Institute points out in a recent policy analysis on federalism and liberty, the underlying reality is that without federal intervention, states would have continued policies such as slavery and state-sanctioned segregation. This is especially clear when you look at the history of American public education during the civil rights era.

After the Supreme Court handed down its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation of public schools and the official refusal to provide equal financial resources to schools serving black and white kids, southern states refused to obey the law. Instead, states such as Virginia and Arkansas engaged in Massive Resistance efforts, shutting down school districts in order to defy the ruling, and even stopping districts such as Alexandria, Va., from engaging in their own school integration efforts. Other states would follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit, shutting down schools in black neighborhoods instead of providing what was then considered to be high-quality education.

Smarick is well-meaning. But he offers a misguided vision that will not serve the school reform movement well.

It took Lyndon Baines Johnson’s successful passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, the key civil rights law governing American public education, to finally force southern states to follow Brown in both letter and in spirit. But the law that is now the No Child Left Behind Act wasn’t just geared to dealing with recalcitrant southern states. Districts in New England and Midwestern states such as Massachusetts and Indiana engaged in their own equally-pernicious forms of state-sanctioned segregation; thanks to this predecessor of No Child, civil rights activists were able to address those issues.

This isn’t to say that the more-active federal role in education policymaking is perfect or always an unqualified success. The Obama Administration’s debacle of an effort to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions offer a cautionary example of what not to do. Nor is it to say that the federal government necessarily does the right thing on its own accord. As I noted earlier this month, federal intervention in civil rights matters, for example, only came after activists forced Eisenhower and then Kennedy to take action. Johnson’s own laudable efforts to pass civil rights legislation, as much driven by his own morality as by political calculations about winning higher office, waned after he felt that Martin Luther King and others didn’t cater enough to his prodigious-yet-fragile ego. And as Somin notes, we must keep in mind that the federal government itself helped perpetuate slavery and segregation thanks in part to senators and congressmen from southern states who held sway over Congress.

All that said, it is clear that the federal role is crucial to advancing reforms that help all children succeed. This is because it can be difficult for even the most reform-minded governors, with strong support for his efforts from activists and wonks on the ground, to overhaul public education. Because NEA and AFT affiliates, along with suburban districts, and university schools of education have often been the ones with the greatest influence and control over public education, they can resist systemic reform efforts. Ultimately, it takes the imprimatur of the federal government, along with legislation and other policymaking inside the Beltway, to give reformers at the state level the tools needed to beat back traditionalists.

While it was southern state governors and chambers of commerce who began the first steps toward systemic reform during the late 1970s, it was the Reagan Administration’s 1983 release of A Nation at Risk that pushed other states to make reform a priority; by 1986, some 250 commissions and panels were working on school reform, according to Susan Fuhrman (now president of Columbia University’s Teachers College). Though states such as Florida began developing accountability regimes in the early 1990s, it was the steps taken by Bill Clinton with his successful reauthorization of ESEA in 1994, then George W. Bush’s work in passing No Child nearly a decade later, that would spur the array of reforms that have proceeded in the past two decades.

Yet conservative reformers and their movement conservative brethren refuse to fully understand and accept this reality. But this isn’t surprising. The first reason: Movement conservatism’s penchant for relying on traditional institutions and ideas has always been as much a flaw as a virtue. The blind adherence to what my friend Jeremy Lott calls the democracy of the dead can often result in conservatives being unwilling to address injustice by those institutions even when it is morally and intellectually justified to do so. As a result, conservatives find themselves loyal to institutions and policies that may not deserve their loyalty as intellectuals or morally decent people.

This reliance on tradition also leads many conservatives to eschew systems thinking and fail to admit that structures can perpetuate policies and practices that damage the futures of children. Because of this, conservatives fail to appreciate that problems are often a result of bad structures that perpetuate human failings. Just as importantly, conservatives fail to realize that reliance on tradition can often be as senseless as technocratic thinking because it is based on limited human reasoning. As famed conservative philanthropist John M. Olin would likely note, because earlier generations don’t have the benefit of data and knowledge that has come since they left this earth, the correct conclusions for their time may be incorrect today (and, with benefit of hindsight, may have been wrong even then).

Reason number two has to deal with modern conservatism’s longstanding problem in dealing with the racialism that is America’s Original Sin, which still perpetuates itself in American public education through policies and practices such as zoned schooling and overuse of suspensions and expulsions. As Claremont’s William Voegeli noted in a 2008 essay, the conservative movement has still never fully reckoned with its shameful legacy of downplaying the need to end Jim Crow segregation during the civil rights struggles of the last century. And as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has noted, we who are conservative should admit this more often.

