Posts Tagged ‘social mobility’

The Flawed Defense of Suspensions as a Disciplinary Tool

October 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Earlier this month the NYPost featured an op ed article by Naomi Shaefer Riley titled “Charter Schools Suspend Kids, Public Schools Don’t- Which Does Better?”. In the article she criticized a recently adopted Seattle School Board moratorium on the suspension of elementary students. Here’s the basis of her criticism:

The Seattle school board announced this week a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for elementary school kids because they want to “starve the [school-to]-prison pipeline at its source,” as one board member put it.

While there is a strong correlation between students who are suspended from school and those who end up in prison, there is no evidence that this suspension is the cause of their future criminal records. Could it be that they are suspended, and later arrested, because they’re acting badly? Is coddling that behavior really going to stop it?

This thinking is flawed for at least two reasons. First, if the Seattle Board’s thinking is flawed because correlation and causation are not the same, why is Ms. Riley using that same logic in presenting her assertion that higher suspension rates in charter schools are related to the (supposed) academic superiority of charter schools. Secondly, there is a way to discipline students without suspending them… but it involves a seismic shift in the general public’s thinking about children and about the purpose of penalties. Instead of thinking of the purpose of discipline as retribution we need to think of the purpose as rehabilitation. That is, instead of punishing a student for his or her misbehavior, we need to find a way to get the student to behave in a fashion that will enable them to succeed in the classroom.

I served as a high school disciplinarian for six years and in that capacity quickly came to see that suspensions served a limited purpose. The more I worked with troublesome and oppositional students, the more I came to see that their troubles in school reflected a troubled background. I concluded from experience that counseling was a more effective means of changing the behavior of a student than punishment and that in some cases placement in an alternative environment was needed in circumstances where conformity to school norms was an unrealistic expectation. Indeed, I found that in many cases children who behaved badly in a school setting were valued employees in work sites where conformance to work rules “made sense” to them and they could see a clear link between the purpose of the rules and a tangible reward. Neither the alternative school settings nor workplaces “coddled” these students, but in both situations the student experienced daily success and understood the purpose of the rules.

One other false meme appeared in Riley’s article, the union’s indifference to misbehaving students :

What’s interesting is how the teachers unions — which are unafraid to assert their authority in most other arenas of school policy — seem totally uninterested in student discipline.

(Retired LI administrator) Epstein says that the “rank-and-file teachers are cannon fodder for the unions and all they need them for is dues.” The Seattle teachers union went on strike recently over the issues of salaries and pensions, but the fact that teachers’ jobs will now be harder to do thanks to the mandated presence of disruptive kids in the classroom barely raised an eyebrow for these union leaders.

My experience is that union leaders reflect the views of their membership, and contrary to Ms. Riley’s assertion, most teachers are VERY interested in student discipline… but unlike the general public— they see discipline as a means of changing a student’s behavior and want to see more support for those children who are troubled. Those Seattle teachers, for example, wanted more than salaries and pensions: one of their key requests was to restore recess for children in elementary schools because they realized that young children need recess more than they need more test preparation time. But strikes are always about the greed of union teachers, never about their caring for students. I wish there was a way to discipline columnists for repeating memes that have no basis in truth. Maybe if we suspended them we could change their behavior…


Kansas’ Solution to a $42,500,000 Revenue Shortfall: An Efficiency Study by a Discredited Firm

October 11, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve written earlier posts about Kansas budget woes that resulted from a misguided adoption of trickle down economics, the Governor’s exploration of the idea of replacing the members of the State Supreme Court because they ruled that education funding was unconstitutional, and their horrific curriculum. Today I’m checking in on the latest bad idea from Kansas: spending $2,600,000 on an efficiency study will help them close their budget gap by finding huge savings in the spending in schools. Here’s the summary description of the idea as reported by Peter Hancock of the Lawrence Journal Herald

Last week, state lawmakers finalized a contract with A&M; for nearly $2.6 million to conduct a government efficiency study for the state of Kansas.

The contract calls on A&M; to conduct a “diagnostic analysis” of the current budget, make recommendations for significant cost savings and efficiency, and evaluate the state’s budget process in general based on best practices in both the public and private sectors.

The contract is not clear about how much focus the firm will put on state funding for K-12 education, which accounts for roughly half of all state spending in Kansas.

