Archives for category: Segregation

In today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof offers a list of “gifts with meaning” for Christmas giving.


He can’t avoid making a gratuitous slap at public education.


He writes:


We’re seeing painful upheavals about race on university campuses these days, but the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools. To address these roots of inequality, a group called Communities in Schools ( supports disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino, in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.


I’m all for sending money to Communities in Schools, but it is an outright lie to say that our K-12 education system “routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools.” Some of our nation’s most dedicated teachers and principals are working in schools in the nation’s poorest communities. The children they serve include disproportionate numbers who have disabilities and who don’t speak English. Many live in unsafe neighborhoods, seldom get routine medical care, do not have food security or even a home. Almost all so-called “failing schools” are located in neighborhoods that are racially segregated and impoverished. Why would Kristof smear the professionals who work there in a spirit of service?


I got an email from the celebrated children’s book author Jean Marzollo, who wrote that she was outraged by Kristof’s derogatory comments about the schools:


My anger came from what I thought was a sweeping insult to the people who work in his so-called “worst schools.” When visiting schools over the years as a children’s book author, I have met many wonderful teachers, principals, and other staff members in his so-called “worst schools” that serve our “disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino.” The word “routinely” is a bit insulting, too, because it implies that people in charge of schools don’t care.


I wish Mr. Kristof had said that “…the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which for various legal and financial reasons sends our neediest kids to schools with the highest populations of poor kids. The fundamental problem of our neediest kids and our neediest schools is poverty.”


The civil rights issue of our time is to reduce poverty and eliminate segregated neighborhoods, so that all children have the opportunity to have a good life and the opportunity to go to a good school.


Of all the people writing for the New York Times today, Nicholas Kristof should understand the link between poverty and low academic outcomes.





[NOTE: This piece was cross-posted at Salon:

Peter Cunningham, who previously served as Arne Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Communications, is a very charming fellow. When he left the administration, he returned to Chicago and was invited by the Broad Foundation to start a blog defending “reformers” who advocated for charter schools, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on student test scores, and the rest of the Race to the Top agenda. The blog, called “Education Post,” received $12 million from the Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

Peter just wrote a column that puzzled me. It appeared on Huffington Post. He says that teachers’ unions should embrace “reform” if they want public education to survive. I was puzzled because the major thrust of “reform” as currently defined is to privatize as many schools as possible and to eliminate teachers’ unions.

He writes:

“America’s teachers unions probably will not put reform leaders like Newark’s Chris Cerf, Philadelphia’s William Hite, D.C’s Kaya Henderson, or Denver’s Tom Boasberg at the top of their Christmas card mailing list. But they should, because no one is working harder to improve and preserve traditional, unionized, district-run schools.

“Yes, these and other reform superintendents support creating new, high-quality schools, including public charters, and giving all parents the power to choose the right schools for their children. But they and their leadership teams are most deeply committed to investing in and strengthening the existing district-run schools. No one wants these schools to work for kids more than these district leaders.”

Cunningham attributes opposition to charters solely to unions trying to protect their membership and their revenue. Why should unions feel threatened by privately managed charters? As Cunningham notes, 93% of charters are non-union. Cunningham thinks that everyone who opposes turning public tax revenues over to private operators has the sinister motive of protecting the unions. He even says that pro-public education bloggers are merely union fronts. Whether they are teachers, academics, or journalists, Cunningham can’t see any reason for them to question charters other than their allegiance to the unions.

“Charter critics claim that charters pull resources and higher achieving students away from traditional public schools, but, in a poll conducted by Education Post, 65 percent of parents rejected this argument. Instead, they agreed that public charters offer high quality options to parents who have been traditionally denied the power of school choice.

“Teacher unions, who need unionized teachers and dues in order to exist, are fighting desperately to convince parents to stay with the traditional, district-run schools. But rather than appealing to parents on the strength of the education that traditional schools offer, their strategy primarily focuses on limiting funding for charters, capping their growth or organizing their teachers to join a union.

“At the same time, teacher unions have mobilized teacher bloggers, academics, pseudo-journalists and various non-profit organizations to ignore or smear the great work of high-performing charters. They rail against the small percentage that aren’t serving kids well and that reform leaders agree should be, well, reformed.”

What you learn from reading Cunningham’s article is how little he understands about the role of public education in a democracy. He doesn’t know how public schools are central, traditional, and beloved public institutions in most communities. Does he not know that every national poll shows that parents think well of their own local public school?

Why would Cunningham cite a poll in the conservative journal Education Next to rebut charges that charter schools skim the students they want and that charters draw funding away from public schools? These issues are questions of fact, not of public opinion.

How can he not know that many high-performing charters screen out the students with the greatest needs? Was he unaware of the federal GAO report criticizing charters for their small numbers of students with disabilities? Was he unaware of lawsuits filed on behalf of students with disabilities who were excluded from charter schools? How can he not know that charters in some communities, like Chester-Upland in Pennsylvania, are bankrupting the local public schools? How can he not be upset by the avaricious behavior of for-profit charters? Does he not know that the NCAA stripped accreditation from two dozen virtual charter schools because of their low quality? How can he not be outraged by the terrible education offered by virtual charters? How can he overlook the actions of charter operators in Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and other states, where charters are known for their lack of accountability and their poor performance?

I am a critic of charters. I wasn’t always opposed to charters. In 1998, I testified for a charter law before the New York legislature. I thought that charters would enroll the neediest students, the ones who dropped out or were about to drop out. I thought they would share what they learned with the local public schools. I thought this collaboration would help students and strengthen public education.

But it hasn’t worked this way. I never imagined that charters would exclude the neediest students or that they would compete with public schools and boast about their higher test scores. I never imagined that charters would bus their students and parents to political rallies to demand the closing of public schools and the diversion of more money to charter operators. I never imagined that tax dollars would flow to for-profit schools and corporations. I never imagined that charters would be granted to non-educators. I could not have dreamed of charter chains taking the place of community schools.

I grew up in Texas at a time when there was a dual school system. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a dual school system was unconstitutional. It seems that “reformers” today want to re-establish a dual school system: one composed of charters that are free of most state regulations and free to write their own admission rules and discipline rules; this system has the financial support of billionaire hedge fund managers and philanthropists, as well as the U.S. Department of Education. The other system is the public schools, which are bound by law to accept all students, to abide by district, state, and judicial rules governing discipline, and–usually–due process for educators. So charter schools are free to choose their students and avoid regulations.

Does Peter Cunningham know that no high-performing nation in the world has privately managed charter or vouchers? They have strong, well-resourced, equitable public school systems. Privatization favors the haves and disadvantages the have-nots. It increases segregation and inequity.

That’s why so many people oppose privatization. Not because they are controlled by the teachers’ unions, but because they sincerely believe that public services should not be privatized but should remain under public, democratic control.

