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You may recall that a young Black man named Julius Jones was sentenced to death for murder in Oklahoma. He insisted on his innocence, and his cause attracted national attention. At the last minute, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted his death sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, was a teacher of Julius Jones. He writes:

I want to share two sets of lessons from the campaign by Justice for Julius that saved the life of my former student, Julius Jones. Despite a huge body of evidence that Julius is innocent of the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, it is unclear whether he still has a chance to be pardoned or paroled.
After the decision to not execute Julius Jones was made, I was able to rethink the reasons why he landed in Death Row. Reading and/or rereading court pleadings during the appeals process, I reached the conclusion that the 22-year battle for Julius’ life was mostly the result of two sets of decisions that were made quickly, without serious contemplation. Or, perhaps, there were no decisions made. Perhaps it was the history and the win-at-any-cost culture of the criminal justice system which prevented consideration of the testimony of Julius and the Jones family. After all, there was a long history of prosecutors trained by an Assistant District Attorney whose mantra was: “Every inmate in “Big Mac” (state prison) is guilty of the crime he was duly convicted of – or something else.”

This post will take a broad view of the conflict between the Oklahoma criminal justice system and a new generation committed to social justice. It will briefly review the key issues, first raised by the ABC News documentary, The Last Defense, that drew the attention of international news outlets regarding the question of whether Julius received a fair trial. And then it will describe the last months of the fight for Justice for Julius. A second post will summarize the most dubious of the prosecutors’ claims in the hope it offers more insights into what is wrong with our country’s criminal justice systems.

Julius was first represented by public defender Barry Albert, who was a great attorney with the ability to research and cross-examine the prosecutors’ dubious claims. But, Albert died suddenly, and he was replaced by lead attorney David McKenzie, who admitted that he was “terrified by this case due to my inexperience in death penalty litigation.” McKenzie later said in a sworn statement: “I believe that if I had been effective in establishing the true state of the evidence regarding Jordan and King, Mr. Jones would have been acquitted.”

Two decades later, McKenzie says he had been too critical of his cross-examination of Jordan.

The “Justice for Julius” campaign began at a time when criminal justice reform was remarkably bipartisan; for instance, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt appointed two of the three parole board members who recommended that the governor grant Jones clemency.

After the documentary, organizations and celebrities such as such as the Congressional Black Caucus; Kim Kardashian, the rapper Common; Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy; and football and basketball football starssuch as Baker Mayfield, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young, and Blake Griffin, whose father coached both Julius and Christopher Jordan, and who appeared in The Last Defense. Eventually, the list of supporters would include the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Black Lives Matter; a significant number of Republican legislators and former legislators like Kris Steele; the George Kaiser Family Foundation; the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice; the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; the American Conservative Union in Washington, D.C.; and the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and many other organizations. Also, the European Union and German ambassadors urged Gov. Stitt to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation.

But the backlash against these efforts demonstrated the political power that prosecutors retained. In June, 2020, then-board member and former district court judge Allen McCall “threatened to seek criminal charges against then-executive director Steven Bickley,” demanding that Bickley help block Jones’ commutation hearing. Bickley took a leave of absence, criticized “threats to criminalize my public service,” and resigned.

Similarly, according to the Parole Board members’ response, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, filed an open records request seeking all references by board members to the terms, “Commutation,” “Commute,” “Conflict of interest,” “Criminal Justice Reform,” “Death penalty,” “District Attorney,” “God,” “Jesus,” and “Julius Jones.” Prater cited a 2019 article describing Luck as “having tears in his eyes as he spoke about the criminal justice system,” and condemned his association with admirable organizations such City Care and Whiz Kids.

Prater was represented by the Asst. D.A. who prosecuted Jones, and asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to block Luck and Doyle from Jones’ hearing. After Prater’s request was rejected, the newly appointed Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor unsuccessfully filed a similar request.

The Black Wall Street reported that Prater then requested a grand jury investigation into the Pardon and Parole board. The judge who approved it is married to the prosecutor in the Jones case. Gov. Stitt criticized Prater’s “latest political stunt to intimidate the Pardon and Parole Board and obstruct the Constitutional process as high-profile cases that his office prosecuted are being considered.” And some of the younger, more progressive supporters of Justice for Julius started an initiative petition drive for a grand jury to investigate Prater.

Finally, The Oklahoman reported that Prater released tapes of 600 phone calls by Jones using another death row inmate’s PIN number. According to an investigator, “Among those called were ‘people in the sports and entertainment industries’ and podcast hosts.” The implication was that the calls were evidence that Justice for Julius was a profit-making enterprise.

In the autumn of 2021, the state restarted executions that had been put on hold after Oklahoma’s three-drug execution protocol caused the “botched executions” of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner in 2014 and 2015. The first renewed execution of John Grant caused him “to vomit, convulse and curse as he was killed.” Even so, Julius was scheduled for execution on November 18.

The state’s Pardon and Parole Board again voted 3-1 to recommend that Stitt grant clemency to Jones. But, according to the Black Wall Street Times, Attorney General O’Connor, who Stitt saw as a mentor, urged Stitt to push forward on the execution of Julius. He was said to be basing his advice on “closure for the [Howell] family,” and “Julius’s past legal troubles as a young teenager, rather than the facts of the case.”

As the execution date approached, Stitt said he was praying over his decision, and he would make no further statement. He met with the Howell family but refused to meet with anyone in the Jones family. By the day before the scheduled execution, the words and body language of Julius’ supporters indicated to me that they retained little hope of saving his life.

As the clock ticked down, even though the Justice for Julius vigils had been nonviolent and respectful, staff at the Capitol were told to close their offices and take time off, and barricades were put upbetween the Oklahoma History Center parking lot where demonstrators gathered, and the Governor’s mansion.

The last week’s vigils exemplified the contradictions in Oklahoma’s 21st century culture. As I talked with my Representative, Mauree Turner, the nation’s first nonbinary, Muslim, Black legislator, the anti-mask, anti-vaccination demonstrators walked by, proclaiming their belief in “Freedom!” Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, who taught in my former classroom at Centennial Mid-High after I retired, described his proposed legislation to expand full-service community schools. My student and basketball buddy, and Julius’ best friend, Jimmie Lawson, reenacted my clumsiness on the basketball court.

On the eve of the scheduled execution, the poetry slam at the Ponyboy, about a mile from the History Center, was cancelled, and this statement was posted:

“Given the intense anxiety and frustration I and others in our community are experiencing, if Stitt has not granted clemency by this evening we will be putting the slam on hold in favor of an intimate night of reading our poetry and focusing on healing.”

The New York Times reported:

The Oklahoma City Public Schools estimated that more than 1,800 students across 13 schools participated in walkouts to support Mr. Jones on Wednesday. The district said it “supports our students’ rights to peaceful assembly and their freedom of expression

Even more students walked out the next day.

Also on Wednesday, Rev. Keith Jossell, Julius’ spiritual advisor, seemed to indicate that there wasn’t much hope for tomorrow, but Julius’ supporters should heed his call for the continuation of their campaign for justice. He said:

Julius is grateful to god. That he chose him to be able to be the spotlight so that you would understand what is wrong with the Department of Corrections in the state of Oklahoma. … This is an opportunity to try to start a new Oklahoma. If you’re a business and you think you may want to relocate to Oklahoma, look at what we do to our citizens! If you are a family and you think this might be a good Bible Belt place to raise your family, look at what we do to people in Oklahoma!

Madeline Jones was not allowed to hug Julius. He was chained down and separated from her by a glass partition. She seemed especially exhausted, saying that whatever happens tomorrow, the movement must continue. Mrs. Jones also said, “And if you think Julius is guilty, give him a fair trial!”

