Friday Reading List: Red States, Blue Cities, School Enrollment, and Science Education

David A. Graham has a fascinating piece in the new issue of The Atlantic, wherein he examines the relative political and economic power of states versus cities in this country:

American cities seem to be cleaving from the rest of the country, and the temptation for liberals is to try to embrace that trend ... But if liberal advocates are clinging to the hope that federalism will allow them to create progressive havens, they’re overlooking a big problem: Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city ... Even the reddest states contain liberal cities: Half of the U.S. metro areas with the biggest recent population gains are in the South, and they are Democratic. Texas alone is home to four such cities; Clinton carried each of them. Increasingly, the most important political and cultural divisions are not between red and blue states but between red states and the blue cities within ... the economic reality that underpinned rural-urban distrust in the 19th century is now inverted: In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling, while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish.

It's a long piece, and you should read the whole thing. As cities have grown more economically powerful, political power still defaults back to state entities. Graham captures this disequilibrium, which doesn't seem tenable in the long-term ... unless you think we're on the brink of returning to a 19th-century-style economy.

There's an interesting implication for schools, too, which Graham doesn't discuss. Many state constitutions explicitly delegate educational authority to local school boards, which can mean that local school boards are more powerful than municipal governments.

Strained relationships among state and local authorities have been a defining feature of reimagining the city of Detroit. Erin Einhorn of Chalkbeat looks at the failure of a common school enrollment system in that city, which was supposed to deescalate the tension:

Proponents say common enrollments are more equitable because most applicants have the same shot at sought-after schools. The systems also remove some of the guesswork for administrators by preventing parents from enrolling in multiple schools, then waiting until September to make their final decisions ... Here, in a city where roughly equal numbers of students attend district and charter schools, and where thousands of students travel out of town to attend suburban schools, what happened to Detroit’s common enrollment shows how difficult it can be for competing factions to come together. The tensions exposed by the issue are the same ones that make it difficult to solve other serious challenges in Detroit, such as student transportation and teacher recruitment, that would be easier to address if competing schools worked together.

One problem to which Einhorn alludes: privileged parents don't like this system, because it democratizes the process through which students are assigned to schools. You know what I'm talking about. People with political power have always found the backdoor into the fancy magnet school ...

In other news, Sarah Sparks at Education Week looks at the role of scientists in K-12 science education:

As schools work to implement the Next Generation Science Standards, practicing scientists are also rethinking how they work with schools to advance understanding of their field. The National Board on Science Education, part of the National Academies of Science, brought together science educators and members of professional science groups like the American Chemical Society last month to discuss guidance for developing partnerships between scientists and teachers.

The first-person accounts in this piece are worth digesting, particularly for educators who are looking for ways to forge partnerships with scientists.

Finally, the latest edition of the The Atlantic series, "Question Your Answers," features Michael K. Williams. It's deep:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday Reading List: Graduation Rates, Vouchers, #1000BlackGirlBooks, and Science Fairs

Grace Tatter at Chalkbeat revisits a story about graduation rates in Tennessee and finds inconsistencies:

When Chad Moorehead saw that Tennessee’s education department had concluded that a third of graduates received a diploma without meeting the state’s requirements, his first instinct was to find out how many of his own students had fallen through the cracks ... he went through all of his students’ transcripts by hand. He couldn’t find a single one who had gotten an undeserved diploma. Department officials said he was right. They had counted students who took math and English at a local community college as not having taken those courses at all. While state officials continue to check districts’ data, it appears that more than 70 percent of what looked like missing requirements were in fact data errors.

First of all, I'm glad there's more and more real investigative reporting in education these days, because this is the sort of massive inconsistency that might never have been uncovered without sustained, local reporting. Second, this story also reveals the extent to which "graduation rate" is a fungible metric. Whether or not someone graduated from high school depends on course completion, attendance, and a host of other factors, few of which are truly standardized.

In other news, Hayley Glatter of The Atlantic looked at research on a school voucher program in Louisiana and found counterintuitive results:

Eighty percent of the 1,741 students in the study’s sample are black, and [researchers] explained that in many cases, families were opting out of public schools that were overwhelmingly African American to begin with. These students’ departures, because of the skewed demographics that exist as a result of decades of de facto and de jure segregation laws, left the public schools less racially stratified as a result ... On top of that, early evidence on student achievement also points to negative outcomes for families that took advantage of the vouchers. According to a report on LSP conducted by the Brookings Institution last May, students who relocated to private schools via the vouchers recorded lower scores on standardized math and reading assessments: After one year in private school, a child who scored in the 50th percentile for math in his public school declined to the 34th percentile.