Blogger Sam Chaltain says that there used to be a monumental struggle between two extremes: on one side were the “New-Schoolers,” led by Michelle Rhee, who were champions of choice, TFA, charters, and so forth. On the other were the “Old-Schoolers,” led by me, representing “tenured elders, district loyalists, progressive die-hards, etc.”

Now, writes Sam, the battle is over, old hat, finished, and done, because he is part of a group that has envisioned a new paradigm for American education that is “that clearly places students at the center by making learning more personalized, relevant, and real-world-situated.”

To wit, check out the website of the Convergence Policy Center’s Education Reimagined project (full disclosure: I’m a contributor). For two years, Convergence has been gathering almost thirty of us – practitioners and policymakers, “Deformers” and “Status-Quo’ers,” Progressives and Conservatives, union leaders and union critics – to spend time together, for the purpose of seeing if they could ever get all of us to agree on anything.

And they did! They found a great Convergence!

The wars are over! Forget the Vergara trial to take away teachers’ due process rights. Forget Eli Broad’s move to take over half the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District and his plans to charterize the District of Columbia. Forget Scott Walker’s efforts to eliminate public education in Milwaukee, and eventually in other parts of Wisconsin. Forget the hedge funders who pour millions of dollars into state and local school board races and who buy politicians with strategic donations. Stop worrying so much about poverty and segregation.

All of those concerns are Old School.

Is Sam right? Are the wars over? Should we stop resisting and get out of the way of the Great Convergence?

If the battle is over, I am ready to quit; is Eli Broad? is Bill Gates? is Scott Walker? is John Kasich? is Rick Scott? is Bobby Jindal? will the hedge fund guys put away their checkbooks? If I stop, and they don’t, what will happen to the teaching profession? What will happen to public education?

What do you think? I am listening and reading.

Jan Resseger served for many years as program director for education justice of the United Church of Christ. She is a woman with a strong social conscience, who is devoted to the well-being of all children. She lives in Ohio. When I first visited Cleveland, I had the privilege of being escorted by Jan, who showed me the stark disparities between the affluent suburbs and the downtrodden inner-city.

Jan Resseger writes here of the calamities imposed on our nation’s education system by Arne Duncan, who changed the national education goal from equality of educational opportunity for all to a “race to the top” for the few. He shifted our sights from equal opportunity and equitable funding to test scores; he pretended that poverty was unimportant and could be solved by closing public schools and turning children over to private entrepreneurs who had little supervision.

Read Jan’s entire piece: Duncan was a disaster as a molder of education policy. He ignored segregation and it grew more intense on his watch. His successor, John King, was a clone of Duncan in New York state. He too thinks that test scores are the measure of education quality, despite the fact that what they measure best is family income. He too, a founder of charter schools, prefers charters over public education. His hurried implementation of the Common Core standards and tests in New York were universally considered disastrous, even by Governor Cuomo; John King, more than anyone else, ignited the parent opt out movement in New York. And his role model was Arne Duncan.

Jan Resseger writes:

School policy ripped out of time and history: in many ways that is Arne Duncan’s gift to us — school policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity — a Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight — the substitution of the consultant driven, win-lose methodology of philanthropy for formula-driven government policy — school policy that favors social innovation, one charter at a time. Such policies are definitely a break from the past. Whether they promise better opportunity for the mass of our nation’s children, and especially our poorest children, is a very different question.

School policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity: Here is what a Congressional Equity and Excellence Commission charged in 2013, five years into Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities… This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty. Our poverty rate for school-age children—currently more than 22 percent—is twice the OECD average and nearly four times that of leading countries such as Finland.” Arne Duncan’s signature policies ignore these realities. While many of Duncan’s programs have conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ complying with Duncan’s favored policies, none of Duncan’s conditions involved closing opportunity gaps. To qualify for a Race to the Top grant, a state had to remove any statutory cap on the authorization of new charter schools, and to win a No Child Left Behind waiver, a state had to agree to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, but Duncan’s policies never conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ remedying school funding inequity. Even programs like School Improvement Grants for the lowest scoring 5 percent of American schools have emphasized school closure and privatization but have not addressed the root problem of poverty in the communities where children’s scores are low.

A Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight: The nation faces an epidemic of teacher shortages and despair among professionals who feel devalued as states rush to implement the teacher-rating policies they adopted to win their No Child Left Behind waivers from the federal government. Even as evidence continues to demonstrate that students’ test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other factor, and as scholars declare that students’ test scores are unreliable for evaluating teachers, Duncan’s policies have unrelentingly driven state governments to create policy that has contributed to widespread blaming of the teachers who serve in our nation’s poorest communities.

However, Duncan’s Department of Education has been far less attentive to accountability for its own programs. In June, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national organizations made up of the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improves its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program. The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cites formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.” The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.

Most recently, just last week, the Department of Education awarded $249 million to seven states and the District of Columbia for expanding charter schools, with the largest of those grants, $71 million, awarded to Ohio, despite that protracted Ohio legislative debate all year has failed to produce regulations for an out-of-control, for-profit group of online charter schools or to improve Ohio’s oversight of what are too often unethical or incompetent charter school sponsors. The U.S. Department of Education made its grant last week despite that Ohio’s legislature is known to have been influenced by political contributions from the owners of for-profit charter schools.

The Post and Courier in South Carolina discovered that school choice leaves the neediest students behind. Its investigation of North Charleston High School describes the flight of the most able and advantaged students to “choice” schools. The students with the greatest needs are left behind.

“The school, which should house a diverse group of 1,141 students from across its attendance zone, instead enrolled just 450 this year — and shrinking. Nearly 90 percent of its students are black in an area that’s more than a quarter white, and virtually all left are poor.”

The largest department in the school is special education.

This story, one of a five-part series, focuses on Maurice Williams, a freshman who nearly died because an infection in his brain that led to a blood clot. Maurice lives with his half-sister. No car, no job, little money, no choice. Left behind.

Competition has drained the top students out of North Charleston Hogh. Those who lacked the means are left behind. With fewer resources in a highly segregated school.

A situation caused by a law ironical led named No Child Left Behind. Call it a landmark in resegregating our public schools and leaving behing those children with the greatest disadvantages.

Caleb Rossiter has just published a book about high-poverty schools, after teaching in the D.C. schools. The book is titled Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools. He was especially upset by the rampant grade inflation that he witnessed in both public and charter schools. Jay Mathews wrote about Rossiter’s book here. Rossiter sent me a brief excerpt from his book, which I post here with his permission.