On November 18, less than four hours before the scheduled execution, my wife and I were about to join the huge vigil at the Capitol. Then we heard the news:

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has spared the life of high-profile death row inmate Julius Jones. He announced, “After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” But “Stitt ordered that Jones shall never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon or parole for the rest of his life.”

It will take time to determine whether the Constitution actually gives the governor that much power. Also, given Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister’s support for clemency for Julius, after switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party, it remains to be seen how this will affect her campaign for governor against Stitt. I believe it and her defense of public schools will likely put her in the Governors Mansion.

Clearly, Mrs. Jones was correct in saying that regardless of the outcome of the campaign to “Free Julius Jones!,” it will have a significant effect on 21st century Oklahoma.

The dramatic weeks that preceded Julius’ commutation drew national and international coverage, as the Kyle Rittenhouse, the organizers of the Charlottesville violence, and the killers of Ahmaud Arbery trials were coming to a close. And commentators often expressed surprise that this multi-racial, cross-generational and often bipartisan movement occurred in Oklahoma.

I would especially recommend Rachel Maddow’s commentary and video of the celebrations which placed Justice for Julius in the context of direct actions across the world. I especially loved her exuberant declaration:

This was outside the prison where Julius Jones is incarcerated right after the news broke. You hear the crowd chanting “‘We`re going to be all right.’ This was Oklahoma this week! This was Oklahoma today!”

#2

As ABC’s The Last Defense reported after the 1999 murder of a white father by a Black carjacker, “fear was almost palpable” in Edmond. Moreover, this was a time when the Oklahoma County District Attorney, the late Bob Macy, was listed as one of America’s top-five deadliest prosecutors. As was explained in the previous post, this meant that there were not enough experienced death penalty defense lawyers to meet the demand. Julius Jones’ lead attorney, David McKenzie, told ABC that he lacked death penalty experience and had an overwhelming case load. (I appeared several times in the documentary.)

The Last Defense offered a compelling narrative that connected the evidence in ways that the jurors or the appellate courts never heard. For instance, it quoted a juror who explained:

And this thing has weighed on me for a long time. What happened was, several of us from the jury were getting on an elevator. This was well before deliberations. And one of the jurors said, “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail.” It didn’t matter what happened, this was a black man that was on trial for murder.

Conversely, the jury foreman told ABC that, in a case like that one, you “go with your heart more than anything else.” The juror trusted “what you felt in your gut.” When delivering the verdict, the juror “felt right.”

To the contrary, we at John Marshall H.S. had thought the following scenario was most likely: As defense attorney Amanda Bass later explained, “Unfortunately in our criminal justice system … the first person to be interrogated and to talk to the police who tells the police the story can be the one who gets the deal.”

So, this second post will focus on the main witnesses that the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office claimed to believe, as opposed to listening to Julius and his family.

On July 28, 1999, a neighbor of Christopher Jordan, saw him driving a car with an unidentified person with a red bandanna. They followed Paul Howell, his sister, and his two daughters home, where he was fatally shot during a carjacking. According to the Oklahoma County district attorneys’ virtually unchallenged argument, that was evidence that Julius committed the murder and Jordan drove the getaway car!?!?

But, in 2021, Julius’s federal public defender, Amanda Bass, explained to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that Jordan and Jones were almost the same size and weight, and Prater said that the person who accompanied Jordan was a half a head taller, more muscular and bigger. And, Ladell “Day Day” King was 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Jordan.

Jordan, like Julius and his brother and sister, were students of mine. I also played basketball with all of them, almost daily. That’s why I knew each of them so well that I was confident that the hundreds of students and teachers at John Marshal H.S were correct in believing Jordan, not Julius, should have been the prime suspect.

Jordan, who was known as “Westside,” told the Edmond investigators five different stories as the interrogators kept directing him back to the narrative that would make him “a better witness.”“Day Day” King had been a confidential police informant since the mid-1980s. The Edmond detective who handled him said he informed the Oklahoma City Police that “we needed to find my informant Ladell King.” The detective further explained that King “had the pulse on all auto thefts in the Oklahoma metro,” and he had told King that “his cooperation would then be shared with the District Attorney and he could get deals on his own charges or avoid charges altogether.”

During the subsequent investigation, King’s girlfriend told a detective that she and King “were trying to get the reward money” for helping to arrest the shooter. She was not asked about that statement during the trial. King was not charged and received a significant reduction in another sentence.

The second confidential informant was Kermit Lottie, who had cooperated with the Oklahoma City police since the early 1990s. He had assisted in the prosecution of two persons accused of murder and who were sentenced to death, but later exonerated.

According to the prosecution, it was a coincidence that the police stumbled across their confidential informant; an Edmond detective testified that the Oklahoma City police “just wanted to get an idea of what the area looked like.” And, at trial, the Asst. D.A. said, “By fate, by chance, [the police] pull up into Kermit Lottie’s garage and start talking to him.”

Under questioning by the prosecutor, Lottie denied he had made any requests of the D.A.’s office. However, two days before, he had written a letter to the Asst. D.A. reminding her of the “big time evidence” he had provided in the Paris Powell and Yancy Douglas death penalty case. (Powell and Douglas, were the nation’s 137th and 138thconvicts on death row to be exonerated; they served 16 years in prison and received $3.1 million in compensation. The federal appeals court criticized the Oklahoma County prosecutor for “knowing use of false testimony.”) Lottie also offered to help the prosecutor in return for “a little help for myself.”

Just three days after Julius was sentenced to death, Lottie received “very significant” help in reducing his federal sentence after the Edmond detective asked for leniency because Lottie was a “key witness” in the case against Julius.

The police officers’ and the prosecutors’ presentation of the testimony of Jordan, and the two professional informants were the biggest drivers of the case against Julius. But their arguments were doubly powerful because the overworked and inexperienced defense attorney’s failed to investigate their claims. And as explained in the previous post, they did not investigate the four inmates who said Jordan confessed/bragged about being the murderer, or competently cross-examine witnesses.

The defense attorney’s equally important, questionable decisions, to not bring Julius and the Jones to the stand, were also due to their failure to interview Julius’ girlfriend and Mrs. Jones’ friend who dropped her at the Jones’ home where she said they were about to have a spaghetti dinner. Neither of them could confirm the claims that Julius was at his family’s home when the murder occurred, but contrary to McKenzie’s understanding, neither of them made statements about where he was at the time of the murder. (emphasis mine) In other words, neither statement undermined the credibility of Jones or his family when they said Julius was with them at 9:30pmwhich was the time when the murder occurred. (And, McKenzie could not find the letter that he remembered as Julius telling his girlfriend he was on the south side, not his parents’ home. Neither could he remember the investigator, who everyone on the team agreed was incompetent, ever providing a written record of his interviews of potential witnesses.)

In the 1980’s, I extensively researched the incredibly corrupt Oklahoma County criminal justice system. Prohibition had not been repealed until the late 1950’s, and bribing the Supreme Court was routine into the 1960’s, while the prison system’s brutality and corruption prompted the 1973 McAlester prison riot. I concluded that progress began in the late 1970s and the 1980s; progress may had slowed during the Macy years, but I was still shocked by its behavior in front page headline cases. As was common in much of the nation, the chances of an innocent person being convicted were higher in high-profile capital cases, especially when the prosecution relied on confidential informants.

When I spoke to District Attorney David Prater a few years ago, he seemed to know little about the Jones case, but his opinions were driven by his respect for the Asst. District Attorney who prosecuted the case.