Glatter emphasizes that one of the takeaways about the study ought to be that it's nearly impossible to generalize school choice programs, as each one is so context-dependent. Still, the notion that a voucher program might increase racial integration, while depressing student achievement is bound to challenge the assumptions of education professionals, across wildly different political perspectives.

Speaking of collecting various perspectives, remember Marley Dias, the student who started #1000BlackGirlBooks? As Yesha Callahan at The Root discovered, she's writing one of her own:

Marley launched #1000BlackGirlBooks with the help of the Philadelphia-based GrassROOTS Community Foundation Super Camp, which was founded by Marley’s mother, Janice, along with the Roots’ Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter. In total, Marley donated 1,000 books to Retreat School in the Parish of Saint Mary, Jamaica, where her mother grew up, as well as the Henry C. Lea School in Philadelphia, Speedway Academies in Newark, N.J., Renzuli Academy in Connecticut and St. Cloud Elementary in West Orange, N.J. Since that effort, Marley has been everywhere, from doing a stint as an editor for that included her own mini zine Marley Mag to public speaking engagements and being honored at BET’s Black Girls Rock! with a MAD (Making a Difference) Award. It’s safe to say Marley isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But now she wants to make a bigger impact in the world of social justice by teaching kids and teens activism by publishing an activism guide with Scholastic.

That's great news!

Finally, as Steve Lohr of The New York Times finds, corporate sponsors are changing how they think about science fairs:

The science fair has been an annual rite of education for generations of students, going back to the 1940s. But even the term “science fair” stirs stereotypical images of three-panel display boards and baking-soda volcanoes. Its regimented routines can seem stodgy at a time when young people are flocking to more freewheeling forums for scientific creativity, like software hackathons and hardware engineering Maker Faires. That is apparently the thinking at Intel, the giant computer chip maker, which is retreating from its longtime sponsorship of science fairs for high school students.

The underlying story here seems to be that companies are gravitating away from the careful rigor of the scientific method, and towards the rapid prototyping and design ethos of the software engineering world. I don't know enough to make a value judgment about whether that's a good or bad thing, but it's a trend worth watching. Have a great day!

Talk to Your Cousin Becky About This Ignorant Cartoon

On Monday I started writing a follow-up letter to Justin Timberlake. Justin and I had a little conversation last summer, after he pulled out his All Lives Matter card on twitter. While not everyone remembers JT’s outburst, hearing Adele’s vulnerable acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night made me think he might learn something from her humility and grace in the face of a moment with racial overtones … and that reaching out to Timberlake might be a teachable moment for White folks more generally.

Then this happened:

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

German Lopez at Vox explains the history of the Norman Rockwell painting to which this cartoon refers, while historian Kevin Kruse explains why the new image is so offensive

If you’re somewhere on the “Wokey McWokerson” side of the White person spectrum, this situation probably pisses you off. If you're red in the face over this cartoon, circle up for a quick meeting!

Are we all here? Great. Listen closely:

The person who made this cartoon is related to one of us.

It’s true! And even if a member of your own family did not draw this cartoon, someone in each of our families looked at this ignorant slander against Black history and thought, “Well, that’s a reasonable comparison.”

It’s probably our cousin Becky, right? Becky lived her whole life going to holiday meals with us, yet still thinks it’s acceptable to compare a second-generation billionaire heiress, to a Black child being ushered by armed guards to attend school in the Jim Crow South.

Why does Becky think this? I have no clue. Her dad was kind of bigoted, so maybe she absorbed prejudice by osmosis. Maybe she, like so many of our White relatives, was subjected to an endless stream of racist imagery, spewing out like flickering embers from our television screens throughout our entire childhoods. Perhaps she watched that parade of propaganda, featuring criminalized Black folks and victimized White ones, while not a single level-headed person challenged the truth or data behind that narrative.

In light of Becky’s peculiar perspectives, we have one job as “aspiring allies” this week: have a conversation with our cousins about this picture. We could have been the level-headed influence during Becky’s childhood, but we weren’t. We had other priorities. We were somewhat less woke in those days, right?

There’s no excuse now, though. We’ve gone to a bunch of protests, and we’re constantly reminding our Facebook friends that we want to “do more” right now.

As part of our penance for letting Becky drift into alt-right-adjacent territory, we must talk to her. Let’s start with these three questions:

1) Do you know the history to which this cartoon refers? If Becky says “yes,” proceed directly to question number two. If she says “no,” you might discuss the history of schools segregation; the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education; the way in which segregation persists even today; and the massive disparities in wealth and educational attainment that accompany that history. Once you have established a fact base, proceed to the second question.

