Category: Best of Dropout Nation

Best: Higher Ed for All Children

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle reviews College Board’s latest data on SAT performance and explains why this is one sign of the need to continue overhauling American…

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle reviews College Board’s latest data on SAT performance and explains why this is one sign of the need to continue overhauling American public education.

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. A new Dropout Nation Podcast debuts this week.

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Best: Keep Black Men Alive

On the two year anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown by a now-former Ferguson, Mo., police officer that led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this…

On the two year anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown by a now-former Ferguson, Mo., police officer that led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this rebroadcast of the Dropout Nation Podcast, explains how Black America and reformers should use this strategy as a step toward addressing the education crisis for young black men.

michaelbrown_bodyYou 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.

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Best: Look Out for Our Most-Vulnerable

Dropout Nation‘s editors will be spending much of this last week of the year either relaxing with family or catching up on other work. So enjoy the pieces written this…

Dropout Nation‘s editors will be spending much of this last week of the year either relaxing with family or catching up on other work. So enjoy the pieces written this month, along with the Best of Dropout Nation pieces being republished this week. One such piece, from November 2011, focuses on the lessons reformers must learn from scandals such as that involving Jimmy Savile, a British talk show host whose alleged criminal abuse of youth (along with the coverup of those activities by top officials in the United Kingdom) went unchecked for decades. Read, consider, and take action.

bestofdropoutnationChances are that unless you spend much time reading the Guardian or watching the ITV channel show Exposure, you haven’t heard much about the pedophilia scandal enveloping the British Broadcasting Corporation. Since December of 2011, producers, longtime executives, and even two former chief executives at the once-beloved British government-controlled broadcaster have been accused of covering up the spate of alleged criminal abuse of young women by the now-deceased Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey and host of the famed Top of the Pops music show who was the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the late Dick Clark.

As reported by news outlets throughout Britain, the BBC allegedly kept mum about Savile’s alleged rape of young women — including those at the British government’s juvenile asylums, inside schools, and even in dressing rooms in the BBC’s own studios — and may have even went so far as to put the kibosh on an expose of Savile’s misdeeds by staffers for the network’s now-disgraced flagship newscast, Newsnight. As more victims come forth, and additional revelations come to light, current and former BBC officials, including former Director-General Mark Thompson (now chief executive of the parent company of the New York Times) has found themselves under scrutiny for allegedly letting Savile (and other alleged pedophiles on its payroll) get away with so much for so long.

The Beeb has gotten in even more trouble after reporters and producers, in what most observers conclude was a cynical attempt to shake off the embarrassment of not revealing Savile’s alleged crimes, ran an expose on Newsnight falsely accusing a prominent member of the ruling Conservative Party of alleged abuse that had long-ago been investigated by authorities. This latest aspect of the Savile scandal led to the resignation of George Entwhistle, Thompson’s recently-appointed replacement as BBC Director-General, and has cast more harsh light on how the broadcaster the news coverage that has made it the lead competitor to Time Warner’s Cable News Network in the global journalism game.

It isn’t shocking that Savile-BBC scandal sounds eerily like the child abuse scandal that continues to envelope Penn State. After all, like the higher ed institution — whose former president Graham Spanier now faces a possible prison sentence for his alleged work with now-infamous coach Joe Paterno to cover up the former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky‘s three decades-long abuse of young men — the BBC scandal involves an institution aiding and abetting the abuse of the most-vulnerable of our children.

After all, the young women that Savile preyed upon for his abusive acts — both in his visits with teenage girls as part of hosting the Jimmy’ll Fix It children’s show, and in frequent visits to psychiatric hospitals such as Broadmoor — were no different from the young men in foster care and juvenile jails Sandusky had raped. The apparent craven unwillingness of producers, staffers, and executives at the BBC to remove Savile in spite of suspicions and confirmations of Savile’s abuse of young girls since at least the early 1960s  is no different than that of Spanier, Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley, and ousted vice president Gary Schultz, who allegedly actively sat on at least a decade of evidence of Sandusky’s crimes. Even the role of National Health Service in giving Savile free reign of institutions serving vulnerable young girls is also comparable to similar actions allowed by the Second Mile, the now-defunct nonprofit the now-imprisoned criminal cofounded to apparently give himself unlimited access to the kids he wanted to abuse.