I especially admired the bipartisan leaders of the criminal justice movement who had brought Oklahoma to the start of what promised to be transformational improvement. But, I suspect that the Oklahoma experience followed the same pattern which is common across America. On one hand, District Attorneys believe that can’t keep their power unless they win 90% or more of their cases through a plea bargain. Defendants supposedly will not plead guilty unless they know that prosecutors are almost certain to win. That makes for a culture of winners and losers; so D.A.s must remain the “biggest bear in the woods.”

On the other hand, it seems like the anger generated by Trumpism has turned a harsh winner-take-all mentality into a commitment to cruelty. Especially when a multi-racial movement unites to defend a Black man, too many believers in “law and order” are more committed to defeating their opponents, believing whatever spin the prosecutors deliver.

Before the D.A.s full scale assault on Julius’ quest for clemency, I thought Gov. Stitt would split the difference in a way he hoped to satisfy the 60% of Oklahomans (and 49% of Republicans) who know of Julius’ case, and believe he should receive clemency, according to poll of 500 voters. As The Black Wall Street Times reported, “The poll comes after former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called on the Jones family to die quietly, and as Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater refuses to turn over Jones’ case file.”

But I was less hopeful that Stitt would pardon or parole him. It never occurred to me that his compromise would include a ban a pardon or parole by any other governor or parole board. I suspect he chose to avoid the debacle which the execution could prompt, especially if was another botched one, while minimizing anger from his Trumpian supporters who have such a taste for blood.

Finally, I had read about the change of statutes and rules during the War on Drugs that made it unlikely that evidence of innocence would be allowed as grounds for an appeal. But I had not fully appreciated the ways that today “courts were all prevented by strict and procedural
bars from reviewing the full merits of Julius’s claims.”

I was dismayed by the logic of the Court of Criminal Appeals, which I had long respected. I could have agreed with the Court that some of the circumstantial evidence was valid – if it had been investigated. The Court said the evidence against Julius was “damning,” even though I could not find any solid evidence in their statements that had been adequately analyzed. It concluded that “King was not involved in the Howell murder in any way,” even though a fair trial would have required something that didn’t happen – an investigation of confidential informants’ credibility and participation in the crime. I would hope the Court would agree that today the evidence points to Julius’ innocence and ask what that says about our appeals process.

Historian and former teacher John Thompson sat in on three different panels about the reopening of schools. He heard the concerns of leading educators and medical experts. The latter were all in favor of masking and vaccinations, but the educators were cautious about making powerful people angry.

The Oklahoma state legislature has banned mask mandates and vaccinations are out of the question. The medical experts stressed the importance of the measures that have been banned.

Legislators in states like Oklahoma are putting the lives of children, families, and communities at risk. Unnecessarily.

John Thompson reports that the crusade against teaching racism critically is in full swing in Oklahoma. Rightwing legislators can’t seem to understand why it’s okay to encourage students to think critically about the terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City but to forbid them to think critically about racism.

Who would have thunk it?

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, at the site of the Murrah Building where 168 people were murdered by Timothy McVeigh, has an exhibit that asks questions like:

“Do you see a relationship from the violence that occurred on this site and the events happening in our world today?” It offers conversation prompts such as “What are the pros and cons of having a domestic terrorism law?” and “Does social media play a part?”

Isn’t that what leftist teachers ask when using critical race theory (CRT) in order to shame white people?

John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He has written on this blog frequently.

He writes:

The Perfect Storm of Education Reform: High Stakes Testing and Teacher Evaluation, by Sheryl Croft, M. Roberts, and Vera Stenhouse provided an essential service to public education by explaining that the corporate school reform disaster wasn’t due to its “discrete singular efforts.”  Instead, it was “a confluence of systematic and orchestrated education reform efforts that are akin to storm fronts.” Just as important, Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse provide insights into why post-Covid schools are likely to face comparable challenges.

As their metaphor explains, rain and wind don’t necessarily wreak havoc, and no single policy mandate, no matter how ill-conceived, was to blame for the corporate reforms’ “colossal failure;” the catastrophe was caused by the combination of an unprecedented amount of high-stakes standardized testing, data-driven teacher evaluations, and attempts to hold individual students and teachers accountable for Common Core test results; the “testing industrial complex (TIC),” where consultants promoted test-driven policies and teaching methods; charter schools and a culture of competition driven by test scores; the “false narratives” about public education, especially  incessant attacks on failing teachers; similar mandates for teacher preparation policies; and the replacing of recess and play with nonstop test prep which often drove the joy of learning out of school. Moreover, reformers didn’t understand what should have been obvious – that these mandates would most damage the educations of poor children of color, who were most likely to receive the biggest deluge of “drill and kill” test prep.

As Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse explained, the perfect storm of corporate school reform “arrived in full in 2015.” In doing so, they preview the dilemmas which many post-Covid schools will likely continue to face. Corporate reform was “a perfect storm” that eroded “the bedrock of public education in the United States.” It was like “a mesoscale storm [which] is comprised of individual storms that combine to form a larger persistent/perfect storm.” Even as educators need to stop and think anew about post-Covid schooling, the components of these edu-political storm fronts continue to move across the landscape.

No Child Left Behind was like a high-pressure “warm front (precipitation and fog) followed by a cold front (narrow) bands of thunderstorms and severe weather.” It propelled the testing industrial complex to produce “a warm front” which “rained down neoliberal education polices under the guise of improving education while obscuring the free-market ideology of corporatization.” Despite its failure, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doubled down on both the false accountability-driven narratives, and the testing industrial complex. The TIC front also forced local school systems to “lay off teachers, close neighborhood schools, eliminate art and music programs, and dedicate more and more revenue to supporting standardized testing.”

I saw the same dynamic in Oklahoma City which Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse analyzed in Georgia. Duncan briefly visited our KIPP Charter School and made the obviously false statement that it became an “A” school by “raising expectations” while teaching the “same students, in the same building,” Of course the low-income, high-attrition KIPP had nothing in common with schools like my mid-high serving everyone in a segregated neighborhood with an extreme concentration of generational poverty, a lack of social capital, and enormous numbers of children who survived multiple traumas. That Big Lie was a major reason why disadvantaged black, brown, and poor people were “most grievously injured” by corporate reform.

By now, it should be clear that complex, interrelated social, economic, and educational problems need complicated interconnected solutions – not wave after wave of interconnected assaults on public schools and “disruptive innovation.” But, there is no sign that market-driven reformers have abandoned their faith in “transformative” change. So, educators still have reason to fear another TIC storm front.

I’m especially concerned about last part of the confluence of corporate reforms described by Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse that turned my troubled school into the state’s lowest-performing mid-high school. The final storm front dumped millions of dollars of Stimulus and School Improvement Grant money, funding policies that made our school much, much worse, replacing classroom instruction with nonstop remediation. We can’t ignore the lessons of the failed post-Great Recession investments without inviting another TIC-funding storm.

My experience of 2009 was like that of the educators who Croft, Roberts, and Stenhouse listened to. Our top administrators understood why NCLB had failed, and why it made no sense to double down on test and punish. Even though they could only say so in private, the top OKCPS administrators knew the social science which explained why better instruction, driven by better professional development and curriculum, could not improve outcomes in most of our district’s schools until a socio-emotional foundation was laid. That would require a team effort, drawing on community partners, and patience. But, they were intimidated by state legislative leadership and federal guidelines into a rushed instruction-driven, curriculum-driven gamble.

Today’s education leaders shouldn’t allow themselves to be intimidated by demands that standardized testing must continue, and prioritizing the “remediation” of last year’s learning loss, using the “best practices” sold by the TIC’s consultants, so that neighborhood schools don’t lose in the competition with charters. The Oklahoman reports that the OKCPS (for instance) will receive $255.4 million in stimulus money (more than three times the federal assistance it received after the Great Recession), but there has been no public discussion about spending priorities. Instead, it reported that many Oklahoma districts hope that the 2021-22 school year “will closely resemble pre-pandemic life.” 