2) Why do you think this comparison is fair? When you ask Becky why she thinks the comparison is a fair one, I want you to actually listen to her answer. Do not judge her with your face, even though I KNOW you totally are judging the fuck out of her in your head. Force yourself to pause and listen, even if what she says afterwards is COMPLETELY indefensible. Okay, let’s be honest: whatever she says is probably going to be Charlie-Sheen-circa-2011 levels of incoherent. But I want you to listen for opportunities to go deeper. Does she think that conservatives suffer the same discrimination that women of color do? (They don’t.) Does she think that protest-driven discomfort is tantamount to the state forbidding the education of black children? (It’s not.) At this point in the conversation, I predict that something is going to happen to Becky, which leads to the third and final question for this session …

3) Why are you so mad? If my experience is any indication, Becky is going to get mad and defensive at this point. Her arguments, whatever they are, have deep roots in decades of misinformation. Defending an argument with a flawed premise is hard to do, but she’s trying. Becky may have never questioned the fundamental underpinnings of her beliefs. As a result, she’s going to get that tingling feeling in her spine. You remember that feeling. It’s the way you felt the first time you realized that the whole world around you might be predicated on a series of lies about yours, and others’, identities. The only way your cousin can justify her current beliefs is if she continues to deny the existence of institutional racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. Perpetual denial is much easier than the tension of justice.

Once she’s mad, you should end the conversation. If you try to lecture Becky about racism and white privilege right now, while she’s angry, you’re pursuing a pointless path. People can’t hear anything when they’re mad. Was it possible for you to listen to reasonable discourse after Adele won that third Grammy? How about election night? Were you susceptible to logic then?

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

I know it sounds unfair to let your cousin stay mad after this first conversation, but I promise you that she will never hear your extremely logical, and historically valid, arguments about racism and white supremacy while she’s feeling defensive about her own identity.

Here’s the most important part though: letting Becky stay mad after this conversation doesn’t mean that you can let her off the hook. Call her a couple of days later. Ask her how she’s feeling. Mention that you were surprised by how angry she got. Then have that follow-up conversation, wherein you casually mention the concept of institutional racism. Perhaps you can discuss white supremacy in a fourth or fifth conversation

Yes, I know this sounds crazy … you have to engage in TWO WHOLE conversations with Becky, who you suspect might be kind of racist. This sounds like a big “ask,” right?

Well, guess what’s worse than having two conversations with Becky? The extraordinary resurgence of overt racism and white supremacy that’s happening in our country right now. The process of educating other white people about racism is textbook “White folks' work.” You have the power to do something about Becky. Her education is going to be a long process, for which we should hold ourselves accountable. Stop asking what you can do. Start talking to your cousins.

Tuesday Reading List: Supporting Off-Track Students and State Policy in the Trump Age

Emily DeRuy at The Atlantic examines a program in Washington DC, which is designed to help students who are struggling to complete high school: a move that mirrors a broader national conversation about how to help kids who have more than a few obstacles in front of them succeed, the district this year put what it’s calling “pathway coordinators” into its schools to make sure kids at risk of dropping out get a diploma—and to help students who’ve gotten off track rebound. Through a mixture of number-crunching, mentoring, and occasionally good-natured cajoling, these pathways coordinators track how students are doing and help those who are behind come up with plans for moving forward. Right now, the district has about 1,300 students it categorizes as overage and under-credited, meaning students who are under the age of 24 and more than two years behind. The ultimate goal is to get as many kids as possible through high school in four years and to help even those who need a little longer earn a diploma and move into either higher education or the workforce.

The program is a mix of rigorous data collection and personalized attention. It's a significant expense for the city, but as DeRuy points out, the up-front investment in off-track students is a smart one. Adults without a high school education struggle to contribute to the broader economy and community. That's part of the reason why we, you know, have public schools in the first place.

Christina Veiga, writing in Chalkbeat, follows two New York City parents who want more integration in their children's schools:

Robin Broshi and Shino Tanikawa, both members of the District 2 Community Education Council, point to the middle schools in their district, which includes lower Manhattan, Chinatown and the Upper East Side. Most middle schools there are unzoned and supposed to be open to everyone. But with a highly selective application process, many of the schools end up divided academically — and by race and class. Broshi and Tanikawa are determined to change that, but first they’ll have to convince their peers that academically integrated schools work for everyone — even students who are already high-achievers ... Their effort is rooted in an understanding of how race and class impact student achievement, and how using test scores and report cards in admissions decisions can shut vulnerable students out.

If we're going to have greater class, race, and academic integration in public schools, it will only happen through both policy, and deep, local personal work, like this. Neither will be sufficient alone. Perhaps most importantly, more privileged parents will have to give up the idea that their children deserve more from the system because of the privilege they have.

