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Four Student Presidents at Prestigious Colleges Identify the REAL Admissions Scandal: Inequitably Funded Public Schools

August 13, 2019 Leave a comment

Robert Blake Watson, president of the Undergraduate Students Association Council at UCLA, Trenton Stone, president of the Undergraduate Student Government at USC, Erica Scott, president of the Associated Students of Stanford University, and Kahlil Greene, president of the Yale College Council co-authored an op ed article that was widely published in newspapers across the nation over the past few days. In our local newspaper, the Valley News, it was titled “This is the Real College Admissions Scandal” while the Chicago Tribune titled it “What’s Legal in College Admissions is the Real Scandal“. Both headlines underscore the reality that the general sense that college admissions are based on “merit” is deeply flawed. When one strips away all of the external— test scores, essays, visits, resume-building— college admissions comes down to one factor: money. And when these four student body presidents peel the onion all the way down to the core, they find that money matters most when it comes to funding public schools, and that the property-based funding of public schools is the true scandal in college admissions.

…one of the main mechanisms through which our public schools are funded — property taxes from their local neighborhoods — disadvantages students from low-income areas. High school students at underfunded public schools do not receive the same access to high-quality college prep resources as do their peers at public and private schools in wealthier ZIP codes — resources that are necessary to navigate the increasingly daunting landscape of college admissions.

As students at selective universities, we acknowledge the many ways in which we have personally benefited from this system of privilege. Many of us come from well-resourced parts of the country and were surrounded by people familiar with the college admissions process. As students at selective universities, we acknowledge the many ways in which we have personally benefited from this system of privilege. Many of us come from well-resourced parts of the country and were surrounded by people familiar with the college admissions process. We would not be where we are today without certain opportunities provided to us that other students could not afford, and we want to make sure that this significant injustice is not lost in the sensational headlines about Operation Varsity Blues.

The real scandal is about the millions of kids who will never have an equitable chance in an extremely complex, competitive and costly process.

The college admissions scandal is not confined to a handful of privileged families and institutions. It is embedded in the fabric of the U.S. education system. In a 2017 article for Stanford Politics, “The Aristocracy That Let Me In,” Andrew Granato, a Stanford student, reflected on the ways in which the U.S. has developed a modern-day aristocracy based on the myth of a meritocratic education system. Instead of passing down social status through inherited titles or land holdings, today’s elites are able to provide their children with special resources to prepare them for admission into selective universities, thereby ensuring that they too will enter into America’s top economic tier.

This “secret” is now out in the open thanks to a group of egregiously greedy and manipulative parents who went so far as to photoshop their children’s faces onto pictures of rowers to “prove” they were participants in crew at their high school. Those parents showed the public that the admissions system could be gamed if someone had enough money and, in so doing, enabled writers like the four student body presidents to dig just a little bit deeper, find that they “would not be where we are today without certain opportunities provided to us that other students could not afford“, and bring that core injustice to the attention of as many people as possible.

Their op ed commentary offers several solutions for college admissions offices, solutions that would encourage elite colleges to identify students who are likely to succeed in their programs despite the disadvantages they faced in their high school. And they offer one paragraph on what I have long believed is the primary problem facing public education:

Making our education system a true meritocracy will also require fundamental political and cultural changes outside of individual universities. The way we finance public school districts has to change — using property taxes only serves to reinforce geographic, racial and socioeconomic disparities in education quality. These disparities affect students’ chances of success before they reach middleschool, much less college.

Will anyone listen to four accomplished college students? My answer: they MIGHT if someone running for President echoed this message and amplified it in the months ahead; they MIGHT if anyone running for Governor in a state with inequitable funding (i.e. virtually all the states in the nation) echoed this message and amplified it in the months ahead; they MIGHT if parents and voters in those towns suffering “…geographic, racial and socioeconomic disparities in education quality” echoed this message and amplified it in the months ahead. Absent a groundswell, however, the truth of this article will be forgotten and the myth of the meritocracy will persist. 

