Tag Archives: Poverty

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, teaching, Testing

Have We Wasted Over a Decade?

A dominant narrative of the past decade and a half of education reform has been to highlight alleged persistent failures of our education system.  While this tale began long ago with the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk, it has been put into overdrive in the era of test based accountability that began with the No Child Left Behind Act.  That series of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandated annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set a target for 100% proficiency for all students in English and mathematics, and imposed consequences for schools and districts that either failed to reach proficiency targets or failed to test all students.  Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education has freed states from the most stringent requirements to meet those targets, but in return, states had to commit themselves to specific reforms such as the adoption of common standards, the use of standardized test data in the evaluation of teachers, and the expansion of charter schools.  All of these reforms are predicated on the constantly repeated belief that our citizens at all levels are falling behind international competitors, that our future workforce lacks the skills they will need in the 21st century, and that we have paid insufficient attention to the uneven distribution of equal opportunity in our nation.

But what if we’ve gotten the entire thing wrong the whole time?

Or, perhaps to be more accurate, what if the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated that the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983?  Two reports, noted in January of this year by Kay McSpadden of the Charlotte Observer, put the presumption of failure into question.   The first report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics at the USDOE and was about the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  According to the PIRL Study, the United States does very well compared to other nations and international cities, ranking below 4 other territories (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore) and not being significantly different than 7 others (Northern Ireland-GBR, Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei-CHN, Ireland, England-GBR).  While PIRLS does not include all of the nations we typically see cited as outperforming the United States, the study evaluates whether or not students have learned the literacy skills likely to be taught in school, and in this category, students in the USA are doing quite well, with 56% of students achieving the “high” benchmark or greater.  In fact, when poverty characteristics are taken into account, the accomplishment of US students and schools is even more impressive.  Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore, a city state where roughly 1 in 10 households earns an income below the average monthly expenditure on basic needs and whose actual poverty rate may be higher.  At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students, and “tied” with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

The PIRLS data tells us something that we’ve known for some time.  United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.  Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California, concluded that the unspectacular scores on U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are largely attributable to our 21% child poverty rate and the impact that has on communities and individual children.  PIRLS results tell a similar story, and the persistent connection between race and poverty in America similarly explains the score gap between African American students and other ethnic groups.

The second report cited by Ms. McSpadden was released by the Horace Mann League with the National Superintendent’s Roundtable, and is titled The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often Overlooked Education IndicatorsThe report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes.  In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers, clocking over 1000 hours in the classroom compared to the Finland and G7 average of 664 hours.  Student outcomes for the United States are very high in the fourth grade assessments but are brought down overall by high school assessments, and the report notes that gaps by SES exist in all countries.  Interestingly, in system outcomes, the U.S. leads the studied nations in the number of years of schooling completed, the portion of the population with high school diplomas and BA degrees, and has the largest proportion of high performing science students.

These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.  We ranked the just above China in terms of economic inequality, and our communities are subject to shockingly high levels of social stress in the form of violence and premature death from violence and drug use, which studies show have long lasting impact on health and brain development.  These indicators are not even offset in the U.S. by generous expenditures in support of families and children or access to preschool as we ranked only above China and below the G-7 and Finland.

One has to wonder if the individual student results would be closer to matching the U.S. system results if we had spent the past 13 years focusing on the first five indicators instead of upon test based accountability.

This is no idle speculation because since NCLB, our school system has been subjected largely to a federally imposed experiment in warped behavioral economics where first school districts and then individual teachers were incentivized by high stakes attached to standardized tests to improve themselves or be targeted, by those same test scores, for dire consequences.  However, in the absence of doing much of anything else to support teachers, schools, families, or communities, the tests have ceased to be a way to monitor performance and have become an object in and of themselves.  With the dominant theme of education reform being “Test – Label – Punish” we have crafted a “reform” environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing — except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators who like to boast about their nearly miraculous test scores, but whose practices are entirely unlike what you would expect of a public education system that is designed to serve all students.

This is not a school accountability and improvement agenda so much as it is a system operating on the kind of incentive structures endemic at Enron before its collapse.  Little wonder, therefore, that Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.

This call is incredibly important in no small part because education “reformers” are correct in one critical observation about American education even if their solutions are poorly constructed.  Educational opportunity is not evenly distributed in America in no small part because the known impacts of poverty on children tend to concentrated in specific zip codes due to rising levels of income segregation.  The upshot of this is that a school which serves a discernible number of children in poverty will tend to serve a large percentage of children in poverty while schools with students from economic advantage will have almost none.  We do not need standardized test based accountability to tell us that outcomes are different in Mt. Vernon than in Scarsdale, but we should demand action.

If not testing, labeling, and punishing, then what?  First, we have to recognize that community conditions directly impact schools, and if we expect schools to provide access to opportunities for their students, then we, as a society, need to accept responsibility for the lack of opportunities in many of our communities. 51% of today’s school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their families subsist  185% of the Federal Poverty Level or less, so I take it as a given that economic opportunities are not as abundant as they ought to be.

Second, we should recognize the support and capacity building we have completely failed to provide for schools by placing our focus on testing as more than system monitoring.  What could have been done differently if we had taken a different focus?

  • What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act at 40% of average cost which has never been done?
  • What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated “fair” or “poor” and pledged to invest in school capital improvement needs across the nation estimated at $197 billion?
  • What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?
  • What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title 1 schools?
  • What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?

By most measures, the past 14 years have been a completely wasted opportunity (except for the private charter school advocates who have been monetizing their school model and the corporations that have profited from testing).  It is time to stop.  It is time to make a commitment to education that is equal to the soaring rhetoric reformers have lavished upon testing.

Morpheus

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, Data, Funding, NCLB, Pearson, politics, Social Justice, Testing

Dear Opt Out: Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Property Values??

USA Today ran a story last week from the Journal News of Westchester County about the growing Opt Out movement.  The article was fairly mild in tone, cited numbers about the unprecedented size of the current testing boycott, and gave time to proponents of the testing mandates and the information generated by the tests.  One quote, however, really stood out from out the rest.  It was from Nicole Brisbane, the New York state director for “Democrats for Education Reform,” who said:

“Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs. How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn’t clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data. “

Wow.

For those who are not in the know, DFER is an organization that is not actually made up of grassroots Democrats working for education reform so much as it is a front group for very large, mainly conservative, donors to influence Democratic politicians to support what passes for education “reform” these days.  While DFER has certainly influenced a number of Democratic politicians by funneling campaign contributions made possible by DFER’s funding sources (The Walton Family Foundation, Rupert Murdoch, Rex Sinquefield, etc), it’s stated purpose is to change the positions of Democrats on questions like charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores to those more likely found in the Republican Party.

Whitney Tilson, the billionaire hedge fund manager at the heart of DFER, was actually quite upfront about this:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

So DFER is not REALLY “Democrats for Education Reform” so much as it is “Billionaires For Education Reform Bribing Democrats to Wreck Public Education,” but BFERBDWPE is hard to make look snappy on a flyer.  That is, however, exactly how NY Governor Andrew Cuomo got to be the poster child for destroying public schools from the Democratic Party side of things.

Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog was especially insightful in his take on Ms. Brisbane’s bizarre set of priorities:

But at least we have a great new reason that all students need to take those tests– without them, the Betters would have one less badge of their Betterness. Testing will help us put Those People in their place. Don’t let your class down! Don’t let the property values drop! Get in there and take a test for the team.

Yup — the NY State Director for the hedge funded political bribery outfit PAC most devoted to high stakes testing essentially told parents in the suburbs to have their children lie back, close their eyes, and think of Scarsdale.  Especially their property values.