Yes, There Is an Answer for High-Poverty Public Schools



It’s the same as for our wealthier schools: a relevant curriculum, an orderly environment, and strong families


by Caleb Rossiter


If education is supposed to be the bridge to the middle class for low-income Americans, then the bridge is definitely out for children in high-poverty communities who attend segregated open-enrollment public and charter high schools. Tragically, that is nearly all the children in these communities. Very few escape to private schools, or the handful of public and charter schools that function like them by using selective admissions to keep out, or academic and discipline rules to push out, weak or disruptive students and troubled families.


In those schools most students can build the perseverance, knowledge, and study skills needed to gain and maintain the free ride that nearly all poor children need to complete college. In contrast, in the open-enrollment schools half of the students drop out and the other half are simply passed along until they graduate years behind grade level, helpless before a college curriculum.


Poor families have been the focus of a 20-year experiment of repairing the bridge to the middle class with a package of “reforms” in public and charter schools, including teaching to grade level tests regardless of students’ skill levels, insistence on a packaged college prep curriculum for all students, and most of all test-based “accountability,” in which teachers, and administrators are punished for the well-documented fact that being poor, black, or Hispanic correlates strongly on average with weaker performance in class and on standardized tests. These reforms came with the best intentions to produce better teaching and, as a result, better learning, but the experiment has failed spectacularly.


I know this not just because, when you strip away the “gaming” of the numbers that reformers use to make perpetual claims of progress, exam, SAT, graduation, and college completion statistics continue to show the same abysmal results for the poor and for blacks and Hispanics as 20 years ago. I know it also because for three and a half years recently I left university teaching to lend a hand as a math teacher in high-poverty high schools, and I failed just as spectacularly. (That “half-year” is the dead give-away. I recently resigned from a charter school because it demanded that I record passing grades for the 40 percent of my ninth-grade students who were delivered to Algebra 1 six years below grade level and then made little effort to catch up.)


But really, are we surprised? Was it logical to expect that with the poorest, most stressed families increasingly segregated into separate schools we could help them overcome the challenges of poverty just by changing teaching methods? Looking for the bridge to the middle class only in schools for children rather than also in jobs and support for their families meant that we could ignore the toxic legacy of America’s unique brew of slavery, segregation, and the passing of the cultures and opportunities of poverty and wealth to the next generation. How convenient!


* * *


Kenneth Clark was the psychologist whose research on black children’s self-image, in which most preferred a white to a black doll as a “good” playmate, underpinned the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board finding in 1954 that segregation was inherently unequal to the excluded group. In his work in Harlem in the 1960’s Clark discovered that poor African-Americans teenagers were “encumbered” by the devastation of the black family and of the black, particularly male, psyche by the violence and degradation of slavery and segregation. Clark identified the results as the “tangle of pathology of the ghetto:” a sense of inferiority, embedded discrimination and dysfunction, group and self-hatred, “defeatist attitudes,” and lower ambition. However, he also found that many children were not derailed by being encumbered.


Clark was not blaming the victim, but rather recognizing what the victim needed to recover. It has been a stunningly tough row to hoe, or chop, or pick, for African-Americans. The degradation and brutality of 250 years of slavery, a century of segregation and denial of opportunity by law, and now 50 years by practice, have created a burden of anger, confusion, poverty, and dysfunction that only the strong survive, and in which only the fortunate thrive.


Clark’s findings ring true today. Roughly half of my students exhibited the external symptoms of what has been called post-traumatic slave syndrome, and what I call currently-traumatized segregation syndrome. The causes are physical isolation and social alienation from the middle class, damage in pregnancy, shortage of intellectual stimulation in infancy, and high levels of violence, threat, and unemployment. The symptoms are stress, braggadocio, “joning” (verbally humiliating others in your cohort), responding violently to being joned, early and sustained language and academic deficits, fear of trying and failing, and looking for affirmation in gangs, crime, and early sexual activity. For the fortunate fifty percent who did not exhibit serious symptoms, there was almost always a strong adult somewhere in the family who had guided them through school, demanding solid performance and behavior.


While teaching on the poor side of town I would find myself regaling people on the richer side with tales of this wildly counter-productive “tangle of pathology.” I would always warn them not to interrupt me with “you’re kidding.” In the Peninsular War of the early 19th century the Duke of Wellington left the list of transgressions by his retreating troops to the imagination of the listener by saying only that every outrage imaginable was committed. Similarly, by listing these realities I am only providing a sample. Whatever outrage you can imagine, these students have seen it, carried it out, or been victims of it.


A partial litany: virtually no men in the homes, shootings by and of students, nearly half of boys involved in the criminal justice system, nearly half of girls pregnant, drug-running students and drug-chasing parents, violence and murder in the home and on the street, teenage prostitutes pimped out by family members, a third of the students classified special education or emotionally disturbed (four times the share for middle class schools), a 50 percent daily attendance rate, endless joning and fighting in and out of class, and worst of all a massive, active, nihilistic resistance to caring, planning, or doing homework or classwork that leaves students years behind, even as they are passed along with their grade cohort.


This last condition, externally-driven but self-imposed, is the primary constraint on poor black students, far more important than poverty itself, or having a young birth-mother, early health problems and language deficits, or an absent father. All of those can be overcome with a student’s modest effort, so the cultural resistance to that effort is the linchpin of today’s disaster.


Invariably, my stunned listeners would ask: “But what’s the answer?” I would demur, saying that we teachers couldn’t think about overall policy when we were focusing all our creative energies on helping one kid and supporting one family at a time. I did learn quickly what didn‘t work: “school reform.” The reformers claim that they can improve college prep performance to middle class levels by browbeating teachers with daily packaged lessons, firing the reluctant ones, and “teaching to the test.” This latter method was so all-consuming and so aligned with the expected test format and questions that I prefer to call it “cheating to the test.”


Reformers repeat and repeat that “we know what works” and that, in the words of the Edward Brooke charter schools in Boston, “research tells us that the number one predictor of student achievement isn’t race…or socio-economic status,” but great teaching. Such claims are often based on complex “value-added” computer models that compare students’ test scores to their “expected” scores, factoring out their own and their school’s socio-economic background and previous years’ scores. At present, though, these models are too crude to surmount the difficulties of accurate measurement and the variability of the causes of student performance.


The reformers’ cheerleaders among politicians and newspaper editors tell us every year that they have “done wonders” because “test scores are up.” But repetition doesn’t make any of it true. In fact, they don’t know “what works,” because after nearly 20 years of school reform no non-selective school has changed the basic trajectory of its poor children. The claims of progress invariably dissolve under examination of who is being tested in year-to-year comparisons and which comparisons are being picked and which ignored, revealing that the top predictors of average student success in America are still, and for a long time will be, the class and race.


