The headline of Matt O’Brien’s Wonkblog in the Washington Post summarizes the whole story that, in turn, summarizes everything that’s wrong with our economy: “Poor Kids Who Do Everything Right Don’t Do Better Than Rich Kids Who Do Everything Wrong“. The article describes the findings of Richard Reeves and Isabell Sawhill describing the glass floors and glass ceilings that make our class system more rigid than it once was and make it difficult for children raised in poverty to move into the higher tiers of earning. This chart from Reeves and Sawhill’s report shows this graphically:
…rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.”
It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.
As he notes earlier in the post, things are unlikely to improv given that affluent parents outspend other parents nearly 3-1 in providing enrichment opportunities for their children… and some of the folks at the very top of the pyramid are spending billions to convince the rest of us that all children raised in poverty need is “grit” to get ahead. O’Brien concludes his post with this:
It’s not quite a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game where rich kids get better educations, yet still get ahead even if they don’t—but it’s close enough. And if it keeps up, the American Dream will be just that.
Huffington Post features a blog post by Diane Ravitch titled “What Matters More Than Test Scores” that underscores the misplaced priorities in our country. She repeats several of the themes from her blog and her latest thinking, focussing primarily on how we’ve overemphasized standardized achievement tests and underemphasized the kinds of child and parent supports needed for children raised in poverty.
Here’s what I believe: Testing can be used to persuade our taxpayers and parents that our “government schools” are failing thereby setting the stage for deregulated for profit schools to get a foothold. As noted in an earlier post, we were told we were “falling behind the Russians” when they launched Sputnik in the 1950s and told we lived in “A Nation At Risk” when the Japanese economy was thundering in the 1980s… and now we’re “losing our economic competitiveness” in the 2010s because China’s students are outscoring us on arguably bogus and meaningless standardized tests… and during this sixty year period the drip-drip-drip of the meme of “failing public schools” has penetrated the American psyche to the point where the public seems willing to turn over our schools to the private sector. When that day comes, inequality will be even worse than it is now.
Bottom line: We’re not spending money wisely when we fund deregulated for-profit schools and fail to provide food, clothing and shelter for our infants and toddlers. When we rank 131 out of 184 nations in providing prenatal care programs something is amiss in our priorities.
Over the past few days I read two interrelated articles about how our country handles misbehavior in schools and in our society in general.
“Juvenile Injustice”, a Slate article by Dana Goldstein describes the problem of youth incarceration in rural states by telling the story of Junior Smith, a West Virginia teen whose struggles with addiction and mental health issues resulted in him behaving badly out of school and ultimately being put in jail for an altercation in the high school he attended. Goldstein doesn’t hold back on her descriptions of Junior Smith’s behaviors: he smoked dope, took too many pills, robber a neighbors house, bullied a student to the point of suicide in a previous high school he attended, and admitted to swatting a classmates “…groin with an open-faced palm” in the altercation that ultimately led to his imprisonment.
What was particularly appalling about Junior Smith’s “crime”- an altercation in the classroom that was not even reported to the Principal in the school— was how it was reported to the police:
The scuffle hadn’t attracted the attention of the teacher, and Junior didn’t think much about it afterward. What he and his parents did not know was that the other boy had reported the incident to Chad Kennedy, a county police officer who worked full time at Philip Barbour High School and who was paid, in part, by a federal “juvenile accountability” grantintended to assure “individualized consequences” for juvenile offenders, including community service and mediation. But those were not the consequences for Junior.
After the classroom fight, Kennedy launched an investigation of the conflict. He prepared a report for a judge, who on Feb. 27 signed an order for Junior’s arrest. That afternoon, Junior walked out of school in handcuffs.
Goldstein didn’t pursue the question of why this became a law enforcement issue instead of a school discipline issue, but from my reading the criminalization of misconduct is one of the consequences when police officers are assigned to school without having to work under the leadership of the administration.
