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September 10, 2014 standard

If you want to know why Gov. Andrew Cuomo should move to push for expanding school choice, both in New York City and throughout the rest of the Empire State, all you have to do is look at the latest results from last year’s battery of standardized tests. There’s no way anyone in New York State can morally or intellectually justify trapping our children, especially those from poor and minority households, in the worst public education offers.

Plenty has already been said about the Families for Excellent Schools’ report determining that not a single black or Latino child in 90 Big Apple’s schools passed any of the state’s tests. There’s also Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman’s brief today on the low levels of reading proficiency for black and Latino kids in the city’s traditional district None of this should be a surprise. The school reform efforts of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors were successful in reducing the percentage of kids mired in functional illiteracy. But as with Houston and San Diego, both of which have been successful in addressing basic literacy, New York City is struggling in this latest stage of reform, one in which how well kids are prepared for success in higher education and careers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy is far more critical.

Meanwhile districts in the rest of the Empire State, many of which have avoided even the most-basic efforts at systemic reform, are doing even worse in improving achievement for the children in their care.

In Buffalo, just 14 percent of eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels (called Levels 3 and 4) on this year’s state tests. Even worse, 54 percent of the district’s eighth-graders were functionally illiterate, reading only at Level 1 (or Below Basic) on the exam. Particularly for black and Latino kids who make up the vast majority of Buffalo’s student population, sitting in one of the district’s classrooms means falling behind; just seven percent of black kids in third-through-eighth grade, along with eight percent of their Latino peers, read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Put bluntly: Just 667 black and Latino kids out of 9,734 read at or above grade level. For young men of all backgrounds, Buffalo’s schools are also a gateway to economic and social abyss; a mere nine percent of young men of all backgrounds — that’s 628 out of 7,129 young men — read proficiently on the tests, versus an almost as abysmal 14 percent of their young women peers.

Another faltering district is Rochester, the subject of Holzman’s This is Dropout Nation analysis last month. A mere six percent of eighth-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 70 percent were functionally illiterate. Put bluntly, almost none of Flower City’s eighth-graders will likely achieve success in higher education and in career once they leave high school in four years. Just four percent of black and Latino third-through-eighth-graders — a mere 427 out of 11,095 black and Latino kids — read at Proficient and Advanced levels. And just four percent of the district’s young men — a mere 293 out of 6,640– read at or above grade level versus a just as atrocious seven percent of young women peers.

But it isn’t just big city districts doing poorly. Consider the notoriously-inept Roosevelt Union Free district in Nassau County near the Big Apple. Just 12 percent of the district’s eight-graders read at Levels 3 and 4, while 48 percent — that is one in two –read at Level 1 or Below Basic proficiency. Only 11 percent of Roosevelt’s black third-through-eighth graders — or just 112 out of 1,136 kids — read at or above grade level. Meanwhile a mere seven percent of young men in the district (that’s 49 out of 665 of them) read at Proficient and Advanced levels, versus 13 percent of young women in third-through-eighth grade.

When only a handful of children are reading well enough to succeed in school and in life, it is more than a tragedy. It is an economic and social calamity that weakens not only the Empire State, but the nation as a whole. Certainly this calls for systemic reforms, especially in how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers, as well as in furthering the implementation of Common Core’s reading and math standards. For the latter, as well as for honest reporting on how poorly districts are providing education to our kids, Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King deserve high praise. And the Vergara suits filed by the New York City Parents Union and Partnership for Educational Justice (both of whom are now fighting each other over who will lead the charge on revamping tenure and teacher dismissal laws) are also critical to this transformation.

At the same time, children cannot wait for Albany to knock districts and ed schools into getting their acts together.   Especially since politically, they are often unwilling to do so. Our kids deserve better than the worst. And this is where expanding school choice comes in.

Education Commissioner John King and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have an opportunity to help our children in New York escape failure mills that doom their futures. Photo courtesy of the Times Union.

One key step the Empire State could take is allowing for intra-district choice, allowing kids to transfer from failing districts to better-performing traditional school operators. King already took a key step toward this last year when he allowed kids attending two failing Buffalo high school, Lafayette and East, to transfer to programs provided by operated by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Making that a reality for all kids in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse would both help kids gain high-quality education as well as end Zip Code Education policies that trap our most-vulnerable kids in schools unfit for their lives.

Expanding the array of high-quality charter schools would also help. New York State has already increased its cap on charter school expansion from 200 to 460 as part of its successful bid for funding through the federal Race to the Top competition. Ditching the cap altogether would certainly help kids in parts of New York City such as Queens where the lack of options leaves kids trapped in shoddy traditional district schools. It will even help kids in aging suburban communities such as Roosevelt that are performing as badly as many urban districts, but are hidden in pain sight. Adding another university as a high-quality charter authorizer would also help; there’s no reason why the City University of New York system or Bard College (the latter of which is operating traditional public schools focused on helping kids attain college-prep learning) couldn’t do the job.