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ICE Raids Leave Mississippi Children Homeless

August 8, 2019 Comments off

This USA Today article describes the impact of the ICE raids on the public schools in one Mississippi County. At the end of the article the Superintendent asks how children who are afraid that their parents will be taken away can possibly concentrate on their school work. With thousands of undocumented parents in our nation this is a question many teachers, administrators, and school board members will be asking in the weeks ahead.

apple.news/AH0nu5hxFRyKsuK9P-9tBrw

Nick Kristof’s Small Bore Replicable Solution to “Intractable” Problem

August 4, 2019 Comments off

Nick Kristof reliably offers unique and creative ideas for addressing seemingly intractable problems, and today’s column in the NYTimes, “A Better Address Can Change a Child’s Future“, is no exception.

In a nutshell, Mr. Kristof suggests that the replication of a small scale program in Seattle that provides low income families with a voucher to move into an affluent community is a viable means of helping low income families improve the opportunities for their children… and he offers evidence to support that idea. After reading the column, I offered the following comment:

Too bad the term “voucher” is used because it is associated with Milton Friedman and Betsy DeVos. But the concept of providing poverty stricken families with access to affluent zip codes makes sense and doing it on a case-by-case basis is far more feasible politically than trying to change the zoning laws in those wealthy enclaves to allow affordable housing. This is an instance where the idea of vouchers makes a lot of sense.

Self-Directed Learning: A Place Where Libertarianism and Progressivism Intersect

August 2, 2019 Comments off

A series of articles in the libertarian Cato Institute’s July edition of Cato Unbound offers four essays that describe a point where libertarianism and progressivism intersect: the need to move away from our lock-step factory model of education in the direction of self-directed learning. The opening paragraphs introducing the essays describes the basic libertarian argument for questioning the status quo and re-thinking the voucher plans espoused by their iconic economist Milton Friedman:

Libertarians tend to support school choice. But for whom? In the voucher model, parents may choose among various private schooling options for their children and designate their vouchers to the schools they’ve selected.

But what if school itself is a matter of choice? And what does it look like when students and parents choose unstructured learning instead?Is this unconventional choice an option that libertarians should prefer? Perhaps: much about the conventional experience of primary and secondary schooling is the product of bureaucratization and standardization—and much of that comes directly from state involvement in education.

So what is the relationship between libertarian politics and unstructured schooling? How seriously should libertarians take the idea of scrapping school as we know it, and replacing it with child-directed learning?

As one who read and admired the thinking of A.S. Neill, John Holt, and Ivan Illich, there is an appeal to seeing public education as it exists today wither and disappear. Since the passage of NCLB, education policy has been dictated by the desire of politicians and parents to ensure that children graduating from high school meet “high standards”. But setting such standards without increasing funding or changing the age-based grade-level cohort scheme for schooling has proven to be an impossibility. The result is “failing schools” based on standardized test scores and increasingly dis-engaged students as today’s students find the lessons linked to test scores dispiriting and pointless in a world where they can get answers to questions that concern them directly with a Google Search or the use of an app. In the next few days I plan to explore the ideas presented in these Cato Unbound essays and offer some ideas on how we might change to current paradigm for schooling in a way that helps all children have an opportunity to learn more by directing their own learning.

Need More Time on That Standardized Test? If You Have the Money and the Know How, You Can Get It!

August 1, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes reported on a phenomenon we began to observe well over a decade ago in the New Hampshire School District I led: affluent and knowledgeable parents are seeking and securing additional time for their children to take high stakes standardized tests. How? Through the 504 loophole. Writers Dana Goldstein and Jugal Patel describe it thusly in their opening paragraphs:

The boom began about five years ago, said Kathy Pelzer, a longtime high school counselor in an affluent part of Southern California. More students than ever were securing disability diagnoses, many seeking additional time on class work and tests.

A junior taking three or four Advanced Placement classes, who was stressed out and sleepless. A sophomore whose grades were slipping, causing his parents angst. Efforts to transfer the children to less difficult courses, Ms. Pelzer said, were often a nonstarter for their parents, who instead turned to private practitioners to see whether a diagnosis — of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, perhaps, or anxiety or depression — could explain the problem.

