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March 23, 2015 standard

The U.S. Department of Education is celebrating improvements in United States high school graduation rates overall and its finding that the graduation rates of Latino and Black students are improving faster than the national average. Putting aside the dubious measure used – four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate – and the serious conceptual and technical issues in the calculations (don’t ask), the data accompanying the announcement directs our attention to some matters of interest at the state level.

For all the debate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, we must remember that primary and secondary education are state responsibilities, administratively, fiscally and in terms of policy, except insofar as the federal government takes a role in these matters, which is sometimes quite minor and never predominant. The quality of education available to students therefore varies among the states and, because of differences in state policies and practices, opportunities for education vary within states.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education has recently found that funding within states between districts with high rates of poverty and those with low rates of poverty can greatly differ. In fact, the gap between per-pupil spending between our poorest and wealthiest districts have increased over the past decade. Wealthier districts spent 10.8 percent more than high-poverty districts in 2002; they now spend 15.6 percent more today.

In 23 states districts serving the highest percentage of students from low-income families are spending fewer state and local funds per pupil than districts that have fewer students in poverty. In 20 states, districts serving a high percentage of minority students are spending fewer state and local funds than districts that have fewer minority students. Now school spending isn’t everything – and lots of districts regardless of demographics spend money badly. But it is clear that nearly half the nation’s state governments have decided to spend more of taxpayers’ funds on White and comparatively well-off students than on children from low-income and minority families.

But then there are other examples of how poorly political leaders and others think of Black, Latino, and low-income children. This can be seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both are prosperous states with progressive histories; Minnesota even has a self-proclaimed reputation for “niceness.” But neither state are all that nice for Black, Latino, and poor children or for their families.

Minnesota’s traditional public schools work very well for White children, with 85 percent of them graduating in four years according to the federal government’s adjusted cohort graduation rate. But they don’t work so well for other children. The graduation rate for Minnesota’s black students is 28 percent lower than that for Whites, while the graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students are, respectively, 26 and 36 percentage points below that of Whites.

Wisconsin’s public schools are also highly successful for White children, graduating more than 92 percent of the adjusted cohort of White children in four years. But the schools are also not very nice for poor and minority children. Black students graduate at levels 26 percent lower than White students. The graduation rates for Latino and Native students are also in the pits.

How bad are the gaps in graduation rates between White and Black students in both states? Their gaps are, respectively, 15 and 13 percent greater than that for Mississippi, and 18 and 16 percent greater than that for Alabama. Based on the data, you can ascertain that opportunities for high-quality education in the Deep South are greater than in two of our most “progressive” states. You can also say it the other way: That Minnesota and Wisconsin are twice as racist as Mississippi and Alabama. Either way, how nice is that?

But this isn’t a surprise. Minnesota and Wisconsin also have astronomical incarceration rates for Black men, as well as astronomical disparities between incarceration rates for Black and White men. As I wrote in 2013 about Milwaukee and Wisconsin, a Black family would be better off in Mississippi than in the Dairy State, and this also holds true when it comes to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But are the conditions for Blacks and other minorities in Minnesota and Wisconsin examples of institutional racism. Though they could be unforeseeable racist outcomes of blind institutional forces, I wouldn’t say so. These are examples of the decisions made, every day, by individuals in both states as well as throughout this entire country.

Just as a new police chief in Ferguson or New York City can simply order the police to behave toward Black men as they behave toward White men, so in Minneapolis and Milwaukee the police chiefs and prosecutors could do the same. But they don’t. Similarly, it is the individual responsibility of chief state school officers, superintendents, school boards and others to give Black students the same educational opportunities, schools of the same quality that they provide for White students. But in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, they don’t.

These police chiefs, district attorneys, district and state superintendents, go to their offices each morning and decide to arrest, prosecute and imprison much higher percentages of Black than White people, to provide better schools for White than for Black children. Don’t they? Of course they do. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.

The education officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota have, no doubt, read the press releases from the U.S. Department of Education containing this latest batch of data telling of their shame. And now they could, if they wish, improve the prospects of the Black children in their care. Or they might, as they have been doing, simply encourage their colleagues to build more prisons.

March 17, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes aim at reformers who defend practices such as overuse of harsh school discipline and restrictions on school choice, as well as remind the movement of why these failed approaches in American public education must be ditched.

