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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Advice to Principals: Push Back Against the Headwinds!

December 8, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the best books I read this year was Between the World and Me, which was an extended letter he wrote to his son, Samori, about what it is like to grown up black in America. As a 69-year old White American I feel that I have empathy for Blacks, but Coates’ book made me appreciate just how different the world looked to me during my formative years in an integrated college town in PA compared to his experiences in Baltimore, MD.

Earlier this week the Chalkbeat blogger Alex Zimmerman wrote a post describing Coates’ interactions with a group of roughly 30 current and aspiring Principals. In recounting his conversations with them, Mr. Zimmerman captured the same blunt honesty that characterizes Coates’ essays and his book. In expiring to the group why he sends his son to private school, Coates reflected on his personal experience in public schools.

“I guess I feel like the school system sort of failed me, he said. “School was not a physically safe place … violence was a thing you were always coping with.”

Coates lso drove home the powerful negative impact the grading system has on children, implicitly urging the gathering to focus on ways to provide intellectual stimulation to the students.

“People and educators often deeply underestimate that it actually hurts to fail,” he explained. “The world is so much more open than any report card or any test score.”

But Coates did display an understanding of the challenges teachers and administrators face, and analogized the scapegoating of teachers to the scapegoating he experienced as a black man:

But Coates noted the headwinds teachers face — the consequences of homelessness, poverty and the criminal justice system — and argued that teachers, like black people, are often easy scapegoats for larger institutional failures.

So how to resist that demonization? Coates urged educators to “push back” against the idea that it’s solely their responsibility to solve longstanding social problems, and encouraged them to team up with other activists to fight for change.

“Drawing on the history of African-Americans in this country, you really have to be willing to struggle on behalf of things that are not resolvable in your lifetime,” he said. “The fact that you’re fighting for kids who have not yet been born doesn’t make the struggle irrelevant … The problems weren’t created in one generation.”

As I am certain Mr. Coates appreciates, from a public teacher’s perspective the headwinds just got stronger with the election of Mr. Trump, with his Cabinet appointments, and with a Congress that is likely to use his election to promote their agenda that favors pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps grit over any kind of early intervention and support. I have long advocated that school districts work with local social service departments, local health departments, and local police departments to provide children attending school with the safety net they need to succeed in school. Now I think that administrators, teachers, and school boards are going to have to work in tandem with every public agency that provides services to children to push back against the direction our country is headed for each one of our services– even the police department– is likely to face the forces of deregulated privatization in the coming four years.

Chinese Bands and US Charters: Sorting by Eugenics and Sorting by Parent Engagement

December 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I read an article in yesterday’s NYTimes with a mix of astonishment and revulsion. The article, by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, describes a music program in China where students are enrolled in band programs and assigned musical instruments in the band based solely on their physical attributes. Titled “In China, Eugenics Determines Who Gets in School Band”, Ms. Tatlow’s article describes the method “Teacher Wang” uses to identify prospective musicians. Here is an excerpt from the article that describes his meeting with the parents of the future band members:

Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.

“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”

“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.

This sounded appalling to Ms. Tatlow, but ultimately she accepted the program in large measure because her daughter wanted to be a part of it and evidently possessed the physical and intellectual qualities Teacher Wang was seeking.

In some respects US schools in the 50s and 60s were no different: students were sorted into homogeneous batches based on their intellect and upbringing— and until 1954 they were also sorted based on race, a vestigial method of sorting that remains in place today on a de facto basis. As an elementary student I was among the group in my PA elementary group that were “smart kids”. I was in the highest reading group and did well in math without much effort. When my father was transferred to Oklahoma I was identified as “gifted and talented”, largely because 4th grade in that state was comparable to 3rd grade in PA. When he got transferred back to PA, though, I was in for a rude awakening. I was no longer deemed to be a “smart kid”. Rather, I was a “kid from Oklahoma” and was consequently placed in a mid-level section of students. I excelled in my classwork, but when the team of teachers met with my parents to discuss my placement in one of the higher groups they were told there was no room in those classes. And so for the next five years I remained in the “second tier”.