The Savile-BBC scandal, in short, is a reminder of the consequences of failed leadership and policies that allow for evil to prey upon the most-vulnerable of our children. And the scandal once again reminds reformers of why we must do so much to rid institutions of leaders who allow others to do harm to our kids — and overhaul policies and practices that make it difficult for even the best leaders to do right by them.

As we know all too well, we treat our poorest, most-vulnerable children as if they are unworthy of our love and compassion. From juvenile justice systems such as those in Indianapolis and Luzerne County, Pa., that subject far too many kids to abuse and denial of due process, to child welfare systems such as those in South Dakota, in which American Indian children made up 53 percent of all foster care wards (and often placed into the care of non-Natives in violation of federal law), even though they make up just 13 percent of the state’s children, we see young men and women being moved from neglectful and abusive homes into even worse settings.

In many cases, the men and women allowing this to happen benefit greatly, both in their ability to gain access to children they consider their prey, and even from the dollars that come with them. In Luzerne County, former judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan would eventually be convicted of judicial misconduct (including wrongful convictions of juveniles) which helped put $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars into the hands of their cronies. Meanwhile in South Dakota, Children’s Home Society collected more than $50 million in mostly no-bid contracts over seven years from South Dakota’s child welfare system in exchange for removing Native kids from the homes of their families; it also apparently benefited its former boss, Dennis Daugaard, who is now the state’s governor. And in Indiana, James Payne, who was the judge who oversaw the scandal at the Circle City’s juvenile court, managed to get a promotion from now-outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels to head up the state’s Department of Child Services; he only lost his job this past September after the Indianapolis Star revealed how he intervened in a child custody case involving his own grandchildren.

The consequences of these misdeeds extend into American public education, with laggard school leaders allowing criminally abusive and neglectful teachers to work in classrooms, as well as perpetuating practices that feed into the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Earlier this month, Lyn Vijayendran, a former principal at a school in the Evergreen Elementary system in California, was convicted of failing to inform law enforcement about alleged abuse of an eight-year-old student by one of the teachers under her watch. There’s also the scandal that continues to envelope the Los Angeles Unified School District over over the long career of former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who now faces 23 charges of what the law politely calls lewd acts upon a child. The discovery and prosecution of Berndt’s misdeeds, the revelations that Berndt may have been engaging in such misdeeds for more than two decades, and the arrest of another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, shed a harsh light on how L.A. Unified’s school leaders — including previous superintendents and the school board — have failed the children in their care.

But the abuse of our kids isn’t just sexual. The fact that L.A. Unified’s school leaders has done a shoddy job of evaluating its teachers — with 60 percent of tenured veterans and 30 percent of new hires going without performance assessments in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality — is evidence of how poorly the district has done in living up to its obligation of providing all children attending its schools with high-quality education. Children stuck in child welfare systems — along with kids sent by districts to juvenile justice systems — get the worst of it. Just nine percent of the foster care middle-schoolers attending schools in L.A. Unified were proficient or higher on the state’s achievement test in 2006-2007, nearly two times lower than the atrocious 22 percent rate for students in the district overall. Meanwhile districts continue to use juvenile courts to solve issues with students that used to be handled by principals and deans. Schools accounted for a fifth of all status case (or offenses that would otherwise be legal if a child was 18 or 21) referrals to juvenile courts in 2009, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; this included 59 percent of all truancy cases, which account for 37 percent of all juvenile status cases handled that year. Given the dire consequences that happens to kids when they land in juvenile justice systems, schools are often as much a part of the problem as families who often use courts to resolve issues judges are just unfit to handle.

Certainly there will always be those men and women who will physically and mentally abuse our children. Chances are that some will find their ways into our schools and other institutions. Yet as seen in New York City, where school leaders have aggressively worked to toss out teachers engaged in criminal (as well as educational) abuse, institutional leaders and staff can do plenty to identify and quickly remove them. The fact that Savile, Sandusky, Berndt, and others were allowed to continue to harm kids for decades shows the unwillingness of leaders to do right by children (and their willingness to perpetuate cultures of abuse and neglect). Even worse, it shows how little the leaders and staffers cared little about the kids subjected to abuse — and did everything to protect the perpetrators (and in fact, rewarded them with promotions, book contracts, accolades, and other deals). This isn’t to say that they don’t care about children at all. It is just that when it came down to choosing their allegiances, the institutions and their supposedly pristine reputations mattered more than the damage being done to grubby men and women from the proverbial other side of the tracks.