But it does say that the firm is to develop recommendations that target “areas with large and substantial expenditures of state general funds and where the State can become more efficient and thereby provide cost savings to the State’s taxpayers.”

Hancock examined A&M’s previous contracts and found them wanting.

When A&M tried to apply business principles in St. Louis it saved money by closing 16 schools, privatizing custodial and food services, and using a computerized bus routing system that ignored highway crossings and known drug dens when it assigned bus stops. Oh, and the firm assumed that if costs were cut and taxes lowered more people would move into Saint Louis and the increase in student population would help improve the districts financial picture. One thing they overlooked was that in making their draconian cuts they eliminated programs to the extent that the district lost its accreditation.

The plan A&M developed and implemented to reduce the number of teachers in New Orleans was found to be flawed by the courts. The price tag for that error: $1,500,000,000. My hunch is that A&M needed to charge Kansas $2,600,000 for the study to cover its Errors and Omissions policy!

Every dollar A&M saved came at the expense of a job that paid a decent wage and when decent paying jobs are lost in a community on a large scale it hurts the local economy. The bottom line in all of this is that you cannot run an agency that provides human services the same way you run a business… and “gaining efficiency” often flies in the face of community interests.

Obama Administration Proposes Schools Stem Absenteeism by Assuming Social Work Tasks

October 10, 2015 Leave a comment

An AP story written on October 7 by Jennifer Kerr described the Obama administration’s solution to the problem of excessive absenteeism in public schools: have “…officials take a deep dive at the school-level to see why these kids are absent so often.”

In the late 1980s the school district I led identified chronic absenteeism as an issue and did as deep a dive as was possible given the data collection limitations of that time. Here’s what we found: children who missed school the most came from disadvantaged homes with limited or ineffective adult supervision or in some instances from homes where parents had given up on forcing their child to go to school. I daresay that any “deep dive” today will find the same results and administrators at those schools will ask the same questions we did: “What can we do now?” We devised strict attendance policies, a process that took over a year to enact because of complications involving, among other issues: parents who wanted to take their children on vacations; judges who did not want to see their court rooms filled; a limited number of home-school liaisons to visit the schools; and limited access to doctors– a factor when we intended to insist on a doctor’s note in any case where a child missed more that a certain number of days. We also formed alliances with the social services department, which was relatively easy given that both the school and the social services departments covered the same areas. Finally, we determined that early intervention was crucial and thus sought an expansion of counselors into elementary schools. I offer this overview to illustrate the obstacles a school level administrator might face if they perform a “deep dive”:

  • Principals need the backing of their board, the local police, the local health agency, and the local social workers if they begin to “dig deeply” into absenteeism.
  • Principals need more staff to do a “deep dig” into the causes of absenteeism… and they need to be prepared to file reports to child protective services if they find a “reason to believe” child neglect and abuse is a factor in the absenteeism.
  • The entire system needs to coordinate its efforts with those of other agencies serving children.

The most appalling quote in the article came from Acting Secretary of Education John King, an advocate of deregulated for-profit charter schools who said:

“We have to be thoughtful and careful to provide structure and support, rather than suspend or punish students who are struggling to make it to school every day,” said John King, a senior Education Department official who will take over as acting secretary in December. “It sends the wrong message to tell a student who is not coming to school that they are unwelcome.”

This from a man who supported the implementation of selective charter schools who made if difficult for parents of “students who are struggling to make it to school every day” to enroll and who could drop “students who are struggling to make it to school every day” from their roles with no consequences whatsoever. If the Obama administration was sincerely interested in engaging children in school it might first look at the misbegotten test-and-punish system it has set in place, a system that encourages schools to adopt policies that retain students who fail a single test, policies that encourage students who do poorly on tests to enroll elsewhere, and policies that make students feel like failures on a daily basis.

“Centrist” Brookings Institute Researcher Calls on Presidential Candidates to Advocate Vouchers

October 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Washington Examiner writer Jason Russell in his review of a report written by the “centrist” Brookings Institute scholar Russ Whitehurst concludes that Whitehurst wants to see public choice become a national political issue. I agree with this… particularly given the disproportionate impact that federal laws have on public schools across the country AND given the way Arne Duncan and President Obama effectively unilaterally mandated a new de facto national battery of tests and teacher evaluation system through a grant fund. It is even more urgent given Whitehurst’s call for vouchers, as this paragraph from Russell’s article indicates:

“None of the candidates has to date mentioned, much less taken a position on, what is likely to be one of the most powerful levers of K-12 education reform: open enrollment in regular public schools tied to portable funding,” Whitehurst writes in a new Brookings paper.

