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February 25, 2015 standard

There is plenty to say about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel facing a runoff against AFT-backed Jesus Martinez after failing to gain a majority in yesterday’s mayoral elections. There’s also a few words for the news coming out today that the Obama Administration will veto a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act if it resembles anything like the legislation House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline is likely to pass out of federal lower house by week’s end. But those are discussions for later on.

Right now, however, school reformers need to have an important conversation about the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that sends our kids onto the path to poverty and prison. Especially in light of a series of reports this week detailing how school operators of all sorts are engaging in practices that do little to address the underlying educational woes at the heart of children acting out in school, it is high time for the movement to end its myopia on actions that can only be called educational abuse and malpractice.

Certainly it is good to hear from the California Department of Education that districts and other school operators reduced out-of-school suspensions by 15.2 percent between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Yet plenty of bad news remains. This includes the fact that the out-of-school suspension rates of 11.9 percent for black kids and 8.9 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native peers are more than double the 4.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate overall.

Even worse is that 67 percent of all out-of-school suspensions meted out by school operators in the Golden State aren’t for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession, but for so-called “willful defiance” or what other states call disruptive behavior that school leaders and teachers can address through more-effective means. That willful defiance can be arbitrarily determined by adults in schools — including child asking a peer for a pencil during a classroom exercise (and trying to explain his action) — means that schools are putting children onto the path to academic and social failure for no good reason at all.

Then there’s news out of New York City this week, courtesy of analysis by the local branch of the Chalkbeat collection of news sites, that 11 public charter schools meted out-of-school suspensions to three out of every 10 children attending the schools in 2011-2012. While Chalkbeat‘s determination that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy collection of charters suspended 17 percent of its students was no surprise at all; after all, Dropout Nation editorialized two years ago on its shameful approach to school discipline and the ardent defense of it by Moskowitz and an amen corner that includes Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But the fact that other big-named charter operators such as KIPP (whose D.C. branch was scrutinized along with other Beltway districts by Dropout Nation last October) and Uncommon Schools were suspending as many as 25 percent of their students, often for behaviors resulting from learning issues, is both shocking and appalling. [Uncommon says it has since overhauled its school discipline approaches.] Even worse, the news comes on the heels of a report released last week by Advocates for Children of New York that discipline policies for some charters may actually be in violation of Empire State law. Especially given the fierce debate over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to expand charter schools, the news is allowing traditionalists to argue that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to providing kids with high-quality education.

Meanwhile, as a report issued this week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows, overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t limited to school operations on the coasts. As a team led by Daniel Losen shows, three of the highest-suspending districts in the country are located in Missouri, which has become an epicenter of the battles over overhauling criminal justice and public education systems since Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson last July. [Dropout Nation noted the overuse of harsh discipline by the Ferguson-Florissant and other issues in St. Louis-area districts.] This includes the traditional district in the St Louis suburb of Normandy, whose schools Brown attended before his tragic and senseless slaying, which meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 21.7 percent of students in 2011-2012. In fact, the Show-Me State has the nation’s highest suspension rate for black children in elementary grades as well as the widest disparity in rates in suspensions between black and white students.

The overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t just borne upon children black and brown. Children in the nation’s special ed ghettos, already subjected to barbaric practices such as restraints and seclusion (also known to prisoners as solitary confinement), are suspended at rates double those of their peers in regular classrooms. In Florida, where school operators meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 37 percent of middle- and high-schoolers in special ed in 2011-2012, nearly double the already-high 19 percent average; the Sunshine State’s suspension rate for kids in special ed is the highest in the nation. Children in English Language Learner programs are also subjected to overuse of harsh school discipline. Districts in Montana, for example, meted out suspensions to 19 percent of ELL students, nearly three times the average for the overall population; since ELL students in Big Sky Country tend to be those from Native tribes, this means that a children already subjected to the worst American public education offers are abused even more.

The news of the past two weeks, along with reports on lawsuits such as that filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of eight children against the Birmingham district for using pepper spray on children, should horrify the school reform movement. The fact that some charter school operators, who should be innovating on the school discipline front, are embracing the worst of traditionalist practices should anger them especially. Given the decades of evidence from researchers such as Indiana University’s Russell Skiba and John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh that traditional school discipline practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer, reformers should be demanding charter school outfits such as Success to stop damaging children in their care.

