Posts Tagged ‘vicious cycle of poverty’

Charters, Tracking, Real Estate, and Re-Segregation

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Two recent articles illustrate how charter schools and tracking amplify the trend of re-segregation in public schools, a trend that is tied inextricably to zip codes.

Last week Atlantic blogger Sonali Kohli posted an article titled “Modern Day Segregation in Public Schools” that described how the longstanding practice of tracking exacerbates the emerging trend of resegregation using a recent NJ State Board decision to illustrate her point. The problem local districts face is that their use of standardized test scores, GPAs, and teacher recommendations to determine who qualifies for advanced courses or “gifted and talented” courses results in a disproportionate number of white students being placed in classrooms. The USDOE, which requires States to use standardized testing to identify “failing schools”, is intervening and recommending some sort of de facto quota system whereby the districts who using tracking of any kind must ensure that the student populations in advanced levels and/or gifted and talented programs mirror the racial patterns of the district as a whole.

Today’s NJSpotlight features an insightful blog post by Laura Waters titled “Self Selection of Public Schools, New Jersey’s Double Standard” which uses a recent quote from Newark’s CEO Cami Anderson as the jumping off point:

In response to a question regarding a four-point drop in test scores among Newark students enrolled in traditional elementary schools, Anderson acknowledged that the city’s growing sector of public charter schools serves children who are less poor and less likely to be classified as eligible for special-education services.

“I’m not saying they [the charter schools] are out there intentionally skimming,”said Anderson, “but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools.”

Charter advocates winced and went on the defensive. Charter detractors grinned and high-fived. Both reactions miss the point.

The point Ms. Waters makes is one that I’ve made in this blog on several occasions:  parents in affluent zip codes get a wider range of choices than parents in urban areas serving children raised in poverty:

Given a choice between Newark and Millburn, motivated parents of any means would most likely choose to send their kids to school in the latter, as long as they could afford the freight of the median house cost of $665,000 and an average annual tax bill of $20,439. This sort of self-selection — skimming, if you will — is regarded as a cause for applause, an emblem of good values and good parenting. In New Jersey we embrace school skimming. With our ZIP code-driven district-assignment system, town choice is school choice. If you can afford granite countertops then you can afford great public schools.

Ms. Waters chides those who criticize charters in urban systems for skimming of the best and brightest children of engaged parents without challenging the de facto segregation that results from real estate choices.

But in Newark, a system that allows families to choose more successful, albeit nontraditional, public schools is suddenly suspect. A proud N.J. tradition is transformed into a scourge, simply because we’re talking about poor parents and not rich ones.

Waters describes offers a lukewarm proposal for solving the problem but closes with a statement that poses a conundrum for those of us who do not want to see the expansion of for profit charter schools:

So what’s the answer? Paul Tractenberg half-heartedly suggests county-wide school districts, although he concedes that such a conversion is a “quintessential political third rail” due to New Jersey’s addiction to local control. Whatever that answer is or, indeed, whether it exists, let’s agree that parents should be able to make school choices for their children, and that their right to do so shouldn’t rest on their ability to afford granite countertops.

Here’s the conundrum from my perspective: politics is the art of the determining what is possible as opposed to what is ideal… and what is possible NOW under the system we have in place is offering choices within districts and ensuring that those choices within districts do not result in segregation by race. Charter schools, be they for-profit or not-for-profit, are the most politically viable solution we have NOW. The political reality as I see it is that any solutions that approach the “ideal” (e.g. choice among all schools, equitable funding across the board, early intervention programs for children raised in poverty, county districts that enable the re-drawing of boundaries to achieve racial and socio-economic balance, etc.)  are, to echo Mr. Tractenberg, a “quintessential third rail”.