Meanwhile the state should also launch a voucher initiative (along with a voucher-like tax credit effort) that will allow poor and minority kids to escape failing districts and attend higher-quality Catholic and parochial schools. This will be harder for Cuomo to do, largely because the state’s legislative leadership (especially Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) are often more-concerned with doing the bidding of the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State and Big Apple units as well as obeying suburban districts. This is where reformers on the ground must come in. As Dropout Nation noted last year (and as New York’s Foundation for Educational Reform and Accountability detailed in a report it released on expanding choice), advocates can launch a suit along the lines of the successful school funding lawsuit against the state led by the now-defunct Campaign for Fiscal Equity that could force the state to launch voucher programs targeting failure clusters that trap kids into despair.

All these efforts are merely steps toward what truly needs to be done in New York: Putting the state in full charge of financing public education as it is constitutionally and morally required to do. The Empire State provides just 40 percent of the $59 billion spent in 2012 on education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, below the 45 percent national average. As a result, districts can often justify resisting efforts to expand choice (both within their boundaries and even operations, as well as within the state as a whole) by perpetuating the Myth of Local Control. If the state took over full funding and then voucherized those dollars so they follow the child, families can then choose high-quality schools that fit what their kids need.

The Empire State cannot continue to live up to its motto of excelsior so long as generations of children are being condemned to the abyss. Expanding choice, along with implementing other critical reforms, is key to helping our kids escape academic prisons and avoid the ones run by the state’s criminal justice system in adulthood.

September 9, 2014 standard

Your editor gives one cheer to Minneapolis Public Schools Supt. Bernadeia Johnson for her decision last week to halt the overuse of suspensions and expulsions on kids in its early childhood education, kindergarten, and first grade classes. After all, by doing so, Johnson recognizes that harsh school discipline does nothing to help kids learn the consequences of misbehavior, and worse, allows teachers and school leaders to avoid addressing the underlying illiteracy at the heart of students acting out.

Yet your editor cannot give Johnson credit for doing only part of the right thing — especially given that she been a key player in Minneapolis’ school leadership for most of the last decade, and had ample opportunity to address suspensions and expulsions. This is especially clear after a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by Minneapolis to the U.S. Department of Education shows wide disparities in who is subjected to the harshest school discipline. The district should have long ago addressed the underlying issues behind its overuse of suspensions and other discipline that damages the futures of children.

Nine hundred eighty-three young black men and women attending Minneapolis’ regular classes were suspended once during the 2011-2012 school year. This means that eight percent of the 12,392 not condemned to special ed ghettos attending Minneapolis’ public schools were kept out of school. Another 504 black children — or 5.1 percent of  the district’s African American student population — were suspended more than once. [Another 33 black students were given in-school suspensions.]

Meanwhile 134 young black men and women were referred to law enforcement in 2011-2012; given that none of those kids were arrested in school (Minneapolis didn’t have any arrests on school grounds that year), that means that the district sent 1.1 percent of its black students to the juvenile justice system, likely for status offenses such as truancy that can (and should) be handled by the district’s school leadership. Essentially, Minneapolis is often putting kids on the path to the criminal justice system for reasons that have nothing to do with actual crimes.

Minneapolis’ school discipline levels weren’t the highest Dropout Nation has seen. But the disparities between punishment meted out to black kids and kids from white households were particularly egregious. The district meted out one out-of-school suspension to just 133 white kids or a mere 1.2 percent of the 11,392 Caucasian Americans served by the district. The district meted out multiple suspensions to another 57 white kids, or five-tenths of one percent. [In-school suspensions were meted out to just six white kids.] As for referrals to law enforcement? Just 34 white students, or three-tenths of one percent.

Put bluntly, a black child attending the Minneapolis district has a one in eight chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, while their white peer face only a two in 100 chance.

This disparity in school discipline isn’t just a problem for Minneapolis’ black students alone. The district meted out one out-of-school suspension to 7.8 percent of the 1,577 American Indian students attending its schools; another 4.8 percent were suspended more than once that year. [The district meted out in-school suspensions to four Native kids under its care.] The district also referred 2.6 percent of Native students to law enforcement, with those kids likely ending up in juvenile court for status offenses.

But as bad as the overuse of harsh school discipline — and the wide disparities — are for Minneapolis’ black and Native kids in regular classrooms, it is even worse for those condemned to the district’s special ed ghettos. The district meted out one suspension to 512 black kids in special ed — or 17.2 percent of the 2,984 black kids stuck in the ghettos.  It also meted out multiple suspensions to another 513 black kids, or another 17.2 percent.

Minneapolis gave out in-school suspensions to a mere 16 black kids. That’s good news, I guess. But the district then referred 208 black kids in special ed to law enforcement; that means seven percent of all black kids in special ed were referred that year, mostly to juvenile justice systems. Another 99 black kids (or 3.3 percent) were arrested on school grounds.

Compare this to Minneapolis’ treatment of white kids in its special ed ghettos: The district meted out just one out-of-school suspension to 91 white kids, or 5.4 percent of the 1,675 white kids in the district’s special ed ghettos; it only meted out multiple suspensions to another 54 white kids (or 3.2 percent of those condemned to special ed). Only two white kids were given in-school suspensions by the district.