In fact, the movement’s leading lights should be teaming up with researchers on school discipline and criminal justice reform advocates to work on addressing the underlying causes of overusing harsh discipline: The failure to provide functionally-illiterate children with intensive reading remediation; low-quality teaching and classroom management; shoddy, arbitrary school leadership; and the belief among adults in schools that kids from poor and minority backgrounds are troublemakers and thus, unworthy of high-quality education.

Yet as has always been the case when it comes to school discipline (as well as on many issues involving the school-to-prison pipeline), there is silence from many reformers when there should be outrage and action. Certainly this isn’t true of all reformers; from former California State Senator Gloria Romero (with whom your editor has co-written a series of pieces on ending the school-to-prison pipeline) to Educators4Excellence, there are reformers demanding better for our kids. They should even be applauding moves by the Obama Administration to force districts overusing suspensions to overhaul their school discipline practices as well as backing efforts such as California’s move last year to restrict schools from suspending kids for willful defiance.

Neither traditional districts nor charter operators such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy can defend subjecting our children to school discipline practices that fail to help them succeed.

But as evidenced by Petrilli in some claptrap written for the New York Times in December proclaiming that kids suspended by charters don’t care about their education, as well as in pieces from colleagues such as former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland, there are far too many instances of reformers making excuses for overusing suspensions as well as for discipline practices that should never be used by any adult proclaiming to care for kids.

These reformers will argue, as Petrilli has done in the past, that poor and minority children are somehow worse-behaved than peers from white and middle class households. Yet three decades of evidence disproves the assertion. Losen and his team once again point this out in their analysis, noting that 51 districts meted out suspensions to fewer than three percent of black kids (as well as children overall); that black students account for 25 percent or more of enrollment further proves the reality that the problem lies not with the children, but with the teachers and school leaders charged with helping them succeed.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Given that most out-of-school and in-school suspensions are meted out for what are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders to be disruptive behavior, the use of harsh school discipline is less about the children than about the adults making the decisions. And in nearly all cases, school operators use harsh school discipline as ways to excuse themselves from dealing with the learning issues of the children they are supposed to serve.

The so-called reformers will proclaim that overusing harsh school discipline helps schools maintain order. Yet as Skiba and others have pointed out ad nauseam, the highest-suspending school operations in the nation also tend to be the worst of American public education’s dropout factories and failure mills. This includes the Pontiac district in Michigan (a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary on the problems of laggard black teachers and school leaders), which meted out suspensions to 31.7 percent of elementary students in 2011-2012, the highest levels of such educational abuse in the nation.

The fact that some charter school operators are outliers to the trend doesn’t justify overusing harsh discipline, especially when restorative practices that do a better job of teaching kids how to behave are available. As charters in New Orleans (at the behest of the Recovery School District and community activists) have shown in reducing suspensions, and as charters in New York City have proven in their reduction of kids labeled special ed, charters can actually provide kids with high-quality education without resorting to traditionalist practices that should be used only for the worst situations (if at all). School choice cannot help all kids succeed if it simply means subjecting kids to bad practices

Meanwhile these reformers will even try to declare that the views of teachers and school leaders towards poor and minority children isn’t the reason for high levels of suspensions meted out to them. Such arguments are belied by the evidence. This includes Wallace’s 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices, which showed that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts.

When you look at how American public education damages black children (especially in overlabeling them as special ed cases), sensible reformers can’t help but agree with Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s determination that adults in schools  end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. By against the evidence, reformers such as Petrilli end up engaging in the intellectually sophomoric thinking that policies and practices are only racialist or biased if they explicitly targets a race or ethnicity. As history has shown over and over again, the consequences of policies and practices can be as biased against particular people as overt and explicit acts.

But reformers must understand the consequences of overusing school discipline extend beyond classrooms. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. This matters because schools account for the second-most referrals of status cases into juvenile courts as well as because districts have come to use law enforcement agencies (including the 250 police departments they control) to handle discipline. The results of this criminalization of youth (especially young black men) by schools can be seen in Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Steve Loomis argument to Politico‘s Connie Schultz that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “menacing” because he was the height of an average grown man, and thus, deserved to be murdered by police officer Timothy Loehmann within seconds of arriving on scene for playing with a toy gun.