Goldstein DID emphasize that it was Smith’s addiction and depression that was the root cause of his behavior and further emphasized that had he resided in another state he would have likely received treatment for his illnesses instead of time in prison. While the injustices visited on Junior Smith are hard to read about, it WAS heartening to read that in most states the rate of juvenile incarceration is on the decline. States are assigning fewer and fewer students to prison… but…
The second article I read on this topic in The New Inquiry, “Carceral Educations” by Sabrina Alli posits that this diminishment in incarceration may be the result of public education’s widespread use of discipline systems used in penal institutions and the increased number of youth who are under the direct supervision of probationary officers. Alli asserts that school discipline systems establish “…(r)espect for authority and deference to police dominate (as the) the educational goals of this violent educational system that measures success through standardized testing and student interactions with an omnipresent security apparatus.” Alli later offers this particularly bleak description of urban public school environments to drive her point home:
Schools serve as one of the essential institutions of surveillance intended to criminalize children in economically disenfranchised communities. They can be miserable places for young students, who are gratuitously yelled at by teachers for not getting to the classroom rug fast enough for reading instruction, or for not “tracking” (a term that means follow with your eyes) their teachers when spoken to. Hallways are unnaturally silent and filled with military-style straight lines of small children forced to keep their arms rigid against their sides. Rather than academic discipline, obsession over students’ conduct forms the dominant attitude that controls these learning environments, which are often staffed with inexperienced teachers. Students’ home issues and the stereotypes of poverty supply the fictions by which teachers can excuse ourselves for our classroom failures. Even restorative-justice models of discipline, adopted in some public schools as a more humane alternative to school suspensions and student arrests, signal a system fixated on behavior and control versus learning and exploration. The language of “harm” and restoring justice should not be necessary over infractions that occur in school.
Earlier in the article Alli describes her experiences working in the field of “re-entry”. Here’s the opening paragraph detailing what “re-entry” is and what its goals are:
Re-entry’s primary goal is to induct people back into the workforce once they are released from prison or are mired in the bureaucracy of one of the state’s “community supervision” programs, which include jails, probation, parole, or ATIs (alternatives to incarceration). In practical terms, re-entry provides “services,” broadly construed, to economically disenfranchised people who are targeted by the police and as a result are under some form of surveillance by the carceral network.
The next several paragraphs describe “re-entry” as she witnessed it, and concludes with this:
In order to “reform” and teach participants to become men, the program where I taught had a strict code of conduct with arbitrary rules that begin to disappear the higher up you climb up the income ladder. We regulated behavior on the principle described by Foucault and practiced by Bratton: “The least act of disobedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offenses is to punish the most minor offenses very severely.” If a participant came 15 minutes late to class or to a worksite, they were sent home without a paycheck. Instead of fulfilling the primary function of teacher, which is to educate, or case manager, which is to help connect people to social services, we became what Foucault called “technicians of behavior: engineers of conduct, orthopedists of individuality. [Our] task was to produce bodies that were both docile and capable.” We were training students to become capable employees, emphasizing “skills” such as lowering your cell phone ring in public or avoiding certain tattoos. We were training them to become employable by teaching them to follow the orders they would be subjected to as “low-skill” and low-wage workers.
So whether you are incarcerated within four walls or placed in an ATI program the expectations are the same: docility and following directions are preferable to questioning and creativity. Is this what we want from our students? Will this help us become economically competitive? Can we change the way we treat students in schools to reflect what we REALLY want from them once they are out?
Ben Joravsky, a blogger for the Chicago Reader, wrote a post describing the effects of having 36 children in a 5th grade classroom, a fairly typical class size in that city…. and typical of Philadelphia schools in 1970 and today and increasingly typical of all urban schools. The article describes the litany of excuses Mayor Emmanuel offers which echo those of “reform-minded” mayors and governors across the country. The post also describes the mayor’s decision to use millions of dollars to build a new basketball arena for DePaul college while claiming he lacks the funds to build new schools, which is sadly characteristic of many urban mayors who assert the economic development gains from subsidizing stadiums… oh.. and subsidizing businesses as well.