In earlier posts I’ve proposed a third rail solution with relatively voltage: the redirection of ALL federal funds to less affluent districts in states, like NJ, where civil rights violations are found and/or courts have determined that existing funding mechanisms are unconstitutional. It’s been 60 years since Brown vs. Board of Education and in those years the Federal funding for public schooling has increased substantially and enrollment patterns driven by zip codes have increased segregation across the country. One look at the data cited in each of these articles should persuade anyone that segregation continues within school districts and between school districts and the current tools in play, “strongly worded directives” and de facto quota systems are unsatisfactory and simplistic solutions to deep and complicated problems. Redistribution of federal funding to address issues decided in State and/or federal courts would promote local solutions to these problems.

From my perspective, the ideal solution to all equity issues would be the institution of constitutionally equitable per pupil allocations, the abandonment of age-based cohorts, and the implementation of individualized instruction programs. Such a reformatting of school would help schools develop self-actualized learners who have the interpersonal skills to thrive in the multi-cultural world our students are living in. If we want a fully engaged electorate of well-informed voters we cannot continue operating public schools that segregate students based on their learning rates, the knowledge they bring into schools when they enter, and whether their parents can afford granite counter tops. Such a system only reinforces what we have in place today and the direction we are heading.

Funding Public Community Colleges

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Friday’s NYTimes featured a lengthy article by Gina Bellafonte titled “How Can Community Colleges Get a Piece of the Billions that Donors Give to Higher Education?”. The article described the plight of LaGuardia Community College using its experiences to described the typically underfunded community college. It offered heartwarming stories of successful graduates who went on to earn college degrees against great odds, contrasted the fund raising apparatus at LaGuardia (a staff of four) with that of Williams College (a staff of 50), and offered several ideas of ways community colleges might “…get a piece” of the billions donors offer to elite colleges. But the primary answer to the question about where money is being donated was embedded in this sentence:

In 2012, more than twice as much money — $297 million — was awarded to charter schools from the country’s largest foundations as was given to community colleges, even though two-year colleges educate nearly four times as many students.

Those charter school donors are often characterized as wanting to help “reform” public education, to provide students raised in poverty with a means of getting a better education so they can get a better life. But there is much evidence that their real intention is to privatize the operation of a public enterprise that is viewed as a potential cash cow— a sector ripe for profiteering.

There was a time, not so long ago, that students who could not afford to go away to college could enroll in a nearby community college and work part time to earn enough money to complete four years of college with no debt. There was a time, not so long ago, when public schools were viewed as essential linchpins of the urban neighborhoods and small towns across the country. There was a time, not so long ago, when public schools held occasional bake sales to raise money to give teachers extra supplies instead of perpetually raising money to fund additional staff members. That time still exists in many school districts across this country: the ones that serve affluent communities. Elite public schools in elite communities have a tax base that perpetuates their standing. Their high school graduates seldom attend community colleges because their high school has provided them with a robust course of studies, with ample academic support if they struggle in school, and guidance services to help them find a school that matches their skill sets. And most importantly, the graduates of elite high schools have the financial wherewithal to go directly to college. Until those in elite communities are willing to pay higher taxes so that children raised in poverty have the same opportunities we will continue to have the economic divide in place today… and donating to for-profit charter schools is no substitute for supporting the broad-based funding of public education.

True Believers Not Swayed by Facts

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A paragraph at the end of a post by Diane Ravitch yesterday triggered an insight: the “reformers” are true believers and true believers are not persuaded by facts. They need to have their core beliefs undercut by experience. Here’s what I wrote in the comment section:

You wrote:

“Arne Duncan gave out $360 million to create the tests, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He pretended that the tests would not influence curriculum or instruction, but that is a transparent fiction. Tests drive curriculum and instruction, not the reverse.”