What reformers must remember that we are like born-again Christians, having publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. This means we cannot defend harsh school discipline practices that cannot be defended empirically or otherwise. Particularly on this key culprit in pushing kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, reformers can’t take positions that even a teachers’ union such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union would look askance.

So reformers can’t remain silent on addressing overuse of harsh school discipline, or worse, aid and abet those practices. We must push all school operators — especially those with who we share common cause — to do better by all of our children.

February 24, 2015 standard

We like to say that Black lives matter, Latino lives matter, poor children’s lives matter, even English Language Learner lives matter. Yet families, especially those of children of color, have to fight so long and hard so that our children get the educational opportunities they need. This is because there are other people who don’t think their lives matter.

America made a stand for equity and for all lives when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act 13 years ago. Obstruction from states and school districts limited execution of some of those provisions. But the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision has shined important light on how many schools, including those in suburbs in states such as Connecticut (where my kids and I live) are poorly serving our children, especially those of color.

Now thanks to the Obama Administration’s No Child waivers granted to states such as Connecticut, the educational and civil rights of our children are being waved goodbye.

Thanks to the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver process, states like Connecticut, which has one of the nation’s most-persistent socioeconomic achievement gaps to ignore No Child’s Supplemental Educational Services provision and gut tutoring and other afterschool programs. Certainly states and districts have done everything they can to avoid setting aside 20 percent of Title 1 dollars for those services – and haven’t fulfilled the promise of the law. But for our children, especially in poor-performing districts such as Bridgeport, those services could help them improve their reading and numeracy.

Because of the No Child waivers, Connecticut now takes those SES dollars and hands them to locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to fund so-called professional development programs. This now means that teachers in my state can take culinary classes instead of working on improving instruction in reading and math on behalf of our children. Cooking classes over reading? Where is the accountability in that?

Even more shameful, the No Child waivers allow states to relegate poor and minority children into super-subgroups. In Connecticut, this takes the form of the “high needs subgroup” consisting of ELL students, low-income students, and kids in special ed. This essentially defeating No Child’s original intent of disaggregating data on how our children are performing so we can know how schools are serving them. Thanks to super-subgroup gamesmanship in Connecticut and elsewhere, districts can continue to funnel our children into the school-to-prison pipeline, harming children of color and those who are poor.

What is so disheartening about the No Child waivers is that the Obama Administration could have avoided all of this damage. As Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has chronicled over the past few years, peer review panels have determined that there were problems with nearly all the waiver proposals submitted to the federal government. Particularly in the case of Connecticut, the peer review panel concluded that the state department of education provided “limited information” on how the performance of subgroups would be tracked under the state’s new accountability system. The state’s super-subgroup subterfuge “could make it more difficult to identify specific subgroup needs” and let districts hide their inattention to our neediest students by overemphasizing the success of high-achieving kids from wealthier homes.

In spite of these concerns, the Obama Administration approved Connecticut’s waiver as well as those of other states at the expense of our children. Even worse, as the state moves today to convene parents and others to get the blessing for a waiver extension, it is unlikely that it will make any changes to its waiver that will actually expand accountability, choice, or help for our children most in need.

So let me be clear: Thanks to the No Child waivers, a wealthy state that home to some of the nation’s most-prestigious universities can continue to ignore one of the worst achievement gaps the country. Thanks to the waivers, the state can ignore the socioeconomically disadvantaged in its cities, the children of color in its persistently-failing schools, and the kids endangered by unsafe and poor-performing schools. Thanks to the waivers, Connecticut gets a free pass on its failure to provide high-quality education to 50,000 children, who will eventually become the adults who are underemployed and unable to qualify for meaningful work.

As a Democrat and as a black woman, I have to say the Obama Administration’s waiver effort has set our state back and has set the nation back. The waiver effort is one reason why discussions in Congress are now focused on further rolling back accounting and leaving children in color and kids in poverty behind. There’s no way we can call the waivers nothing less than a violation of our promise to our children to protect their civil rights, an abrogation of educational equality, and a setback to our communities.

It is hard enough in Connecticut to fight teachers’ unions and other entrenched interests uninterested in providing my children and kids like them with great education. This is why other parents and I are fighting this year to build upon the nation’s second Parent Trigger law and beat back efforts to place a moratorium on expanding charter schools. But thanks to the No Child waivers, the fight we are waging is even harder.