Because movement conservatives of that time such as William F. Buckley Jr., and Barry Goldwater didn’t view state-sanctioned racism as the great moral question that it was, because their fetish for preserving tradition led them to believe that the federal government didn’t have the obligation to address segregation, because of their concerns about communism and the expansion of federal government, and because they viewed the civil disobedience by activists such as Martin Luther King (as well as their push to force social change) as an affront to the order they craved, they essentially gave succor to Jim Crow segregationists even if that wasn’t their original intent. Most movement conservatives and many conservative school reformers still have never fully addressed or atoned for these mistakes, and in a lot of cases, compound them with insensitivity to the justifiable concerns of blacks and other minorities.

As civil rights activists learned after the Morgan ruling, reformers must realize that the federal government must play a strong role on behalf of poor and minority children.

A third reason lies with the fact that most conservative reformers — save for Smarick — work in movement conservative institutions where their thinking is unlikely to be strongly challenged. Because these institutions are either activist in nature, or as in the case of Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, increasingly so, there’s little opportunity to understand the underlying theories behind the viewpoints of fellow centrist and progressive Democrat reformers. [This, by the way, holds true for centrist and progressive counterparts in the reform movement.] As a result, movement conservatives and conservative reformers close themselves off to knowledge and ideas that may change or widen their thinking. The fact that many conservative reformers and movement conservatives no longer live in big cities and almost never live in suburbs with significant minority populations such as Prince George’s County, Md., also means that they rarely have deep conversations with people who live in them or address their concerns in meaningful ways. [By the way: This is why the presence and work of the Manhattan Institute, one of the few conservative think tanks concerned with urban affairs, has to be so greatly appreciated, regardless of your ideological leanings.]

Sure, your editor greatly appreciates Smarick’s efforts to give his progressive and centrist counterparts a much-needed (if at times, limited) primer on the underpinnings of movement conservative thinking. But this conservative reformer dares to say my fellow-travelers, including Smarick, and American Enterprise Institute contrarian Rick Hess, need to open their minds as well. They would do well to pick up Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (a Dropout Nation Top Eight book in 2011) as well as read Aram Goudsouzian’s Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, to start expanding their thinking. [For progressives and centrists, picking up Friedrich Von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions would help them greatly.]

Finally, conservative reformers find themselves at a crossroads. The second wave of reforms needed to transform American public education involve supporting policies such as implementing Common Core that are considered anathema for many reasons by many of their movement conservative fellow-travelers. At the same time, conservative reformers are being challenged by their allies in the school reform movement on whether they will embrace the expansion of accountability regimes and other solutions that don’t always square with movement conservative ideology. Meanwhile they must decide how far do they evolve their thinking or even to do so at all; while ideology may die in the harsh sunlight of facts and data, it doesn’t mean those who believe in them will let them go.

Centrist and progressive Democrat reformers have already spent the past two decades dealing with challenges to their thinking and efforts from both traditionalists within their ideological circles and from conservative reform allies, especially on matters such as school choice. Conservative reformers are facing the same challenge. As with centrist and progressive counterparts, conservative reformers must decide if their greatest concern is with building brighter futures for all children (and working in the big tent that is the reform movement), or with adhering to first principles that may not always match up with the reality of the education crisis (as well as disturbing the relationships they have with their ideological counterparts). That for some conservative reformers, most-notably school choice activists, the fact that they also benefit financially from their work also makes matters difficult.

This isn’t to say that Smarick isn’t well-meaning in his misguided argument for energized retrenchment. Like so many of my fellow conservative reformers, he does mean well. But on this matter, Smarick is off-target. Let’s hope energized retrenchment on systemic reform never happens.

August 14, 2014 standard

There are reformers who wonder how why systemic reform of American public education matters in addressing the underlying racial issues that have led to the alleged murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown and the protests happening in Ferguson, Mo. All they need to do is to consider the data on overuse of suspensions and expulsions by the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves the kids in the St. Louis suburb.

During the 2011-2012 school year, 829 young black men and women were meted out one out-of-school suspension by Ferguson-Florissant. That’s 8.1 percent of the 10,197 black children attending the district’s schools, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Another 705 black children — or another 7.2 percent of kids — were suspended by the district more than once during the 2011-2012 school year. All in all, Ferguson-Florissant meted out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students.

Meanwhile Ferguson-Florissant meted even more discipline. This is in the form of in-school suspensions, which often involves tossing kids into rooms where they often sit around instead of learning in classrooms. While some have touted in-school suspensions as a better alternative to tossing kids out of school, the evidence suggests that this isn’t so. The district placed another 2,087 black children into in-school suspensions; that meant 20.5 percent of Ferguson’s black children, who make up the majority of the district’s population of 13,234, were kept out of classrooms.

Let’s put this into context compared to the white kids who attend Ferguson-Florissant. A mere 68 white kids — or 3.3 percent of the district’s white student population — was suspended only once in 2011-2012, while another 33 white kids (or 1.6 percent) were suspended more than once during the school year In-school suspensions were meted out to another 149 white kids, or 7.2 percent of the population.

Put simply, if you are a black kid attending Ferguson-Florissant schools, you have at least a one-in-seven chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline. If you are a white kid, the chances are only two in 100.