There is plenty that can be done to rid our districts, schools, and other institutions of leaders who aid and abet abuse and neglect, criminal and otherwise. From the perspective of the school reform movement, it starts by constantly shining light and calling out laggard school leaders who don’t deserve their jobs. In Indianapolis, a possible step in the right direction may come with three newly-elected board members of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, who may end up tossing out the system’s woeful superintendent, Eugene White, after nearly eight years of embarrassment. Tossing out politicians who allow for the abuse to continue, especially through their support of policies and practices that keep abusers in their jobs is also important. Voters in California’s Assembly District 50 have made such a stand this month when it voted out incumbent Betsy Butler, who refused to support an effort spawning from the Berndt scandal to make it easier to remove those teachers accused of criminal abuse and misconduct.

Using student performance data in evaluating principals, superintendents and even school boards, as well as  implementing student surveys such as the Tripod system developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education in principal and other school leader evaluations, are more-systematic steps. Meanwhile we must also continue to overhaul how we train school leaders and expand the talent pool from which they come. Given the reality that school leaders at the building level will have to have real management expertise — which is often different from being a successful classroom teacher — this also means pulling from the private and nonprofit sectors as the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation has done as part of its reform efforts.

At the same time, we must also make it easier for good and great leaders to sack teachers who are failing on the job, either in their instructional work or through criminal abuse. Ending near-lifetime employment rules that make it difficult for school leaders to toss out the criminally- and educationally-abusive alike would make it harder for laggard school leaders to sit on their thumbs and do nothing. Overhauling how we recruit and train teachers will also reduce the likelihood of those who shouldn’t be around children getting into classrooms.

For reformers, and for all of us, the Savile case is just one more reminder of why we must do so much to improve the quality of leadership in American public education, and in all institutions that are engaged with our children. Especially those young men and women who are already subjected to too much abuse from others, and deserve better than even more neglect.

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Best: Importance of Early Warning

Dropout Nation‘s writers are enjoying a day off with family and friends. A new piece, along with the Dropout Nation Podcast, will be up this weekend. But there is still…

Dropout Nation‘s writers are enjoying a day off with family and friends. A new piece, along with the Dropout Nation Podcast, will be up this weekend. But there is still plenty to do, especially in keeping 120 kids from dropping out each day into the abyss long before they reach that point. As seen in Chicago, where the traditional district has improved its graduation rates by helping kids struggling in ninth grade, intervening on behalf of academically-struggling children before they drop out is key to helping them succeed.

wpid10641-wpid-bestofdropoutnation-1.pngIn this Best of Dropout Nation from 2012, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses why states must develop systems that identify and aid children on the path to dropping out before it is too late. Read, consider, and take action.

A sixth-grader with a failing grade in math has only a one in five chance of graduating from high school six years later. This data from Robert Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins University researcher who revolutionized our understanding of the nation’s education crisis with his Promoting Power (or Balfanz) Index — and Lisa Herzog is absolutely sobering. And at the same time, the fact that we can actually identify students who are falling behind before they head into middle school (and even before they reach sixth grade) explains why we must use data in identifying and solving the broken windows that lead to so many kids falling into despair.

One of the dirty secrets in the battle over the reform of American public education is that so many of the issues that lead to kids failing in the classroom (and eventually, outside of it) can be easily identified long before it is too late. Thanks in part to the No Child Left Behind Act, the emergence of standardized and formative testing, and the early efforts of school reformers to improve data, researchers such as Balfanz can clearly identify when students fall off the path to high school and higher ed graduation. As Balfanz points out, 43 percent of potential dropouts can be identified by sixth grade, meaning that schools and districts can intensely intervene and help these kids before they reach high school. And while the conversations about dropouts tend to stem around the immediate issues that trigger students to finally drop out such as teen pregnancy, the reality is that the path to departing school before graduation is one that usually starts in elementary grades.

We now know that a sixth grader missing 36 or more days of school during the year has less than a one-in-five chance of graduating on time, and the same is true or a peer with discipline issues, while those students missing 18 days will also struggle to graduate. The data indicates that the students are struggling in their academic studies and have started tuning out of school; after all, no child wants to admit that they are illiterate or innumerate. Meanwhile the likelihood of a sixth-grade student with a failing grade in English graduating is even lower — just a one in eight shot. Essentially, these are signs that the kids have not mastered the basic skills needed to tackle harder reading and math subjects such as word problems. More importantly, those problems also manifest in tandem with truancy and other signs of dropping out. A sixth-grader missing 36 days of school, a failing mark for discipline, and failing math and English grades, will only have a one-in-10 shot of graduating on time.