Minneapolis Supt. Bernadeia Johnson has taken one good step toward addressing the district’s school discipline overuse problem. But it isn’t enough.

As for referrals to law enforcement? Minneapolis only referred 33 white kids in special ed to law enforcement; that’s a mere two percent of Caucasian Americans forced into its special ed ghettos. Only eight white kids in special ed were arrested on the district’s campuses.

Black special ed kids weren’t the only ones more-often subjected to harsh school discipline than white peers. Minneapolis meted out one suspension to 25 percent of the 315 American Indian kids forced into its special ed ghettos; another 13 percent were suspended multiple times by the district. [Two were given in-school suspensions.] Native students were the most-likely to be referred to law enforcement by the district, with 8.6 percent of them sent to juvenile courts in 2011-2012; another 2.5 percent were arrested on the district’s campuses.

The district also meted out one suspension to 6.6 percent of the 244 Asian students condemned to special ed ghettos; another 4.1 percent were suspended multiple times by the district. [In-school suspensions were meted out to just two Asian kids.] Another 1.6 percent were referred to law enforcement (and ultimately, in most cases, to juvenile court), while eight-tenths of one percent were arrested on school grounds.

Let’s just say it: If you are a black kid in Minneapolis’ special ed ghettos, you have a two-in-five chance of being suspended, arrested, or referred to the juvenile justice system, and if you are Native, that chance is one-in-two. On the other hand, if you are white or Asian, the chances are at most, one in ten. All these numbers are horrible. But even more so for the most-vulnerable of our children in this Twin Cities district.

This data explains why the U.S. Department of Education, which is following up on its issuance of guidance earlier this year on addressing overuse of school discipline by districts throughout the country (a matter opposed by some misguided reformers and defended by Dropout Nation), is investigating Minneapolis for civil rights violations. And why Johnson, facing both federal heat along with embarrassment from a Star-Tribune report last month showing massive increases in numbers of kids in early grades being suspended, belatedly decided to do part of the right thing.

At the heart of the problem is that Minneapolis is dealing miserably with the underlying illiteracy that is the key culprit for student misbehavior. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, third-grade reading performance is strongly associated with social skills. Children with strong reading skills in the early grades tend to also have good social habits (including the executive function of self-control), while those who are functionally illiterate tend to struggle with discipline.

Minneapolis, along with the rest of the urban districts in Minnesota, is dealing poorly on this front, especially for poor and minority kids. Fifty-two percent of black kids in the North Star State’s big city-districts (along with 39 percent of Asian kids) read Below Basic according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Just 47 percent of black third-graders and 45 percent of Native peers in Minneapolis reached the North Star State’s (rather lowly-set) level of reading proficiency according to its 2012 exams. This isn’t shocking. As Dropout Nation noted in 2012, the district is doing poorly in providing high-quality education to all of the children under its watch.

While the district has implemented a program focused on improving literacy in the early grades, it is using Fountas & Pinnell’s guided reading system, which doesn’t actually help students build up their comprehension by providing them with either challenge or much-needed background knowledge critical in building literacy.  As Timothy Shanahan, one of the nation’s foremost researchers on literacy, points out, guided reading’s goal of matching kids to books they can easily read is little more than “relegating them to training wheels forever” This means that the district’s efforts are doing more than putting kids on the path to suspension and, ultimately, academic as well as economic failure.

Another problem lies with the perceptions of Minneapolis’ school leaders and teachers towards children from black and Native households. Essentially many of the adults in the district believe that certain racial and ethnic groups of students are discipline problems because they think they are destined to end up that way. This can be seen in another problem for the district: The overlabeling of black and other minority kids as special ed cases.

Twenty-four percent of Minneapolis’ black students — 66 percent of them young black men — were placed into Minneapolis’ special ed ghettos in 2011-2012, double the national average. Twenty percent of Native students — 70 percent of them young American Indian men — were also labeled as special ed cases. Overuse of school discipline and overlabeling of kids as special ed cases are signs that Minneapolis (along with other districts) are subjecting them to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

[By the way: Don't think that white kids are necessarily any better off. Sure, Minneapolis is less likely to label white kids as special ed cases -- or subject them to harsh discipline -- than their black and Latino peers. But the fact that 15 percent of white kids in the district -- 70 percent of them young men -- are in special ed ghettos is disconcerting to say the least. And for all kids, such levels should be unacceptable.]

But Johnson and her charges in Minneapolis’ school leadership aren’t the only culprits. After all, kids don’t end up in principal’s offices unless referred by teachers, especially those who lack the strong training in classroom management (as well as empathy for kids regardless of background) to keep wayward kids in line as well as diagnose underlying learning issues.

These teachers are protected by the American Federation of Teachers’ Minneapolis local, which strongly oppose even Johnson’s weak effort to reduce some of the overuse. The fact that the local argues that the district should instead hire guidance counselors and mental health professionals betrays the union’s sole concern for protecting laggard members instead of looking out for the futures of kids. That the new hires it proposes the district to hire would be new rank-and-file members, and therefore, contributors to its coffers, is especially cynical.