Chris Brewster, the superintendent of the charter system which has creamed off the most students from the Oklahoma City School System, exemplifies the hope that “growing teachers, training teachers and equipping teachers” is the best way to spend the new money.  If Brewster really believes that, then he clearly doesn’t understand how his charters operate in a completely different world from the OKCPS schools serving entire neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of generational poverty, with so many students who have survived multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Urban district leaders can choose to listen to community partners and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, and prioritize the student supports which could provide the foundation for holistic teaching and learning. Or they could be intimidated by the Republican leadership which changed the excellent state funding formula in order to punish urban schools, who invested $10 million of federal Covid relief money in private schools, and increased spending for charters, as they cut corporate taxes and implicitly banned discussions on Critical Race Theory.   If that happens, they – like compliant educators in 2009 – could feel obligated to focus on the learning deficits produced by last year’s crisis, and squander opportunities to bring together waves of constructive student-centered policies.

Educators should shake off their fears and start with the wisdom of Teresa Thayer Synder about the need to “Resist the pressure from whatever ‘powers that be’ who are in a hurry to “fix” kids and make up for the “lost” time.”  She stresses the humanity of students:

In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. … We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone!

She then tackles the reality that should be our priority:

When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. …

I sincerely plead with my colleagues, to surrender the artificial constructs that measure achievement and greet the children where they are, not where we think they “should be.” Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. … They missed you.

If that sounds too touchy-feely for under-the-gun educators, they should draw upon the recent New York Times’ reporting by Eduardo Porter on the West Virginia initiative which “mushroomed into a partnership branded Reconnecting McDowell, encompassing over 100 organizations and offering assistance like social and health services for families and apartments for teachers and other professionals.” The program grew out of a conversation between American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and Gayle Manchin, the State Board of Education vice president (and the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin.)Since Oklahoma and West Virginia are basically tied with the highest percentage of young people who have survived multiple ACES, our education leaders should listen to Porter who writes:

Reconnecting McDowell has done well by many students and their families. It sent health clinics, mental health clinics and even dentists into the schools. It runs a mobile farmers’ market out of a truck, offering produce to poor families that can be many miles from the nearest supermarket. It championed a juvenile drug court to offer intensive drug treatment programs that help nonviolent young offenders return quickly to school, rather than go to jail. The program helps with college tuition and funds a mentoring program that takes groups of high school seniors to Charleston, the state capital, and Washington.

I understand the fears of education administrators who worry that building such a mesoscale solution is too daunting of a challenge. If we can’t subdue our fears, however, who knows how many waves of mesoscale storm-like corporate reforms will rob our kids – especially those who have suffered the most – of what it takes to really offer our students the learning required in these calamitous times?

T

John Thompson is an historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He wrote this piece for the blog at my request.

In 2006, our John Marshall High School was enduring the worst of the five months-long, extreme meltdowns I witnessed in 18 years with the Oklahoma City Public Schools. Many days, I’d see the anarchy and the blood-splattered halls, and ask if I was dreaming. One thing that kept me sane was the discovery of education blogs, above all Deborah Meier’s and Diane Ravitch’s conversations in Bridging Differences. In a prescient example of the wisdom which grew out of their “animated conversation,” they agreed:

That a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education–its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires–must be openly debated and continuously re-examined.

As Oklahoma City pulled out of the crack and gang crisis in the early 1990s, I saw a pattern that persisted for two decades – and which became more tragic during the third decade when I was a part-time teacher and an education writer. Each year, our school would make incremental improvements. Then, the district would bow to pressure and implement disastrous policies that would wipe out those gains – or worse. It would mandate policies that Ravitch later dubbed “corporate school reform.” Administrators who publicly endorsed policies where segregation by choice was combined with data-driven decision-making would often tell me off-the-record in the parking lot, that they knew the reforms would backfire. But they had no alternative.

During the first years after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, local and state leaders often had some success in minimizing the damage done by school “choice” and in “monkey wrenching” the push towards high stakes testing. But, as in the rest of the nation, that resistance angered market-driven reformers who then pushed for harsher, more punitive policies. As opposed to Meier’s and Ravitch’s counsel, they believed that it was essential to remove balances of power, so they could force everyone to “be on the same page.”

One of the worst examples was requiring benchmark testing to be graded; that absurd policy drove John Marshall’s dropout rates for 9th and 10th graders through the roof. Then, the poorest halves of our high school and its middle school feeder were combined into a new school characterized by extreme, concentrated poverty. When a new data-driven staffing model was implemented, a deputy superintendent privately acknowledged that these two, intertwined “reforms” could be disastrous but said that the only thing I could do was lobby the state legislature for more support.

Back then, partially because of my success in conversing with conservative legislators, I naively believed that I could communicate with neoliberal output-driven, competition-driven reformers and the non-educators who conducted their research. But I eventually had to admit that Meier and Ravitch were correct when writing:  

Almost all the usual intervening mediators–parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations–have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style “reform.”   …

This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, “apolitical” scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.

Not understanding how single-minded “venture philanthropists” were in using “disruptive innovation” to drive top down “transformational change,” I didn’t understand why they would be so adamant about ignoring educators and social scientists, who continually reexamined their hypotheses and complicated analyses. (Falsifiable hypotheses! Who needs falsifiable hypotheses?, was the reformers’ response. We’ll just run more controls on our statistical models.)

When practitioners and researchers tried to explain the interconnected challenges faced in high-poverty schools, these true believers in “the Market” dismissed our advice as “Excuses,” and “Low Expectations.” Reformers instead gambled that they could find individual levers, like data to engineer a “better teacher,” who could turn schools around.

That is why edu-philanthropists sought to use the stress of competition to overcome the stress of generational poverty and trauma, and segregation by choice to overcome the legacies of de jure and de facto segregation. They seemed to deny that the trade-offs that Meier and Ravitch acknowledged even existed.  Reformers thus ramped up high-stakes testing to force compliance; in doing so, they ensured that soulless worksheet-driven instruction would result in in-one-year-out-the-other educational malpractice which often would push the most disadvantaged schools over a tipping point.  

Then – and now – if I could get data-driven, competition-driven reformers to listen to one thing, I would try to explain why their misunderstandings about generational poverty led to hurried doomed-to-fail micromanaging. I’d try to tell them the story of our run-of-the-mill inner city school, a place with tragic failures as well as great strengths, that corporate school reform turned into the lowest-performing secondary  school in the state, where meaningful teaching and learning was replaced with nonstop remediation.

Our Marshall H.S. had survived “White flight,” and the crack and gangs crisis of the 1980s. It had working class and a few middle class students, as well as students from situational and generational poverty. It had a significant number of students who were seriously emotionally disturbed and/or burdened by multiple traumatic experiences, now known as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). Back then, however, we also had numerous students with reading and math learning disabilities, who often became student leaders. Despite confidentiality laws, it was easy to identify many of the students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) on the first day of class. They disproportionately sat on the front row, with carefully prepared notebooks, ready to “work smart” and succeed.    

By 2005, however, school choice had produced an exodus of the top teachers and students (including special education students who were not wrestling with behavioral or emotional disturbances.) Our highest challenge neighborhood was known as the “New Hood,” the home of families that had been driven out of the “Old Hood” by urban renewal. The Old Hood had endured plenty of racism and economic oppression, but it was a community full of African-American churches and home-grown institutions that had resisted Jim Crow.

The New Hood combined concentrated generational poverty, with families disrupted by multiple traumas, in a neighborhood lacking social capital. For example, when campaigning for Jesse Jackson, I learned that we didn’t try to canvass the New Hood because the high incarceration rate resulted in so few eligible voters.  Even so, when I canvassed the neighborhood for Barack Obama, I conversed with parents and learned that the majority of its students officially or unofficially transferred to schools in the 20+ districts across the metropolitan area.    