February 23, 2015 standard

Chances are that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are likely happy that they aren’t facing the kind of scrutiny greeted upon likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or her fellow Democrats. Which given the Big Two’s oft-strained ties of mutual convenience to the Democratic National Committee, should be considered a public relations miracle.

Over the past few weeks, media outlets such as the Washington Post along with groups such as Center for Public Integrity have raised questions about the fundraising practices of the foundation founded by former U.S. Secretary of State and her husband, the former President of the United States. This includes questions about whether the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has inadvertently helped foreign donors such as Canadian financier Frank Giustra (with help from banking giant HSBC) circumvent the tax laws of their respective countries, as well as whether the companies and foreign governments are circumventing campaign finance laws (and looking to win help from Hillary if she wins the White House) by donating to Clinton’s nonprofit machine.

Concerns about the appearances of impropriety (which are always worse than reality) have become so great that the New York Times demanded the Clinton Foundation to reinstate a ban on foreign donations that was in place during Hillary’s tenure as head of the nation’s chief vehicle for foreign policy. [The Clinton Foundation says it is more-transparent about its fundraising activities than other nonprofits.]

But a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission last week against the Democratic National Committee as well as Clinton’s unsuccessful run for president seven years ago and that of President Barack Obama raises the possibility that the campaign finance and political spending practices of the Big Two teachers’ unions may come under real scrutiny from federal officials, conservative-leaning advocates, and the school reform movement itself.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust alleges in its 109-page complaint that the DNC, Democratic political campaigns, and progressive outfits such as the notoriously-shadowy Democracy Alliance, through the efforts of former Clinton Administration honcho Harold Ickes’ Catalist LLC and NGP Van (which manages the DNC’s databases), are sharing voter lists, fundraising information, and other data for their congressional and presidential election campaigning. By selling such data at below-market rates to political campaigns and to advocates alike — as well as through the presence of prominent Democratic Party in financing Catalist and Democracy Alliance — Democrats are essentially coordinating political and advocacy activities.

Such coordination between 501(c)3 nonprofits (which are supposed to be focused on pure advocacy), Super-PACs, 501(c)4 groups, and political campaigns (the latter three engaged in explicit political campaigning) is a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which is supposed to be a firewall against such activities. There’s also the possibility that such coordination may also violate federal tax laws, especially since 501(c)3s are restricted from anything other than advocacy. [The fact that much of political advocacy ends up resembling lobbying in practice is another matter entirely.]

For now, neither NEA nor AFT have been named by FACT in its complaint. But the two unions have plenty to sweat about. After all, as Dropout Nation reported in November, the Big Two have spent the past few years building close ties to Democracy Alliance, which has worked aggressively to dodge the firewalls between advocacy and political campaigning.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks, a longtime player within Democracy Alliance, took over as its chairman last year, and has stepped up the union’s support of the group’s network of progressive advocacy groups. NEA has poured $794,728 into Democracy Alliance and its direct affiliates between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the union’s filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile AFT has become tied to Democracy Alliance. Last year, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, and her top assistant, former Service Employees International Union honcho Michelle Ringuette, became Democracy Alliance members. AFT also poured $90,000 to the group as well as its Texas Future Project. Given the AFT’s longstanding efforts to co-opt progressive groups, AFT will likely give even more money to Democracy Alliance this fiscal year.

But for NEA, the risk of scrutiny doesn’t just lie with the Big Two’s ties to Democracy Alliance. NEA has spent $2.1 million with Catalist between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014; it also spent $614,746 with NGP Van between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014. Based on NEA’s relationship with Catalist and NGP Van, along with the union’s ties to Democracy Alliance, the union could end up being ensnared in a future FEC complaint.

AFT has less exposure because much of the focus of its political spending is targeted toward state and local campaigns. But given that the union is also devoting its member dollars to players within the wider Democracy Alliance network — including an affiliate of the Nation and progressive think tank Demos — questions can be raised about whether it is coordinating advocacy and explicitly political campaigning.