I also knew what would help but couldn’t be used: integration, by race and class. If you have a solid majority of white, wealthier students in a school, their families create the dominant learning culture by expecting them to focus and behave in class, complete homework, and succeed. Research in cities that have maintained some integration, such as Berkeley and St. Louis, has consistently found “significant, if not dramatic” improvement for lower-income blacks who attend such schools, particularly in graduation rates, with no reduction in white scores. In addition, middle-class and wealthy families are far more active than poor parents not just in advocating for their children with teachers and administrators, but in taking part in school activities and, most importantly, demanding resources for the school from the central administration and school board and in the media. However, creating a norm of largely white, or for that matter black, middle class schools with a small share of low-income families is demographically and socially impossible in America as a whole.


America’s race and class-based residential patterns create initial school segregation in urban and suburban areas. When school districts try to promote integration, middle-class and wealthy families choose private schools, move to wealthier jurisdictions, or bring lawsuits that have recently been validated by the Supreme Court. In small towns throughout the South most white children still attend “private academies” that were set up to resist integration. Nationally, black isolation is returning to the levels from before Brown vs. Board. Over 40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are over 90 percent non-white. For the indefinite future, the front line for the education crisis for poor minority children will be in schools in which they are the overwhelming majority, and our strategy must be planned accordingly.


Now I am back in the cozy confines of university teaching, where I tell my students every day, “Thank you for doing your homework and not throwing anything at me,” and I tell my administrators, on the rare occasions I see them, “Thank you for letting me teach.” I have finally been able to find time to think through the crisis facing my previous students. And I am happy to report that yes, an answer has come clear to me. It’s simple, and its principles, though not its practice, has been proven in private schools and in public schools for wealthier families. The principles are, at heart, just common sense: schools should be built around the likely careers of the students, and families must be strengthened so they can safeguard health and develop intellect in the critical pre-natal and early infancy period.


Wealthy families already know that these are the two keys to success. They demand and receive a college preparatory curriculum because their children typically go to and complete college. Their children benefit from healthy, low-stress pregnancies and intellectually stimulating early childhoods because the families are intact and have resources. Either one parent focuses well-developed mainstream social and verbal skills on the child all day, or the family pays handsomely for an experienced care-giver while they both work at a professional level. Families in poverty need, and deserve, the same two keys.


The easier half of this proposal to implement — restructuring high-poverty schools to fit students’ needs, rather than forcing students to fit theirs — can be handled within existing school funding if federal and state school reform requirements are waived or rescinded, putting curriculum back in the hands of local boards. This would allow school districts to offer top-quality vocational and college prep programs for students who keep up and don’t act up, as well as a remediation track for those whose skill level or behavior requires temporary separation so that the other students can succeed. The harder half — hammering at the legacy of poverty and slavery by promoting employment and setting up programs that help poor families provide a strong base for their infants — could cost as little as $120 billion per year. We would probably get that investment back in spades in a decade through increased economic growth and taxes and reduced poverty payments and criminal justice expenses.


* * *


Schools: Appropriate Goals, Choice of Vocational or College Prep, Separation by Behavior


There are three things that must happen for high-poverty schools to prepare poor students to have a productive life in the middle class. First, schools must pursue behavioral goals that keep students alive and able to thrive; second, families must be offered a choice between vocational and college prep; and third, weak effort or disruption should never result, as it often does today, in suspension or expulsion for students, but rather in temporary separation from students who are working hard, with remediation intended to allow a new start in a new class the next quarter.


Pursuing appropriate goals can rescue some students from crime, disease, and pregnancy. Vocational education can rescue more from being drop-outs. Remediation and the end of automatic promotion can give on-task students a chance to gain a credible degree and off-task students a chance to pull themselves together. Many of the most encumbered students will drop out, as they do now, but some will take the bridge to the middle class. Those failing to cross the bridge could be reduced from today’s almost 100 percent to perhaps 25 percent, and the long-held goal of transforming high-poverty neighborhoods into working class settings could take place over a few generations. Selective public and charter schools could continue to “cream” off the families with the wherewithal to apply and therefore the easiest students to teach, but they wouldn’t really be necessary. Each open-enrollment school would have become selective within itself, able to offer parents an environment within the school where effort and success, rather than lethargy and chaos, would be the norm.


Appropriate goals: I used to tell my students that it was a waste of time to work on math problems if they wouldn’t first pledge to “take no life, make no life” each night — short-hand for staying out of violent situations and using a condom. To have even a chance of getting to the middle class as an adult you first have to make it out of the teenage years alive, without a criminal record, without a baby, and healthy enough to work. This reality is one that high-poverty schools need to acknowledge by providing lessons and counseling for every child on these topics. Once that is in place, the next goal is to gain the social skills needed to hold a middle class job: be ethical, cooperative, reliable, creative, perseverant, and confident in mainstream settings. Again, that is a huge challenge in a high-poverty neighborhood, and it must be met in a structured manner as in any course, with curriculum and assessment.


Next comes the ability to read, interpret, write, calculate, and strategize as needed for an entry-level job. Currently, most poor students are dazed and discouraged from elementary school on up because they have not solidified these basic skills before they are buried by the required flurry of college preparatory “Common Core” objectives. Only when the basics are solid should we turn to the supposed primary goal of high school, and the only one that gets a structured curriculum today: develop the more advanced skills that are needed for a career or college.


Vocational Choice: In a sort of reverse racism and classism, reformers who are mostly rich or white have claimed that offering vocational high schools to the poor or people of color is, to quote President George W. Bush, evidence of a ”bigotry of low expectations.” But only about 80 percent of all Americans graduate from high school, and then only about 60 percent start and 35 percent complete a college degree. When 65 percent of your clientele end up not needing your service, you’d better rethink your approach. For poor children all the percentages are far lower. Combining in high school classes with a college prep curriculum poor students who could succeed in college and poor students who cannot or who want to move more quickly into a blue collar career means that hardly anybody can succeed at either.


Parents deserve an honest appraisal of their child’s skills and interests, so they know exactly how their children compare academically with college-bound peers. Then they deserve a choice between college and vocational prep. It should first be offered after elementary school, because today’s middle school curriculum already looks like college prep, which will turn many students off to any schooling. The choice should be offered again after middle school for families who want to go in a new direction.


A minimum wage job pays about $18,000 a year. That is all that drop-outs or fraudulent graduates of a watered-down college prep curriculum can obtain. Careers that will easily pay twice as much for the indefinite future include plumbing, carpentry, electrician, cosmetology, hotel and restaurant management, fire-fighting, police work, computer technician, audio tech, web and social media design, computer programming, heating and air conditioning, medical records and technology, and bricklaying. In rural America there are many programs in which kids go to a home school and take practical, rather than college prep, academic courses half of the day and then go to a trade school the other half. Practical academics means checkbook math, not number theory; percentages, not calculus; angles for construction, not for Euclidean proofs; the physics of plumbing, not molecular motion; and analysis of newspaper articles, not Shakespeare’s plays. Success, not stigma, is associated with these programs. In urban areas, though, they have fallen into disarray.