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.

March 13, 2015 audio

On this edition of On the Road, RiShawn Biddle joins Noodle and Princeton Review founder John Katzman and Jessica Reid Sliwerski of Lightsail Education for a debate on an emerging issue in education: Who should get use of — and access to — formative tests and other student and teacher data. Should it only be teachers? Or should it include school leaders and families, too?

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

March 12, 2015 standard

In the weeks since the embarrassment of having his plan for eviscerating the No Child Left Behind Act yanked from a full house vote, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline has spent plenty of time trying to revive it. As you would expect, conservative reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham are doing their part by proclaiming that Kline’s plan, the Student Success Act, would put an end to “big government conservatism” and help erase what many movement conservatives consider to be the excesses of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Yet as Dropout Nation has noted since November, the odds of Kline’s plan — or any No Child reauthorization — being passed this year or in the next is slim to none. Especially in the case Kline’s plan, also known as House Resolution 5, the perceptions of the proposal among true-believer and new-styled movement conservatives (as well as among Republican and Democrat colleagues in the Senate) are already set. Better for Kline (and Senate counterpart Lamar Alexander) to just their efforts die and move on.

Unsurprisingly, some reporters and conservative reformers who were shocked by the rejection of H.R. 5 have tried to find some sort of culprit for what happened. This has included pointing to an opinion piece against the standards on an anti-Common Core Web site that wrongly proclaimed that the No Child reauthorization plan would place restrictions upon families homeschooling their children.

But this interpretation of events by those reporters and pundits (who are still smarting from failing to pay attention to the congressional Republican politics at play) ignores the reality that the ire among movement conservatives against Kline’s proposal had been stoked long before that piece came out. This included a manifesto issued weeks before that piece by a group of otherwise-sensible conservative reformers led by Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas and Hoover Institution scholar Williamson Evers which called for No Child’s annual testing requirements to be scrapped from it. Two years earlier, movement conservative true-believers and their allies in the House Republican caucus nearly succeeded in derailing full House passage of an earlier version of the Student Success Act; Kline managed to gain enough votes for passage by working his colleagues the weekend before the final voted.

Licking his proverbial wounds, aware that he will no longer serve on Education and the Workforce after 2016 thanks to term limits on committee chairmanships, and looking to secure some sort of legacy as the chief education policy guy for House Republicans, Kline is doing all he can to win over his peers. This includes getting conservative reformers to write in favor of H.R. 5, as well as issuing releases from the committee geared at setting the record straight. The problem with this? It is later than he thinks. Way too late.

Thanks to the battles over implementing Common Core and the view stoked by Kline and some conservative reformers that federal support for implementation is federal overreach (along with the ire Kline’s staff on Education and the Workforce have stoked over all aspects of federal education policy), true-believers among movement conservatives, already angry at the excesses real and imagined of the Bush presidency, are even less-interested in a No Child reauthorization.

Kline’s proxies can’t help him much because they have no credibility with the hardest of the hardcore in the conservative movement. After all, many of them, especially Petrilli, have touted Common Core’s reading and math standards, that other bete noire among hardcore movement conservatives. Certainly this wouldn’t have been much of a problem if Petrilli and others did as your editor suggested and challenged opposition to Common Core among their fellow-travelers earlier and more vigorously. It would also help their cause if they engaged in some logical consistency on the federal role in education; to many hardcore movement conservatives uninvolved in education, they seem to be talking out of both sides of their proverbial mouths.

[By the way: The accusations of apostasy from movement conservatives against Fordham is one reason why Petrilli is steering a course that includes arguing that some children don’t need higher education (even as the think tank continues to support Common Core implementation) and perspectives on issues such as how to stem single-parent households that have revealed the myopia on racial issues among himself and others in the school reform movement.]

Given that activists among movement conservatives (and their allies in Congress) are far more likely to take their cue on H.R. 5 from the Heritage Foundation than from Fordham (or even the American Enterprise Institute, which has always been viewed by as an organization touting conservatism light), it is unlikely that anything Petrilli or his brethren argue will convince them to support it. This means that Heritage’s Lindsey Burke, who signed the Greene-Evers manifesto, has more influence among movement conservatives than either Petrilli or Hess.