Then there are indicators that come into view before sixth grade. For example, there is data on early childhood illiteracy, which can be measured through third and fourth grade reading tests. Twenty-three percent of third-graders who were functionally illiterate failed to graduate on time nine years later, according to an analysis of Peabody Individual Achievement Test Reading Recognition subtest data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation; one in six third grade students failing to read at proficient levels overall didn’t graduate on time nine years down the line. The data is culled from sample reports on some 4,000 students from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 — and thus not the best or most-reliable indicator of student achievement. But it does show the importance of identifying functional illiteracy during the first four years a child is attending school — and immediately providing struggling students intensive reading remediation before they reach fourth grade.

Thanks to tools such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (or DIBELS) test, struggling students can be identified even before they reach first grade. There are also ways to help these students get on the right path before it is too late. Given that 40 percent of all kindergarten students can only learn to read if they are specifically taught syllables, words, letter sounds and spelling — and that boys, in particular, struggle because the area of their brains in which language and literacy is developed lags behind that of their female schoolmates, identifying these students and using new ways to help them improve their reading before fifth grade would keep them on the path to graduation. It would also help prevent the disciplinary issues that begin to crop up among students struggling with functional illiteracy by third grade (and help reduce the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that exacerbate the education and dropout crises).

Some districts are actually putting together their own early warning systems, albeit still on a small scale. New York City has taken some steps courtesy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism, and Student Engagement; but that effort so far targets just a smattering of the one million students who attend the nation’s largest district. A few other cities, notably the Diplomas Now project, which is working in Chicago and Philadelphia, are also developing early warning systems. States such as Indiana and Colorado have also done plenty of work on the early warning system front. But most traditional districts do little to identify children on the path to dropping out (much less offer any sort of intensive remediation or help dropouts return to high school and get on the path to college), while many states have done equally as little.

One reason lies with the problem of scale inherent in the traditional district model. Size can have many benefits, but not in improving the quality of education for students. As seen with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which evaluated just 40 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires (who attain near-lifetime employment, and thus are far too difficult to dismiss, after two years on the job) during the 2009-2010 school year, districts already struggle in simply handling the human capital functions critical to improving student achievement. The fact that traditional districts struggle in the area of developing and managing data systems — with some systems storing data on FileMaker and Excel spreadsheets — also makes the development of early warning systems difficult to put together.

States haven’t helped in this regard. While statewide school data systems are becoming more robust, just three of them — Arkansas, Texas, and Florida — meet at least eight of the ten standards set by the Data Quality Campaign for being longitudinal and useful; and even those three states don’t provide access to data in a timely manner. Few states collect attendance data in any meaningful way, essentially providing little information on whether kids are attending school at all. Just 12 states collect attendance data daily (which students are actually in school), according to Balfanz’s Everyone Graduates Center, while a mere 11 states collect enrollment, attendance, and discipline data daily.

The fact that so much of school data remains compliance-oriented instead of being oriented toward accountability and usefulness in solving problems, is also an issue. That the measures aren’t useful also plays a part. Most states, for example, calculate attendance by dividing the total number of days missed by students by the total number of days they are supposed to attend (usually 180 days multiplied by enrollment); this hides the levels of truancy plaguing a school because it includes all unexcused absences, not just the set number of days under which a student is considered by law to be truant. So far, only California, Indiana, and Georgia provide breakdowns of levels of chronic truancy – and even those measures can be flawed because each of the states has their own definition of chronic truancy.

The federal government has proven helpful in the past in setting some standard for data through No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress measures. But thanks to the Obama administration’s effort to allow states to waive the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, that progress may be lost.. All but two of the 10 states granted waivers in the first go-round essentially ditched subgroup accountability by placing all poor and minority students into a super-subgroup that takes them off the radar, while other aspects of the waiver effort allow those states to let merely mediocre schools off the hook for student failure — and at the same time,  denying reform-minded teachers and school leaders the data they need to make smart decisions.

Then there are the cultural realities within traditional districts. An early warning system involves using data in order to make decisions, and extensive collaboration within schools in order to put students back on the path to success; and thanks to No Child and other reforms, more teachers and school leaders are becoming savvy in using data. Yet there are still too many school leaders and teachers who don’t have the sophistication (or the desire to use data) needed to use do so properly; the fact that many school leaders still aren’t using Value-Added data in structuring teams of teachers who can address student needs (when they have that information available) makes clear the trouble of using early warning systems.