Because it is so much harder to improve education “outcomes” in schools serving the highest challenge neighborhoods, our low test scores led to more worksheet-driven mandates. This increased official and under-the-table transfers out of our poorest neighborhoods by families who could find legal or other ways of getting their children into the best schools that they could get to.

After NCLB, it was the highest challenge neighborhoods in the eastern half of our school’s area which first lost their recesses, art and music classes, and extracurricular activities, as drill-and-kill instruction failed to increase test scores. When the school board chairman visited my class and was thrilled by the standing room only audience, each student told him something about their elementary school. Virtually everyone who attended schools in the western half of our feeder area had positive things to report. The majority of those who came from the poorer eastern neighborhoods had horror stories to tell. Those from the New Hood were especially angry about being “robbed” of an education by nonstop test prep.    

The tipping point was crossed in 2006 when school staffing was driven by a primitive statistical model that could not distinguish between low income students and children of situational poverty, receiving Free and Reduced Lunch, as opposed to children from extreme poverty, who had endured multiple traumas. Because of the additional costs of providing services for the most seriously emotionally disturbed students, teachers in “regular” classrooms were assigned up to 250 students.  So, I had classes such as the one with 60 students where many students on the west side of the room had had family members killed or wounded by family members of classmates on the other side of the room.

Within a couple of years, even after the staffing formula had been worked out, segregation by choice created classes of 35 or more, with more than 40% being on IEPs or English Language Learners, with a majority carrying a felony rap (whatever that meant in a state with the world’s highest incarceration rate); and where two students had recently witnessed the murder of a parent, and two others watched the murder/suicide of their parents; during a year when our kids buried an unprecedented number of family members.

As I have explained, these doomed-to-fail, test-driven, competition-driven policies were pushed by corporate school reformers who knew little or nothing about the nuances of poverty and the legacies of segregation. They ignored the cognitive science which explained why their test-driven approach would drive holistic teaching and learning out of the classroom. 

As we deal with the legacies of today’s COVID pandemic, I hope we can learn from the history of my school and so many others. Maybe we can agree with Meier and Ravitch that “democracy cannot long be sustained” without public – not market-driven education. If nothing else, let’s agree that our democracy requires adults to listen to each other, as well as to students.

John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews a book of memories written by immigrant children about their ordeals. We will long suffer the embarrassment of Trump’s cruel immigration policy, but the children will never forget.

Thompson writes:

Where the Rainbow Ends: Project VOICE Visions of Inclusion, Culture, and Empathy, edited by Jamie Hinds and Savanna Payne, is the latest book by Oklahoma City Public Schools English Language Development students. This year’s volume faced an additional challenge as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person instruction. But these resilient authors have overcome far greater challenges.

The student-authors started with the reasons why they left Central America, Mexico, Africa, and Asia for the United States. Most described harrowing experiences crossing Mexico, with many facing brutal encounters with the U.S. Immigration Services. Fortunately, despite continuing obstacles, almost all have had a better experience in Oklahoma City.The stories were peer edited. The student-authors are anonymous, often not even revealing their gender.  Most were forced to immigrate by climate change or the murder of family members or other threats by gangs. This post focuses on the majority who immigrated from Central America.

They begin with a description of life in their previous homes, and with the stress of departure.  A 15-year old, who had “always considered myself the man of the house” left Guatemala when it became too hard to get food and water. Early in the trip, his family was starved by the “coyote.” They were crowded into a truck full of 50 people until reaching the border, and walking through the desert.  Separated from his mom by Immigration, he spent three frightening days without seeing the sun. Fortunately, Texas church members accepted them and helped them travel to Oklahoma City.

A 13-year-old started the trek, alone, from Guatemala. He or she was picked up by the coyote, who charged $3,000, and was crammed into a truck with 35 people, along with the “zetas’” marijuana and cocaine. This was followed by the terrifying ride on the train called “the Beast.” After four months in detention, he or she was reunited with their mother and is now the “happiest child because I have [had] a lot of years without my mom.”

Similarly, a 12-year-old left Honduras and was crowded into the Beast. He or she saw passengers thrown off the train and killed. A 13-year old girl left Honduras after being sexually accosted and almost kidnapped. During the trip, she and others were stored in an ice cream trailer without food for three days. She learned two valuable lessons though. “There are good as well as there are bad people,” … and if molested, children should “trust their parents and do not remain silent.”

Then there was the cruelty of the American detention system. It was bad enough, said one immigrant, to be locked up in Sinaloa for 15 days, but upon arriving in the U.S., the young person was thrown into “the cooler.” Another was “put in the cooler’” and then sent to a “safehouse” for 2-1/2 months. One of 3,000 detainees described immigration officers who “were very rude to everybody,” and put them in a freezer for up to 4 days. Another spent 8 days in the cage and then was sent to foster care in New York.

Some revealed complicated endings to their story. A girl started working at 9 years-old, but kept her grades up until she had to leave Guatemala at 11. When she was put in truck and babies cried, the guide put rags in their mouths. The babies turned purple and the immigrants were afraid they’d die. They later had to sell their clothes for food and water, and escape from kidnappers. She’s since moved back and forth among family members in Oklahoma. Another Guatemalan student concluded that now, “I am half agony and half hope, although perhaps more agony.”

A Guatemalan was 5 years- old when “they” killed his grandfather, who was a father to him or her, in front of their family. He or she started to “grow up with the mentality that everything in my life would be wrong,” and has had to mature without a stable family. He or she observes, “I’m a good student, I respect who gives me roof, I have many values in my life,” but would like “a life without so many questions, that nobody answers [for] me.” The author understands that humans have to make difficult decisions, but his or her story is “so painful, so empty” and it warns about the effects of “the lack of love and feelings protected.”

Others had unambiguously happy endings to their stories. A student-author had been comfortable in Guatemala, before losing everything. In the U.S., they found a house and a job, and bought a car. So, “Now we are blessed … now I get to go to school. This is the start of a new journey.” Similarly, a Guatemalan girl helped her dad sell bananas, and had enjoyed parades. In Oklahoma, she learned “no matter who you are, if you are small, skinny, fat, pretty, ugly or colored if they are real friends, they will love you as you are.”

Another Guatemalan was threatened by police for money, locked up with 30 people for 2 weeks, and traveled across Mexico with 28 people in a van. But the story closed with a thank you for helpful Americans, concluding “If you think of Oklahoma, I hope you’ll think of Jim and Jean Dawson. …”

Read the book, and comparably profound insights will be offered from immigrants from other countries. The father of a 16-year-old  from Juarez was murdered by extortionists, but now he is happy and calm in Oklahoma City, and tells the story in support of others who have endured worse. Another high school student concluded, “Mexico still calls me,” and “Oklahoma made me strong.  Mexico makes me safe.”

An elementary student said her life in Mexico made her mature, but she also loves clean, beautiful streets, and stores of the U.S. Some of her Oklahoma classmates made fun of her, but others were helpful. When feeling broken, she relies on God. And she concludes, “I wanted to exceed the limits people thought I had because I was Latina.”

John Thompson writes below about the ongoing confusion about whether it is safe to reopen schools. Trump and DeVos demanded that schools reopen without the resources to reopen safely. Now, the debate continues, with a mixture of science, hope, and fear. I am not a public health expert, and I offer no advice. But common sense suggests that teachers should be vaccinated first, along with other essential workers. Teaching in a room with a large group of students all day long, it seems to me, is materially different than shopping in a store where one enters and leaves within 15-20 minutes. If we expect teachers to be frontline workers, they should get the vaccinations and PPE equipment they need.