I served as superintendent for 29 years in five different districts in five different states and NONE of those districts would tolerate 36 students in ANY classroom, and in my most recent assignment 24 would be unacceptable when we budgeted. My observation: there is a correlation between engagement level of the parents and class size: the more engaged the parents, the lower the class size. If parents of children in under-served public schools ever unified they would never accept 36 kids in a class and they would insist that their tax dollars NOT be used for stadia and arenas.
But parents of children in under-served public schools lack two resources that allow for engagement: they lack money and time. Invariably the underserved schools are those that serve children raised in poverty, which necessarily means their parents lack money. The parents often work multiple part-time jobs at unpredictable hours and minimum wage. They are often single parents, which makes it challenging to get child care to attend PTO meetings or parent conferences. And, alas, in some cases they are facing their own challenges with medical issues, issues within their extended family, and addictions. They are not disengaged from school or politics by choice but rather by circumstance. These are the parents whose children will be left behind in underfunded public schools if public education becomes entirely “market based” because their neighborhoods are the ones left behind by market analysts seeking locations for drug stores, grocery stores, department stores, and even fast food franchises. They won’t be heard from and as a result their children will be left to fend for themselves in classes of 36 children while children in the nearby suburban schools will flourish in class sizes of 24…. and politicians claim money doesn’t matter.
After reading Bob Herbert’s aptly titled Politico article, “The Plot Against Public Education”, I was struck by the fact that no critics of “reform” ever mention how the educational entrepreneurs use the greed of the 99% as a motivating force to persuade voters that their public schools can be operated more cost-effectively by being market driven. Herbert and many of the progressive education blogs emphasize the extent to which the profit motive– greed– drives the “reformers” but underemphasize the reality that voters are motivated equally by greed: they want to pay lower taxes and are heedless to the economic consequences of paying less and, in some cases, indifferent to the social consequences of lower taxes. As noted in earlier posts, if “productivity” is defined as getting the same results for lower costs then the fact that charter schools don’t improve performance doesn’t matter: if the “product”, a decent education, can be obtained for a lower cost (e.g. lower taxes or smaller tax increases) then schools are “more productive”.
And here’s a fact: a deregulated for-profit charter school can operate more cheaply than a highly regulated non-profit public school. This is so for four reasons:
- Deregulated For-Profit Charter (DFPC) schools have no legacy costs: Like any start up company, DFPCs have no retirees to fund and no contractual obligations to meet. They can set health insurance benefits and pensions that help their bottom line without compromising their ability to recruit young teachers who have fewer concerns about these benefits than veteran employees. This lowers the per pupil costs for DFPCs.
- Deregulated For-Profit Charter (DFPC) schools have lower operating overhead: In addition to paying for heating, electricity, and other utility costs school districts typically have to budget for debt service to pay for school construction and renovations projects as part of their budget. School budgets also include personnel costs associated with cleaning and maintaining buildings, bussing children to and from school, serving food to children in the cafeteria, and non-instructional office staff. Many DFPCs are provided with low cost or free space within the public schools. Virtual DFPC schools, like those described in detail in Herbert’s article, pay next to nothing for operating overhead. Still other charters can acquire space in facilities that have lower per pupil operating costs than public schools. This lowers the per pupil costs for DFPCs.
- Deregulated For-Profit Charter (DFPC) schools have lower payrolls for teachers: A start-up school can pay teachers whatever the marketplace will bear… and if the DFPC is a Pre-K through grade 5 school the supply of qualified teachers exceeds the demand making it possible to hire staff at a “discount”. This substantially lowers the per pupil costs for DFPCs.