Schools today avoid that kind of rigid homogeneous grouping within the school… but they achieve homogeneity in a different fashion. Schools in affluent communities effectively screen out the “middling” students because their parents cannot afford housing in those towns. Charter schools in cities can screen out children of indifferent or working parents because their enrollment procedures require a level of engagement that is virtually impossible in a single parent household or in a household where both parents work. So the schools in less affluent areas and the non-charter schools in the city tend to have students whose parents are less engaged. And here’s where our sorting arrangement and that of the Chinese music teachers are similar: a child born into a US family where the parents are unwilling or unable to engage in their schooling has no more chance at success than a child born in China who lacks the physical and intellectual qualities sought by Teacher Wang. The result in both cases is a tremendous waste of talent.

Trump XIV – Another Distressing Cabinet Pick: HHS Nominee a Staunch Opponent of Medicare, Obamacare

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes editorial indicates what low income Americans are likely to face in the future: “Tom Price: A Radical Choice for Health Secretary”… and it isn’t a pretty picture:

Mr. Price, a Republican from Georgia, is a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health reform law, and beyond that, supports plans to slash Medicareand Medicaid, which cover tens of millions of elderly, disabled and low-income Americans. He is against a woman’s right to choose and has backed legislation to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding.

…The detailed legislation he introduced most recently in 2015 would destroy the reform law and is a good indication of his philosophy in managing the nation’s largest health programs: cut benefits and leave millions with no health care at all.

His bill would, among other things, roll back the federally financed expansion of Medicaid in 31 states and the District of Columbia, taking coverage away from 14 million poor people. It would severely cut federal subsidies that help individuals and families buy policies on government-run health exchanges. The reduced subsidies would make it hard, if not impossible, for millions to afford the coverage they have gotten since the Affordable Care Act went into effect. And the bill would no longer require insurers to cover addiction treatment, birth control, maternity care, prescription drugs and other essential medical services.

Beyond his commitment to tearing apart the health care law, Mr. Price, who leads the House Budget Committee, published a budget proposallast year that would convert Medicaid into a block grant to state governments. This would reduce federal spending on the program by 34 percent by 2025, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Such a cut would inevitably cause states to offer fewer benefits and reduce the number of people covered, far beyond the 14 million who would lose their coverage if Medicaid expansion is rolled back.

So… keeping score for those who missed earlier blog posts we now have three appointees to Cabinet positions whose actions will punish those who earn least and reward those who earn the most. I always believed America was Great because she looked after those in need and lent a helping hand to anyone who was trying to work their way up. Now we have a President-elect who is making appointments that seem to do the opposite.

Trump XIII – Jeff Sessions’ Selection as AG Will Undo Decades of Efforts to Promote Equal Opportunity for All

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment

James DeVinne’s recent post in yesterday’s Occupy Democrats blog offered a disheartening analysis of the public education record of President-elect Trump’s nominee Jeff Sessions. While Occupy Democrats is unarguably biased in its reporting, it did not have to dig very deeply to find a host of disturbing reports about Mr. Sessions record as Alabama’s Attorney General nor his public statements on issues that would affect public education.

As was widely reported when Mr. Trump nominated Jeff Sessions, his nomination to be Federal Judge was rejected by his own party in 1986 when various incidents of outright racism were brought to light at that time. Among the incidents cited at the time he was nominated was his unsuccessful effort to charge three civil rights workers who’d helped boost black voting registration in Alabama with voter fraud in the early 1980s… an issue the current Attorney General has addressed in the opposite fashion over the past eight years and an issue that is likely to rear its head in the coming four years.

My concerns about Mr. Sessions, though, are not purely political. They have to do with his perspectives on education for handicapped children and funding for public schools. In a lengthy speech bemoaning the regulations that strangle public education, he specifically cited those that supposedly limit the ability of teachers to discipline students in their classrooms. The Occupy Democrats article included a link to The Daily Kos which included this direct quote from Sessions’ speech:

… we have created a complex system of federal regulations and laws that have created lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children, and that are a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America. I say that very sincerely.

Teachers I have been talking to have shared stories with me. I have been in 15 schools around Alabama this year. I have talked to them about a lot of subjects. I ask them about this subject in every school I go to, and I am told in every school that this is a major problem for them. In fact, it may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.