The bigger questions for AFT lie in its giving to the Clinton’s collection of charities. As Dropout Nation reported in October, AFT gave $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation and $200,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative (whose operations are managed by the Clinton Foundation, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service). One can easily surmise that AFT is using its contributions to purchase Hillary Clinton’s support for its agenda — and to fight off the dominance of reformers in Democratic Party politics. Considering the scrutiny on the Clinton’s charities, you can expect Hillary’s team to play down any ties between the union and her apparatus, and even go further in embracing her husband’s legacy in advancing systemic reform. Which could mean that AFT has spent money for nothing.

But let’s keep it real: NEA and AFT often blur the lines between advocacy and explicit politicking. As Dropout Nation Contributor Dmitri Mehlhorn and others have noted, the Big Two have long used so-called member communications and other union activities to command rank-and-file members to engage in advocacy. There’s also the contributions made by the two unions to supposedly like-minded groups, including progressive outfits such as Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, civil rights groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, and education players such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education and its Opportunity to Learn Action Fund. As seen late last year, when LULAC and Schott signed up onto NEA’s and AFT’s effort to weaken the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability and testing provisions, the two unions count on these outfits to carry its water inside city halls, statehouses, and on Capitol Hill.

Reformers, along with conservative groups (including right-to-work outfits), can easily point to how NEA and AFT blur the lines between advocacy and politicking. Especially for reformers, the political nature of Big Two spending allows them to point to this reality: That classroom teachers, most of whom are forced by state laws and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education to pay into NEA and AFT in the form of dues and so-called agency fees (which are essentially dues), are subsidizing political activities with which they may not support in violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. This is a point U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Allito made in his decision last year in the case of Harris v. Quinn; it will likely come up again this year if the high court takes up Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which a group of Golden State teachers are seeking to end the ability of NEA and AFT affiliates to forcibly collect dues from their paychecks.

Given the FACT complaint, expect reformers, movement conservative groups, and even good government types to submit NEA and AFT spending to further scrutiny. This year may turn out to be even worse for the Big Two teachers’ unions than the last.

February 19, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle reads through the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s latest report and explains why we must overhaul public education on behalf of young black men.

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.

February 14, 2015 standard

Given all the efforts by movement conservatives and others in Tennessee to halt the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, you would think that its public education systems were doing a great job of preparing children for success in adulthood. Certainly the Volunteer State has reduced the percentage of functionally-illiterate children. This includes a seven percentage point decline in the number of eighth-graders reading Below Basic (from 30 percent to 23 percent) between 2011 and 2013 and a 14-percentage point decline in the number of low-income black eighth-graders struggling with literacy (from 57 percent to 43 percent). The state can even claim a six-percentage point increase in the number of eighth-graders overall reading at Proficient and Advanced levels, and a four percentage point increase in the number of black eighth-graders on free- and reduced lunch reading at grade level.

Yet when it comes to the goal of preparing children for success in higher education, the most-critical goal in this second era of systemic reform, Tennessee is doing poorly on this front. This is clear from a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the Volunteer State to the U.S. Department of Education. With far too few kids regardless of background taking college-preparatory courses, Gov. Bill Haslam and state legislators need to recommit to implementing Common Core and helping every child for whom they claim concern gain the learning they need in an increasingly knowledge-based world.

Within the past year, Tennessee has gone from being a promising bellwether for reform to an cautionary tale of what happens when politicians back away from doing the right thing for children.  Some Volunteer State Republicans in the legislature, taking marching orders from movement conservatives generally uninterested in reform and opposed to Common Core (as well as angered by Democrat Kevin Huffman’s hard-charging tenure as Haslam’s education commissioner), began agitating to halt the state’s so-far successful implementation of the standards.

But the effort to stop Common Core implementation gained momentum late last year when Haslam announced that he was convening a review of the standards even though he was assured of winning re-election. This signaled to Common Core foes that they could get their way. With Haslam backing away from the standards and their bete noire, Huffman, departing from the top education job last November, Common Core foes have gotten legislators to introduce legislation to halt the standards.

Now the fighting is less about whether the standards will remain in place than about how will they be eviscerated. With help from a group organized by his former campaign manager, Jeremy Harrell, Haslam is pushing back against the array of proposed legislation, especially House Bill 3 (which comes from State Rep. Billy Spivey). While the state’s district superintendents, along with reformers, are pushing to keep Common Core in place, movement conservatives and the National Education Association affiliate there are looking to put Common Core out to the proverbial pasture.