Minneapolis is simply over-suspending far too many kids, especially from black and Native households who are the most-vulnerable. As former district board member Chris Stewart rightfully noted yesterday, Johnson’s moratorium isn’t going to do much to address that problem. The district needs to address the underlying instructional, leadership, curricula and diagnosis issues at the heart of its condemning of kids to the abyss. And it must start now.

September 8, 2014 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle offers six more steps — from asking teachers about their use of data, to advocating for free lunch for all students — that families can take to help their kids (and all kids) succeed in school and in life.

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.

September 6, 2014 standard

Sometimes the worst damages done in American public education to our young black men and women are committed by the educational incompetence of people who look like them. And this can be seen in Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest of Indianapolis’ 11 districts that is the worst collection of failure mills in the Midwest outside of Detroit.

Back in 2005, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz commented that IPS was the only district he researched in which all of its high schools were dropout factories.  Little has changed since then. While the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) improved from 32 percent to 45 percent between 2005-2006 and 2011-2012, IPS’s five-year graduation rate declined from 41 percent to 40 percent over that time, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data. [The Indiana Department of Education reports an official graduation rate of 65 percent overall and 62 percent for black students.]

The failures of the district are borne hardest upon black children, who make up the vast majority of IPS’ enrollment. Although the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate has increased from 32 percent to 49 percent, few of them are getting the college-preparatory learning they need for success in traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships. Just 8.5 percent of IPS’ black middle-schoolers were provided Algebra 1, the key course for preparing kids for higher-level math courses in high school, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database.

Just 6.4 percent of IPS’ black high schoolers took trigonometry, statistics, and other forms of advanced math, while another 6.4 percent took physics, another college preparatory course. A mere 28 black students took calculus. Even fewer took Advanced Placement courses; just 23 black students took A.P. Math, while another 58 took A.P. Science. Only 10 black students were enrolled in the district’s International Baccalaureate program. [The numbers are equally abysmal for the district's white students; just 6.6 percent white high schoolers took physics, for example.]

That’s just for the kids who actually get to stay in school: During 2011-2012, 1,794 young black men and women — or 10.7 percent of IPS’ black student population — were suspended at least once by the district. Another 1,751 black children in IPS — or another 10.5 percent of all black students — were suspended two or more times during the same period. Given that most suspensions in IPS, like in most districts, are for behaviors  such as disruptive behavior that can often be addressed through better means (and are often indicators of underlying learning issues), this means that IPS is failing to address the needs of kids in its care.

Meanwhile the district meted out in-school suspensions — technically keeping kids in school, but not actually having them attend regular classes and get any learning — to 2,033 young black people, or another 12 percent of the black student population. Altogether, one-third of black children attending IPS were subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, and as a result, fell further behind in their studies. Even worse, one out of every two black children condemned to IPS’ special ed ghetto was subjected to some form of in-school or out-of-school suspension. [Sixty-eight special ed students were either placed in restraint or what prison inmates call solitary confinement.]

Presiding over IPS’ consistent condemning of the futures of black children are black men and women who have perpetuated the district’s unenviable status as a failure cluster. Until 2013, this included the notorious Eugene White, whose eight-year tenure overseeing the district was marked by craven nepotism, shuffling incompetence into school leadership jobs, and and few improvements in student achievement. He gained particular notoriety two years ago when he claimed that IPS was failing because it served special ed kids he called “blind, crippled, crazy”.  It also includes Mary Busch, who, along with Michael D. Brown, ran IPS’ board for two decades (and let White off the hook for his nasty remarks) before they finally ended her reign of error last year.

IPS’ new leadership,  including Supt. Lewis Ferrebee, is working hard to overhaul it. But the district’s dysfunction (along with its coterie of laggard teachers and school leaders) has so ingrained in its DNA that it may be best for folks in the Indiana Statehouse to just shut it down and abandon the traditional district model altogether.

Yet IPS isn’t the only district run by black school leaders who do the kind of damage to the futures of children that would lead most of us to go on protest marches if this were done by whites. Far too many black school leaders, teachers, and even politicians, are allowed to condemn the futures of the young people who we need to bring black communities into the economic and social mainstream in an increasingly knowledge-based world.

Old-school black leaders such as Jesse Jackson have preferred to ally themselves with traditionalists concerned with keeping influence than with those who want better for our black children.

This can be seen in abject failure factories such as Camden, New Jersey, whose black leadership had been failing black kids for decades before Gov. Chris Christie finally ordered a state takeover last year. Under a string of black superintendents, including Annette D. Knox and Bessie LeFra Young (who skipped out on more than 180 days of work for two years and racked up $6,000 in travel reimbursements before being sent packing in 2012), the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate for its black students declined from 75 percent for its Class of 2006 to 61 percent for its Class of 2012. Keep this in mind: African-American men and women account for 77 percent of the district’s school leaders.