While that “reasoning,” and I use the term loosely, is bizarre enough, I’d like to take it just a little bit further.  Ms. Brisbane is, of course, correct that the value of property in a community has links to the perceived quality of the schools in that community.  Towns with school systems that have reputations for excellence and with high percentages of students moving on to desirable colleges do see increases in assessed property values.  Of course, this phenomenon predates not only the Common Aligned state examinations, it predates the entire period of test based accountability introduced with No Child Left Behind.  One has to wonder how the parents of Scarsdale could have ever known anything about their community’s schools before they got the state issued two page report that includes no item analysis whatsoever?

It is interesting that Ms. Brisbane chose Scarsdale as her example, given its long standing reputation as one of the wealthiest communities in the country.  However, you do not have to take my word for that.  The United States Census Bureau curates census data by community, so we can look directly at some key indicators for Scarsdale.  The Village of Scarsdale is 82.7% white compared with NY state which is 65.7% white, and it is 13% Asian with African American and Hispanic populations of 1.5% and 3.9% respectively.  Scarsdale’s population of people speaking a language other than English at home is actually closer to the state average than it’s racial make up with 21.5% of the population.

A staggering 85.7% of the population over 25 has at least a bachelors degree compared with a state average of 33.2%.  Per capita income is $109,044 and household income is $233,311 compared to the state averages of $32,382 and $58,003 respectively.  In NY state, the median value of a home is $288,200, and while the table does not have a specific median value in Scarsdale, the footnote says that it is over $1 million.  Scarsdale’s population living below the poverty level is 1.7% compared to a state average of 15.3%.

A family considering sending its children to Scarsdale schools will likely know something about the village’s school system just because they can afford to live there in the first place. I should also be clear:  I do not believe that someone living in Scarsdale is living there so that he does not have to live with people who are poor or minority.  However, the fact that he can afford to live there means that he does not live with very many people who are poor or minority by default.

Ms. Brisbane, however, wanted to know how parents in Scarsdale will COMPARE themselves to other communities, even in Westchester county.  Fair enough.  Westchester has had historic problems with integrating lower income and minority families within the county, so let’s look at the nearby city of Mt. Vernon next.  Mt. Vernon is 63.4% African American and 14.3% Hispanic.  23.1% of people over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, and the percentage of people over 25 years of age with a bachelor’s degree is below the state average at 26.4%.  Per capita income is $27,454 and household income is $49,328. While the median home price is $392,300, only 37.7% of the population are home owners. 16% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Demographic information from the New York State Education Department shows some stark contrasts that match or actually amplify the census data.  Scarsdale High School is 89% white or Asian while only 1% of the school is of Limited English Proficiency and there are so few economically disadvantaged students that the data is suppressed to prevent them (him? her?) from being personally identified.  Mt. Vernon High School is 79% African American and 17% Hispanic, higher than the averages for the city overall.  While only 4% of the school is LEP, 65% of the students in the school are economically disadvantaged, meaning their family qualifies for public assistance programs such as free and reduced price lunch. A family of four qualifies for reduced price lunch at 185% of the federal poverty level or $44,863.

The same NYSED web site reports school data on student graduation rates and on the Regents exam.  (Yes, Ms. Brisbane, I am relying on a test-based comparison, using a long established EXIT examination used in the state of New York that predates the additional annual testing required by NCLB.  I will admit that your hypothetical home owner or potential buyer would have some interest in how certain school performance markers compare in different communities — I am also pointing out that these markers already exist).  In Scarsdale, graduation rates are essentially 100%, and the percentage of students who earned 75 or higher on the English Regents exam and scored 80 or higher on a math Regents examination was 81% in 2014; the state average was 38%.  In Mt. Vernon, the 2014 graduation rate was 47%, down from 54% the prior year.  In 2014, only 3% of the graduating cohort reached the English and math scores of 75 and 80 or higher, down from 8% the prior year.  Interestingly, Scarsdale’s very small African American and Hispanic populations do not score as high as their white and Asian classmates on the Regents examination with only 60% of African American and 65% of Hispanic students reaching the “aspirational” levels.

It is worth noting that I began by looking at the race and income characteristics of these communities, but since the negative impacts of poverty on educational outcomes is well known, the fact that Mt. Vernon has a school population that is much poorer than Scarsdale’s means the diminished graduation outcomes are not unexpected.  In fact, it mirrors a national phenomenon that finds when there are greater concentrations of students in poverty, testable outcomes are much lower than in communities with few students in poverty.

poverty stupid

This is where education reform advocates like to accuse their critics of fatalism and saying that there is “nothing we can do” to get better educational outcomes for children in impoverished communities.  I will agree with the premise that geographic location and income level should not be seen as determinative, and the comparison between Scarsdale and Mt. Vernon should not be taken to mean the graduation rates and diminished achievement data in Mt. Vernon should be acceptable.  However, the point of this blog is to demonstrate that there is quite a lot of data available with which one can compare Scarsdale and another community in Westchester County, and that such data has been available for many years before the Common Core aligned examinations came along.  There is, in fact, very little that these tests will tell us in community by community comparison that we do not already know.

There is something that we do know, however, and it is something that Governor Cuomo continues to do far too little to address.  Namely, the Mt. Vernon school district was shorted almost $2300 per student in state foundational school aid in the 2014-2015 school year.  So while it is all nice and well that Ms. Brisbane and her bosses at BFERBDWPE want to be able to tell a tale of communities whose homes are made more valuable by student test scores, there is another tale they fail to acknowledge: that of schools populated with students in poverty whose budgets have been repeatedly starved.

Meanwhile, Ms. Brisbane’s Scarsdale parents can take comfort in the knowledge that six residents in the Class of 2013 alone got into Harvard University.  They could have found that out without the Common Core tests too.

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Filed under Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Social Justice, Testing

More than Half of America’s School Children Qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” (Yes) You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. August 16, 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

On January 16th, The Washington Post ran a story by Lyndsey Layton about a new report finding that slightly more than half of all American public school students now come from officially low income families. The headline stating those children come from “poor” families was slightly misleading as qualifying for reduced lunch does not require that a family be at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) which is $23,850 for a family of four. Families qualify for free meals at school at 130% of the FPL ($31,005 for a family of 4), and they qualify for reduced lunch at 185% of the FPL ($44,123 for a family of 4).  However, the reality is that almost half of our public school students live in poverty, near poverty, and low income conditions.  This has dramatic implications for them and for the schools in which they study.

Poverty acts as a third rail in American policy discussions, and it often feels that recognizing the reality for people who live in poverty or near poverty is immediately treated as an attack on American ideals of a meritocratic society.  Reality, however, remains reality, and the deep impacts of poverty upon young people are known.  The 1997 Princeton Study is nearly 20 years old and clearly demonstrated the health, cognitive, educational, and behavioral differences that can be attributed to growing up in poverty.  More recently, the  30 year long Baltimore study reported how intensely stubborn poverty is and how unlikely it is for a child born into poverty to move into the middle class or higher.  Recent research also notes that in addition to long known advantages of higher income families such as educational resources, a poor child who does “everything right” is still barely MORE likely to be economically successful that a rich child who drops out of school – and both are equally likely to be in the lowest quintile of income earners:

Poor-Grads-Rich-Dropouts

As equally troubling as these findings is the difficulty in any prospect of fixing them by current opportunities.  While going to college remains a viable way to maintain economic position for most attendees, it is not because wages for such graduates have been rising to meet inflation or a job market demand for such workers.  Wages for current college graduates is not much higher than it was in the mid-1980s, but the wage premium for a college degree has grown because of the collapse of wages for workers without a college education:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

In addition, the lower middle class, historically an important rung on the economic ladder, is not merely struggling; iis largely stay afloat only because of federal transfer programs that take the edge off of their stagnant and falling wages — even as they tend to pay the largest marginal tax rates of all income groups.  The conclusion here is one that has only recently pushed into margins of the mainstream:  it is extremely difficult for individuals and families to move up the economic ladder when several rungs have been sawn off…and individuals and families who slip from the lower middle rung to the bottom have few opportunities to regain security.