Yet amid all the effort to eviscerate Common Core, the question remains: Is Tennessee providing the college-preparatory curricula children need to successfully graduate from traditional colleges, technical schools, community colleges, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education. This is a discussion avoided by Haslam and his new education commissioner, Candice McQueen, as well as by Common Core foes in and out of the state legislature. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection the most-comprehensive database on college-preparation, Dropout Nation has the answer. It isn’t good at all.

Few Middle-Schoolers Take Algebra 1: Over the past couple of weeks, Dropout Nation has discussed how taking introductory algebra in middle school (along with strong support and acceleration of math curricula in the early grades) is critical to helping children gain the knowledge they need for success later in high school, in higher ed, and in their careers. Yet few states provide Algebra 1 to all or even half of their seventh- and eighth graders.

Tennessee is an especially atrocious example of states failing their middle-schoolers on this front. Just 6.5 percent of all seventh- and eighth-graders took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012, according to data submitted by the state to the federal government. Put simply, nine out of 10 Volunteer State middle-schoolers missed out on this key college prep course. Those levels are lower than the 29 percent average for California, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, which have spent the past two decades mandating middle-school algebra, as well as the 29 percent rate for Maryland, which like Tennessee, has made little effort on that front.

One out of every five Asian and Native Hawaiian children took introductory algebra — levels lower than in the eight states reviewed earlier this month by Dropout Nation. The levels are even worse for black and Latino middle-schoolers; just five percent of black seventh- and eighth-graders along with 4.3 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. A mere 2.3 percent of middle-schoolers considered burdened by Limited English Proficiency also took introductory algebra. But the levels are not much better for white middle-schoolers; just 6.8 percent of these children took Algebra 1.

Some Common Core foes will try to argue that the levels won’t improve because the standards technically don’t call for introductory algebra to be taught until high school. But as your editor noted earlier this month, none of the five states surveyed in the Algebra 1 implementation report that are executing Common Core’s math standards experienced declines in the percentage of seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1. In fact, Massachusetts and Washington State adjusted the standards to continue the requirement. The problem in Tennessee on this front has nothing to do with Common Core and all to do with the lack of will among school leaders and politicians to do well by the state’s children.

Advanced Placement Coursework is Rarely Provided: Taking A.P. coursework, especially in math and history, is critical for all children — especially those from poor and minority households, in gaining preparation for success in higher education. Yet in Tennessee, few high school students are likely to be provided those courses.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has been cowardly on the school reform front at a time the Volunteer State needs bold action.

Just one out of every 10 Volunteer State high-schoolers took A.P. courses of any kind in 2011-2012, a level half of those for Virginia and Maryland (which have been criticized on these pages for failing to provide our children in those states with college-prep curricula). Thirty-two percent of Asian high school students and one out of every five Native Hawaiian peers took A.P. courses, levels far above the statewide average, but lower than that for peers in the Old Line State and the Old Dominion (and likely lower than the national average).

The kids least likely to take A.P. courses are black and Latino children, who often come from households where families have never attended higher ed, and thus, need even more preparation than white or Asian peers. A mere 5.6 percent of black high-schoolers and nine percent of Latino peers were provided A.P. courses in 2011-2012, both below the statewide average; 5.2 percent of LEP students took A.P. as well. But white children fare little better; only 10.6 percent of white high-schoolers took A.P. coursework during the school year.

Not Enough Kids Are Given Advanced Math Classes: As you already know, trigonometry, statistics and other forms of advanced mathematics are key courses for children in order to take on middle class wage-paying blue- and white-collar jobs such as welding and marketing. But in order to learn those subjects, children must be provided those courses. This isn’t happening in Tennessee.

Only 11.3 percent of Volunteer State high school students were provided advanced math in 2011-2012. This means that nine out of every 10 kids in the late stages of secondary schooling were provided much-needed math instruction and curricula. To put in context, this is lower than the 18 percent average for Maryland and Virginia, the subject of this week’s This is Dropout Nation analysis.

When broken down by subgroup, this becomes clear: Not one subgroup in Tennessee has an advanced math course-taking rate greater than the 20 percent for Asian students. Just one out of every 10 white high-schoolers took advanced math, while a mere 8.2 percent of black counterparts and 7.5 percent of Latino peers took such coursework. No matter how one slices it, the Volunteer State is failing badly on the college-prep front.