He writes:

Today we’re in a situation in regard to reopening schools that is similar and different to that of the first six months of the Covid pandemic. Then, it seemed likely that schools could reopen by the fall semester as long as we respected public health evidence, and set smart priorities, such as reopening schools not bars. But Trump and his acolytes politicized the pandemic, even leading the way to super-spreadings by holding crowded political and motorcycle rallies, as well as pushing the premature reopenings of indoor dining and partying.

I’m afraid, however, that we’re also in a situation similar to last November when it should have been obvious that the holidays were coming, bringing super-spreads. Rarely do we face school reopening issues that lead to obvious conclusions. However, it would have been crazy to reopen schools as Thanksgiving approached, prompting the surge which would feed the super-surges of Christmas and New Years. Even so, true believers in the claim that educators were being too cautious often continued to ramp up the blame game. In “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong” (Nov 18), Nick Kristof criticized Democrats for failing to learn from Europeans who had safely kept their schools open.

Ironically, Kristof’s editorial was published 6 days after Spiegel International’s “Reevaluating Children’s Role in the Pandemic.” It explained in great detail that “a large study from Austria shows that SARS-CoV-2 infects just as many schoolchildren as it does teachers. Other surveys indicate that while young children may show no symptoms, they are quite efficient at spreading the virus.”  

Spiegel explained, “‘Schools are not islands of serenity,’ says study leader Michael Wagner, a professor of microbiology at the University of Vienna. Leaving them open is ‘a significant risk.’” Moreover, “‘Children reflect the infection levels they are surrounded by,’ says microbiologist Wagner. But because they are so often asymptomatic, they are ‘severely undertested,’ leading him to believe that there are a rather significant number of unreported cases.”

In fairness, even if Kristof had read about and contemplated the new situation in Europe, he could not have known that it would foreshadow the most important pandemic challenge we face today. But he no longer has an excuse for sticking with his simplistic attacks on teachers.

As the super-spread that took off in November subsides, and given the fact that President Biden has replaced Trump, it could be argued that we should be able to safely reopen schools over the next 100 days. As was true in the summer and the fall, new scientific research keeps producing evidence that schools can operate safely in person, especially in places where masking, social distancing, and public health guidelines are respected when dealing with community transmissions. Recent studies documented successes in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and European schools. Research keeps confirming that schools for the youngest children are the least likely to spread the virus. And a recent JAMA study concludes “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

On the other hand, the path JAMA describes toward “return primarily or fully to in-person instructional delivery” also requires “steps to reduce community transmission and limiting school-related activities such as indoor sports practice or competition that could increase transmission risk.” For instance, it cites a recent wrestling tournament where, “Among the 130 tournament participants, 38 (30%) had laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection diagnosed, but less than half the participants were tested. At least 446 contacts of these cases have been identified.” These and secondary transmissions are still being studied.

Sadly, we’re also seeing a repeat of the politicization of public health which contributed so much to the super-spreads that made it impossible for so many urban districts to reopen in the fall. One of the worst examples is Derek Thompson’s article published online with the title, “Open Schools, Already.” Thompson began with an oversimplified characterization of the Center for Disease Control’s call to reopen schools “as soon as possible,” and asserted, “the CDC seems to be shouting: Enough! To which, I would add: What took you so long”?

I always follow the links in these reports, and almost always I find a story more complicated than anticipated. But, these reports tend to start with the conclusion about whether schools can reopen safely, followed by a number of disclaimers and warnings. Thompson turned out to be one of the most extreme examples of a respected reporter misrepresenting the complexities documented in the sources he cited. 

Rather than get into the weeds of methodology, before addressing Thompson’s misleading arguments, I’ll just mention a few more differences between today’s questions and those of the summer and fall. New research estimates that 59 percent of transmissions, not 35 percent as previously estimated, are by asymptomatic persons. Moreover, we now have evidence that teens are more likely to spread the virus than originally thought. And a new study of infections in Florida and China shows that children may be more likely to be asymptomatic, and they may be 60% more likely than adults over 60 to spread the infection. 

These findings, combined with the lack of testing and contact tracing in many places, call into question the previously understandable conclusions by some that schools aren’t major contributors to community transmission.

Also, there are new reasons to worry about the unknown, but potentially serious, harm done by Covid to asymptomatic persons.   

Getting back to Thompson’s article as a case study in misrepresenting complex science, North Carolina and Wisconsin offer just two of many examples of studies of small samples of committed school systems that are not representative of many other districts. In “Incidence and Secondary Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Schools,” Duke University researchers found that infections were rare in “35 North Carolina schools that offered in-person teaching for at least some of the 9 weeks, with only 17 staying open to students for the entire quarter.” 

The researchers acknowledged that the sample of schools “may select for school districts that enforce adherence to preventative measures, emphasize transparency, and cooperate with peers.” These characteristics “are likely associated with greater adherence to masking, reduced secondary transmission, and lower risks.” And, when two districts faced reduced compliance with masking and distancing, a nonprofit stepped in to reinforce those policies.

In response to my questions on methodology, co-author Daniel Benjamin volunteered that the key to success:

Is that there is 99% mask compliance for every person in the mainstream curriculum that steps on school property. It’s the mitigation strategies—distancing, masking, hand hygiene that are crucially important. If a school district does not do these things, they will likely make the pandemic worse by being open. This is why we don’t advise “you should open” or “you should go remote”…. It’s all about the public health measures.

And while we’re reading more optimistic reports by reliable researchers like JAMA and the CDC, let’s not forget their qualifying statements, such as the CDC’s summary of Wisconsin infections from Sept 3 to Nov16. Schools were the 4th largest source of infections, following long term care and corrections facilities, and colleges; an estimated 14% of infections were linked to schools.

These are just a few of the new pieces of evidence that schools may not be super-spreaders, but they are spreaders. But, how fast do we want to reopen those spreaders as the virus variant comes to the United States? The New York Times cites the CDC and other institutions that predict the more contagious U.K. variant will be predominant by March. If so, will it make sense to not reclose the schools that contribute to spread, even if they don’t drive the increase in infections?  

The reopening of schools in 100 days is a reasonable goal, but decisions on the pace of reopenings and when it is necessary to reclose schools, should not be politicized. My sense, however, is that more of the press, and public health and education advocates are now discussing politics more, and complicated science relatively less. For instance, there has been a steady increase in charter school advocates implicitly or explicitly blaming shutdowns on unions. Robert Pondiscio’s “How Anger Over Covid Closures Can Fuel the School Choice Movement” is just one recent example.

At the same time, more journalists are focusing on the differences between statements by some of Biden’s public health experts, and his apparently more balanced approach, as well that of teachers and unions, than the nuances of medical science conclusions. Moreover,, the Washington Post explains, “CDC researchers looked to Europe’s experience in the fall to inform their conclusion that ‘there has been (emphasis mine) little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.’”

But new research from Europe leads towards a new conclusion, articulated by Celso Cunha, director of the medical microbiology unit at Nova University of Lisbon’s Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “By themselves, schools are not the main problem, but it makes sense to close them when the numbers are so high that anything can have an impact on the health system as a whole,” 

The Wall Street Journal also reports:

A consensus is emerging in Europe that children are a considerable factor in the spread of Covid-19—and more countries are shutting schools for the first time since the spring.

Closures have been announced recently in the U.K., Germany, Ireland, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands on concerns about a more infectious variant of the virus first detected in the U.K. and rising case counts despite lockdowns. …

The Journal quoted the director of the University of Geneva’s Institute of Global Health, “In the second wave we acquired much more evidence that schoolchildren are almost equally, if not more infected by SARS-CoV-2 than others.”