There are a large number of mildly-challenged special education students in high-poverty schools. Our legal framework places far too many of them into mainstream classes that are simply overwhelming, but parents rightly resist the alternative of isolated classes and a dead-end special education diploma. Vocational training would often be a viable alternative for helping these most vulnerable young people prepare for a middle class career.


The vocational option would have to be exempted from the school reform curriculum and punitive testing because Common Core standards and improvement rubrics are illogical for it. For the college prep option, school reform may, unfortunately, hold sway for a while, but it does far less damage to administrators, teachers, and students when the students can largely handle the work.


Discipline and Remediation: Whichever program a family chooses, student effort and behavior will determine success far more than the quality of teachers and curriculum. College prep or vocational, schools must build their rules around a recognition that the culture of poverty so well identified by Kenneth Clark in the 1960’s is alive and not well today. To neutralize the culture of poverty we need to have two tracks in every course, from French to gym, from refrigeration to cosmetology, in high-poverty open-enrollment schools: the regular class for kids who are trying and succeeding, and a separate remediation section for the rest of the quarter, at most ten weeks, for those who have disrupted class or earned a failing grade for the quarter.


All students would start the course together in the fall, but in contrast to today educators should quickly remove students from class for disruption or earning a failing grade, so that all students can get the help they deserve. The high share of students, up to a third, who are now under disciplinary measures, including suspension, on any given day in high-poverty schools would indicate that these two tracks could be almost equal in size for the first few years.


Being removed from a course for disruption or failure to work enough to keep up would knock students out of their graduation cohort. After completing the quarter in remediation, they would be a quarter behind, and have to start that quarter’s material the next time it is offered with a new group of students. Remediation could include basic academic methods and skills, but would largely consist of students and families working with counselors and administrators to identify and address the students’ behavioral barriers to success in school.


The largest subgroup of poor Americans is white. However, the greatest barriers to school success are found in poor black communities. The kids themselves acknowledge the reality of the culture of black poverty, saying, “I can’t help myself. Sometimes I just be so ghetto.” In the television drama “The Wire” teachers classify middle school students as “stoop kids” or “corner kids,” based on what they did when their parents left them alone in elementary school and told them to stay on the stoop of the house. Those who stay on the stoop as ordered typically have parents who, while poor and stressed, have the strength and perseverance to rise above their deluge of problems and maintain control of their children. Those who ignore the command to stay on the stoop, and just head on down to the corner, rarely have an adult in their life who can control their behavior at home, on the block, or in school.


Stoop kids can respond, and actually want to respond, to structure and academic challenge. When they are taught as a group, without distractions from the corner kids, they can thrive in college preparatory or vocational classes. With strong funding and follow-up in college or post-secondary vocational training, they can be successful. They will make up the bulk of the regular class track. Corner kids actively resist taking direction from parents or teachers, and they melt down in dramatic misbehavior when pushed. They do little work and quickly fall behind in early grades, and only get to high school by being falsely promoted for years. They will make up the bulk of the remediation track, but after each quarter will get a chance to being again, with a new cohort.


Today the stoop and corner kids are mixed in every class and setting. The corner kids’ personal dramas and low skill levels deprive the stoop kids who are ready to learn of the chance to do so. We owe it to both groups to separate them so that stoop kids can succeed and the corner kids can address whatever is keeping them from trying.


On the surface it seems like this would amount to cold-hearted triage of those who can’t handle school, be it college prep or vocational. But that is misleading: we are already losing not just the corner kids, but the stoop kids as well. Establishing clear rules for attendance in courses for credit would permit the stoop kids to learn and put the corner kids exactly where they need to be: in a separate setting within the school that is devoted to finding their deficits, be they behavioral, psychological, family, or academic, and providing support so that in the next quarter they can try again. Far from cold-hearted, this recognition of their reality would be a warm-hearted landing for them.


As one of my funniest students used to say when he used a new math method, “Boom, there you go.” Simply by setting rules for class attendance we have freed at least half of our kids to succeed and given the other half a clear path back to success. Good teachers will stay in such an environment, and even if we can’t end the school reform paradigm right away, it is far easier to teach and learn in the absence of chaos.


* * *


Strengthening the Family: Jobs, and Prenatal and Infancy Support


As social worker turned congressman Ron Dellums once told me, the motto of his former profession was, “you have to take people where they are, not where you want them to be.” So, where are our poor children? Where their families are. There is no solution to the educational disaster for high-poverty kids without reducing their families’ challenges. And the families are weak, largely father-absent, alienated, and under crushing medical, psychological, and economic stress.


In the case of poor black families, there is an additional challenge from our long history of racism and discrimination. A reduction in overt racism since the 1960’s cannot magically wash away that history. This is an international phenomenon of violent race rule, in which some share of the oppressed are extremely affected. At about the same time Kenneth Clark was writing about America’s “dark ghetto,” psychiatrist and revolutionary Franz Fanon concluded that the source, or at least the compounding agent, of the mental illnesses he treated in his Algerian patients in the 1950’s was colonialism by race, the daily drip and sometimes deluge of segregation and structural abasement that some transformed into self-doubt and self-hatred.


Assistant Secretary of Labor (later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan completed a study in 1965 called “The Negro Family: the Case for National Action.” In a memo to President Johnson on his study he called for the government to confront the history of “unimaginable mistreatment” of blacks and the “racist virus” that continues to live in white America’s bloodstream, and to make a national commitment to move the segregated, dysfunctional, black lower class into a successful and largely integrated middle class.


Moynihan borrowed much of his logic and language from Clark’s studies of Harlem youth. He identified the “crumbling” of the “Negro family structure” under a “tangle of pathology” as “the master problem,” and called strengthening this structure “the work of a half-century.” After just half of that period Moynihan looked back in despair at the lack of funding and commitment, and the resulting lack of progress for the lower, as opposed to the middle, Africa-American economic class. Now the full term has passed, and the poor black family is even more distressed. If we falter again we will be having this same conversation in another half- century.


Attacking poverty is a humbling task, like educating children. There is no silver bullet, many unique structural and historical barriers must be addressed, and any approach that works at one time and place may be inappropriate for another. Consider the efforts Western countries, the World Bank, and private organizations have made to “save Africa” by “ending poverty” since the days of colonialism. Despite a trillion of dollars of their cash, goods, and services, most Africans have not escaped grinding poverty, nor joined the rest of the world’s path to longer life expectancy. The World Bank cannot address some root causes because it is actually run by the world’s wealthiest countries, and they keep Africa from sharing in the wealth of refining and manufacturing by paying off dictators for exporting raw materials. Poor governance, corruption, civil war, lack of investment, and myriad other explanations are offered, but at its core the historical seizure of Africa’s political and economic power by brutal colonialism has not been reversed.