As for collaboration? Teaching remains largely an autonomous effort — and many veteran teachers like it that way; few instructors want to work together with colleagues in teams, much less working with guidance counselors and others on helping at-risk students succeed. This lack of teamwork has consequences. As Dropout Nation  noted in its podcast profile of Harlem Link Charter School founder Steve Evangelista — who learned that a student he once taught as a teacher landed in New York City’s infamous Rykers Island jail — a struggling student loses contact with the one teacher that may have reached him, and further disengages from school. It also means that a teacher taking on a student with a long history of academic failure doesn’t know the particular issues facing that child and will have difficulty in getting her on the path to success.

Finally, there is the reality that far too many in education have low expectations for poor and minority kids. As Smith College professor Tina Wildhagen presented in her Teachers College report on the role of teacher expectations in student grading, African-American high school seniors were more-likely to get lower grades than their scores on 10th-grade math and reading standardized tests. From where some teachers and school leaders may sit, developing early warning systems to help struggling students would take time away from attending to those kids they deem worthy of their time and effort.

Certainly these challenges make developing early warning systems difficult. But it doesn’t make them impossible. There are charter schools and traditional districts and schools that are using data proactively in turning around the performance of struggling students. More importantly, developing systems to identify struggling students will not only help kids succeed, it can even help taxpayers save money in the long run — especially in stemming the number of dropouts on unemployment lines. And from a moral perspective, it is the right thing to do. There’s no way we can knowingly allow so many young men and women to continue into poverty and despair when we can identify their issues early on.

One critical step in making early warning systems more common starts at the state level with the development of more-robust longitudinal data systems that are geared in part toward identifying struggling students. Districts may need to join together on developing such systems in order to yield cost savings; this would be one of the few times that scale actually makes sense. This is also an area in which the private sector could do plenty of good; after all, companies can develop those early warning systems and then market them to the districts that need them. Because it makes far more sense to help kids succeed long before they reach third grade, formative diagnostic and summative standardized tests must be given as early as first grade just for diagnostic purposes.

The Obama administration could also take key steps towards this goal by ending its No Child waiver gambit — which will do far more harm to children than either the president or U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan realize — and actually move to expand accountability and data; this includes developing a uniform chronic truancy rate of ten days of unexcused absence similar to what is already in place in Indiana. Expanding the Race to the Top initiative to include reform-minded districts that focus on developing early warning systems as part of their efforts would also help.

Ditching the traditional district model — and embracing the Hollywood Model of Education — would also help. But that is a long-term goal. Until then, districts will exist, and so we must do more to push districts to embrace the early warning system approach. One way lies with overhauling school funding itself; besides essentially taking over school funding and turning those dollars into vouchers that follow each student, states can also reward or punish district by the number of students they help improve achievement and turn around performance. This would encourage districts to use data in more-efficient ways.  Those districts that are already making moves in this regard need to do more to encourage leaders on the ground in identifying student learning issues and in restructuring how teachers work (especially in the elementary grades, in which instructors are jack of all trades and specialists in none). Collaborative teams would certainly allow for teachers to focus on particular student needs, meaning that they will have to learn how to use data in more-sophisticated ways.

Finally, we must address the cultures of low expectations that make some teachers and leaders unwilling to actually help the students in their care reach potential. It means a whole revamp of how we recruit, train, evaluate and compensate teachers. Addressing those issues would do plenty toward giving our children the kinds of instructors and principals who make fixing the broken windows around them the top priority.

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Best: Learning from the Private Sector

Dropout Nation gang is taking off today to enjoy time with family. But there are still plenty of discussions going on today in the world of education. One of them:…

Dropout Nation gang is taking off today to enjoy time with family. But there are still plenty of discussions going on today in the world of education. One of them: The role of the private sector in American public education. In this Best of Dropout Nation compendium of pieces from 2011 and other years, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses the intellectual blindness of traditionalists to the benefits of borrowing lessons from the private sector, as well as the limits of what can applied to stemming the nation’s education crisis. These points are as important now as they were a few years ago.

wpid10641-wpid-bestofdropoutnation-1.pngChris Cerf and Education’s Anti-Intellectualism Problem: For all the taxpayer-funded doctorates and graduate degrees that are found among the defenders of traditional public education, there is little going on among them other than closed-minded, sclerotic thinking. This lack of intellectual vigor — the ability to see the value of new concepts, the lack of understanding of economics and technology, and the rabid opposition to anyone outside of education arguing for reform — is one reason why American public education is mired in the kind of mediocrity that has fostered the nation’s education crisis.