And as Spiegel reported in November, Europeans have had to ask, “Might children, in fact, be mini-superspreaders running around without so much as a sore throat as they pass the virus on to classmates, parents and siblings?”

I sure can’t anticipate the answer to that question, but unless we can discuss it in a non-ideological manner, we might fail at both the reopening of schools within 100 days, and contribute to a resurgence of Covid. 

John Thompson, retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, reviews law professor Derek Black’s recent book, Schoolhouse Burning.

Derek Black’s new book,Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, combines the best principles of the historical research that I was taught in the 1970s with the best of recent scholarship. Overall, the result is a surprisingly hopeful overview. Unfortunately, it offers an analysis of contemporary history which is more pessimistic.Black makes the case that at the end of the 1700s, and after the Civil War, Americans saw education as a right of citizenship. That explains why access to the 19th century American education system was second only to that of Prussia.

In 1972, however, the Supreme Court denied that education was a fundamental right, and that contributed to today’s argument that education is a private choice, not a public good. Black reminds us that “Schools are not roads.” But, today, the outcome of the battle for public education is unclear.

Black explains that federal grants to education began in the 1700s, but then the South criminalized education for blacks. Schoolhouse Burning doesn’t downplay the evils of slavery and racism which denied education to people of color. But, despite efforts by slave owners who knew the quest for knowledge was a huge threat to their system, enslaved persons passed “secret knowledge” to each other, 

Moreover, “Between 1865 and 1868, the nation embarked on the most aggressive education project before or since…” By 1867, 600 schools and 600 Sabbath Schools provided education services to former slaves. And, freedmen spent over $1 million on their educations through 1870, with 30,000 students paying tuition. Moreover, during Reconstruction, Congress demanded that states revise their constitutions, and provide education; Southern states acceded as they rejoined the nation.

According to Black, Congress’ effort to base readmission after the civil war created a “baseline” where “states could expand education rights, but they could not retract them.” Even the terrible 1899 ruling in Cummings v Richmond Co. Board of Education had a “silver lining.” Black notes, “wereas attacks on public education were the centerpiece of the assault on black citizenship, the right to education … nonetheless lived on.”

After the last decade of bipartisan denigration of education, Black has had to wrestle with the question whether African Americans were right to focus on education, as opposed to housing and jobs. He still believes the answer is “yes” because “public education has always represented the idea of America, not its reality.”

During the 1980s, the Reagan administration launched an assault on government as a whole, as well public schools. Those who would privatize schools and other institutions have shown remarkable political savvy in demonizing teachers and “government schools.” So “those who would fight to save public education are playing catch-up with opponents who have no intention of playing fair.”

Koch brothers, for instance, treated education as the “lowest hanging fruit for policy change.” Radical individualist-libertarians have advanced their own economic self-interest over public welfare. This market-driven approach “incentivizes insatiable, base human instincts.”

Black also speaks the truths that too many education supporters have been reluctant to express. He writes, “The assault on public education happened because of the general discontent with public education.” Because of its flaws and the ways it has been broken in many places, too many Democrats bought the argument for charter schools that “if its public dollars, its public education” Moreover, “It was Arne Duncan, not Betsy DeVos who fueled the fire” attacking tenure, and mandating test-driven accountability. Due to both the Great Recession and Duncan’s “reforms,” from 2009 to 2012, schools lost 300,000 teaching positions. Also, the number of students pursuing teaching degrees has dropped 30%.

Of course, the Trump administration stepped up the assault on the already-weaken public school system.  The administration’s most notable victory was tax deductions and credit for private schools. And, “Betsy DeVos even hinted she might ‘try to use the widespread pandemic-driven shutdown to create a path to national school vouchers.’”

Although Black’s research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, he added a few final thoughts on the additional threats it produced. For instance, online learning can be spun as “a shining panacea,” replacing schoolhouses.

So, Black is not saying public education will be better off in five years. Too many Americans have not been taught to distinguish fact from fiction. And as more Americans lose faith in government, opponents are positioned to exploit those feelings. Black admits, “Public education could go out with a whimper, not a bang.” So, “I do not know how many additional losses our schools can take on top of the last ones.”

But Black does know about historic successes. His history can serve as a “pleasant reminder of silver linings – silver linings that, when added together could reveal enduring truths.”

Today, as in other frightening times, liberal democracy “is not as stable and robust as the world thought.” Political norms have declined but he still believes “the average American won’t let go of public education.” Black thus concludes, “I believe education will survive, not that it already has.”

John Thompson is a historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma. He keeps us abreast of what is happening in his home state.

He writes:

Now that Oklahoma voters rejected Gov. Kevin Stitt’s recommendations and chose to accept hundreds of millions of dollars a year of Medicaid Expansion funds, policy-makers must ask what could go wrong with Stitt’s current effort to privatize up to $2 billion in Oklahoma Medicaid services. Nondoc reports that this week:

Amid an air of confusion over its own powers and responsibilities, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority Board voted this morning to authorize financial expenditures for contracting with managed care organizations, controversial entities that take a portion of public Medicaid funding for attempting to improve care coordination, increase patient compliance and decrease overall program costs.

Several of the “five major health care associations” that opposed Stitt’s plan “referenced Oklahoma’s past managed Medicaid effort from the 1990s, which was ended owing to many of the same concerns opponents are voicing now.”

Since the Oklahoma governor has repeatedly pushed to allow private entities to innovate in terms of fighting the Covid pandemic, the answer might be found in more recent history. For instance, last spring, Oklahoma Health Department contracted with a piano bar owner to purchase about $2 million worth of N95 masks from China!

(I wonder if Stitt refused to listen to public health experts and close bars when infections super-surged for fear that that would have been undermined such innovations…)

Recent issues of The Frontier help evaluate the effectiveness of Stitt-era innovations. The state is now trying to return $2 million of stockpile of the malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine. Stitt ordered the purchase after former President Donald Trump praised that untested treatment.

The Frontier and ProPublica also reported on problems with CARES Act expenditures, and concluded, “The scope of those problems is clearly visible in Oklahoma, which tied for the third-highest number of hospital closures in the country in the nine years before the pandemic.” They found that, “One hospital used more than $1 million in federal aid to pay off its years-old debt to a management company that left before Oklahoma’s first coronavirus case was diagnosed.

On the other hand, “Three Oklahoma hospitals that were purchased last year after filing for bankruptcy were unable to access more than $6 million in funds deposited by the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency in charge of the rollout for health care providers.”

The Frontier also reported on Payroll Protection Program (PPP) money that went to Oklahoma churches. It showed that “between $90.2 million and $153.9 million went to churches in Oklahoma;” for instance, the “Edmond-based LiveChurch.TV, received between $5 million and $10 million.”

The Tulsa World also reported on Stitt’s sending $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief money  to help private school students. Those grants ranged up to $6,500 per family.

Speaking of school privatization, this week the Epic Charter Schools board “accepted the resignation of 11-year member Mike Cantrell.” This occurred as the State Department of Education continued efforts to “recoup” $11.2 million of inappropriately spent state money. Cantrell still claims, “They don’t have a right to look at a private company’s records.” He calls the auditing process a “sham,” and speculated that maybe the auditor should be impeached.

Okay, this history of privatization by Stitt and his and Trump’s supporters hasn’t turned out well, but maybe we need more innovation, such as contracting with a bar owner to obtain PPE. How did that experiment turn out?

The same day as Stitt defeated OHCA board members who opposed his managed care of Medicaid policy, the Oklahoman reported:

Health officials got fewer than 10,000 masks from PPE Supplies and only $300,000 of the deposit back, according to the breach of contract lawsuit.