Whitehurst doesn’t call what he is advocating “vouchers”, but “portable funding” is the means conservative and libertarian legislators use to implement vouchers which, if implemented, will be the death knell for public education as we’ve envisioned it for generations. Whitehurst goes on to cite examples of how choice is already in place in several areas of the country:

More than half of the nation’s largest school districts already let parents choose a school within their district, including New York City and New Orleans, Whitehurst says. Twenty-three states let students pick a school outside their home district.

Someone who doesn’t follow public education might conclude that students across America can attend whatever school they wish. But in fact very few districts allow students to enroll in whatever school they like. Because of tradition, cost savings, logistical considerations, and the location of school buildings, virtually every school district assigns students to the school nearest their home. And if Mr. Whitehurst believes that NYC parents can choose where their students attend, he needs to talk to the parents of every fifth grade student in the city to see what they need to do to get their children in the school of they choice… and he needs to share with his friends at Brookings that many middle schools reject as many as 90% of the applicants who qualify based on test scores.

As much as Russell, Whitehurst, and I would like to see education be a national issue, Russell notes that it is unlikely given recent elections:

Historically, education issues have gotten little attention during election years. Education coverage in the media drops by 6.5 percent during election years, compared to the previous year. That figure was estimated by Andrew Campanella, a long time school choice advocate. More attention from presidential candidates on the campaign trail could reverse the trend.

We’re witnessing grassroots support for two candidates who are independent-minded because they are  direct in staking out their positions and attuned to the problems everyday Americans face. None of the pundits saw either candidate as a “serious contender” eight weeks ago just as most pundits pay little attention to “marginal” issues like public education. This might be the year voters let their voices be heard on education and might be the time that those who want real reform in schooling get a chance to speak out over the din of the billionaires who want to make a profit from public services.

Complicated State Funding Formula Explained Effectively… OBVIOUS Reasons For It’s Failure to Achieve Equity Overlooked

October 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Google’s feed sent me an excellent article written by Dale Singer of Saint Louis Public Radio that explains with cartoons how the schools are funded now and how the funding formula evolved over time. The overview reminds me how little has changed in the 25 years since I served on Maryland’s Blue Ribbon Task Force and ongoing struggles to provide equitable funding for schools in the 42 states who have been sued over the past several decades.

The MO legislature used two approaches to achieve equal funding for all students: one based on an equity formula that was ultimately scrapped and one based on an adequacy formula the has been in place for several years. In the end, though, it matter less HOW the money is distributed. What counts is HOW MUCH money is applied to the formula. MO State Board of Education chair Charlie Shields provided a good synopsis of why the new adequacy formula doesn’t work:

A formula based on adequacy, he added, would work better, with one big condition: The state has to have the money to fund it fully.

The same thing could have been said about a formula based on equity… but it seems that whenever a legislature sets a goal for schools and money gets tight, the solution is to short-change the funding formula which, in turn, exacerbates the disparities. That’s what happened in MO:

The adequacy formula was set to be phased in over seven years, but the efforts smacked into the 2008 recession, when Missouri’s revenue took a big hit. It’s beginning to recover, but (State Education Department official) Lankford estimated that the state is still $450 million short of what the formula would call for. That translates to $6,110 per student, instead of the $6,716 the formula would call for.

The article quotes others as saying that until the formula is fully funded there is no way to know whether it works or not… and because fully funding seems improbable it is likely that another lawsuit will be in the offing and another generation of students will be shortchanged.

As I read this article, I felt that at least four other states I know of (MD, PA, NH, and VT) continue to struggle to find the “magic formula” for funding schools… and in each state they invariably find that in order to make ANY formula work more money is needed. Former MO State Supreme Justice Mike Wolff provides the best response to the rejoinder that “throwing money at the problem won’t work”:

“If money were unimportant, then people who live in the wealthier districts wouldn’t be so concerned about it, would they? But they’re sure interested in keeping the level of spending for their children at a higher level. I’m not faulting them for that …

“There’s no substitute for money. You can distribute it all you want to, but you have to have more of it.”