Experts debate whether international anti-poverty efforts should focus on delivering economic growth that allows a country to improve living conditions through employment and income so people can afford clean water and modern medicine, or on simply delivering water and medicine right away. The answer is both, of course. China has seen a tremendous reduction in poverty and a similar increase in life expectancy through rapid, capitalistic economic growth. Socialist Cuba reduced the worst effects of poverty with direct services, heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union. The same lesson holds true for the United States: both income and direct support are needed to break the grip of poverty.


Our poverty rate remains high, upwards of 20 percent, despite significant spending to lower it. In addition to a proliferation of efforts by private foundations and individuals, there is no doubt that taxpayers are paying their share. A credible compilation by the libertarian Cato Institute identifies a trillion dollars of annual spending by all levels of government, 75 percent at the federal level, on programs specifically targeted to help the poor. That amounts to $20,000 for every person in poverty, raising for Cato and others the obvious alternative that perhaps those funds should be turned into cash transfers in the same amount, rather than be spent on programs.


This concept has surfaced repeatedly, on all sides of our political divide. It hearkens back to one of Moynihan’s proposals, which was endorsed by both President Nixon and his challenger George McGovern in the 1972 election but never implemented, of a guaranteed annual income to help people rise out of poverty. Liberal economist James Tobin, conservative economist Milton Friedman, and anti-poverty crusader Michael Harrington all endorsed such schemes.


These cash proposals seem to founder on the American public’s moral problem with solving poverty directly by making the poor rich, with cash. It seems to offend our sense that the “deserving” poor should be helped, but not the dissolute poor. This sense found expression in the 1996 Republican Congress and its “welfare reform” bill that imposed minimum wage work requirements and cut-offs of cash to those who were unable to find or hold these jobs. The bill also ordered poor women to get married before having babies, and reinforced the order with various cash penalties and incentives.


Unlike King Canute of legend, who ordered the tide not to come in to make a point about the limited power of government over natural phenomena, the Republican leadership actually seemed to believe that their demand that the poor work and get married would succeed. All it succeeded in doing was dramatically reducing the cash provided to the most challenged poor families. President Clinton “triangulated” politically and signed the bill, which led to the resignation of his top anti-poverty aides over the counter-productive nature of these moralistic restrictions.


Political problems aside, how credible is the concept of converting today’s poverty funding to cash transfers? Well, half of all poverty spending is for Medicaid, one of Lyndon Johnson’s babies that has been, literally, a life-saver for generations of Americans. Health insurance would be just about as expensive for individuals to buy themselves, so as long as we want poor people to have access to medical care, there really is only $10,000 per person to consider as a cash grant. Many of the remaining programs are already cash-like, like the largest five other federal programs: Food Stamps, at $75 billion, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which each return about $60 billion to minimum wage workers, Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled, at $50 billion, and Welfare (now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), at $30 billion. Smaller non-cash programs help poor students go to college, aid schools based on the number of poor children, subsidize housing support, provide job training, and care for the homeless. It is not clear that providing these targeted programs as cash would reduce poverty, once the initial sum was spent.


So if not a guaranteed income, what should be done? What is missing in all the spending programs is simply Moynihan’s national commitment to do whatever it takes to disrupt the transmission of poverty, such as assuring living wage jobs for parents and promoting health and intellectual stimulation in the crucial pre-natal and infancy period.


Jobs: Like the Cato Institute, Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan in his March 2014 budget proposal continues to make the mistake the Republican leadership made in 1996, confusing correlation with causation. They all argue that if poor people stayed in school, did not have babies until they were married, and took any job and kept it, they would rise out of poverty. Yes, middle-class people have far higher graduation, marriage, and employment rates than poor people, but that is as much an effect as a cause of their income. The sort of meaningless high school degree handed out in a high-poverty school gets you at best a minimum wage job, which pays well below the poverty line. A good-paying job, along the lines of $15 an hour, or about $30,000 a year, is the surest way to strengthen a family.


Most developed countries consider it a recession, requiring direct government employment or government subsidies for private employment, when official unemployment reaches about seven percent. During America’s depression, unemployment soared to 25 percent, and President Roosevelt responded with a bevy of employment and assistance programs. Well, for the past 50 years black America as a whole has always had an unemployment rate in the mid-teens, so it is always in a severe recession. The black rate is always twice that of whites, across all levels of education, and the Hispanic rate is only a quarter of the way from the white to the black rate, which looks a lot like blacks are being discriminated against, consciously or unconsciously, by white employers and managers. Black high-poverty areas in cities often top 25 percent unemployment officially, which is a depression in itself, but so many people are not searching for jobs that this often translates to well over 50 percent. Where are the crash jobs programs for these recessions and depressions?


There are 15 million students in public high schools, about half of whom are low-income, so there are 15 million mothers and fathers of poor high school students. The federal government should offer $30,000 public sector or subsidized private-sector jobs to any unemployed or poorly employed parents who want them. Local governments and non-profit organizations have experimented widely with this sort of employment program, and have stockpiled lots of plans, particularly in infrastructure repair and maintenance using basic skills. Even if some jobs were make-work rather than directly addressing needs in the community, they would be delivering a benefit by strengthening at-risk families. Some families may be able to move to a middle-class black or integrated area, which is the hidden, unspoken goal of poverty programs anyway.


Perhaps three million parents might both want these jobs and then be able to hold them by showing up and performing well. Eligibility would depend on them bringing their child in to school on time each day, before going off to their assignment, and on staying up to date on child support payments if, as is usually the case, the parents are not both living with the child. The cost of the program would be 3 million times $30,000, or $90 billion, including $10 billion for administration. The income should be uncounted for taxes and social services, so as not to reduce existing assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps, or welfare.


Whether it is direct services or jobs, we must acknowledge that some families are too distressed to benefit. The program need not be distorted to chase them down or give them multiple chances. It should focus on those who can benefit. In the 1970’s I worked in a desperately poor country in upstate New York for the Appalachian Regional Commission and its Home Start program. I recall a meeting of all the government-funded social agencies trying to help a legendary, extended rural family, which squatted on abandoned land, living in burned-out school buses. The men hauled junked cars for cash, the women scavenged for surplus food from public and private sources, and the children were malnourished, hampered by escalating medical problems, and lost in school before they even showed up.


The family members were trapped by violence, illness, poverty, and chaos, before even considering the psychological damage of being the poorest, unhealthiest people in the county. When I went to the meeting room in a shiny new county social service building I could barely get in the door: health clinic staff, social workers, psychologists, special education teachers, food stamp administrators, anti-poverty organizers, probation officers, heating specialists, cooperative extension agents, job training managers…it seemed like virtually everybody on the federal, state, county, and town payrolls except maybe the grave digger was there. All of us, this phalanx of two dozen helpers, had extensive and useless experience with the family. I remember thinking that if one-tenth of our salaries went to the family, just for one month, they all could move to a mansion in Malibu. We should accept the fact that some families cannot be helped, and focus on the large number that can be.