The Health Department is seeking the rest of its money back — $1.825 million, plus interest. It also is seeking punitive damages for “misconduct.”Whether its ideology-driven use of Covid funds to promote private schools, or using $25 million CARES Act funds for old-fashioned pork barrel politics, like defying medical experts by moving the public health lab from Oklahoma City to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, Stitt’s schemes are destructive and wasteful. We can laugh at his more absurd misuse of federal money, but if he gets away with imposing managed care for Medicaid, the damage will be devastating. 

Who knew that “adequate yearly progress” and “accountability” could be the subject of a comic novel? John Thompson just read that novel and he reviews it here.

Roxanna Elden’s Adequate Yearly Progress is a hilarious, satirical novel that nails the very serious truths about the real world effects of corporate school reform. Although Elden’s humor spectacularly illuminates the reformers’ often-absurd mindsets, she also reveals the good, bad, and the ugly of a diverse range of human beings.

Adequate Yearly Progress begins with Lena, a young, black, literature teacher returning to school at Brae Hill Valley High School in a high-challenge Texas neighborhood. The way she is greeted starts to reveal some of the flaws of the complex people who teach there. A colleague asked, “Don’t you read the news? Miss Phil-a-delphia?” She thus assumed that Lena comes from a city where everyone is in a hurry and no one attends church.

The news is that Nick Wallabee, a political celebrity without real-world experience in classrooms, but who had written a book on “easy fixes” to schools, has been hired as the district’s superintendent. Any discussion about Wallabee was likely to become a “morale-draining gripe session.”

The Wallabee administration starts by introducing a new accountability metric, the “Believer Score.” Stressing the positive, the administrator said the measure will “let you gain points by proving you believe all children can learn.” Teachers need to “just be ready to show that you fully embrace any new initiatives.”

The announcements caused “collective grumbling,” but hope was raised by the school’s principal, Dr. Barrios. He was known as “the superintendent whisperer,” who had always been able to buffer teachers from the ill-conceived quick fixes that are routinely dumped on schools.

Wallabee was a new type of micromanager, and even Barrios was unable to temper his new boss’ hubris. Wallabee asserted, “I know there are adults (spitting out the word adults) … who take issue with being held accountable.” He proclaimed the willingness to break eggs to make an omelette, and it became clear that Brae Hill Valley HS and Barrios were targeted.

The school was turned into a “Believers Make Achievers Zone.” A series of “three-ring binders, the highest level of the organizational hierarchy” would guide the process. Brae Hill Valley became a “Curriculum Standard of the Day Achievement Zone.” Teachers were given the first of a series of orders, and each Curriculum Standard of the Day must be written in its entirety on the board each day.

The next interventions were the “fearsome Office for Oversight of Binders and Evidence of Implementation,” the “Pre-Holiday Cross-Departmental Midyear Assessment Data Chart” (PHCDMADC), and the “Cross-Disciplinary Compare-And-Contrast Holiday Review Packet,” as well as worksheets to identify what students don’t know in order to fortify instruction. A non-educator, Daren Grant of “Transformational Change Advocacy ConsultingPartners,” then distributed the folder, “Research-Based Best Practices That Work,” and made surprise visits to classrooms, as well as the football team’s locker room during halftime.

Two of those visits foreshadow climactic outcomes.  Hernan Hernandez was perhaps the school’s best teacher, even though he refused to join the teachers union. A student who was exited from the “Demographics Don’t Determine Destiny” or Destiny Charter School arrived unexpectedly, and disrupted Hernan’s class. This happened as Daren, the consultant, dropped in.

Second, in perhaps the only type of activity in the novel which I had never witnessed in schools, he spoke to Coach Ray and his players, using the same data-driven vocabulary and reality-free exhortations in the middle of a game, as Coach Ray was exhorting the team to put on their “inner game face.”  (I would have loved to witness such a scene.) It foreshadowed a positive outcome that offset the sad result of the consultant’s dropping-in to Hernan’s class.

Coach Ray, brought much of the negative baggage of his family in Huntsville, the infamous prison’s town, to coaching, but he had another side that made him the story’s silent hero.

Also foreshadowing a crucial realization at the end of the novel, Lena seemed to have mixed but mostly negative feelings about a scene with white people clapping off-key and rapping a poem with the line “I got ninety-nine problems , but a b____ ain’t one of them”

A young Teacher Corp history teacher, Kaytee, was understandably outraged by her mentor who offered the “QUIT” or “Quit Taking It Personally” advice. Even though I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a veteran teacher who didn’t oppose the data-driven accountability systems that were imposed by non-educators, Kayte would be right to resent the response of some of her colleagues to those metrics. They called for the “neck-tattoo statistic.” Students who wear those tattoos can’t be expected to meet outcome metrics as well as poor children of color who don’t wear them.

Then, Wallabee sought to ramp up the types of teaching methods that Kaytee was taught in her Teacher Corp classroom management principle professional development class. The consultant said, “I’d like to start by having everyone in here physically unpack their preconceptions and assumptions and put them in the assumption box.” Her call to “raise the roof!” was followed by pressed palms reaching up to imaginary roof beams.

Kaytee seemed destined to rise in the reformers’ world after her blog post went viral when it was endorsed by the filmmaker of Show Me You Care and I’ll Show You My Homework. That anti-teacher film was followed by How the Status Quo Stole Christmas, which, of course meant How Teachers Stole Christmas.  That foreshadowed the possibility of a different education film genre, The Mystery History Teacher.

Reality started to set in, for instance, after Kaytee’s effort to teach a culturally relevant lesson was undermined by the technology which was supposed to drive “transformational” change. Her video of Cesar Chavez “Fighting for Improved Hand Job Conditions” was blocked by the online autocorrect censor. Much worse, after being assaulted by a student and no disciplinary consequences were contemplated, she started having second thoughts about whether simplistic memes could really help students. 

Eventually, Kaytee found herself drafting a letter to a law school admissions office. She knew the best pitch would be something like how she had learned to “lead from the classroom and scale up her macro impact for low-income students.” But she wanted to write, “Dear Admissions Committee, I want to go to law school because I will do anything in this world to get out of being a teacher.”

As the “Crunch Time” which always proceeds high-stakes testing approached, even more test prep was mandated. During a faculty meeting, angry teachers asked whether the principal was “trying to tell us to teach nothing but test-taking skills?” Principal Barrios replied with the standard answer, “I don’t think that’s exactly what I said.” He thus stirred an “amiable laugh,” while exemplifying the culture of compliance that traditional teachers resent, and corporate reformers tried to exorcise. (To complicate things, those on all sides of the teacher wars complained that the principal hadn’t fired an obvious incompetent.  However, nobody else knew that Barrios was reluctant to fire the teacher in his late 6os because he  had cancer.)

As the year ended, reformers focused on the need to terminate teachers based on their “Believer Scores.” Because of their relationship with Global Schoolhouse’s test creation division, an administrator seeking to replace Barrios felt free to let favored teachers with high “Believer Scores” preview sample test questions, so that the two accountability metrics would line up with each other.

A scandal then leads reformers to shift gears and invest in a new virtual school charter network startup.

Another result was a great teacher was “selected out of the classroom.” On the other hand, these experiences help inform Lena’s growing enlightenment, inspiring the line in her poem, “Tapping their feet, shifting and creaking the seats, struggling students with ninety nine problems apiece.”

In a brilliant ending, that I don’t want to reveal too much about but which spoofs another test question meme, Elden asks, “What would an additional scene at the end of this story most likely be?”

Will an anxious principal be looking at the test scores, or will the new Global Schoolhouse School Choice Solutions be started? Will filmmakers shift from themes that demonize teachers, or will there be a happy ending for an excellent, unfairly fired teacher?

Or will the answer be, “All of the above.”