Here’s a possibility: Arne Duncan sincerely believes that the tests would not influence curriculum. It’s not as far fetched as it sounds because if you are in an affluent district the curriculum doesn’t need to change to accommodate tests the kids will do well no matter what. Duncan and his reformers all believe that if SOME children can overcome the adverse effects of poverty then ALL children can overcome those effects. They also believe that if ONE child who successfully overcomes adversity because of the influence of a “good teacher” then ALL children can overcome adversity if they have a “good teacher”. Duncan and the “reformers” have a deep and abiding faith in their beliefs, a faith that cannot be shaken by evidence to the contrary…. and true belief cannot be overcome by reason. The only way to change the minds of these folks is to undercut their core beliefs through direct experience…

This belief system is difficult to undercut for several reasons:

  • The reformers are basing their beliefs on their own experiences as students in affluent schools.
  • Moreover, the reformers are basing their beliefs on narratives they have composed about themselves, narratives that invariably make them successful because of “grit” and “hard work”.
  • There ARE examples of children who DO succeed in the face of adversity… and those examples are shared with them constantly. This reinforces their belief system.
  • Politicians love the idea that if ALL students have grit and work hard and have only good teachers that the vicious cycle of poverty can be cured. Too, politicians, like “reformers” have life experiences and personal narratives that reinforce this whole belief system.
  • The “work hard and play by the rules” ethos is deeply embedded in our culture and to deny its existence would require that we acknowledge the game is rigged and the rules need to be re-written… and that requires a lot of hard work.

I think that we are nearing a tipping point where a majority of people are seeing that hard work and following rules is NOT working and that the game is rigged in favor of the shareholders and not the citizens. The 63% of voters who sat on the sidelines are not having their desires met by the 19% of voters who elected sycophants of the 1%. That majority of voters is huge and, so far, silent. We might hear from them in 2016.


Rotten Apples? Hardly!

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago Time magazine hit the news stands with this horrific cover:


When the article came out progressive bloggers went ballistic and Facebook was full of links to send letters to the editors of Time to decry their cover, which stated (wrongly) that is was impossible to fire a teacher. Having written several posts on this topic, I clicked on the AFT’s link and sent a letter explaining the reality of the situation, namely that teachers have a probationary period that is typically three years and that some of the teachers who “opted out” of the profession were, in fact, counseled out. Because of this, the reality is that 98% of the teachers are doing well in their work even though this fact vexes politicians like Andrew Cuomo.

My daughter in Brooklyn who shares my frustration at the bashing of public education sent me a link to this blog post from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who dedicated most of the space to a well researched letter to Time in response to their reprehensible cover. Written by Nancy F. Chewning, assistant principal of William Byrd High School in Roanoke, VA, the letter includes the following points, some of which I have not made in my earlier posts decrying the bashing of teachers:

  • Aspiring teachers are held in low esteem on campuses
  • Teachers make substantially less than others with an equal education
  • The OECD reports that “American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad.”
  • No other professions are held to a 100% standard- Only teachers!
  • And this gem: “According to a new study from the Journal of Patient Safety, 440,000 people per year die from preventable medical errors. In fact, this study found that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States today.” Are we closing hospitals because of this? Are doctors losing tenure because of this?
  • The NEA [National Education Association] ranks 221st in terms of lobbying expenditures… WELL behind banks, military, and other professions— like doctors– who are not depicted as “Rotten Apples”

The letter describes the money teachers spend on their own supplies and to provide their students with food, school supplies, and clothing. It describes the time teachers spend advocating for their children outside of school. It describes the responsibilities teachers are asked to assume for the well-being of their children. And it describes the devastating impact poverty has on the children in Roanoke, VA, impact that is felt in every district that serves children who are raised in poverty across the country.

I wish some political leader in our country would stand up for public education and especially for the teachers who work tirelessly to help children raised in poverty…. but it’s easier to blame teachers than to blame poverty because “fixing” poverty requires the redistribution of wealth and (gasp) spending money on people in our country who are in need. Here’s hoping the silence about poverty ends as we consider who to elect for President in 2016.