And that lack of thoughtfulness manifests itself even more when it comes to the thought of private-sector involvement in education. From where defenders of the status quo sit, the idea public charter schools causes them to reach into their Cliff Notes versions of The Communist Manifesto, and the school reform efforts of nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates  Foundation make them so apoplectic that they toss around terms such as “kleptocracy” without any understanding of their meaning. From where they sit, the private sector is nothing but pure evil, their involvement in school reform means the end of public education and a return to the dark days of, whatever they think of is the dark days. The fact that they are as dependent on the wares of the private sector and the economic marketplace for their very sustenance (you know, since companies and entrepreneurial philanthropists are also those guys who provide such items as computers and soap, along with paying those things called taxes, which support schools), never factors into their thinking.

One example of this silly anti-intellectualism comes courtesy of incoming New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s move to restructure the state’s woeful education department. Foes of the new commissioner’s efforts are particularly annoyed that Cerf is getting help in this work courtesy of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is ponying up $60,000 for the hiring of the consultancy helping to develop the plan. Status quo critics of Cerf’s effort have complained that it is a conspiracy to privatize education. They have argued that the ties between Cerf, the consultant William Cox, and Broad (which helped Cox spin out rating service Standard & Poor’s school evaluation project to become, and counts Cerf among its alumni) makes the whole effort an exercise in cronyism. And they have speculated about the role Cox played in the Garden State’s failed effort to win a share of Race to the Top money.

Given the scope of work — and the reality that American public education remains quite public — the first complaint is just thoughtless. The cronyism argument would have slightly more merit if this was being paid out of Garden State coffers. Since it isn’t, the argument also falls apart. And with no evidence that Cox played any role in New Jersey’s Race to the Top bid, the speculation is merely that; given that the Garden State’s bid was rather problematic, unlikely to be picked even without the botched work of Wireless Generation (the consultancy that helped New Jersey assemble its bid and had Cox on its payroll for a time), and opposed by the same status quo defenders now using the situation for their rhetorical argument, that discussion is rather meaningless.

Now the critics could have considered some real questions. For one: Whether a consultant is really needed to think through the difficult question of how to revamp the organization? (My own answer is no; Cerf is just using Cox and Broad to gain cover for the overhaul he already plans to do.)  Another: Cerf and his boss, Gov. Chris Christie, failing to consider the more fundamental question of whether the current system of educational governance — including the array of local school district bureaucracies — is even necessary in the first place? Given that Christie’s colleagues, including Gov. Christine Gregoire in Washington State, are already pushing to restructure their state education governance structure, the governor and Cerf should be using this time to push for a Hollywood Model of Education for New Jersey under which district bureaucracies would be tossed out altogether and traditional public schools would essentially become charters.

But this would actually require status quo defenders to stop reading Diane Ravitch’s claptrap, applauding Sir Ken Robinson’s creativity snake oil, and fawning at Daniel Pink’s vapid treatises on motivation. They would have to ditch such dribble about “democratic education” and “authentic learning”. It would require them to embrace the use of data in improving the quality of instruction and curricula, and understand the lessons (good and bad) from the private sector about recruiting and retaining talent. And would mean picking up copies of Wired, The Wealth of Nations and Education Myths.

Overstating What Can Be Gleaned From the Private Sector: School reformers may have the intellectual vigor at the moment, but they also suffer from the problem of oversimplification. Particularly when referring to the private sector, it is far too easy to argue that the solutions to the problems of American public education can come from Corporate America and entrepreneurs. The reality is far more complicated.

One thing to remember: Private sector has a variety of players, each of which deal with different kinds of constraints. Healthcare companies and electric utilities, for example, are heavily-regulated. They struggle with the same problems faced by traditional school districts, including bureaucratic structures (and corresponding inertia) that would make the agencies that oversee them proud and state laws that restrict their profit-making activities. Those firms share little in common with a Wal-Mart and Google which operate in lightly-regulated sectors and are structured more-nimbly to compete in more-active markets. So the respective problems each group of companies have for their human resources, cost-management and other operational issues — and the solutions they undertake — can sometimes be as different as night and day.