Such psychological assessments can cost thousands of dollars, and are often not covered by insurance. For some families, the ultimate goal was extra time — for classroom quizzes, essays, state achievement tests, A.P. exams and ultimately the SAT and ACT.

“You’ll get what you’re looking for if you pay the $10,000,” Ms. Pelzer said, citing the highest-priced evaluations. “It’s a complicated mess.”

The results of this “complicated mess” are predictable: if you have the money, you can buy the time your child needs. If you don’t have the money, you’re stuck. And while word on this was fairly localized over a decade ago, social media have made it possible for the information to be shared far and wide… and the consequences are that the children of affluent parents are having their presumed needs met and the poor have a steeper hill to climb:

From Weston, Conn., to Mercer Island, Wash., word has spread on parenting message boards and in the stands at home games: A federal disability designation known as a 504 plan can help struggling students improve their grades and test scores. But the plans are not doled out equitably across the United States.

In the country’s richest enclaves, where students already have greater access to private tutors and admissions coaches, the share of high school students with the designation is double the national average. In some communities, more than one in 10 students have one — up to seven times the rate nationwide, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.

Ms. Goldstein and Ms. Patel’s thoroughly researched article describes the genesis of 504 plans and how they became the workaround of choice for parents who could afford to have their child diagnosed by a clinician who specializes in that area. It includes stark data indicating that wealthy districts have twice the percentage of 504 cases as poor districts and blacks are disproportionately lacking in 504 accommodations.

The fix might be easy: eliminate the timing of the tests— or better yet make the stakes of the tests lower. Either way, the playing field will become more level and the importance of test preparation will be diminished… and that would be good for public education.

PA School Lunch Brouhaha Exemplifies All That is Wrong With Internet

July 22, 2019 Comments off

I first read about the overly aggressive memo about delinquent school lunch accounts on my phone feed. Fox Mews reported on it and I could imagine Fox and Friends having a field day. Later I saw a CNN account of the story and this morning the NYTIMES has a story. The bottom line is that a rogue food service administrator and the school attorney got together and concocted an ill advised letter that was sent to parents whose students owed money to the school for lunches. I dare say that such incidents occurred at least once a month SOMEWHERE in the US during the 29 years I served as a school superintendent… but the boneheaded mistakes did not become national news… they were taken care of at the local level. When local mistakes by overly aggressive administrators become national news it makes everyone’s job in the public sector tougher… and takes up bandwidth in national news reporting that COULD be used to inform the public of the big picture challenges public schools face.

www.nytimes.com/2019/07/20/us/school-lunch-bills-overdue-payment.html

“Busing”, a “Liberal Train Wreck” is NOT the Issue: Caste IS

July 15, 2019 Comments off

I just finished reading two excellent NYTimes articles on the ultimate third rail issue: the use of busing to integrate public schools.

My use of quotation marks around the word busing is explained in the first article, “It Was Never About Busing“, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who wrote:

That we even use the word “busing” to describe what was in fact court-ordered school desegregation, and that Americans of all stripes believe that the brief period in which we actually tried to desegregate our schools was a failure, speaks to one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of the last half century. Further, it explains how we have come to be largely silent — and accepting — of the fact that 65 years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, black children are as segregated from white students as they were in the mid-1970s when Mr. Biden was working with Southern white supremacist legislators to curtail court-ordered busing.

The term “busing” is a race-neutral euphemism that allows people to pretend white opposition was not about integration but simply about a desire for their children to attend neighborhood schools. But the fact is that American children have ridden buses to schools since the 1920s. There is a reason the cheery yellow school bus is the most ubiquitous symbol of American education. Buses eased the burden of transportation on families and allowed larger comprehensive schools to replace one-room schoolhouses. Millions of kids still ride school buses every day, and rarely do so for integration.