The rot isn’t just among the school leaders alone: The average Camden teacher was absent for 11.2 days during the 2008-2009 school year, according to an analysis by the Courier-Post, leading the district to spend $8,748 each day for 81 substitute teachers to fill in for absent teachers. Two years ago, the district hired an employment agency after recognizing that as many as 40 percent of classroom teachers were absent each day during the school year. This is especially shameful given that black teachers account for 43 percent of the instructors working in Camden classrooms.

There are also the black-run districts which subject far too many black children to the harshest school discipline — even when the leaders know the damage this does to their futures.

Two years ago, the Pontiac district in Michigan was cited as the worst district for suspending black kids, according to analysis of federal data by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Things haven’t improved much more based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis. Fifteen percent of Pontiac’s black students were suspended at least in 2011-2012, while another 17.6 percent were suspended more than once. [Eight tenths of one percent of its students were subjected to in-school suspensions] Altogether, a black child attending Pontiac has a one-in-three chance of being suspended during a school year. Considering that 77 percent of Pontiac’s school  leadership is black (as are 36 percent of its teachers), this is shameful. But it isn’t shocking: These are the very school leaders whose mismanagement — including former Assistant Supt. Jumanne Sledge (now in prison for diverting $236,000 in district funds to pay for his lifestyle) has nearly led Pontiac to fiscal ruin.

Four of the 10 districts ranked by the Civil Rights Project as having the highest suspension levels for black children are run by black school leaders and largely staffed by black teachers. Besides Pontiac, this includes East Jasper Consolidated in Mississippi, Bloom Township in Illinois, and Oak Park City in Michigan. Combined, these four districts meted out in-school and out-of-school suspensions to 43 percent of the black children they serve. And as with nearly all districts, the suspensions were for

Aiding and abetting these school leaders, along with other traditionalists such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, are some old-school civil rights activists and black politicians, often more-interested in sustaining their limited vision and pocketbooks than helping black children succeed.

These days, that group includes Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic party apparatchik who is now heading up the AFT’s front group against centrist Democrat reformers. There’s also Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who has long ago proven that he will never show up for advancing systemic reform. Instead, in exchange for $50,000 in donations from the AFT into the coffers of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson have supported the notoriously-bellicose Chicago local’s efforts against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reforms, including the decision two years ago to lay off 365 low-performing teachers. Let’s also not forget the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which continually debases its once-proud legacy as a school reformer. This includes its efforts in New York City and elsewhere against charter schools, as well as the resolution it passed in 2011 against the expansion of school choice beneficial to black children.

Meanwhile there are well-meaning black leaders in education who engage in equally senseless arguments defending harmful traditionalist practices because they are more-interested in protecting brethren who commit educational malpractice than about the very children for which they should show the greatest concern. The otherwise-sensible Andre Perry, dean of Davenport University’s school of urban education, took to the pages of the Washington Post last week to argue that efforts to end near-lifetime employment laws and overhaul other teacher dismissal policies would hurt black communities because laggard black teachers could lose their jobs, and thus, districts would have less-diverse teaching pools serving our kids. Forget that Perry ignores the reality that black teachers make up larger portion of instructors in charter schools (where they don’t get near-lifetime employment) than in traditional districts that do. The fact that he refuses to acknowledge the evidence — including research by outfits such as TNTP as well as reporting by the Los Angeles Times – on how tenure and other policies (including Last In-First Out layoff rules) harms the academic achievement of black children is absolutely stunning.

Now let’s be clear: There are plenty of black men and women, from classroom teachers to politicians, fighting hard every day to transform American public education for our children. This includes such folks as former Memphis school board leader Kenneth Whalum; former IPS principal (and current Chicago Public Schools principal) Jeffery White; Black Alliance for Educational Options cofounder Howard Fuller and the outfit’s chief executive, Kenneth Campbell. It also includes a generation of new civil rights leaders such as Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff, and outgoing Georgia legislator Alisha Thomas Morgan. One of the less-acknowledged benefits of the emergence of the school reform movement is that it has helped bring to prominence new and longtime black leaders who realize that the path to black economic and social empowerment begins with overhauling the schools that have damaged generations of children and communities for far too long.

At the same time, we must acknowledge these realities: That far too many black school leaders, men and women who aren’t fit to check coats at Ruth’s Chris steakhouses, are as much responsible as their white brethren for the policies and practices (including overuse of suspensions) that have condemned our sons and daughters to the abyss. That these leaders often come to the protection of laggard black teachers whose incompetence does harm to our kids every day they sit in their classrooms. That far too many old-school black politicians and civil rights leaders, both because of their own avarice as well as an unwillingness to acknowledge new evidence on addressing the nation’s education crisis, fight against the very reforms that will help our kids attain the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory learning they need and deserve. In the process, they perpetuate the educational genocide that has wrecked havoc on our children and communities, and have hobbled efforts to end the racialist policies.

These leaders who should stand for our children deserve to be called out for their failure to do right by them. We cannot let our own people be as much a cause of the debasement of our children as those whose skins aren’t brown. As champions for our black sons and daughters, this must be done. The future of Black America may well depend on it.