TBTF Banks Forgiven, Students Not

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Common Dreams featured an article by Robert Shetterly on USDOE whistleblower Jon Oberg who learned about and investigated the Department’s links to TBTF banks and those bank’s links to politicians. The first half of the article explains the importance of getting a college degree in our economy and the devastating effect of student debt on individuals and our economy. Shetterly emphasizes that this debt is not evenly distributed among college graduates: it falls heaviest on those from less affluent homes. And the amount of debt we are talking about is huge: $1,180,000,000,000!

The average liability per student—whether they earn a degree or not—is nearly $30,000. The poorest 25% of the student population—people with less than $8,000 in assets—own 60% of that debt. How does that debt shape—or should we say engineer?—the direction and quality of their lives, their ability to contribute as citizens and creators of culture? How does that debt narrow the choices available to them, making their young lives into a burden rather than an adventure? College and advanced degrees have always been promoted as the key to advancement, good jobs, and upward mobility. Today, college education is still promoted with those claims, but the key has been thrown away. The student graduates into a lock box of debt.

But the students loss is the bankers’ gain, and the bankers, who want to keep the money flowing, use some of their profits to make sure the loopholes that allow them to make high interest private loans to students in place. Compounding the problem is that the USDOE uses some of the revenue from student loans to fund its own operation.

The article concludes with a persuasive argument for forgiving all of the student loans, noting that we spent at least a trillion on the war in Iraq without raising taxes and neglecting to point out the obvious: we bailed out TBTF banks who are profiting from these loans! His penultimate paragraph reads:

One trillion given to students and the promise of free higher education would revitalize this country and be repaid many times over. Our country’s greatest asset is the energy and creativity of our young people. Why allow that energy to be siphoned off to increase the wealth of a handful of millionaires? Isn’t that a form of cultural suicide?

It IS a form of cultural suicide and one that I am ashamed to see happening to an entire generation so that my generation doesn’t have to pay taxes. Forgive the debt and if you need the money to close the deficit or engage in wars in the Middle East, raise my taxes. If you had to raise my taxes to fund wars, you might not spend that money in the future.

Grit and Boys Weeklies

November 13, 2014 Leave a comment

I am preparing a for a six week course on George Orwell’s essays that I will be offering at an Adult Education program offered through Dartmouth College beginning in Winter, and just finished reading a critique of an essay Orwell wrote on “Boys Weeklies”. Inexpensive magazines and comics that were published with young British boys as the target audience, Orwell believed that the Boys Weeklies in the early 1900s taught boys to “love their rulers” and accept the social order in place at the time. He suggested that these stories followed a formula that led him to believe that they “must have been written, just as they were published, by a syndicate”.

This essay came to mind as I read “Enough Talk About Grit, It’s Time to Talk About Privilege“, a Truthdig article by Paul Thomas. The article opens with a description of the “prevailing winds” that suggest grit or perseverance can overcome economic disadvantages or racial prejudice.  The Orwell essay on “Boys Weeklies” came to mind as I read about how the notion of “grit” is being applied in classrooms:

In one middle school visited by Tovia Smith of NPR, a “typical lesson” in social studies is spent exploring the career of Steve Jobs. The goal of the lesson… is to instill in these students the value of risk-taking and persistence. As Smith explains:

One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.

The children observed by Smith quickly grasped the lesson about Jobs:

Kids raise their hands to offer examples of Jobs’ grit.

“He had failed one of the Mac projects he was creating,” says one student.

“He used his mistakes to help him along his journey,” says another.

Thomas suggests teacher might want to assign a counter-narrative from a short story/allegory by George Saunders that leads to this conclusion:

…effort among people in the same status may well distinguish who succeeds, but relative privilege or poverty erases the impact of effort in most cases, especially when connected to social class and race, which often cancel out the promise of grit.