Physics Course-Taking Rarely Happens: Careers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine are the gateways into the middle class. So high schoolers should be taking physics and other science courses — especially if they want to be successful in taking those courses when they enter higher ed and begin working toward STEM careers. But as you can already figure out, this doesn’t happen in the Volunteer State in any meaningful way.

For high school students in Memphis and the rest of Tennessee, Common Core implementation means college-prep curricula they haven’t been getting for years.

A mere 3.5 percent of Tennessee’s high-schoolers were provided physics in 2011-2012. This means that 96.5 percent of students in the state didn’t take any kind of physics course. This is far lower than the one-in-10 average for Virginia and Maryland. When broken down by subgroup, the levels are even worse. Only one in 10 Asian high school students were provided physics, the only subgroup which managed to access those courses at that level. Less than one in 20 black, Latino, Native Hawaiian, LEP and white students were provided physics, while 6.9 percent of Native high schoolers accessed the course.

These low levels in physics may not be so bad if there were high levels of course-providing in other subjects. It isn’t. Just one out of every four Volunteer State high-schoolers were provided biology, another key college prep course that is what nearly every student in the nation is expected to take at some point. A mere one-in-five were provided chemistry. Chemistry. Add in the fact that few high-schoolers in Tennessee took A.P. science courses (or any science course at all), and it is clear that the state is committing educational neglect and malpractice.

What is clear from the data is that Tennessee is doing a terrible job in preparing children for higher ed and career success. But this isn’t shocking when you look at other data.

Twenty-one percent of Volunteer State community college students aged 17-to-19 (you know, college freshmen) took remedial math classes — and two out of every five failed to successfully complete them, according to Complete College America in its 2011 report. [Tennessee didn’t provide Complete College America with remediation rates for baccalaureate students.] There’s also the fact that the state’s math standards (before being replaced by Common Core) were rated D by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in its 2010 study; this was better than the F rating given to them by Fordham a decade earlier.

With so many teens (especially those from poor and minority households) struggling to take on college-level work, preparing kids for the demands of higher ed while they are in elementary and secondary schools is of paramount importance. Yet the debate over halting Common Core implementation shows, neither Haslam nor legislators take these matters (or their obligation to children and taxpayers in the state) seriously. The governor, who has plenty of political capital to spend, shouldn’t have even indulged this discussion. Instead,Haslam should stand up strongly for Common Core implementation as counterparts such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Georgia’s Nathan Deal have done.

But Tennessee’s failures on the college prep front are even more embarrassing for the state because its senior U.S. Senator (and former governor), Lamar Alexander, is leading the charge to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions and has opposed the Obama Administration’s support for implementing Common Core. Given the shameful numbers in his home state (as well as the damage he is doing to his once-laudable legacy on advancing reform as governor and U.S. Secretary of Education), Alexander should be supporting implementation of the standards in his state as well as leading the charge for a stronger federal role in holding states accountable for preparing kids for future success.

Halting Common Core implementation now will do nothing more than stop the gains children in the early and middle grades are likely starting to make. So the state should continue putting the standards into place. At the same time, Tennessee needs to take other serious steps on the college prep front. This includes partnering with the National Math and Science Initiative on expanding A.P. courses to all students, as well as working with districts on accelerating math instruction with support (including providing Algebra 1 to middle-schoolers).

For reformers in the Volunteer State, as well as their counterparts in the rest of the nation, it is time to remind Haslam and the state legislature of their obligation to our children. This means continue implementing Common Core — or be held accountable for damaging the futures of kids who deserve better.

February 11, 2015 standard

As you know by now, the United Federation of Teachers and the rest of the American Federation of Teachers have spent the past few weeks aggressively opposing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans (and that of his school reform allies) to expand the number of public charter schools and refine the state’s teacher evaluation system. This included the AFT local lobbying within New York City’s traditional public schools as well as trying to win over parent-controlled Community Educational Councils that are the advisory boards within them. And UFT, along with AFT and New York State United Teachers, are getting vassals such as the Alliance for Quality Education and Citizens Action of New York (which have collected $180,000 from AFT and NYSUT in 2013-2014 alone) to prep their activists for visits to state legislators in their district offices.