All of which makes our current educational “reforms” staggeringly galling, immoral even.  Reformers have been touting for years now changes to our educational commons that involve turning as many neighborhood public schools in charter schools as possible, measuring all success and failures in school by standardized test scores, and attacking the workplace protections of teachers as the only way to “guarantee” that every child has an excellent teacher.  In doing so they literally ignore all the ways in which poverty’s deprivations impact school, and they place upon public school all of the responsibility to boost students’ economic fortunes.  Unexamined?  Tax and trade policies that make it possible for just 4 hedge fund managers to earn more income in a single year than every single Kindergarten teacher in America combined.  Corporations whose business models do not include paying full time employees enough money to avoid going on public assistance.  Wages for most workers that have barely moved in real purchasing power since the mid-1960s. That concentration of income means that 10% of income earners now make more than half of all income in America.  Education “reformers” demand that “fixing” that should rest entirely upon America’s education system — even as their allies in state capitols around the country have played budget games to keep from raising taxes on the wealthy.  In New York State, that amounts to billions of dollars of year that Albany pledged but never delivered to local public schools.

Only in America would education “reform” be millionaires (Campbell Brown, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein) working for billionaires (Whitney Tilson, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Bill Gates) to convince poor and lower middle class communities that the problems in education and economic opportunity for their children rest entirely upon the barely middle class teachers in their local schools.

Professor Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University notes that those same “reformers” have taken up the mantle of civil rights in their demands that school be responsible for providing all the opportunity for children in poverty — usually as cover for schemes that privatize more and more of our educational commons.  Dr. Williams takes issue with their adoption of Dr. King for their cause:

For King, the Beloved Community was a global vision of human cooperation and understanding where all peoples could share in the abundant resources of the planet. He believed that universal standards of human decency could be used to challenge the existence of poverty, famine, and economic displacement in all of its forms. A celebration of achievement and an appreciation of fraternity would blot out racism, discrimination, and distinctions of any kind that sought to divide rather than elevate people—no matter what race, religion, or test score. The Beloved Community promoted international cooperation over competition. The goal of education should be not to measure our progress against the world but to harness our combined intelligence to triumph over the great social, scientific, humanistic, and environmental issues of our time.

While it seeks to claim the mantle of the movement and Dr. King’s legacy, corporate education reform is rooted in fear, fired by competition and driven by division. It seeks to undermine community rather than build it and, for this reason, it is the ultimate betrayal of the goals and values of the movement.

This observation is especially important today on the date set aside for reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the work that is left unfinished from his movement.  One of the most glaring unfinished task today is the poverty and near poverty that afflicts over half of our students in public education.  Accompanying that is the coordinated campaign of deflection and misdirection by our current generation of education “reformers” who want to pitch community members against each and against public education while the policy makers and the oligarchs who influence them most heavily continue to ignore the wishes of bi-partisan majorities in the electorate.

It is well past time that we revoked their appropriation of Dr. King’s mantle.  It belongs with those who want our nation to finally confront poverty, not with those who blame public school for the decisions of the powerful.

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What Does It Take For Justice?

For the second time in ten days, a grand jury convened to consider criminal charges in deaths of unarmed black men killed by police officers.  Last week, it was the St. Louis county grand jury that declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  This week, it was a Staten Island grand jury that did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo who put Eric Garner into a choke hold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes.  Mr. Garner, who suffered from asthma and diabetes, repeated that he could not breath eleven times as the Officer Pantaleo continued to hold him around the neck and other officers pressed him against the sidewalk.  He died minutes later.  The entire incident was recorded on a cell phone camera.

Protests are going on in New York City right now as I write this, and protests are planned for tomorrow.  The back to back decisions by separate grand juries to not press any criminal charges against two different police officers in deadly confrontations with unarmed black men leads me to wonder what could it possibly take for an officer today to be held accountable for unjustified force and why these events keep happening to unarmed African American men.  It reminds me of a panel discussion hosted on NPR by Michel Martin on her show “Tell Me More” following the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  Her panel of African American men in broadcasting and journalism all discussed “The Talk,” a very specific conversation African American parents have with their sons about behaviors they have to avoid in public in order to avoid getting in trouble with the law.  The panelists wondered what could that talk say now in the wake of Mr. Martin’s death.  I can only imagine what they would say today.

I got the news on my way home from work, and for much of the evening, I kept finding myself looking at our kids, especially our son.  I kept thinking about the experiences that they will NOT have because of their skin color, and the momentary sense of of relief at that was repeatedly overwhelmed by unspeakable sadness and welling anger at the 100s of 1000s of parents in this city who cannot ever look at their own children with the same assurance.

It is past time to admit that the “broken windows” philosophy of policing has been a failure.  Communities that did not practice it saw similar drops in crime since the 1970s, but where it has been practiced, it has led to two generations of police trained to be aggressive and confrontational in the very communities they are meant to serve.  It has led to the vast majority of people in those communities to not be able to see police as allies in keeping the peace but as antagonists who confront and harass people abide by the law.  It violates their rights.  It puts them in danger.  And it makes police work harder and more dangerous — when police are trained to treat entire communities as suspects then how can cooperation and trust ever happen?  And when police departments nearly everywhere have become increasingly militarized, how can we avoid more and more tragedies born of tactics designed for war zones?

This isn’t a problem solely of how police have been trained to work in communities with higher crime rates.  It is a problem of what we who live in communities and neighborhoods not impacted by significant crime have demanded in order to feel “safe” from crimes that we have rarely ever been subjected to.  Our politics consistently rewards candidates who vow to be ever “tougher on crime,” leading to broken windows policing, mass incarceration, and vastly disparate incarceration and sentencing by race.  This has made a lot of people in low crime communities feel “safe” at the expense of the civil rights and hope for all elsewhere. And it has allowed opportunistic politicians to make bank bragging about how their brutal methods reduced crime while blaming communities victimized by those policies for any injustices they have suffered.

We are complicit in these injustices, especially if we keep mistaking grinding communities into submission with making society safe.

I have repeatedly written in this blog that education is a hope based enterprise.  It is exceedingly difficult to help a student learn if he or she has trouble having faith in a future where that learning will be respected and rewarded.  I can only think of two things this week that might provide some lift for those hopes.  Children and their communities need to believe that their anger is both justified and that it can become productively aimed at injustice.  And those of us not directly suffering those injustices need to start rewarding a different kind of leadership than we have for over 4 decades.

And those of us who teach? It is time to think about what it truly means to be stewards of the children in our care.  Will we challenge to comfortable?  Will we raise up the afflicted?  Will we be moral?

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice

Asking Hard Questions of Our Privileges After the Ferguson Grand Jury

Last week, the grand jury convened by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of this year.  The decision, delivered after nightfall in a lengthy statement by Mr. McCulloch set off immediate, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson, and has spawned protests in 170 cities across the country.  To many protestors, the grand jury failing to indict Officer Wilson confirmed a belief that our legal system is critically stacked against people of color in general and African American men in particular.  As the grand jury testimony and evidence has become public, a number of commentators and analysts have noted that Prosecutor McCulloch’s presentation to the grand jury, far from the normal conduct of a prosecutor seeking an indictment, appears specifically tailored to relieve Officer Wilson of any charges.  As a matter of record, I find those observations credible.