Ferguson-Florissant kids weren’t being suspended because they were engaged in violent behavior or carrying guns. The district had no out-of-school suspensions for violent acts, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, nor were kids suspended for alcohol consumption. While Ferguson-Florissant’s suspension rate for drug use was 0.4 per 100 kids in its schools, that rate was only slightly higher than the 0.3 percent rate for the state as a whole.

Yet Ferguson-Florissant’s out-of-school suspension rate of 5.6 per 100 students is rate five times higher than that for the entire state as a whole. The length of times kids are suspended by the district is also high. On average, 2.2 kids per 100 students were suspended for 10 consecutive days during the 2011-2012 school year, almost double the 1.3 kid per 100 for the state overall. And Ferguson-Florissant suspended 3.4 kids per 100 students for more than 10 consecutive days, eight times the statewide rate of 0.4 per 100 students.

Are Ferguson-Florissant’s kids coming from violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods? Not based on the data. There were just two reported homicides per 100,000 people in Ferguson in 2012, a sixty-percent decline from the homicide rate of five per 100,000 in the previous year. The aggravated assault rate of 37 per 100,000 (a decline from 47 per 100,000 in 2011) is also extraordinarily low. Certainly Ferguson has higher levels of poverty than many parts of the United States. But as the data shows, poverty and crime aren’t correlated. Nearby Florissant, which is also served by the district, had a homicide rate of zero in 2012 and just one per 100,000 in the previous year; the city’s aggravated assault rate was 47 per 100,000 in 2012, a slight decline from 53 per 100,000 in the previous year. Keep in mind that 73,387 people live in both Ferguson and the much-larger Florissant.

Again, let’s put this in context: A black child attending Ferguson-Florissant schools is more likely to be subjected to harsh forms of school discipline than be affected by violent crime in their neighborhoods.

What is clear is that Ferguson-Florissant is likely suspending kids at high levels because of issues such as disruptive behavior and attendance, all of which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means that can both teach children the impact of their behavior on school communities and themselves while also giving them a path to getting back onto the path to graduation. With 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, the overuse of suspensions and expulsions shows that the district isn’t dealing adequately with the literacy issues that often lead to discipline issues.

The only good thing that can be said is that the out-of-school suspensions on their own have not led to a lower graduation rate; Ferguson-Florissant’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012 was a mere five points lower than the state average. But that could easily be because Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions is overcome by its proximity to other school districts; kids who are being pushed out by the district can attend other schools in districts such as the ever-woeful St. Louis and the soon-to-be-shut down Normandy district (from whose high school Brown had graduated before his tragic demise). Without such proximity, it is quite likely that Ferguson-Florissant’s graduation rates would be as low as many districts that overuse harsh school discipline. More importantly, given the low graduation rates for those surrounding districts, it is quite likely that those who have been subjected to suspensions and expulsions have also likely dropped out.

Certainly the experience of Ferguson-Florissant illustrates what decades of data on school discipline have shown long ago: That far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. That the underlying reasons for discipline have less to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession,than with misbehavior that can be addressed through better means. That such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) doesn’t improve school cultures or even makes schools safer for kids. That overuse of suspensions and expulsions lets teachers and school leaders off the hook for not addressing the learning issues at the heart of why kids act out in school.

We also already know that the consequences of such use of discipline is that kids end up dropping out into poverty and prison. 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. Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure.

But Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of harsh school discipline — and that of other districts throughout the country — isn’t just about a district failing the children who most need nurturing, high-quality education. It is also about this reality: What happens in our schools ends up in our streets. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of the police in 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.

In fact, districts end up bringing law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Truancy cases account for 33 percent of all status (or illegal only because the child is a minor) cases referred to the nation’s juvenile courts in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; schools accounted for 55 percent of all truancy referrals (and, given that schools often work closely with police departments, that rate is likely even higher). In fact, schools account for one out of every five status cases referred to juvenile courts that year, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.

Because judges are ill-equipped to deal with most juvenile cases — which often results from some combination of shoddy education and bad parenting — the result is that our most-vulnerable children end up being put into a cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Or, as Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman would say, they become the usual suspects, and thus, are known as such to teachers, school leaders, and law enforcement.

But this perception isn’t just limited to those kids who end up getting caught up in school discipline and juvenile courts. All poor and minority children, especially young black men who are the ones subjected to educational abuse and malpractice, end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured and developed. As a result, they end up facing their virtual and literal Michael Brown moments, both at the hands of police and even at the hands of other black people. All this perpetuates cultures of death in which our kids are dehumanized, and then their futures and lives are slaughtered.

School reformers, especially those who try to downplay the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline on the futures of children, must realize that the damage of failed policies and practices done by districts against kids don’t stay within schoolhouses. Making the use of harsh school discipline rare and only for the most-serious offenses, along with overhauling how we provide kids teaching and curricula, is critical to keeping our children, especially our young black men and women in Ferguson and Florissant, on the path to futures in which everyone treats them with dignity and respect. The time for reformers to step up and lead, both within American public education and outside of it, is now.