The balance of the article reviews a series of recent articles that blow the “grit” theory out of the water by providing evidence that supports the moral of Saunders’ allegory. Among the writers he draws on is the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates who finds the “grit” theory problematic for African-American students as evidenced in this quote:

Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

Like Orwell before him, Thomas has no time for those who want to create nationalistic myths, as his concluding paragraphs indicate:

Moralistic lessons based on the successes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are no more than twisted fairy tales, stories that promote effort as a mask for privilege, and hide the lesson we do not want to admit: opportunity and talent trump effort in this country, a fact that can be proven along both race and class lines.

Without equal opportunity, individual talent and effort pale against the advantages of class and racial privilege. Thus, despite cultural myths about effort, the U.S. remains a country where the accident of anyone’s birth is a greater indicator of success than how hard anyone tries. It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.

As readers of this blog realize, we do not have anything resembling equal opportunity in our country, as the fact that citizens in 45 states have at one time or other filed lawsuits seeking more equitable funding for public schools. Until all schools can offer programs that match those offered by the most affluent in this country equal opportunity will remain a myth.

Parents Push Back on Tests

November 10, 2014 Leave a comment

The New York Times is finally noticing that parents are pushing back against standardized testing… and with some coaching might begin to recognize that the whole standardized testing movement is based on simplistic and wrongheaded thinking.

Today’s paper features an article by Lizette Alvarez describing the parent pushback against the wide array of mandated standardized tests in FLA, testing that expanded greatly as a result of Jeb Bush’s initiatives a decade ago that was compounded by RTTT. I left a comment that was just under the 1500 character limit that made the following points:

  • Standardized tests do not measure the quality of education,
  • The new test results are lower because of the way they are scaled
  • Using those tests to measure teacher performance is invalid and simplistic.
  • Using test as the primary measure for “quality” will increase the focus on testing in the classroom.
  • Politicians love standardized tests!

Standardized tests do not measure the quality of education: States have administered standardized tests for decades and the results are always the same: affluent districts serving the children of well educated parents always outscore the financially strapped districts serving children raised in poverty. The new test will be no different EXCEPT that there will be more failing students and schools.

The new test results are lower because of the way they are scaled: The new Common Core tests expand the number of “failing” schools because they are scaled to an artificial and idealized standard that assumes all students will graduate from high school ready for college instead of being scaled to the mean scores of an age cohort as they have been in the past. As a result, more students are “failing”, more schools are “falling”, and more districts are “failing”. Whether this is a bug or a feature depends on the extent to which you believe that politicians are in cahoots with squillionaires who are investing in for-profit charter schools and technology companies. For now, I’m on the fence. I think some politicians listen to investors but I also believe some politicians are naively convinced that schools CAN be measured based on test scores and test scores CAN improve if kids and teachers work harder. They believe this in large measure because considering the alternative might require them to raise taxes to provide more support for children raised in poverty.

Using those tests to measure teacher performance is invalid and simplistic: The value-added methodology that uses test scores to measure “growth” of students, teachers, and schools is a statistical artifact. There are reams of scholarly articles that undercut the validity of this approach. I’ve written about this frequently on this blog… enough said.

Using test as the primary measure for “quality” will increase the focus on testing in the classroom: When test results are used to evaluate teachers, to determine if schools will be closed, and to determine if entire districts will be taken over by the state or turned over to for-profit entrepreneurs, it is not surprising that they become the focal point in every classroom…. and as noted in a post earlier today, when those districts are strapped for money they cut everything BUT test preparation activities.

Politicians love standardized tests! They love the tests because they yield precise data that is inexpensive to collect and prove that schools are failing because of “bad teachers” and if the TEACHERS are the problem the fix for “failing schools” is inexpensive and fast: replace the “dead wood” teachers with new (and less expensive) teachers. Voila!

It is heartening to see that the Times is reporting on this nascent movement among parents… but somewhat distressing to see them reporting on this a month after the dust-ups in FLA and a week after a close election in that state and in several other states where “reform minded” governors got elected. Maybe after a spring of rebellion on tests some Presidential candidate will stand up against the test-and-punish approach and begin supporting the importance of public education and the effects poverty has on learning.