Prosecutors usually present a case to a grand jury to seek an indictment and tailor the presentation towards that result.  Prosecutor McCulloch instead declared that the case was too contentious, so he intended to present the grand jury with “all of the evidence” and allow them to sift through it on their own.  Such an intent plays well to popular prejudices towards even-handedness, but it is usually in a criminal trial, not a grand jury, where jurors get to hear “both sides” as presented by zealous advocates.  For a grand jury to be presented with “all of the evidence” absent any advocate for an indictment is extremely unusual.  Further, Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement on the grand jury decision raised serious questions about how hands off he actually was, and his apparent decision to let Officer Wilson tell his version of events to the jurors without any cross examination whatsoever characterizes Mr. McCulloch as giving the officer a friendly forum in which to tell his story.  That story, described by CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin as “fanciful and not credible”, is contrasted by many of the witness accounts, but Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement to the press only mentions one witness who has offered contradictory accounts.

A week later, it seems very likely that Prosecutor McCulloch went into the grand jury with no desire to prosecute Darren Wilson, but instead of having the courage to state publicly that he would not seek an indictment, he decided to use the grand jury process to get that result with a veneer of due process.

Prosecutor McCulloch’s conduct of the grand jury fits into a larger pattern of both policing and the criminal justice system being antagonistic to people of color, and especially in communities that are predominantly of color.  The reactions that I have seen outside of the street protests, however, are indicative of a wider spread societal problem.  In a wide variety of fora, including ones that typically host reasonable conversations, responses to reporting, analysis, and personal discussions of the troubles with Michael Brown’s death, the larger phenomena that it represents, and the conduct of the criminal justice system ranged from the shockingly hateful to the naively hopeful but ultimately unhelpful.  The hateful reactions are immediately identifiable, and they seem to take the grand jury decision  as justification for something that they have believed all along: that Michael Brown was a “thug,” that he undeniably provoked the lethal confrontation, and that, ultimately, he is solely culpable for his own death.  Such sentiments frequently arise in cases like Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s, and it is painfully clear that a segment of our population will not accept anything less than a cartoonishly angelic victim before they will concede the least ground on justifying the death of an unarmed black man.

Naively hopeful but unhelpful is a more difficult nut to crack.  These often take forms of laments that race has to “enter the conversation” at all and express wishes that we could be a “color blind” or “post-racial” society where events like Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands are examined without having to consider what role race and racism may have played in it.  I see this wish in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s most recent column, where he observes that as the evidence in the Michael Brown case grew more complex that people “retreated” into racial divisions.  He front loaded his column with an assumption that America needs “color blind” politics:

Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

I do not think that Douthat is malicious in this wish, but I do think that his sentiment is harmful, and that, for very good reasons, the question of whether or not we can look at our politics and power systems in America and be “blind” to color is only answerable with a hearty and emphatic, “No, we cannot.”

The wish for politics and policy that are “color blind” is a wish that negates the realities of how many of our citizens live on a very routine basis.  While aspiring to visions of our society where all benefit equally is admirable and desirable, to discuss it without affirming that there are existing social and institutional barriers to how millions can enjoy both equality of opportunity and equity in what they need to thrive is to ignore any possible paths towards that future.  In other words, Douthat’s wish for a “colorblind vision of the American dream” will do little good without a color conscious discussion of what exists today.  Professor Denisha Jones of Howard University offers incredibly salient advice on this and many other issues related to discussions of race and racism that are prompted by Michael Brown’s death.  Her comments on the pitfalls of “color blindness” should be taken very serious by people who mean well, but largely do not understand:

I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.

Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.

Trying to look at Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown absent any consideration of race ignores the daily reality many young men of color live with in their communities where being treated as if they are legitimately suspected of criminal wrongdoing while minding their own business is a common occurrence.  The peak year for “stop and frisk” in New York City was 2011, and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, police conducted 685,724 stops that year, 87% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of even misdemeanors.  So in 2012,  NYC police stopped mostly black and Latino men 605,328 times, found absolutely no wrong doing at all, but affronted the dignity and rights of citizens obeying the law.  Combine this with the appalling consequences of our increasingly militarized police tactics, and it is clear that our policy makers have long pursued policies that needlessly exacerbate and create tensions between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.  Largely, I believe, to play upon prejudicial fears of constituents who live in communities that are safe from most violent crimes, and who believe being this “tough on crime” is needed to keep them safe.

I suspect there is another reason, also discussed by Professor Jones’ article, that is behind the call to not consider race, and it is a desire to look away from the concept of privilege and the many ways that people possess a variety of advantages that exist, or do not exist, based upon who they are rather than upon what they have done.  Professor Jones notes how defensive many become when asked to consider privilege:

It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege.  So when someone tells you to  “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.

It can be difficult to come to terms with privilege for many reasons.  As Professor Jones explains one can mistake the idea of having privilege based on race as an attempt to negate a disadvantage based upon economics or gender.  More troubling, recognizing how one exists in a system of privileges means having to increase awareness of how one might, even inadvertently, perpetuate injustice.  I have often heard the idea of racial privilege being countered by the claim that anyone can be racist, regardless of race, and so the idea of racial privilege is not valid.

I’d like to offer a personal anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the problems with that counterpoint.  It was a few days before the Presidential election in 2008, and I was pulling into a gas station on my way to work.  I usually drive through a predominantly African American small city, and the gas station was on a main street in that town.  As I pulled up to the gas pump, I heard a loud car horn, and I looked up to see a car with an African American gentleman in the driver seat gesturing angrily at me from about 20 feet away from the pump.  Apparently, he was preparing to pull up to the pump from the opposite direction, and I had not noticed as I began to pull in. I put my car into reverse and backed out of the space to let him pull his car in and expected that would be the end of the situation. Unfortunately, the gentleman was not satisfied, and he got out of his car and continued to yell at me, making sure that I knew the “We’re getting a new President next week and we’ll take care of people like you.”  His animosity struck me as rooted in something much deeper that the assumption that I was trying to take his space at a gas pump.

Describing the encounter, I have had more than one person opine that the gentleman’s “racism” was unfortunate, but this is where the concept of privilege is salient.  His anger at me was certainly unpleasant, even unsettling.  His apparent assumption that an African American President would “take care of” people like me was problematic.  I did not like the way I felt immediately after that confrontation.  But his anger and potential animosity based upon my race did not and has not cost me anything.  There were no long term consequences to his assumptions about me.  I have been denied no professional or social advantages.  There was no personal or systemic power that gave this man’s anger any ability to do more to me than make my morning unpleasant.

I, on the other hand, have some substantial power within my professional environment.  I am a professor of education.  I am tenured.  I am a program director at my university.  In order for students at our university to become credentialed high school teachers, they have to take at least two courses that I teach.  If I have unexamined prejudices, those can potentially stand in the way of a young person and his or her chosen career because those prejudices would be backstopped by the power of my institution and validated by the state Department of Education and national accrediting bodies that recognize our programs as valid paths towards becoming a teacher.  Now I have worked hard to have the position at a university that I have, but that hard work does not negate the very troubling reality that I am in a position to keep someone from having a career – and that any prejudices that I leave unexamined and unchallenged can transform from biases to injustice.

Further, and this can be difficult to remember and to confront, despite my hard work to be where I am today, various kinds of privilege assisted me along the way, especially in school.  I am white, so I have never had to convince teachers that I am academically capable despite my race, nor have I been subject to unequal application of near zero tolerance for any rule breaking potentially as early as preschool.  I am male, so I have not had people or cultural stereotypes actively or passively discourage me from considering entire fields of study, discouragement that I actually witnessed applied to female classmates of mine in high school.  I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, so the schools I attended were adequately funded with fully maintained facilities and good class sizes, and my family’s position in the middle class means that a multitude of institutional and social barriers children in poverty face simply did not exist in my life.

None of this means that I did not work hard or genuinely achieve in school, but it does mean that I cannot credit my success solely to that work, and, more importantly, it means that as an educator, I cannot do proper justice by my students by being “color blind” or “gender blind” or “poverty blind”.  Doing so would mean ignoring the real challenges to equity and opportunity that exist in every classroom in every community in the country.  Doing so would increase the chance that I leave my own biases and prejudices unexamined and unchallenged.  Educators have a special professional and ethical obligation to recognize and to confront these issues in our own teaching and in the institutions in which we work.  Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities.