The “complex system” he referenced in the speech was the one associated with special education, a law that requires a free and appropriate education for all children in the least restrictive environment. Prior to the passage of that law, students who were severely handicapped were often warehoused in facilities that separated them from other children. Students with milder handicaps were often undiagnosed and left behind in school or forced to find ways to accommodate on their own. If their parents were affluent they could often get tutoring paid for by their parents. Otherwise, they often dropped out altogether or created discipline problems that led to their expulsion. Having led public school districts for 29 years and consulted for five years since retiring I know that educating children with special needs is complicated and is expensive. But I also know that it provides support for roughly 15% of the population that would otherwise fail in school. Leaving roughly one-seventh of the children behind would not only be a moral problem, it would also be an economic one. It is far easier and economic to provide intervention at an early age than to treat these failed students when they become adults.

Worse than his identification of educating handicapped children as potentially “…the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today” was Mr. Sessions reaction to a lawsuit brought on behalf of the parents of those children in 30 of the poorest districts in Alabama. Here’s a summary of Mr. Sessions reaction to that lawsuit as reported in the NYTimes: 

Nearly 30 of Alabama’s poorest school districts, with support from disability rights groups, civil rights organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the state. The most vocal critics of school reform, including the far-right activist Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, warned that it would bring “socialism” to Alabama.

After nearly three years of litigation, Judge Eugene W. Reese of the Alabama Circuit Court found the inequitable funding unconstitutional and ordered the state to come up with a system to remedy the inequity.

Attorney General Sessions led the battle against the decision. He argued that Judge Reese had overreached. It was a familiar war cry on the segregationist right: An activist court was usurping the power of the state’s duly elected officials to solve the problem on their own. For the next two years, Mr. Sessions sought to discredit Judge Reese and overturn his ruling. In one of the twists of austerity budgeting in the mid-1990s, Mr. Sessions had laid off 70 lawyers in the attorney general’s office, and had to find outside counsel to handle the case. Lawyers working on contract for the office were to be paid no more than $85 per hour, but for the challenge to the equity case, the fee cap was lifted.

Mr. Sessions was lauded by fellow Republicans for his efforts. They saw funding inequities as part of the natural order of things, not as a problem to be remedied. And any remedy would entail either the redistribution of funds from wealthier to poorer districts or an increase in taxes. Both positions ran against the small-government, privatization dogma that Mr. Sessions promoted.

SO now we have a pro-privatization pro-voucher Secretary of Education paired with an Attorney General who views the regulations associated with the provision of special education as ““…the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today” and funding inequities as “…part of the natural order of things”. It appears that we are going to Make America Great Again by using ESSA to effectively repeal Brown vs. Board of Education and 94-142 with no effort on the part of the Attorney General to make sure that States follow federal mandates to the contrary. Maybe after three years the voters will see what they have wrought in electing Mr. Trump and realize that government WAS doing good on their behalf and doing it well despite the fact that they were starved for resources.

 

In Michigan, Courts Determine That Literacy is Not a Right… And No One in Government There Complains

November 30, 2016 Leave a comment

In the “you can’t make this stuff up” category is the report from Fox News in Detroit Michigan that attorneys for the Governor are asking that a lawsuit against Detroit schools be thrown out because “literacy is not a right”. Here’s the summary paragraphs from the story:

Seven children filed the lawsuit in September, saying decades of state disinvestment and deliberate indifference to Detroit’s schools have denied them access to literacy.
The plaintiffs say the schools have deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures.
The Michigan Attorney General asked a federal judge to dismiss a class action lawsuit arguing that Detroit schools are obligated to ensure that kids learn how to read and write. The state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit says: “there is no fundamental right to literacy”.
But, the Michigan Attorney General DOES acknowledge that the State must operate schools:

“Michigan’s constitution requires only that the legislature provide for a system of free public schools”, leaving the details and deliver to specific educational services to the local school districts.
In other words, the state must provide for schools, but there’s no obligation to make them work.
And, notably, the news report did not indicate that the State AG rebutted the plaintiffs claims that Detroit Schools, which have been under state receivership since 1999, “…have deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures.” I suppose that’s because the details and delivery of specific educational services are left to the local school district… which in this case is the State. Round and round the attorneys and legislators go… and in the meantime the children in Detroit attend schools that are not required to teach literacy and have deplorable building conditions, lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities and extreme temperatures. And the problem with all this is teacher’s unions? Puh-leeze!