September 4, 2014 standard

“And then I got to Memphis.”

Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968

Recruitment for jail in the Memphis area begins in the schools. In 2011-2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights counted 26,000 out-of-school and 11,500 in-school suspensions and 4,400 expulsions, over 90 percent of which were of black students in the 100,000 student Memphis schools. There were also 100 each of referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests. In that single year, nearly 1,000 black students in the Memphis area became known to the police, while at least 40,000 others had school discipline records. New York City, with ten times as many students, had fewer than 14,000 out-of-school suspensions and exactly 332 expulsions.

This brings the question: Are black children in Memphis being “groomed” for incarceration?

Three-quarters of Memphis’ black students are not reading at grade level by ninth grade. In the suburban Shelby County district (which finally merged with Memphis in a controversial consolidation last year), black students are nearly twice as likely to reach grade level in reading as in the city’s schools. The state lists the graduation rate for African American students in Memphis in 2012 as 71 percent, roughly the same for males and females. These graduation rates are quite extraordinary. One explanation might be found in the ACT data for the districts. (The ACT is a standard test used for college admission.) The 2013 mean composite ACT score for the Memphis City School District was 16.2. The state average was 19.3 and that for Shelby County (outside Memphis) was 20.9. Half of students, nationally, taking the ACT, scored between 20 and 21. Just 23 percent scored at or below Memphis’s 16.

One can only conclude that while 70 percent of Memphis students may graduate from high school, few of them are career or college ready. After all, three-quarters of black students in Memphis could not read at grade level when they were in eighth grade.

This is borne out by some data about the two largest local postsecondary institutions: Southwest Tennessee Community College and the University of Memphis. Let us assume that all the black students at Southwest Tennessee Community College and the University of Memphis were graduates of the Memphis city schools. (Of course some were from other districts and some students from the Memphis city schools went elsewhere, but for the sake of the argument, we will assume that these factors approximately balance.) This gives us 8,000 black students in grade 9, including 4,600 black males.

Four years later 7,000 black students graduate, including 3,400 black males. Of these, 2,000 go to Southwest Tennessee Community College and 835 go to the University of Memphis, 700 and 265 of whom, respectively, are Black males. Forty-five black students graduate with Associate’s degrees from Southwest Tennessee Community College within 150 percent of normal time, 16 of whom are Black males. Two hundred black students graduate from the University of Memphis with Bachelor’s degrees within 150 percent of normal time, 70 of whom are black men. Of 8,000 black students in grade 9, 45 eventually receive Associate’s degrees, 200 receive B.A. degrees, a success rate of 3 percent.

If the progression from the first year of high school in Memphis for black students through graduation, college matriculation and degrees is anything like that indicated by these approximations, it cannot be said that the district is preparing its students well for college and careers. Presuming that the goal of the Memphis educational system is that its students attain at least Associate’s degree and that many will obtain Bachelor’s degrees, it is failing to achieve those goals 97 percent of the time.

As things stand in Memphis, many of those students, especially young black men, do not go to college. They go to jail.

Although the number of adult white residents of Memphis is evenly divided between men and women, that of adult black residents shows 22,000 fewer men than women. Where are those missing young black men? According to the 2010 Census, there are about the same number of white men in Shelby County college dorms as in the county’s jails and prisons and nearly four times as many white women in the dorms as in cells.

The situation is quite different for the county’s black residents. There are ten times as many black men incarcerated in the county’s jails and prisons as in college dorms and less than twice as many black women in the dorms as in cells. Or we can notice that the Shelby County jail in Memphis booked 54,000 people last year. Most of those were young adult black men. There are about 50,000 black males in Memphis between the ages of 18 and 34. No doubt some of the bookings were of white men and women, some of black women and some people were booked more than once. No doubt.

In Tennessee, as in other states, the largest category of prisoners are those incarcerated for drug offenses. The average prison sentence in Tennessee for drug law offenses is eight years, except for cocaine offenses. The average prison sentence for cocaine offenses is 17 years. Eight years is a long time to spend in prison for activities that are now legal in two other states. Seventeen years in prison for an activity common among upper income white people is unspeakable.

In Tennessee, as in other states, African Americans are much more likely than White Americans to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses, even though drug usage is much the same between the races. It would seem from Census figures that if the laws were equitably enforced in Shelby County there would be 10,000 more White men in jail, or maybe at least 4,500 fewer black Shelby County men incarcerated. No one wishes to see 10,000 more white men in jail, especially for drug offenses. Perhaps the criminal justice system could concentrate on incarcerating fewer black men.

In all these matters in Memphis, black men are extraordinarily disproportionately represented: from school suspensions to arrests to seventeen-year prison sentences for victimless crimes. And they are disproportionately under-represented in higher education.

This matters—need it be said?—because higher education is an entry point to civilization itself. Once through that door a person can travel through science, the arts, the humanities, coming into contact with entire worlds far from her or his family’s neighborhood and quite possibly bringing what they learn there back to that family and neighborhood to further enhance human development.