If we learn only one thing from what we have witnessed in the Ferguson case, that would be a good start.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Stories

Teachers: They’re Not Piñatas

Another week, another plateful of teacher bashing in the popular press.

First, Time Magazine introduced its November 3rd cover story on the campaign to eliminate teacher tenure via litigation with a provocative cover picturing a judge’s gavel poised to smash an apple and a sub-headline repeating the inaccurate mantra that it is “nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”  Teachers across the country were outraged, and strongly written responses to the cover came from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association.  The AFT is gathering signatures for a petition demanding that Time magazine apologize for the cover, but no sooner than responses to the Time cover began than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his education agenda in a second term in Albany would be to break the “public monopoly” of schooling in the Empire State by even more test based assessments of teacher performance and even greater charter school favoritism from his office.  As the dust settles from that shot across the bow of New York’s 600,000 unionized teachers, Frank Bruni of the New York Times (and personal friend of anti-tenure activist Campbell Brown) dove back into the issue of teacher quality, a topic he has opined on previously with an extraordinarily one-sided perspective. Today, he gave entirely uncritical space to former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein who is hawking his own book claiming that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle” and saying that the teacher workforce will improve if we recruit teachers with higher test scores, limit or remove workplace protections, and offer pay for performance, which in Klein’s world is always measured in standardized test scores.  Absent in the “discussion”?  Any mention of the persistence of poverty in our most struggling school systems, and any plan for society taking full responsibility for helping to alleviate it — instead, it all rests on teachers and schools.

Today’s education reformers seem to think that our nation’s teachers are like piñatas.  If you just keep hitting them long enough and hard enough, something wonderful and sweet and that will delight children will come pouring out.

Mr. Bruni thinks teachers are being closed-minded towards the likes of Mr. Klein and Ms. Brown. He dismissively portrays their reaction to the Time Magazine cover as evidence of teachers reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to any criticism, and he actually claims that people like Klein want to partner with teachers — even while advocating taking away their workplace protections.  That teachers are finally speaking up loudly should not be taken by Mr. Bruni as some sudden intransigence on the part of a profession that wants to keep cushy perks, but rather it should be seen as the final straw exasperation of a profession that has been under constant attack since the early 1980s, probably longer.

Teaching has always had the potential to be contentious which is one of the reasons why tenure protections matter.  Teachers are responsible for, as author, scholar, and activist Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children,” a task that comes with enormous professional and moral obligations.  Practicing that responsibility potentially puts teachers at odds with parental, administrative, and community priorities, and it can require that teachers take unpopular stances on behalf of their students.  However, the current wave of reforms had their genesis with the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk” which declared our current school system so unsuited for the task of educating our children that it would be considered an “act of war” for a foreign power to have imposed it upon us.  The constant refrain of school failure has hardly relented ever since, and it has gone into overdrive in its current iteration of test based accountability since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its lunatic cousin Race to the Top.  Since 2001, the standards and testing environment have merged to become test-based accountability for teachers, and since the Obama administration announced Race to the Top, states have been heavily incentivized to adopted teacher evaluations based upon standardized testing.

While pressure on teachers has increased, funding and resources have decreased.  State contributions to K-12 education account for roughly 44% of all spending, but most states still fund schools below the levels that they did before the Great Recession.  Because of the housing crisis which prompted the recession, local revenue in the form of property taxes have also declined, putting a further pinch on school budgets.  In New York State, for example, Governor Cuomo and the Assembly have used accounting tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment to trim school aid by BILLIONS of dollars while enacting property tax caps that prevent localities from making up any shortfalls.  Meanwhile, teacher pay has lost substantial ground with comparable workers with the wage gap growing by 13.4% between 1979 and 2006 and most of that loss happening between 1996 and 2006 as the age of test-based accountability started cranking up.

And now, after decades of declaring our schools to be failure factories, after a decade and half of warped accountability measures, and after six years of being told to do far more with far less even though their real world wages have declined, along come some technology billionaires who think the thing that is really wrong with school is the fact that tenured teachers have due process rights before they can be fired?  They recruit telegenic personalities to lead litigation against teachers’ workplace protections (likely because their previous media hero is tainted by scandals and failure) and to do the interview rounds making claims that do not stand up to fact checking and research.

Meanwhile, serial misleaders like Joel Klein, whose claims about his record as NYC Schools Chancellor fail to stand up to real scrutiny, are out there claiming that all we need are great teachers and children’s lives can be turned around.  We don’t have to worry that we’ve cut nutrition programs for the neediest even though nutrition in the first three years of life can have profound effects for a person’s entire life.  We don’t have to worry that our economy is losing large portions of its lower middle class to wage insecurity, effectively sawing rungs off of the ladder of opportunity.  We don’t have to worry about the long known impacts of poverty on children or on how it is deeply concentrated in specific communities whose schools serve high poverty populations.

We don’t have to do any of that, say the Kleins, the Rhees, the Browns, and the Brunis of the world.  We just have to keep whacking away at teachers until the great teaching comes spilling out and children can jump up the ladder towards economic security without a single billionaire being asked to pay a cent more in taxes.

Frank Bruni pays about 27 words with of lip service towards supporting teachers and paying them more, but then immediately follows it with saying teachers should see the likes of Joel Klein as someone who wants to “team up” with them.  After so many years of being continuously blamed for failings our society refuses to discuss and absolutely refuses to address, the only thing astonishing about recently voiced teacher frustration is that it has taken so long to hear it.

Teachers are not piñatas.

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Filed under Funding, Media, politics, schools

If You Don’t Know What is Happening in Newark, You Should

Newark Public Schools began the school year under the “One Newark” program imposed upon the city by Trenton appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  The plan, which is the fruition of the partnership between Governor Chris Christie and former Mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker, essentially speeds up the process by which neighborhood schools are labeled failures and turned over to charter school management and, in theory, opens up the entire city to a school choice plan potentially sending students all across the city in search of schools.  Community concern, parent, student and teacher, has been brushed aside, and the plan has been put into operation this school year.

Bob Braun, retired education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger has extensively covered the plan’s roll out on his blog, Bob Braun’s Ledger, and it is safe to say that he characterizes it more as a roll OVER of the entire community.  Schools were slated to close even when succeeding by every reasonable metricAnderson stopped attending monthly public meetings where she was hearing the public’s anger and confusion.  Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed concern that Anderson’s plans are being rushed to implementation too quickly.  During the summer months, it was clear that Anderson had no operable plans for the transportation logistics problems caused by potentially busing students from the same families across the city to entirely different schools.  The lack of planning or even of care to plan was further evident this summer, when parents, taking off much needed work hours to participate in a school assignment process, were left waiting for hours in sweltering heat only to be told they would have to return another day.  Mind you, this wasn’t to enroll in an assigned school — it was just to get an assignment at all.  Mr. Braun reported one of just many heart-breaking stories entirely born of the cruelty being imposed upon Newark:

All the parents had stories to tell about the cruelty inflicted by the Anderson/Christie regime on the often poor and predominantly black and Hispanic residents of Newark. Typical was the story told by Marisol Mendez who came to the “One Newark” registration day to find placements for her 14-year-old son, Carlos Perez, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily Perez. The family lives in the North Ward and the children attended Abington Avenue but, when they applied under Anderson’s “One Newark” plan, Carlos, a special education student, they were  assigned to West Side High School and Emily was sent to a South Ward school.

“The placements were inappropriate for both of the children,” says Mendez. “My daughter is not going to take NJ Transit across town and my son needs a self-contained, special education class. He has had one all of his school career.”