None of this is promising for Kline; Burke has already made clear that movement conservatives should either demand Kline to come up with a No Child reauthorization more to their liking or oppose his apostasy. You can also expect that Heritage Action, the already-political think tank’s even more political activism unit, won’t back off from opposing H.R. 5 as currently written. Same for the Club for Growth, another key player in halting passage of Kline’s plan.

With so little movement conservative support for it, Kline’s plan has as much chance of passing as an immigration reform plan, which means no chance at all. But this isn’t just a problem for Kline. Because House Republicans have to approve any No Child reauthorization passed out of the Senate, it also means that Alexander’s own proposal won’t get any support from House Republicans, either.

Not that the Tennessee Republican’s chance of passing No Child out of the Senate would be easy in the first place. Certainly Alexander and Ranking House Education Labor and Pensions Committee Democrat Patty Murray are trying to negotiate a bipartisan plan. But there are still numerous, substantial disagreements over accountability and other issues. Just as importantly, President Obama is unlikely to sign any plan that eviscerates his own legacy on education policy, and on that front, Alexander’s plan is no different than that of Kline.

This isn’t to say that the impossible cannot happen. But it’s not bloody likely. Kline and his supporters can try to resurrect H.R. 5 all they want. It still won’t mean it isn’t a dead bill. After all, unlike Jesus, the proposal’s father isn’t either omnipotent, omniscient, or jireh.

March 11, 2015 standard

Like some other urban school districts, New York City has a system of elite, specialized, high schools, admission to which is governed by a test. As Dropout Nation readers already know, I have documented the role these schools play in perpetuating the racial caste system that condemn so many black and Latino children to poverty and imprisonment. And once again, the data shows that this continues.

As the New York Times reported last week, of “the 5,103 students offered placement in eight specialized high schools [in 2014-2015], five percent were black and seven percent were Hispanic, the same as last year . . . At Stuyvesant High School, historically the hardest to get into, black students earned 10 of the 953 seats.”

That is, one percent, in a school system in which 30 percent of the students are Black. Of course, “black” students are not necessarily African American and students admitted to New York’s specialized high schools have not necessarily attended the district’s middle schools. All 10 of those “black” new freshman at Stuyvesant could be the children of foreign diplomats. At the one percent level, anything can happen.

Year after year the city administers an admission test claimed to be objective and year after year the result is on the face of it discriminatory. What do we say about a situation in which the professed objectives and the actual outcomes differ so greatly? We say that the actual goal of the process is that which is achieved: to exclude African-American students from the best educational opportunities available.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools has released a policy brief on the issue. The authors, Sean Corcoran and Christine Baker-Smith, found that “more than half of the students who were admitted to a specialized high school came from just five percent of the City’s public middle schools.” Were those excellent middle schools located in the three extraordinarily segregated neighborhoods in which most of the city’s Black students live?


Corcoran and Baker-Smith tested various alternatives to the current system as paths to equity. They found that an “admissions rule that would substantially change the demographic mix of the specialized high schools—and reduce the concentration of offers in a small number of middle schools—is a rule that guarantees admission to all students across the City who are in the top 10 percent of their middle school.” This approach has been used in Texas for admission to that state’s elite university.

The present system of admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools is damaging in many ways.

It, along with the entire structure of school choice and gifted and talented education, validates the differences in the quality of education offered by the city’s schools, putting the onus for a student’s educational opportunities on the student’s family, rather than on the system itself. In other words, it helps maintain the inferior quality of education available to students from impoverished, less highly educated, families. That is on the input side, as it were. On the output side, it limits lifetime opportunities for Black students, denying them access to the educational and social networking opportunities of the elite high schools.

In this way, racial discrimination in the United States is supported by the nation’s education system as a full partner in that effort with the nation’s criminal justice system. What happens in Ferguson, Mo. – where the district and law enforcement come together to condemn the lives of Black people – also happens in the City of New York.

The top 10 percent rule would require a change in the law. Perhaps Mayor Bill de Blasio could add that to his legislative agenda. How hard could that be, at least to try?

Meanwhile, 95 percent of New York City’s Black students are denied the opportunity of the world-class education offered by the city’s outstanding specialized high schools, one of which is attended by the mayor’s son.

March 10, 2015 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle considers Education Next‘s myopic misstep on addressing single-parents and education, then explains why the school reform movement must embrace racial, gender, ideological, and social diversity.

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.