Ms. Hannah-Jones offers this bitter insight into the real problem with busing:

The school bus, treasured when it was serving as a tool of segregation, became reviled only when it transformed into a tool of integration. As the federal judge who ordered busing for desegregation in the landmark case that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court said, according to the 1978 book “Nothing Could Be Finer,” “Heck, I was bused as a child in Robeson County. Everybody who attends school in North Carolina has been bused. Busing isn’t the question, whatever folks say. It’s desegregation.”

But later in her article, Ms. Hannah-Jones offers an even deeper insight: on three occasions she links the desegregation mandates to “the educational caste system“.  THAT phrase captures not only the racial inequities that persist in our public schools since Brown v. Board of Education, but also captures the fact that almost every state in the union operates schools based on a system of economic segregation. The caste system is both racial and economic and the results are catastrophic for children raised in poverty no matter what their race and doubly catastrophic for black and brown children raised in poverty.

Ms. Hannah-Jones offers a comprehensive history of court decisions and legislative action that initially led to the use of busing to provide racially balanced schools, concluding that overview with this reminder:

When people call busing ill conceived or the worst means of ensuring integration, they conveniently obscure that busing was almost always a tool of last resort, mandated by courts only after lengthy battles with school boards and state officials, by black parents and civil rights groups, failed to produce even modest integration for black children. Judges and attorneys and activists were trying to destruct a racist and segregated educational system in the face of enormous resistance, subterfuge and violence, even in the most ostensibly liberal places.

In doing so, of course mistakes were made. Particularly, desegregation too often shuttered black schools and dismissed black educators because they were not considered good enough to teach white children. Many black activists and communities grew weary of chasing white people across the city as they fled integration, and instead they decided to focus on gaining resources for schools that served their own neighborhoods.

Ms. Hannah-Jones, like presidential candidate Kamala Harris, was bused to a white school– for 10 of the 12 years she attended public schools in Waterloo, IA. The experience was beneficial for her as it was for most African American students who participated in busing programs. But she is resigned to the fact that busing is unlikely to be used again, not because it “failed”, but because even the most liberal and open-minded voters would not support it:

The same people who claim they are not against integration, just busing as the means, cannot tell you what tactic they would support that would actually lead to wide-scale desegregation. So, it is an incredible sleight of hand to argue that mandatory school desegregation failed, while ignoring that the past three decades of reforms promising to make separate schools equal have produced dismal results for black children, and I would argue, for our democracy.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an effort to deconstruct our system of caste schools like what we saw between 1968 and 1988. But at the very least, we should tell the truth about what happened.

Busing did not fail. We did.

The second article, “How Joe Biden Became the Democrats’ Anti-Busing Crusader“, by Astead W. Herndon and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, describes Mr. Biden’s personal history in dealing with integration in his home state of Delaware who he represented in the Senate. The article provides a good overview of the history of school integration and offers context for the positions he took. The article doesn’t clearly depict the latent racism of Delaware, however. As a junior high student in the early 1960s, I vividly recall going on a field trip to the Dover Air Force Base where there were separate water fountains and bathrooms for “Negros”. It was the first time I came across such blatant discrimination, though I since learned that up until the Brown case my hometown in SE Pennsylvania operated a separate facility for black students.

Mr. Herndon and Ms. Stolberg thoroughly researched their article, and the reported that most of the civil rights leaders who knew Mr. Biden at the time he was becoming “the Democrats’ Anti-Busing Crusader” would not rule out voting for him and felt that he was walking a tightrope between his personal convictions and the anti-integration sentiment of the voters in his state. After an even handed and clear eyed examination of Mr. Biden, the article concludes with this:

The Biden spokesman, Mr. Bates, said that if elected, Mr. Biden would reinstate Obama-era policies “designed to increase the diversity of our schools.” Mr. Biden has long maintained that the white flight he had warned about came to pass, noting the many white families who fled to Pennsylvania for that state’s public schools, or — like Mr. Biden himself — enrolled their children in private schools. In his 2007 memoir, he described court-ordered busing as “a liberal train wreck.”

Aides say he has not changed his mind.