Mendez tried to get answers from both the NPS administration and from charter schools. But, she says, two charter school operators–Newark Prep and K-12–told her they couldn’t take special education students. When she tried to speak to bureaucrats downtown, she received this shocking answer:

“They told me I should home-school my children.”

Anderson was upbeat on opening day, despite numerous reports of buses wandering the streets trying to find the students they were supposed to pick up.  But this week, the Newark Students Union tried to prove a point: that even in a politically disenfranchised community like Newark, people love their schools and will use whatever voice they can to make themselves heard.  On September 9th and 10th, students took part in direct action to protest what has been imposed upon them from outside political and economic alliances that see their entire school system as a worthy “experiment” at “creative destruction”.  With threats of citywide boycotts no longer supported by adult-led institutions such as the teachers’ union and the city clergy, these teens decided they had to be on the vanguard of demanding that Newark be heard: as reported by WABC News in New York City.  The student activists protested a second day by blockading the street near Anderson’s office as reported by WNBC the following day.  That protest culminated when police moved in to unchain the protesters, injuring the group’s leader, Kristin Towkaniuk.  Time will tell what will become in Newark, but despite their setbacks, it was genuinely inspiring to see students standing up when few adults are willing to do so.

And we all might have to get used to it.  I hope that I am wrong, but I have a terrible feeling that what is happening in Newark will shortly become the norm in American urban education.  Those schools have been treated to over 31 years of a relentless narrative of failure that has set them up for this kind of externally imposed disruption, and large portions of their populations are alienated constituencies in the body politic who certainly cannot muster the kind of money that drives policy today.

What worries me is that the growing backlash against the common standards, associated testing and use of testing to label students, teachers and schools as “failures” ripe for reorganization and take over is one with teeth because it has been pushed into our politically empowered communities, ones under no threat of state take over and loss of local control.  Peter Greene, a teacher and blogger, wrote about how at least one enthusiastic advocate of current reform trends, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, appears to be grasping this problem.  The gist is that Mr. Petrilli is now concerned that he and his fellow reform enthusiasts have mistakenly pushed their entire reform package into communities that have always thought highly of their schools, get the outcomes that they wish from those schools, have no easily identified need for drastic changes — plus they vote.  Some of them are even affiliated with powerful corporations who can provide the kind of monetary largesse that gets the attention of policy makers.

I could have told him this years ago if he had asked.  While a super majority of Americans think our schools are doing a mediocre job at best, a similar super majority of parents approve of the schools their children attend, and the Race To The Top package of reforms have taken the failure narrative from urban parents long used to it and pushed it out to the suburbs, whose parents are getting pissed at it.  Petrilli is even willing to admit that most high poverty schools are not failing so much as they are “no better and no worse” than average suburban schools.  However, he then pivots that such schools cannot “settle” for average and arrives at his conclusion that “no excuses” charter schools are the “best” suited for the job of propelling high poverty student populations to match students in affluent communities.

And this is why we can expect Newark to be replicated across the country if we don’t speak up even from the comfortable position of middle class school patrons.  I think Petrilli is correct when he diagnoses the reasons for growing push back against Common Core, testing and school failure.  Reformers have pushed so hard so quickly that they have challenged the politically empowered constituencies that policy setters need in order to stay in office. They certainly cannot charterize school districts where well-off families paid top dollar for homes in a neighborhood specifically because of the neighborhood schools.

But the efforts to turn over more public schools to charter management organizations will not give up easily.  If you have any doubt about that, recall that Wall Street donations pushed over 3 million dollars into the campaign of Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor because his opponent, now-Mayor Ras Baraka opposed One Newark and its plans to turn over many more Newark schools to charters.  This is in a city where the mayor and school board have no real power over the schools.  There are well-financed and influential operations that want One Newark to become a model for urban education.

If that happens, we will have missed an opportunity.  If suburban parents manage to push back the disruption of current reforms from their communities, only to stand back and allow it to be imposed, full force, on communities without political power, it will be yet one more anti-democratic burden layered upon the backs of these communities.  It will be yet another case where we have abandoned children living in poverty as someone else’s problem, favoring the “easy” answers promised by education “reform” instead of the hard work of re-imagining a society without institutional racism and an economy where genuine opportunity flows upward.

We cannot afford to keep ignoring that.

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, politics, schools, Social Justice

Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this?

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African American, was shot dead in the middle of the afternoon by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  Eye witness and police accounts of how the fatal encounter began differ, but three different witnesses reported that Mr. Brown had his hands in the air when Officer Wilson fired the shots that killed him.  As news of the killing and its circumstances spread, Ferguson, a community of 20,000 that is two thirds African American, saw protesters take to the streets where, on the first night, some looting occurred leading the police force to use tear gas to disperse crowds.  On the next several days, different protests were met with similar tactics, and then on August 13th, this happened:

ferguson1ferguson 2 ferguson 3

The Ferguson Police Department, a force on 53 officers, only 3 of whom are African American, made a demonstration of military power at their disposal that shocked many across the nation.  Combat body armor, military fatigues, armored vehicles, high powered weapons and police snipers were deployed to “control” a crowd of protesters that were peacefully assembled.  As night came on, the police decided to disperse the crowd again, and these were scenes that the nation saw:

ferguson 4

Police did not limit their use of force and intimidation to protesters: journalists were harassed and arrested in a McDonald’s for not leaving, and a camera crew from Al-Jazeera that was working behind the police barricades and easily identifiable as reporters was tear gassed:

In response to the events in Ferguson, MO, solidarity protests have happened across the country with protesters displaying the “Don’t Shoot” posture that has become symbolic of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Brown’s death:

solidaritysolidarity 2 solidarity 3 solidarity 4

Michael Brown’s death itself and the militarized police response to the following protests raise troubling questions about what it means to educate marginalized populations in the United States today.  Despite legal and legislative victories in the 1950s and 1960s that dismantled America’s legal apartheid state and despite efforts to take White Supremacism out of the mainstream of American social and political thought, it is plainly clear that the lives of minorities, and especially of African American and Latino men, remain in crisis.  This is not to downplay the realities of other racial groups and of women minorities, but it is to highlight a specific set of circumstances that make hope difficult to muster and maintain.  For example, Michael Brown did not have a criminal record.  He was a recent high school graduate, and he was supposed to begin attending college this month.  That didn’t matter, and he was treated as a person of suspect character and potential criminality when Officer Wilson made contact with him for no better reason than he and his friend were walking on the street rather than the sidewalk.  Mr. Brown’s friend and Officer Wilson give very different accounts of how that encounter unfolded (although Mr. Brown’s friend gives a similar accounting of his friend’s final moments as other witnesses), but there never would have been an encounter without Mr. Brown having been approached with suspicion in the first place. This demonstrates a real crisis in American society: to a large portion of the majority population, black men’s dignity and even their lives, do not matter.  It does not matter if Mr. Brown’s life can be shoehorned into a “good kid” narrative, because his presence as a black man on the street was enough to justify suspicion.

Following Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, NPR host Michel Martin of “Tell Me More” hosted a conversation among a panel of African American reporters and commentators.  One of the most striking segments in the discussion was the concept of “The Talk,” a conversation that many African American parents of all social classes have with their sons.  “The Talk” is so specialized a conversation that many young men’s own sisters are unaware that this is advice that their brothers have received, but it was treated by the panelists as largely common knowledge.  In “The Talk,” parents advise their sons about how to behave if approached by the police, how to conduct oneself in a store so as to avoid accusations of theft (always take a receipt and a bag), how to speak to those in positions of authority.  The gist for general consumption is that it is, even in 2014, not good enough for a black or Latino male to be AS good as his white peers; he has to be absolutely beyond reproach, and, even then, he has to prepare himself for how he will act when, not if, he comes under suspicion merely because he is male and of color.