Raise.me Redux

November 28, 2016 Leave a comment

This weekend Dian Ravitch featured a post criticizing Raise.me for its practice of gathering and selling data on students as part of it’s micro-scholarship initiative. While I find this kind of scheme distasteful, I also know that the issue of raising money to go to college is real for most parents, particularly for parents who are experiencing economic challenges themselves. That led me to leave this comment:

This sounded familiar to me and I found that I had reacted to a NYTImes article on this program several months ago.

I am as troubled about the premise behind Raise.me as I am by the data collection and I see a conundrum in dismissing this kind of program. My concerns are noted in the closing paragraph, “While I wish that a students primary motive was learning for its own sake, our culture and our political environment at this point sees education solely as a means of earning more money.”

And here’s a conundrum: many parents actively discourage their children from pursuing more education because they do not believe it is within their reach financially. When I was principal at a rural HS in ME in the late 1970s I heard this from parents and as superintendent in Western MD in the early 1990s I heard this from the Principals who led the rural schools in that district. I sure that today there are many parents tell their children to not even THINK about college because it is too expensive. If a program like Raise.me provides some of those students with a means of addressing that very real concern on the part of their parents, MAYBE the trade off is worth it.

NYTimes Op Ed Writer Offers Evidence of Voucher Failures in Detroit, a City that Bought DeVos’ Ideas

November 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Tulane Economics professor Douglas Harris researched the impact of the kind of deregulated free market voucher system advocated by Betsy DeVos, and the results were not pretty. In an op ed essay that appears in today’s NYTimes, Mr. Harris writes:

As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, (Ms. DeVos) is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country…

Consider this: Detroit is one of many cities in the country that participates in an objective and rigorous test of student academic skills, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The other cities participating in the urban version of this test, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Memphis, are all widely considered to be among the lowest-performing school districts in the country.

Detroit is not only the lowest in this group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far

And what, exactly, did Ms. DeVos do in Detroit?

She devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West. It’s hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed. Schools there can do poorly and still continue to enroll students. Also, after more than a decade of Ms. DeVos’s getting her way on a host of statewide education policies, Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of five states with declining reading scores.

Ms. DeVos and her like-minded businesspeople love operating enterprises without government regulations. If it weren’t for Government regulation places like Trump University and fly-by-night virtual schools and charter chains might have folded on their own. But if there weren’t any regulations at all and no consumer protection whatsoever those who operate the low performing schools could “…do poorly and still continue to enroll students” so long as they are able to find students interested in enrolling. But that isn’t too hard to do when no other schools want toped in your neighborhood.

But while Mr. Harris may have done research that condemns Ms. DeVos appointment, he fails to understand how ESSA might provide her with the means to spread her gospel of deregulation and privatization. He writes:

Fortunately, even if she is confirmed, the low level of federal funding devoted to education will limit the new administration’s ability to pursue these policies. Also, any real expansion of unregulated vouchers will require action both by state governments and by Congress.

The low level of funding is also accompanied by a fairly high degree of regulation as it stands now, and one of the crucial regulations, as noted in earlier posts, is whether the federal funds can be used to supplant local and state funds or must supplement those funds. IT is VERY clear where Ms. DeVos will land on that issue, and it is the complete opposite of where the Obama administration is now. It is also evident that the federal government can send a strong signal to states on whether they will intervene if a state decides to institute a voucher plan that directs funds away from public schools toward sectarian and/or deregulated for profit schools. Additionally, the federal government plays an important role in the oversight of for-profit post-secondary schooling… and area of regulation Mr. Trump is well aware of and happy to de-fang. Mr. Harris, I fear, is very wrong about the damage Ms. DeVos could inflict were she nominated. I remain convinced that should she be appointed along with Mr. Trump’s AG nomination we will see a marked decline in the opportunities for poor minority children across the nation.