Neo-natal and Infancy Support: As America expands pre-school programs for poor three and four year-olds, it needs also to be focusing on the far more crucial developmental period between a child’s conception and first birthday. I worked as an analyst with Cornell University’s Longitudinal Early Childhood Consortium Study, which studied pre-kindergarten programs that featured high teaching hours, highly paid professional teachers and intense verbal stimulation, and heavy interaction with and support for families through home visits. Such programs (which should not be confused with typical Head Starts) can have surprisingly solid, but not dramatic, benefits on such long-term behavioral variables as high school graduation, employment, and prison rates, and age at first child. However, their impact on cognitive variables like test scores recedes quickly. This is because brain development and learning style are set much earlier than three years old. In fact, from conception, the longer you wait to intervene in poor children’s development and families’ interaction styles, the less intellectual benefit you get.


In my Home Start program in Appalachia in the1970’s I visited the same 15 pre-kindergarten children each week in their homes for an hour and a half. I was 21 years old with a child development degree, and my job was to encourage poor parents to talk, play, and read with their children in ways that would stimulate their cognitive growth and prepare them for kindergarten. As condescending as that sounds, it was a great model, and it was guided by rigorous research. A consistent finding, then and now, about social class and cognitive development is that poor children, on average, have millions (by one study, 32 million) less words, questions, and demands for responses directed to them by their parents in the first few years of life than middle class children. This gap, which I sensed literally the second I walked into the eerily quiet Appalachian homes, creates significant developmental and social lags that more than explain the so-called “achievement gap” between poor and middle class children. Because black families are poor at three times the rate of white families, the racial achievement gap is also exacerbated by poverty. In addition, the word gap is also extreme between black and white parents, controlling for income.


A helper should be sent out to every single expecting low-income father and mother for up to two hours twice a week, from the middle of pregnancy to the middle of the first year of life to collaborate, to teach by example how to interact to increase stimulation, to make suggestions about healthy living, and simply to help navigate the burden of being a parent of limited means. The good news is that pilot programs are already underway in a variety of guises, backed by public donations and about a half a billion dollars of federal funding for local efforts under the much-maligned Affordable Care Act. They have a variety of names, such as Parent to Parent, Nurse Family Partnership, Early Head Start, Parents Helping Parents, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, some use professional staff and some use volunteers, and some are focused on children with disabilities rather than poor families. They all, though, can all be collapsed under one rubric: Voluntary Home Visiting Family Support Programs.


The purpose of home visiting programs is to help parents become more effective at child development, from pregnancy through the first birthday. Given the rigors of poverty and race, even an excellent program with wide coverage will be no panacea. Poverty and the lack of resources and support it implies is strongly correlated with infant mortality. Black women, partly because of their disproportionate poverty, have twice the rate of white women. But consider this strange finding by the Centers for Disease Control: college-educated, well-paid, married black women have twice the infant mortality of their white peers. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies calls this the stress effect of being black in America. The constant pressure of being black in, for middle class women, the mainstream white culture and the constant worry about how your children will be treated combine to stress your body during pregnancy, resulting in increased prematurity and resulting low birth weight. No amount of home visiting will remove the stress effect of being black, but it should certainly help in the long-term for individual children.


Most parents, especially young parents, would agree to take part in the program, and would, in my experience, come to look forward to the visits and be eager to mimic the activities with their children they are shown by the visitor. However, some of the most needy may choose not to take part, out of fear of getting any agency close to their business. This is similar to the resistance by poor high school students to telling anybody anything about one’s family, because that might lead to investigation and trouble. This is a good point to note in closing this article. We are working with individuals, each different and each with their own set of strengths and stresses. A little humility about our limitations and theirs, a little attention to what real people are telling us about their lives, would go a long way in the high-stakes debate over educating the children of poverty.


* * *


A new paper by scholars Helen F. Ladd, Charles T. Clotfelder, and John B. Holbein analyzes the charter school sector in North Carolina.

The group give a brief history of charter schools in the state, which were capped at 100 until Race to the Top encouraged the Legislature to remove the cap altogether. As they show, the original charter schools enrolled mainly black students. As the sector grew, however, especially in the recent period, the charter sector has been increasingly segregated by race. It now enrolls more white students than black students. The test scores of entering students are higher than in the past.

As the authors summarize:

Taken together, our findings imply that the charter schools in North Carolina are increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.

It is indeed an irony that a policy fostered by the Obama administration (Race to the Top) has encouraged the growth of segregation, which appears to be a predictable result of market-based education. The policies of Race to the Top in this respect reinforce the preferences of the far-right political forces that gained control of the North Carolina legislature and governorship in 2010.

Even more troublesome is the effect of charters on the public school systems of the state, which continue to enroll the overwhelming majority of students.

As of 2014, charter school students accounted for 3.6 percent of all public schools students in the state, with the percentage of K-8 students (4.2%) being twice that of 9th to 12th grade students (2.1%). Although the overall percentages are low, they are far higher in some of the urban districts—currently, charter school students account for 15.1% of all students in Durham, 4.7% in Winston-Salem, 6.1% in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and 4.9% in Wake County Schools.

The authors write:

In this paper, we have said nothing about how the growth of charters in particular districts is likely to affect the ability of those districts to provide quality schooling to the children in the traditional public schools. That issue is currently an urgent concern in Durham County, for example, where the rapid growth of charters has not only increased racial segregation, but also has imposed significant financial burdens on the school district. One recent study found that the net cost to the Durham Public Schools could be as high as $2,000 per student enrolled in a charter school, although the precise amount differs based on the assumptions (Troutman, 2014). Major contributors to this burden are the fact that the charter schools serve far lower proportions of expensive-to-educate children than the traditional public schools and that the district cannot reduce its spending in line with the loss of students because of its fixed costs. In ongoing research we plan to investigate further the evolving financial and other implications of charter schools on districts’ traditional public schools.

Conor Lynch writes in Salon that the rightwing media is having fun blaming liberals and liberal social policies for the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray.


He quotes commentators from Fox News who see the civil disorders and riots as the fault of the protestors.


What Lynch points out, however, is that Baltimore (like Detroit) was once a thriving industrial city. As globalization and technological change produced deindustrialization, jobs dried up, especially for those striving to rise from poverty to the working class. The war on drugs, he writes, led to mass incarceration of black men, even though whites use drugs as often as blacks. And then there is the historic residential segregation in Baltimore, enforced by federal, state, and local policies.