There are also the issues of employment, income and wealth. In the United States today, except for the inheritors of great fortunes, these are interconnected.

Adults without a high school degree can look forward to an unemployment rate of more than twice the average and an income of less than half the average. Each additional educational level decreases the first and increases the second. The black/white education differentials in the Memphis area are considerable, in part because most black children attend schools in Memphis and most white children attend schools in the suburbs.

If black educational attainment were at white levels, there would be many more black adults with baccalaureate degrees and many more with further degrees, significantly lowering the unemployment rate of the black community and raising its income level. It would also, other things being equal, lower the rate of incarceration.

Featured photo courtesy of Joe Spake.

September 3, 2014 standard

One of the myths of American public education still perpetuated by both traditionalists and even some reformers is that suburban districts provide higher-quality teaching and curricula than their big-city peers. Certainly this is true in some cases (as evidenced by Contributing Editor Michael Holzman in his comparison of Rochester, N.Y., with the district in nearby Greece). But in many cases, suburban districts are doing only marginally better than big city peers in improving student achievement, and doing terribly by kids from poor and minority backgrounds. This is particularly true with places such as Fairfax, Va., often considered the nation’s premiere suburban district, as well as Montgomery County, Md., both in the D.C. suburbs. And particularly in the case of aging suburbs that are increasingly becoming urbanized (and have never dealt well with poor and minority kids to begin with), they can as atrocious in condemning kids to low expectations as failing urban counterparts.

This has been made clear by Dropout Nation last month in its collection of profiles on the Ferguson-Florissant district near St. Louis, which has garnered attention as a result of the senseless alleged murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Ferguson. Readers were shocked by the high levels of suspensions meted out in Ferguson-Florissant and the fact that few of its students were being provided college-preparatory learning; this latter fact especially stood out in light of Missouri’s decision in June to end implementation of Common Core reading and math standards.

But the question some raised was this: How well is Ferguson-Florissant doing compared to St. Louis’ perpetually-failing traditional district? So your editor took a look at data from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database and Missouri’s state education department. What was learned is that in many ways, a child attending a school in St. Louis is better off than their peers in Ferguson. More importantly, the failings of both districts call for both the expansion of school choice and a return by the state to implementing Common Core.

In 2011-2012, 855 young black men and women attending schools operated by Ferguson-Florissant school district were labeled as being developmentally delayed, emotionally disturbed, suffering from an intellectual disability (also known as mentally retarded), hampered by a specific learning disability like dyslexia, or suffering from a speech or language impairment. This means that 9.2 percent of black kids in the district were condemned to its special ed ghettos.

Certainly this is nearly double the 5.9 percent of white peers in Ferguson deemed special ed cases in the top five categories. But it gets worse. The percentage of Ferguson-Florissant’s black children condemned to the top five special ed categories is just three-tenths of a percentage point higher than the 9.5 percent of kids in St. Louis’ perpetually-failing traditional district labeled in the top five special ed categories. Ferguson-Florissant’s percentage of white kids labeled as special ed is just slightly higher than the 5.7 percent for their Caucasian peers in St. Louis.

This means that a black kid in suburban Ferguson-Florissant has a one-in-10 chance of being labeled a special ed case, a rate no different than for peers in St. Louis. Given the high levels of over-diagnosis of kids as special ed cases — as many as 75 percent of kids considered to be suffering from Speech Apraxia (the most-commonly diagnosed speech disability) are not actually suffering from that while many kids diagnosed as mildly retarded are simply illiterate — far too many kids in both Ferguson and St. Louis are being denied brighter futures.

It gets worse. Ferguson-Florissant meted out at least one out-of-school suspension to 11 percent of black children condemned to its special ed ghettos (including kids covered by Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act); that rate is double the 4.9 percent of black kids condemned to special ed in St. Louis who were suspended once from school. Ferguson-Florissant also subjected another 13 percent of its black special ed kids to two or more suspensions, a rate higher than the 6.6 percent rate for peers in St. Louis.

Meanwhile Ferguson-Florissant meted out one or more in-school suspensions to 28 percent of black special ed kids, while St. Louis only subjected 8.5 percent of black kids in special ed to such discipline. Put bluntly, if you are a black kid condemned to special ed in Ferguson, you have a one-in-two chance of getting suspended at some point, while the chances of harsh school discipline for a peer in St. Louis is a (admittedly not great) one-in-five. As for the use of restraints and seclusion (or as prison inmates would call, solitary confinement)? Ferguson subjected three special ed students and four kids in regular ed programs to such discipline in 2011-2012. What about St. Louis? Big fat zero.

But if Ferguson is running neck-and-neck with — and in the case of harsh discipline for special ed kids, moving far ahead of — St. Louis, it is trailing behind the big city in providing opportunities to take college-preparatory math and science courses needed for success in higher education, in career, and in being a knowledgeable player in society.