Another problem lies in assuming that every solution applied in the private sector can work in education. One example: Teacher evaluation. As Rick Hess rightly points out, the private sector doesn’t use objective measures of performance as the sole criteria for evaluations. But Hess forgets this: The cost of a poor-performing employee impacts a company’s bottom line, causing problems for customers, vendors, shareholders, creditors and other employees. But the impact is limited because private sector firms aren’t generally supported by tax dollars. The impact of low quality teacher quality is borne by a far-larger group — including taxpayers and children — who cannot avoid impact by just abandoning brands, selling shares, dropping clients, refusing to lend money or switching jobs. There’s also the reality that teachers and teachers unions don’t trust principals to evaluate their work. All things considered, using objective student data (from test scores for students to portfolio evaluations for electives such as music) as the sole criteria may make the best sense.

There are plenty of lessons from the private sector that can be applied to education. But we think through those lessons, apply them in ways that fit the particular characteristics of the education sector, and not simplistically offer up companies as the source of solutions.

Featured photo courtesy of Wired.

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Best: Suspending Kids Into Despair

Friday’s release by the U.S. Department of Education of school discipline data once again demonstrates how minority children and young men of all races are subjected to a pernicious form…

Friday’s release by the U.S. Department of Education of school discipline data once again demonstrates how minority children and young men of all races are subjected to a pernicious form of educational neglect. But far too many people, including some reformers, continue to ignore evidence of how policies such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions put so many young black, Latino, and poor white men onto the path to poverty and prison.

In thisBest of Dropout Nationfrom August 2012, Editor RiShawn Biddle explains how overuse of suspensions and expulsions allow adults in education to ignore the impact of educational malpractice on the behavior of children. Read, consider, and take action.

When it comes to the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of harsh school discipline, a few things have become immediately clear after three decades of research.
The first is that far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. The second: That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers.
Third: More often than not, the underlying reasons for such discipline have little to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. As analysis of state-level discipline data by researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba, along with reports I wrote in 20052006, and 2007 for the Indianapolis Star has shown, most suspensions occur in categories such as disruptive behavior and attendance — which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means —  while students are also expelled for chronic truancy.

The fourth fact is that there is no evidence that such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) improves school cultures or improves safety for children attending school. The American Psychological Association concluded this four years ago, and most studies show this to be the case; as Dropout Nation contributing editor Steve Peha noted two years ago in hispiece on overhauling school discipline, suspensions and expulsions do little more than let adults in schools off the hook for not looking at the underlying causes of misbehavior (which, as I’ll show later, has as much to do with low-quality teaching and curricula, as with lack of discipline at home), while letting students escape the consequences of disrupting their peers and teachers. And finally, the consequences of such use of discipline often lead to kids dropping out into poverty and prison. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later.

Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure. So the report on the overuse of harsh school discipline released yesterday by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA offered little in the way of surprises. If perfect insanity is doing the same thing over and over, then American public education has gotten it down to a science. The data, based on the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database for the 2009-210 school year, doesn’t fully reflect the impact of suspensions and expulsions on American Indian and Alaska Native students (in part because as many as 44 percent of such students are likely counted in the “two or more race” category”) and doesn’t break down suspension and expulsions by category (including disruptive behavior and insubordination, information which states already collect). But the abysmally high levels of suspensions determined by the Civil Rights Project’s analysis — especially the 17 percent suspension rate for all black children in elementary and secondary grades — serve as another reminder of the high cost paid by young men and women for adult decisions. Nor was it shocking that suspension rates for kids condemned to the nation’s special education ghettos were suspended at twice the rate of kids in regular classrooms (including one out of every four young black men labeled as special ed); there is nothing special about way-stations used by adults in schools to toss out children they can’t (and often, don’t) want to teach.

Yet you have otherwise thoughtful folks such as few folks such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute education czar Mike Petrilli asking if racism is still a factor.Proclaiming earlier today on the think tank’s Flypaper site that the higher levels of suspensions and expulsions seem in line with the higher levels of incarceration for black adults, Petrilli argues that “pathologies” such as single motherhood and poverty that lead to poor minorities being more likely to end up in prison could also be a reason for them being suspended as well. Yeah. Petrilli is once again arguing that Personal Responsibility mythin education that seems to be in vogue among a few reformers who should know better. And as I noted last year, it doesn’t hold up. Given that young white men are also suspended at high levels (albeit lower than that for young black men), Petrilli’s argument fails to hold water. [Your editor had a less thoughtful initial reaction. But a dental drill and Novocaine helped him calm down.]