- Deregulated For-Profit Charter (DFPC) schools avoid regulatory costs: Many states do not require DFPCs to meet State mandates regarding the provision of special education services, ESL programming, school nurses, guidance personnel, librarians, or instruction in “special subjects” like art, music, PE, CTE, etc. Additionally, in some states DFPCs do not have to make contributions to state pension funds. All of this substantially lowers the per pupil costs for DFPCs.
If a DFPC can provide a comparable education for a lower cost, many voters will support the movement toward privatization because they want a lower tax payment. This desire for low taxes is seldom cast as “greed”, and it is arguably less greedy than the huge sums of money for profit companies can make if they offer low cost programs and receive the per diem rate offered by the state as they do in some areas. But the notion of avoiding higher taxes by privatizing public education is motivated by the same thinking as increasing earnings of shareholders by the privatizers. Until the public understands the long run consequences of this kind of thinking we will continue to defer public costs or shift them to other areas. It is easy to rail against the 1% for their desire to make ever higher sums of money. It is more difficult to realize that our desire to cut the costs of education is motivated by the same desire: to keep more money for ourselves despite the impact it has on those less fortunate.
I’ve written several posts about Philadelphia: some about my personal experiences there as a substitute teacher and classroom teacher from 1969-1972 and some about the demise of a once promising urban school system led by a progressive school board chairman (Richardson Dilworth) and superintendent (Mark Shedd). One of the recent posts from this summer, “Philadelphia and PA: Nothing Changes” talked about the dismal fiscal picture in the district, a picture that was recounted in a forthcoming article in The Nation aptly titled “How To Destroy a Public School System“. The Nation article describes the decline of the Philadelphia system since the 1980s and how “reformers” got everything they wanted except the one thing that really matters: improved student performance.
The article describes the State takeover that followed after David Hornbeck, an idealistic and highly principled leader who led MD schools when I began working in that state in 1987, was forced to resign when he refused to enact budget cuts in 1998. At that point, he filed a civil rights suit claiming the state was discriminating against non-white students and as a result:
furious legislators passed a law authorizing a state takeover of Philadelphia’s schools and barring its teachers from striking. In the end, Hornbeck resigned in the face of further cuts. What followed was likely the largest state takeover—and, at the time, the largest experiment in privatization—in the history of US public education. The message was clear: public management, not underfunding and segregation, was the problem. The takeover went into effect on December 21, 2001, with advocates and city politicians filing lawsuits and students walking out of class and staging large protests, wearing stickers that read: “I am not for sale. Say no to privatization.”
Fast forward to 2007, when the appalling results of five years of privatization were revealed:
By 2007, it had become clear that the initial experiment with private providers had failed. A study by the RAND Corporation and Research for Action found that “despite additional per-pupil resources,” privately managed schools like Edison’s “did not produce average increases in student achievement that were any larger than those seen in the rest of the district,” while “district-managed restructured schools outpaced the gains of the rest of the district in math.”
So deregulated privatized schools with enhanced funding did no better than the underfunded public schools and the restructured “government run” schools outperformed the privatized schools with enhanced funding in mathematics. Did these facts derail the privatization movement in Philadelphia? Did it make the political leaders in the city and State conclude that restructured public schools with enhanced funding might be the answer? I think you know the answer.
In 2010 the voters of PA elected Tom Corbett, an explicit supporter of privatization and opponent of “government run schools” to be governor. He then proceeded to do what he pledged: he cut the budget in Philadelphia by $860,000,000, provided lots of tax breaks to businesses in the city, and opened the doors of city schools to privatization. And when the public schools continued to perform at acceptable levels in the face of the horrific cuts, Corbett and his wealthy friends had the solution:
(T)he process of judging winners and losers amid wrenching austerity cuts has proved highly controversial. The Renaissance schools run by Mastery have demonstrated strong test-score gains. Even so, the district-run Promise Academies showed the same encouraging results—until their budgets were gutted.