Back in the mid-20th century, Baltimore was a booming manufacturing hub, as were many other cities that today have become shadows of their former selves, such as Detroit. In 1916, Bethlehem Steel bought a steel plant in Baltimore, and by the Second World War, more than a quarter of a million people were employed in the city’s manufacturing industry. This was the so-called Golden Age of American capitalism, where manufacturing accounted for 50 percent of corporate profits and 30 percent of American employment. Today, by contrast, industry profits have dropped to about 20 percent, and employment has dropped to less than 10 percent. This is not a phenomenon unique to Baltimore — the process of deindustrialization has occurred throughout America, turning formerly thriving cities into impoverished ghost towns.


There are various reasons for why America’s manufacturing industry has fallen from grace, but the two major ones are globalization and technological innovation. Globalization, which really began to take off in the ’70s and ’80s, has made capital much more flexible, and today many companies choose to produce in developing countries where labor costs are significantly lower, owing in large part to scant protection for workers, who make a fraction of what it would take to live a decent middle-class lifestyle. Technology has been even worse for America’s middle class; it has been reported that the great advancements in computer and robotic technology over the past few decades have hollowed out the middle class and destroyed jobs faster than it created them.


Baltimore was hit hard by deindustrialization – in the latter half of the 20th century its industrial workforce was depleted by 75 percent. And as manufacturing jobs left, so did the middle class and white Baltimoreans. Since the death of manufacturing in the city, the economy became a service-based one, and the incomes have dropped significantly.


This is not the story you will hear on Fox News. But it is the context you need to know.

This is quite a remarkable admission. Nicholas Kristof writes today in the New York Times that the “reform” efforts have “peaked.” I read that and the rest of the column to mean that they have failed to make a difference. Think of it: Bill Gates, the Walton family, Eli Broad, Wendy Kopp, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Florida Governor Rick Scott, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, Michelle Rhee, Campbell Brown, and a host of other luminaries have been singing the same song for the past 15 years: Our schools are broken, and we can fix them with charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing, merit pay, elimination of unions, elimination of tenure, and rigorous efforts to remove teachers who can’t produce ever-rising test scores.

Despite the billions of dollars that the federal government, the states, and philanthropies have poured into this formula, it hasn’t worked, says Kristof. It is time to admit it and to focus instead on the early years from birth to kindergarten.

He writes:

For the last dozen years, waves of idealistic Americans have campaigned to reform and improve K-12 education.

Armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.

Yet I wonder if the education reform movement hasn’t peaked.

The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has droppedfor the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.

Wow! That is exactly what I wrote in “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” along with recommendations for reduced class sizes, a full curriculum, a de-emphasis on high-stakes testing, a revival of public policies to reduce poverty and segregation, and a recommitment to the importance of public education.

When I look at the Tea Party legislature in North Carolina or the hard-right politicians in the Midwest or the new for-profit education industry, I don’t think of them as idealistic but as ideologues. Aside from that, I think that Kristof gives hope to all those parents and teachers who have been working for years to stop these ideologues from destroying public education. Yes, it should be improved, it must be improved. There should be a good public school in every neighborhood, regardless of zip code. But that won’t happen unless our leaders dedicate themselves to changing the conditions in which families and children live so that all may have equal opportunity in education and in life.

This article is a brilliant essay by Bard College President Leon Botstein about the democratic and civic purposes of education.


It begins thus:


The initial motivations for the movement challenging the monopoly of public schools were ultimately ones of prejudice: White parents did not want their children to attend schools that were attended by blacks. This logic was then sanitized by appeals to religious liberty, insofar as parents fleeing integration attached themselves to religious movements. Evangelicals and observant Jews did not want their children to go to schools that idealized acculturation and assimilation into a secular society whose character promoted “godlessness.” The constituencies that wanted to circumvent integration allied themselves with those who resisted the separation of church and state. And no doubt, since school quality is dependent on local property taxes, the poorer the neighborhood, the worse the schools, making a mockery of the idea that public education was an instrument of social mobility for the disadvantaged. As the quality and extent of a person’s education increasingly determined his or her employment and income, the failures of public education became increasingly glaring, making the defense of public schools implausible.


The end result of these forces has been the elevation of privatization and the abandonment of the ideal of the common public school. Privatization and diversification have become the dominant objectives of school reform.


This is a bizarre turn of events. The nice way of looking at this development is to concede, “Well, privatization is a way we can actually confront the failings of the public schools.” I agree that American schools are not what they might be. But they never were. The reconciliation of excellence and equity was never achieved in the United States, and certainly not after the Second World War, when the rate of high school attendance climbed to 75 percent. But high academic standards had not been their primary purpose. Their purpose was basic literacy (essential for a now-extinct manufacturing economy) and the creation of a common national identity out of diverse groups. Following the glass-half-empty, half-full image, one could argue that the achievements of post-World War II public education were remarkable.


The standards of American schools haven’t fallen if one considers that only after the end of the Second World War did the rate of high school completion surpass 50 percent. Before that, only a minority earned a high school diploma. So the project of attempting to educate 70 percent, 80 percent, perhaps 100 percent of Americans in a single system was never really tried until the 1960s. And even then, when it was about to be actually tried, the public system came under attack, thereby proving that if one wished to make public schools really democratic and excellent, it was going to be very hard indeed.


No other large, heterogeneous industrial nation has ever attempted the American ideal of a unitary democratic school system for all. And now, as the demand for unskilled labor decreases, the minimum standards of education have become higher and more rigorous. But privatization is now popular because many are saying that we ought not attempt to create such a universal democratic system, and that it is a poorly conceived and implausible ideal. Not only that, but the argument goes that since government is widely believed to be notoriously terrible when it comes to providing public goods, it may be better to deliver education through the private sector in a context similar to market competition in commerce.


I happen to think that the privatization of American education and the abandonment of public education is a strike against the very idea of democracy. It favors the rich even more than the recalcitrant inequities created by neighborhoods. And the fact that there is so little opposition to it, particularly among the privileged, is frightening to me. Not surprisingly, if one surveys the philanthropy of hedge-fund owners and Internet millionaires, the favorite charity of the fabled 1 percent is the funding of alternatives to ordinary public schools. That’s the idea every newly minted possessor of great wealth loves: the reduction of taxes—particularly taxes for public education—and the privatization of the American school. It has therefore become fashionable to attack teachers in the public system. Union-bashing is popular. And the unions, in turn, have not distinguished themselves as advocates of educational excellence. But have we ever addressed the question, as a matter of public policy, of who in fact our teachers are? Who now goes into teaching? Who has actually tried to do something to improve the quality of those who take on teaching in public schools as a career? Have we as a nation ever sought to recruit, train, and retain gifted teachers properly?”


Please read it all.


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