Certainly Petrilli is right in noting that race isn’t the only issue when it comes to the overuse of school discipline. After all, Some of the highest-suspending districts surveyed by the Civil Rights Project include Memphis before its merger with the Shelby County district in Tennessee (which suspended 53 percent of young black men in special ed), and Pontiac, Mich. (which suspended two out of every three black students overall) are run by black school leaders and have large numbers of black teachers on staff. The class biases of many teachers and school leaders against poor and minority children and families regardless of color, which is often reinforced by the degree- and seniority-based pay scales that connote inflated opinions of intelligence, is as much a factor as race in the overuse of suspensions and expulsions. As Dropout Nation pointed outearlier this year in its analysis of comments about racial disparities in school discipline made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal officials need to do a better job on collecting data (especially by category) in order to make a stronger case.

But Petrilli’s declaration fails to consider the impact of racialist policies such as ability-tracking and the comprehensive high school model (which were based on the notion that only white middle class children of Protestant backgrounds were capable of college preparatory learning, while blacks and immigrants — especially of Italian and Slavic backgrounds — were considered too feeble-minded to learn) on the attitudes of many teachers and school leaders today.

This is especially clear when it comes to another symptom of the nation’s education crisis: The overdiagnosis of children as special ed cases. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category, essentially deciding that certain racial and ethnic groups of students will be learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. When one also looks at how middle class black and Latino families and their children — almost all of whom are two-parent households with strong values — are treated with disdain within suburban districts, it is hard for Petrilli or anyone else to say that race isn’t still a problem within many of our schools.

Yet at the same time, Petrilli unintentionally hits upon this reality: That the overuse of suspensions and expulsions are symptoms of the deeper problems within American public education. This starts with the low quality of instruction and curricula, especially in addressing the illiteracy at the heart of the nation’s education crisis.

As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study of children from low-income households, 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 are struggling with reading tend to have disciplinary problems. A third-grader who is functionally illiterate is more-likely to end up engaging in the kind of aggressive behavior that leads to suspension and expulsion; in fact, low literacy in third grade is predictive of school discipline issues two years later in fifth grade. This makes sense. Children who are struggling in school act out because they don’t know how (and are afraid to) to admit they can’t read, and don’t know how to ask for help from teachers (who in many cases, may not be equipped or have the desire to help them anyway).

Illiteracy is also a driving factor in children, especially young men of all backgrounds, ending up in special ed and being subjected to suspensions and expulsions. As Reid Lyon noted in 1997, young black men end up being labeled special ed because they are struggling with literacy; literacy can often be mistaken for mild retardation or developmental delays. Because the areas of the brain that involve reading develop more-slowly in young men than in female peers (as well as because of their natural rambunctiousness is of great contrast to the more-docile behavior of their female classmates), boys are particularly vulnerable to being condemned to special ed ghettos and being subject to harsh school discipline.

Reading experts have spent years developing new ways to help lagging students improve reading before they reach fifth grade and work with boys to get them up to speed. This includes identifying poor readers early on through response through intervention and other techniques, as well as intensive teaching of linguistic skills every day. Yet few districts have embraced these techniques or focused on intense remediation in the early grades. The fact that the nation’s university schools of education do such a poor job of training aspiring teachers in the science of reading means that far too many teachers lacking the expertise to teach reading. The fact that ed schools also do poorly in training teachers overall — especially in classroom management — also results in instructors being too quick to refer children to principal’s offices for suspension. Add in the fact that we don’t recruit aspiring teachers and leaders for their ability to empathize with all children (along with subject matter competency, and entrepreneurial self-starter ability), and one can see why so many kids are suspended from school.

Overhauling how we recruit and train teachers, especially in reading, would result in fewer kids being illiterate and thus, reduce their likelihood of misbehaving. Having aspiring teachers apprentice in classrooms alongside high-quality teachers (who are also skilled in managing classrooms) would also help. Meanwhile addressing the other issues at the heart of the nation’s education crisis — including the abysmal school leadership within districts and school buildings – – would also help reduce suspensions and expulsions. This includes embracing approaches to discipline that addresses underlying issues arising from struggles with learning.

Until we fully reform American public education, the insanity of harsh school discipline will continue to condemn far too many kids to economic and social despair.

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