This is not advice that has a duplicate among white parents in the United States.  Racial hatred in the United States may no longer wear the snarling face of Bull Connor and it may not legally enforce segregation, but it still manifests itself in the daily indignities visited upon men of color and in the knowledge that one can always be suspected of criminality simply by minding one’s own business.  A death by a thousand cuts is still deadly.

While the Civil Rights Movement abolished legal apartheid in the United States, segregation remains a persistent problem because income segregation has been rising ever since we abandoned aggressive integration of schools and communities as a matter of policy. Since 1980, the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) has climbed to worrisome levels, and because income and race are proxies, especially in urban communities, communities that are segregated by income are defacto segregated by race.  Mr. Brown’s high school, for example, had only two graduation gowns for the entire senior class to share for photographs.  Young men like Michael Brown are born into communities starved of resources, in possession of crumbling institutions, and segregated from political constituencies that wield influence over decision makers, and when they, through strength of will, talent and with support of responsible adults in their lives, succeed, they are still entitled to be treated as criminal suspects first.

In addition to the individual and collective slights of institutionalized racism, the entire community of Ferguson was given first-hand account of what can happen when people protest such treatment, especially in marginalized communities.  While the militarization of the police in America is not a new subject, it has rarely been on display as obviously and shockingly as in Ferguson, Missouri on August 13th.  Such equipment used to intimidate and harass protesters and journalists in a community of barely 20,000 highlights the disturbing ways in which police forces across the country have been turned into para-military forces and are aided and abetted by federal programs designed to get surplus military hardware into the hands of even small town police departments.  While these resources have most commonly been used, unnecessarily, in drug related raids, the police in Ferguson decided to put them in full view of the nation, making visible the military style police tactics that have afflicted high poverty communities for some time.  It is not merely the presence of such arsenals and their potential use that is worrying, it is the fact that such arsenals represent a tragic shift away from the proper role of policing as serving and protecting a community to the role of occupying that same community.  Officers expected to use and deploy these tactics are themselves transformed via training and experience into a force tasked with putting down disorder; hence, police snipers on armed vehicles taking aim at lawfully assembled protesters and police harassing, arresting and tear gassing journalists.

What has changed is not the treatment of communities (the ACLU made it very clear that militarized police forces take heavy tolls on communities of color), but we can no longer pretend that we do not know.  Even a police department of 53 officers has high powered weaponry and armored vehicles, and they are willing to use them.  The consequences are appalling, and the fact that a democratic society tolerates those consequences is even worse.

Which is what brings up the question of education and what it means to appeal to schooling this society.  School is an enterprise that is premised around hope and purpose.  In order to truly engage with the operation of school, a child has to believe that there are reasons and purposes that make sense and has to have hope that school will lead somewhere desirable.  For very young children, it is possible to appeal to their need for connection and to their desire for adult approval, and, even then, deprivations from extreme poverty and lack of familial resources and stability can greatly complicate teachers’ work.  For adolescents, however, those complications are layered with the child’s own awareness of how the world has worked around him.  Seeing and believing that education holds promise when one has been subjected to “stop and frisk” policies while simply talking to friends on the street or when one’s neighbors have been subjected to military styled raids by the police takes extraordinary optimism and an ability to project a future that is not based on local experience of family and friends.

Such matters are made even harder when an unarmed teen is killed in the streets and when the protests in response are put down with a show of military power in a town of only 20,000.

That we blame young men raised within and conscious of such injustice for having trouble with optimism is one of our country’s cruelest jokes.  Education in this context is necessarily a complex enterprise with no easily scaled solutions, requiring a lot of hard work with each student as an individual.

But a growing amount of our attention in urban education is being consumed by charter school chains who claim, in essence, to be miracle factories.  As proof, they point to student populations that are largely minority and to scores on standardized tests that match or exceed suburban school systems.  Praised by politicians and recipients of lavish funding from venture philanthropists, such schools often enjoy well-appointed facilities and offer well-crafted optics of minority students in well-disciplined classrooms.  On the surface, their claims of having “figured out” urban education look plausible, but the reality is much less miraculous than that.

First, while students in most states are awarded seats in charter schools by lottery, it is not true that the population applying is identical to the general population in the school district.  At a minimum, such students have parents and/or guardians who are aware of and desirous of the promise of a charter school.  Second, student attrition at the charter school networks that claim such miraculous results is typically higher than in district schools, sometimes shockingly so, and the patterns of attrition are not random leading to classes with significantly fewer students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, who have learning disabilities and who are English language learners.  Third, many such schools do not “backfill” vacated seats which means that, paired with non-random attrition, the remaining classes of students are those who entered the school more likely to perform well on standardized tests.  Fourth, many of these schools dedicate substantial time to test preparation and to creating a culture where standardized test performance is the sine qua non of their mission.  In New York State, fully public schools are not allowed to spend more than 1-2% of the academic year in test preparation, but no such limit exists for charter schools.  These are all matters I tried to remind former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of when he enthused about Success Academy’s recent test scores on Twitter:

Mr. Klein is intelligent enough to know the meaning of the figures and reporting that I put in front of him.  He also knows that “replicating” the results of Success Academy is an inherently limited prospect because even if the charter school chain expanded to take in all of the children that it is willing to enroll and keep, that will leave all of the students Ms. Moskowitz’s schools have pushed out over the years.  Mr. Klein’s call to “replicate” this model is a call that will leave fully public schools full of students who are MORE poor, MORE disabled and LESS proficient in English than they are now even with New York City’s shockingly high RISI.  And I have never known Mr. Klein or his allies to advocate for funneling more academic resources, better teacher support or upgraded facilities to the district schools that would remain in such a system.  Indeed, as Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, Governor Cuomo has made funding for fully public schools worse across the board without a peep of protest from Mr. Klein.

And it is important  also to consider what is being praised as a “remarkable” accomplishment.  The Success Academy chain does have noteworthy test scores, but those are inherently limited markers of student achievement and capabilities.  According to my colleague Dr. Christopher Tienken at Seton Hall University, for a multiple choice standardized test to thoroughly measure a SINGLE discrete skill, it takes twenty-five questions:

Either a test is thoroughly-designed and covers very few skills, or it covers many skills poorly. While students in the “miracle” charter schools gain very high test scores on the standardized tests, the more time in school that is aimed at preparing for the test formats, the less time is spent on creative, critical and flexible thinking.

What is galling, therefore, is not that such schools demonstrate achievement in standardized testing measures.  What is galling is that they are touted as having found “THE” answer when it comes to educating students who live within urban poverty, and that they have received both political and philanthropic favoritism even as their models for accomplishment push more and more disadvantaged students into zoned schools that are starved for resources and community.  Meanwhile, so long as these schools are touted as having found “the secret sauce” society at large continues to ignore the deprivations of poverty, insisting that with enough “grit” ANYONE can climb out of poverty.  Taxes don’t get raised on the wealthy.  We ignore how wages have stagnated for decades, the near destruction of the lower middle class and how a college education is more a means of not falling into chronic economic insecurity than a way to get ahead.

Most importantly, we can continue to ignore how income segregation results in racial segregation.  We can pretend that communities which are predominantly minority are not routinely treated as if everyone in them is a criminal suspect.  We can convince ourselves that there is no society wide responsibility to expand opportunity, alleviate the deprivations of poverty, fully fund our education system or directly confront the racism that still plagues how our institutions interact with people of color. In the minds of today’s education “reformers” none of that matters – schools and teachers and kids are supposed to climb up from underneath all of it with nothing more than a tough attitude and a battery of standardized tests.  And throughout all of this, teachers and students are offered no additional support, just more testing and more responsibility, and when the results do not happen quickly, teachers and students are labeled as failures.  It is like adding extra weight to Sisyphus’ burden and then blaming him for the existence of the stone.