The last section of this article was painful to read. It described how the cuts played out at John Bartam HS in SW Philadelphia. At the beginning of 2013-14 Bartram HS had one school nurse and one guidance counselor for 3,000 students, a revolving door at the Principals level, and overcrowded classrooms because of the loss of teachers. And Bartram HS was not alone:
In 2013–14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent. The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides.
The article notes one rare area of agreement between reformers and progressives: schools like Bartam are “woeful”. The cause of Bartam’s problems are in deep dispute, however:
…“I think what’s caused the current crisis is a denial of the fact that resources matter,” says Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-area research and advocacy group.
But Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership has declared that “it’s not about funds.” He argues that “Bartram was a dangerous school three years ago, and it’s still a dangerous school with less funding. It’s not a more dangerous school.”
When I read this I groaned audibly. If the baseline for Bartam is three years ago, it is not at all surprising that nothing has changed. Indeed, if the baseline was a generation ago (e.g. 1998) it’s likely that nothing has changed. David Hornbeck was right in 1998 and if he were alive he’d be fighting to get Philadelphia schools to have per pupil funding comparable to that provided in the suburbs. As the article in the Nation concludes after explaining the political actions that led to the demise of the Philadelphia schools:
It’s what scholars have bluntly called an apartheid system: wealthy districts spend more on wealthy students, and poor districts struggle to spend less on the poor students who need the most. According to state data from 2012–13, Philadelphia spent $13,077 per pupil, while Abington spent $15,148—on students in much less need of intensive services and support. Wealthy Lower Merion spent $22,962 per pupil.
This isn’t news…. and with this kind of thinking from PA’s Republican leader Mike Turzai it isn’t likely to change any time soon:
Turzai spokesman Stephen Miskin explains that Republican members view every dollar earmarked for Philadelphia as a dollar they can’t spend on their own schools. “What makes those kids more important than our kids?” Miskin asks rhetorically.
So much for the spirit of government helping children raised in poverty: those least able to help themselves.
Vox recently posted an article titled by Libby Nelson titled “Ranking High Schools Tells You Which are Rich or Selective“, a title that reveals the content of the article and reveals what any educator in America can tell you even though no politician or major media outlet will never admit as much. As the article demonstrates, the great majority of the highest ranking high schools in America based on metrics devised by the Daily Beast, have two commonalities: they have selective enrollments or they are located in affluent communities with few students on free and reduced lunch. Vox ultimately poses and answers the question at the end of the next paragraph:
Publications know they’re mostly ranking on wealth and selectivity. It’s why there are separate lists for schools that actually enroll low-income students in both the Daily Beastand Newsweek rankings. So why do it?
Because everybody loves rankings. And because nearly everybody went to public high school. And because most people are friends with high school classmates on Facebook, where they will eagerly share lists of where their alma mater is ranked. For all of their complex statistical methodology, high school rankings are really just sheer entertainment.
In other words, nobody should take these rankings seriously — and nobody should expect them to go away any time soon.
I think Vox missed one important point in their response to this question, a point they made in justifying college rankings: when something is ranked one assumes it can be acquired on the open market. Nelson writes:
College rankings, at least in theory, are responding to a need in the market. Students applying to prestigious, selective colleges — particularly students who have the academic qualifications and the financial means to go to college anywhere — have quite a few to choose from. Enter rankings, a way to sort through it all.
Later in the same section of the article she notes that this isn’t applicable to high schools because:
…knowing what the best high school is doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to live in its attendance area or if you don’t have the test scores to get in.
From my perspective, the idea of ranking public schools is a way to subtly reinforce the notion that if parents had a choice they could get their child placed in one of these schools… and the whole issue of providing an equal opportunity for learning is solved.
In a perfect world, politicians, businessmen, and voters would look at the rankings, look at the correlation between poverty rates and rankings, and conclude that schools serving children raised in poverty need more funds. But, to paraphrase the concluding sentence of the blog post, nobody should expect this to happen any time soon!
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