Lower Prices for TVs and Lower Wages Are Moving Us Away From Democracy

October 3, 2015 Leave a comment

Paul Theroux’s blistering op ed article that will appear in tomorrows NYTimes contrasts the billionaire’s magnanimous desire to “help the poor” in economically deprived nations with their practice of off-shoring jobs and neglecting the problems created here at home. He offers this blunt description of globalization:

To me, globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that, by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a third world country.

Mr. Theroux could have written this article about New England mill towns a couple of decades ago when corporations decided to relocate their factories to the south in an effort to avoid paying union wages. There are communities in New England where most people made their living working in factories and now scramble to make ends meet…. and there are urban areas and Rustbelt communities that have the same third-world feel to them.

The problem is two-fold: shareholders and CEOs want to maximize profit and consumers want low prices. The deregulated capitalism and free trade advocated by political candidates in both parties reinforces this and the anti-government mantra of the right makes it even worse. Shareholders need to look at the effects of maximizing profits by moving jobs abroad and taking advantage of tax loopholes… and consumers need to ask themselves if they are willing to save money at the expense of their fellow Americans jobs… and we have to face the fact that the consequence of this will mean substantially lower incomes for the billionaires, higher corporate taxes, and a trade-off for rank and file workers of higher taxes and higher costs for goods in order to earn higher wages.

Here’s the bottom line: If everyone dug a little deeper to pay taxes and spend more on consumer goods we COULD restore the economy in our country. Otherwise, we will continue devolving into a plutocratic oligarchy. I’m willing to pay higher taxes and pay higher prices on my “fixed income” to help my neighbors in Arkansas, Detroit, California, and New England earn a decent living and have an opportunity to advance. Is anyone else ready to do the same?

In Pennsylvania, Race Results in Lower State Funding, Diminished Opportunity

October 1, 2015 Leave a comment

I have written many blog posts on funding inequities and the reasons behind those inequities. The primary reason for funding inequity is our country’s reliance on property taxes to fund public education. The suffering of children in communities with depressed housing values and/or the lack of a business tax base is compounded because it often means that they reside in substandard homes and their parents have difficulty ending work. Like most Americans, I want to believe that the disparate funding formulas that result from this vicious cycle of poverty created by reliance on property tax is free of racial bias. As an article in yesterday’s Atlantic indicates, however, this is NOT the case in Pennsylvania where Gillian White shares the findings of a report written by data scientist David Mosenkis. In examining funding data from Pennsylvania, Mosenkis made an “unsettling” finding:

“If you color code the districts based on their racial composition you see this very stark breakdown. At any given poverty level, districts that have a higher proportion of white students get substantially higher funding than districts that have more minority students.” That means that no matter how rich or poor the district in question, funding gaps existed solely based on the racial composition of the school. Just the increased presence of minority students actually deflated a district’s funding level. “The ones that have a few more students of color get lower funding than the ones that are 100 percent or 95 percent white,” Mosenkis said.

Fixing this disparity will be extraordinarily difficult because over the past several years STATE funding for schools has withered. Consequently, in order to develop a funding formula that restores level funding for these minority districts and restore the funds cut during the recent downturn in the economy, the legislature will either need to increase taxes or redistribute the scarce funds they appropriate to schools. Since neither of these options is deemed to be acceptable, Pennsylvania has not passed a budget and those schools that rely on State funding the most, the schools serving poor students and especially poor minority students, a struggling mightily. And there is no end in sight. Ms. White offers a bleak outlook in terms of finding a remedy for the funding and racial inequities:

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that has a problem with poor minority schools and rich white ones. White flight has left low-income, minority students in failing urban public schools. The compounding issue of low-income neighborhoods and scarce (or biased) funding leaves such schools with little money or resources to educate their students, and thus little hope of breaking the poverty cycle. These disparities become especially disheartening when looking at the current state of school segregation. Purposeful attempts to create more integrated schools, like busing, are virtually nonexistent in the present day. And even changes that would unintentionally result in greater student diversity, like redistricting, are often passionately rejected by the inhabitants of richer, whiter, districts.

In 1954 the Supreme Court rendered a decision that effectively required the end of segregated schooling and the “separate-but-equal” standard that was purportedly in place for the preceding sixty years. Sixty years later we have the worst of both worlds in Pennsylvania: the schools are more segregated than ever and more unequal than ever. Here’s hoping that the people of good will and fairness will raise up their voices to help break the cycle of poverty and end the racial injustice that is embedded in the funding of their public schools.