Education is a hope-based enterprise.  The most dedicated and talented teachers can inspire hope in the young people under their care, but if society shares no responsibility for that hope, it cannot last.  Michael Brown is dead because he lived in a society that demanded he, and every man with his skin color, prove his innocence at all times.  The community that rose up to protest that fact and to insist that his life had value because ALL lives have value, was subject to militarized police brutality. Until we demand that the powerful in this country stop pushing comic book narratives and stop insisting that all we need for our urban youth is a “no excuses” school, until we value the lives of all of our children, until we admit to collective responsibility, in partnership with teachers and schools, for children, and until we pry racism out of our common institutions, this will not get better.

Those who look for simple answers that demand nothing of themselves and everything of teachers and students perpetuate this cycle.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, Uncategorized

Going After Tenure — Missing the Real Needs of Students

There is a character in the 1984 movie “Teachers” starring Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, who is unaffectionately named “Ditto,” played by Royal Dano.  Ditto is old, orderly, mind-numbingly boring and tenured.  His “teaching” consists of running off enough mimeographs each day for all of his students, sitting in the back of his classroom where he can see all of his students in rows, having his ditto sheets distributed, reading his newspaper and having students turn in the dittos when the bell rings.  So rigid is his routine that the students can do the entire process without him, a premise tested when he suffers a fatal coronary in class and none of his students notice.

The movie’s satirical take on jaded teachers strikes a humorous note by playing off of a lot of stereotypes and some common experiences.  Many people, sadly, have experienced classrooms with teachers either out of their depth or beyond their professionally useful life.  In a system of 60 million students and over 3 million practitioners, quality cannot possibly be uniformly excellent.  The situation in the movie also speaks to a number of popular if misinformed stereotypes, the most persistent of which is that once granted tenure, a teacher has no need to remain vigorous or skilled or even all that present in the classroom.

This movie must keep Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown and Whoopi Goldberg up at night.

The argument against teacher tenure goes approximately like this:  1) children need a quality education in order to have opportunity to succeed 2) a quality education requires quality teachers 3) teachers of low quality are concentrated in schools that serve poor and minority students 4) poor and minority students do not do well on examinations because of those low quality teachers 5) doing poorly on standardized examinations is the main blocker of opportunity for poor and minority students  6) some low quality teachers have tenure 7) firing low quality teachers with tenure takes too much work 8) we need to do away with tenure so we can fire low quality teachers and replace them 9) replacing low quality teachers will raise test scores and improve opportunity 10)  if you don’t want to do that you care more about low quality teachers than you care about children.

The problem, however, is that a lot of that is hooey.

Assume, for example, that tenure is a problem, as reformers do, because it keeps low quality teachers in teaching for too long. This, however, is as much a function of administrators not doing their evaluative job as it is the due process guaranteed by tenure.  Further, if it was tenure that was the actual problem, we would expect to see negative impacts on the performance of those districts that have the largest portion of their faculty with tenure – suburban districts with the most experienced faculties compared with urban districts that have extremely high turn over rates.  This, however, is not the case.  When the PISA examination scores that give our political class such concerns are broken out by the poverty characteristics of communities, we see startling effects:

U.S. Reading Literacy Scores By Poverty Characteristics

David Berliner writes:

On each of these three international tests, U.S. public school students did terrific in the schools where poverty rates of families were under 10%, or even when poverty rates were between 10% and 25%. But we did not do well in schools where poverty rates were above 50%, and we did even worse on those tests in schools where poverty rates for families were in the 75-100% bracket.

So students who do the worst on international examinations are those who live in high poverty districts which, because of income segregation, tend to be urban and rural.  Despite the movie “Teachers”, those students do not attend schools that are full of dusty, burnt out teachers who are waiting to die at their desks.  Quite the contrary.  They are far more likely to attend schools with extremely high concentrations of novices.

Helen F. Ladd, professor of economics and public policy at Duke University, notes that today, over a quarter of the teacher workforce has less than five years of experience teaching.  This is a problem because experience actually matters in teacher effectiveness, and research supports the need for teachers who have made it through the steep learning curve of their early years in the classroom.  Teachers improve in effectiveness measures dramatically in this period, and while their gains level off, a workforce that is perpetually inexperienced is a workforce that is not optimally effective.  According to research from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, districts that are urban, high poverty, high minority and rural are far more likely to have high numbers of first year teachers than suburban counterparts. Ten percent of the districts in their sample had a “critical value” of more than 17% novices teaching classes, which was double the overall sample average and is correlated with other effects such as teachers leaving the profession altogether.

It is crucial to pause for a moment and consider the contradiction here.  Our lowest performing schools are not plagued with teachers who are sit behind the mythic protections of tenure and do not do their jobs so much as they are burdened with a continually changing faculty who begin a steep learning period but who cannot be guaranteed to stay past five years.  Further, such schools are burdened with the attendant costs that come with high turnover rates such as recruitment and training, giving fewer resources for other forms of support.  So the attack on tenure has it backwards because the real problem for staff at our most struggling schools centers on too little retention of teachers.

Nicole S. Simon and Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers note many of the new teachers who leave working in urban and high poverty districts do so because of working conditions in such schools rather than any student demographic.  In fact, negative school climate and organizational factors are such powerful predictors of why teachers leave schools, that no student based factors remain statistically significant.  “Positive, trusting, working relationships” and “a strong sense of collective responsibility” prove to be strong predictors of schools that manage to retain teachers over schools with nearly identical student demographics.  Considering all of this, if reform advocates TRULY wanted to assist children who suffer because of bad teachers, they ought to advocate for the following:

1) Ways to support administrators doing their evaluative role seriously. As has been pointed out from numerous sources, tenure grants teachers due process in any effort to remove them from the classroom.  Administrators need to do this function, and they need to do it carefully and well, but that role is frequently an add on to an already extremely time consuming job.  Principals can be supported in this function by robust peer observation and mentoring systems, but this would require that teachers also have additional time needed to mentor and evaluate each other.

2) Improve teachers’ working conditions. High poverty schools are notoriously difficult places to work, but not for the stereotypical reasons people presume.  Teachers who seek out such careers are often highly motivated by a desire to do good, but face overcrowded classrooms, decaying facilities and inadequate resources.  Further, lack of planning and collaboration time isolates teachers and makes it more difficult to access the expertise and insights of their peers.  The saying that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions needs to be seriously considered.

3) Remove the Sword of Damocles. We know that high poverty correlates to low test scores, and we know that the reasons are far more complicated than reformers’ preferred explanation of blaming teachers for everything.  But the past 15 years of education reform have constantly increased the pressure on schools and teachers to raise test scores without our nation taking the least collective responsibility for alleviating our appalling child poverty rate.  We should still test, but for diagnostic and triage purposes rather than to increasingly motivate skilled teachers to flee districts where they are professionally threatened without adequate support.

4) Discuss poverty and its effects of children.  Education reformers have been consistently silent on this front except to accuse people who want to talk about it of “making excuses” for bad teachers.  That is dishonest of them.  Over 20% of our children come to school from homes that are in poverty with the negative impact on resources and development that comes from that.  Many of our urban schools have student populations that top 75% in poverty.  As David Berliner notes, we are obsessed with “one-way accountability” for schools and teachers to change this without requiring anything more of ourselves as a society.

5) Recognize that tenure protects teachers who rock the boat on behalf of their students.  The due process rights with tenure may make removing a bad teacher more complicated than simply saying “you’re fired”, but it comes with important freedoms that teachers need.  Many teachers have pointed out that tenure protects teachers from being threatened with capricious or political removal when they advocate for their students’ needs or call out bad behavior that harms students.  John Goodlad called this “good stewardship” and it is a vital characteristic that we want to encourage among teachers.

Those attacking tenure seek to take that away from all teachers.  That’s why I oppose them.

 

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Filed under Activism, politics, schools, Unions