But as Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union alerts Dropout Nation this week, UFT is going further by asking the Community Education Councils to approve a resolution it drafted decrying Cuomo for daring to do the right thing by children. The move is another reminder to reformers in the Empire State as well as around the nation that working the grassroots is key to advancing and sustaining systemic reform.

The UFT’s resolution itself is rather hysterical in part because it is so focused on the union’s concerns for its own future. By proclaiming that Cuomo is “punishing low-performing schools” by floating a plan for the state education department to take over failing district schools, the union essentially betrays the real reasons why it opposes the concept: The schools would likely be placed into a Recovery School District-type model similar to that which has worked successfully in New Orleans in slowly improving quality of teaching and curricula.

In such a model, the UFT’s contracts with the New York City Department of Education (along with collective bargaining agreements its fellow AFT locals have struck with other districts) would likely be null and void. No more ability by UFT and other AFT locals to use the Empire State’s tenure law and teacher dismissal rules (which give them effective control over the process) to keep laggard and even criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms. Given that UFT collect $101.46 every month from every laggard teacher working in a failure mill, a state takeover means lost revenue into its coffers.

The UFT’s declaration that Cuomo’s plan to expand charters “reward” the sector for “bad behavior” would seem valid until you understand what they mean by misbehavior. As I noted last month, UFT and other AFT locals are annoyed at charters because they don’t over-label kids as special ed cases the same way New York City and other traditional districts do. For the union, every new charter that opens means fewer kids being given dubious diagnoses of mental retardation, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed or developmentally delayed — and therefore fewer kids condemned to academic in childhood as well as economic and social failure in adulthood.

This means the Big Apple and other districts lose out on an extra $1,227.61 in state aid per student. As you can expect, some of those dollars end up flowing into UFT’s coffers (and that of other AFT locals and the AFT itself) in the form of union dues of $14,154.60 paid by 186 teachers and paraprofessionals (based on an equal number of 93 of each) employed in district classrooms every month. For UFT, expanding choice that is beneficial for children and their families is a detriment to its finances.

Then there is UFT’s complaint that Cuomo’s effort to make state standardized test score growth data a larger component of the teacher evaluation system (from 20 percent of the performance measure as now structured) would “move high-stakes testing into overdrive”. But that isn’t so. For one, as the UFT would admit if pressed, standardized tests already account for 40 percent of the entire evaluation; this includes data from state exams as well as from district-administered tests essentially chosen by AFT locals. So nothing would change in terms of how many tests are administered. Given that testing itself helps improve student learning by helping teachers and policymakers learn how well kids are learning as well as what adults in schools are doing in instruction and curricula, UFT’s declaration is pure hype.

The real problem for UFT and its fellow AFT locals is that Cuomo’s plan would replace data from the local tests (which as I mentioned, the unions control, and thus, can game for self-protection) with using state test score growth data for half of the evaluation. Why? Because the state data, being of higher quality and less-subjected to gamesmanship, would likely lead to more laggard teachers being identified as such. This was made clear two years ago by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in its study of teacher evaluation models. Again, the last thing UFT and the rest of the AFT want is for more teachers to lose their jobs; that means lost revenue (even if it would also mean elevating the profession, as younger teachers within the rank-and-file demand).

The funniest line of all in UFT’s declaration is that Cuomo’s reforms would be “silencing the voices of parents and educators”. This coming from the union that moved two years ago to suppress the voice of its rank-and-file members by increasing the number votes from retired members no longer in classrooms that could be counted in union elections from 18,000 to 25,000. This coming from the union which teamed up with the NAACP’s New York unit on unsuccessful legal bid to effectively end school choice by keeping the Big Apple from allowing charters to share space with traditional district schools in half-empty school buildings. This coming from a union that continues to maintain its sorry legacy of opposing the ability of families, especially those black and brown, to exercise their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education.

As far as UFT’s leadership is concerned, families and teachers only exist as tools of co-opting in order to maintain its declining influence — and to keep its bank accounts filled. That they even attempt to portray themselves as being truly concerned for the grassroots is laughable.

But the union can occasionally get away with such sophistry because reformers often do such a poor job of working with families and communities on the ground. This time around, UFT is putting something before committees of families that they can vote on — which reform outfits such as StudentsFirst’s Empire State unit and others haven’t done. Which they can and should do. And if reformers in the Big Apple and the rest of the state don’t get to work now, it may succeed in doing so again.