Thirty percent of black high schoolers in St. Louis took Algebra II, double the 15 percent rate for their peers in Ferguson; 33 percent of St. Louis’ white students took Algebra II, also double the 18 percent rate for peers in Ferguson-Florissant. Nineteen percent of black high school students in St. Louis, along with 18 percent of white peers took chemistry, another key college prep course; that better than the respective rates of 7.3 percent and 14 percent for Ferguson-Florissant black and white peers. Meanwhile 27 percent of black high schoolers, and 37 percent of white peers in St. Louis took chemistry, a better rate than the 24 percent of Ferguson’s black high-schoolers and 27 percent rate for white high school peers.

But let’s not get it twisted: St. Louis isn’t doing better for black and white kids than Ferguson in every area. That’s not even close to reality. As with Ferguson, St. Louis does little to provide black kids (or even white kids) with opportunities to take calculus and other math and science courses needed for success in higher education. Just 3.5 percent of St. Louis’ black high schoolers and 10 percent of white peers took trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced math, lower than the 9.3 percent and 13 percent of black and white peers in Ferguson. A mere 17 black students and two white students took calculus, abysmal levels similar to those of Ferguson-Florissant kids.

As for Advanced Placement courses? St. Louis is doing better than Ferguson. But not by much. Four-point-two percent of St. Louis’ black high school students and 6.6 percent of white peers took A.P. Science; just 10 black high school students in Ferguson and two of their white school mates took the science course. One-point-three of black high schoolers in St. Louis took A.P. Math, barely higher than Ferguson’s 1.3 percent; 6.8 percent of St. Louis’ high school students took AP Math, double the three percent of Ferguson’s white kids.  Sixty-eight point two percent of St. Louis high school grads took the ACT in 2011-2012, a slightly higher rate than the 67.9 percent rate for Ferguson-Florissant; but St. Louis’ students garnered an average score of 16.5 on the college-prep exam, 1.5 points lower than that for Ferguson.

Where Ferguson does have an advantage is in its graduation rate, with 78 percent of its students in its original Class of 2012 graduating on time, versus St. Louis’ 67 percent graduation rate. But as Dropout Nation noted last month, Ferguson-Florissant’s high graduation rate may be a result of its overuse of suspensions and expulsions, which lead to kids being pushed out of the district and end up in St. Louis and other surrounding school systems. Just as importantly, it doesn’t mean that more of Ferguson’s kids are heading to higher ed. Ferguson’s rate of graduates heading to higher ed institutions of 67 percent is only a percentage point higher than that for St. Louis. The suburban district also trails its big city counterpart in placing vocational school grads into jobs, with only 35 percent of Ferguson-Florissant vocational ed kids getting jobs versus 59 percent for St. Louis.

Put simply, when it comes to improving student achievement, especially for black children, suburban Ferguson-Florissant often does little better than big-city St. Louis on many measures. In fact, especially for kids trapped in special ed ghettos, Ferguson may be a worse district to which to be condemned than St. Louis. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted earlier this week, Ferguson-Florissant (along with another suburban district, University City) could end up being subjected to state intervention if their performance on Missouri’s accountability index continues to dive below  the 75 points required to stay in good standing.

The fact that Ferguson-Florissant has managed to retain its state accreditation while St. Louis was rated unaccredited until the 2011-2012 school year says less about the district’s performance than about the slipshod approach Missouri has taken to overseeing its public education system. This was made clear in June as state education officials allowed the failing Normandy district to be rated as accredited despite its increasingly-woeful performance.

But Missouri offers few options for kids to escape failing or even mediocre traditional district schools — and shuts them down when possible. The state’s move to essentially accredit Normandy shut the door on kids from that district being able to transfer out of it into better-performing districts. Even more shocking was Gov. Jay Nixon’s decision that same month to veto legislation co-authored by his arch-nemesis, Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, that would have allowed for kids in failing districts to attend higher-quality public and private schools in the area shows the callousness of state officials when it comes to providing kids with high-quality educational options.

At the same time, the fact that both Ferguson-Florissant and St. Louis struggle to provide all kids with college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve exposes the shamefulness of the decision of state legislators and Nixon to halt Common Core implementation. By deciding to roll back the college-preparatory standards, politicians in the Show-Me State have shown in deed that they have no concern for the futures of children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who will soon make up a majority of students in traditional public schools. Common Core opponents in Missouri and the rest of the nation may be cheering what they consider a victory for their ideological and political goals. But one wonders if they can look children, especially with skins of tan and brown, in they eye and say that they did the right thing? If they can, that says plenty of terrible things about their lack of concern for children.

What reformers in Missouri need to do now is push another school choice measure through the legislature next year; centrist and liberal Democrat reformers, in particular, must hold Nixon’s feet to the fire, reminding him that opposition to choice means that he won’t be re-elected in 2016. At the same time, reformers and Common Core supporters must mount a campaign to get legislators to reverse their decision on halting implementation. This means rallying chambers of commerce and others, as well as working over the next couple of years to back legislators who understand why comprehensive college-preparatory learning is critical to the Show-Me State’s future.

For our kids, just being in suburbia is no guarantee of high-quality education. This means that we must engage in aggressive systemic reform to help every child everywhere — especially in Missouri — attain the learning they deserve.