In other news, Arianna Prothero and Corey Mitchell of Education Week look at state education policy after the appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education:

As the Trump administration appears poised to make school choice the centerpiece of its education agenda, Republican-led legislatures in Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and elsewhere are rolling out charter school and voucher bills in what could be a more receptive environment. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—now the nation's most visible school choice advocate—takes the helm at a time when Republicans control the governor's house or the state legislature in 44 states and have full control of the executive and legislative branches in 25 states. That GOP dominance of state-level politics could set the stage for a nationwide shift on school choice legislation, even more so than DeVos' confirmation, said Kenneth Wong, an education policy and politics professor at Brown University, in Providence, R.I. "When you combine the federal leadership change with the shift in state leadership, we will be seeing a growth and expansion of state involvement in school choice issues," Wong predicted.

The big question is whether the federal government is going to do anything to accelerate this work, like providing federal funding for choice. It's also possible that the feds could issue policies make it easier for states to bypass local governments to advance their school choice schemes ... but that would trample on the principles of local control that are so important to conservatives ... right?

Finally, in honor of Black History Month, Vesia Wilson-Hawkins honors the teachers who supported her:

I was a solid “C” student, doing just enough to stay in school as the building was my refuge. For six hours a day I didn’t have to be home, and I did the bare minimum in order to maintain this arrangement. So, while my peers were doing things like preparing for the ACT, visiting colleges and working on their hope chests, I was content to think no further than the next day. There were a couple of teachers who looked beyond my aimlessness and lack of motivation, and instead saw a sliver of potential. Mrs. Williams and Ms. Evelyn, both Black, seemed to have organized in a fit of urgency to save me prior to graduation. Both invited me to their homes—no doubt to illustrate to me my potential—and offered to pay me to do odds and ends for them. The work never seemed to match the money. I know now they were introducing me to another way of life and taking me out of the life to which I was accustomed. I’m forever grateful for these two fighting on my behalf.

It's a beautiful story with which to start your day!

Monday Reading List: Complications in School Discipline, Immigration, and Symbolic Victories

Evie Blad at Education Week has a report on a new program in Atlanta, which trains law enforcement officials to work in schools:

The district's new police department is the first step in Atlanta's efforts to confront a challenge many urban school systems have not easily tackled: concerns that putting police in schools undermines efforts to create a safe and supportive learning environment, and that their presence too often leads schools to treat routine student misbehavior in a criminal manner. While Atlanta's plans have already brought big changes to how policing looks in the school system, they don't adhere to what some national civil rights groups have called for, which is much tighter restrictions on officers' interactions with students or removing them from schools all together. Mediating conflicts and mentoring students are better left to school counselors and other school staff without arresting authority, those groups argue.

Blad doesn't soft-pedal the challenges of navigating the relationships between schools and law enforcement, in a school district whose student population is close to 80% Black. It's clear that the current paradigm for enforcing discipline in schools cannot hold, so with more schools trying to implement restorative justice, it's important to understand how school discipline works in practice.

Dylan Peers McCoy, writing in Chalkbeat, looks at the climate in an Indiana school for immigrant students:

Alejandra’s story is stunning, but she’s not the only student at the newcomer school who saw a relative murdered before fleeing her home country, according to staff. She’s not the only student who was involved with gangs before fleeing Central America. She’s not the only student who didn’t finish her elementary education. These are the everyday challenges that students and staff at the newcomer school must grapple with: Many students have been through unimaginable trauma, are far behind academically and are just beginning to learn English.

Students like Alejandra face challenges that are almost impossible to fathom. Call me an optimist, but I hope that America can be the kind of place where we can help Alejandra survive and thrive.

Noah Remnick is in The New York Times, covering Yale's decision to finally finally finally remove the name of an infamous white supremacist from one of the school's residences, the former "John C. Calhoun College":

Calhoun, the nation’s seventh vice president, attended Yale and was its valedictorian. The name of the college incited controversy almost as soon as it opened in 1933. Many black students staged demonstrations and referred to the college, which was decorated with depictions of slaves carrying bales of cotton, as the “Calhoun Plantation.” Opposition may have peaked in 2015, after the massacre of nine worshipers at a black church in Charleston. The killings, by an avowed white supremacist, prompted protests that led to the removal of the Confederate battle flag outside the South Carolina Statehouse and elsewhere. Yale was seized that fall by a series of demonstrations from students, faculty and alumni who objected to the Calhoun name, as well as to what they saw as a larger climate of racial inequality on campus.

As a Yale graduate, I wish this had happened sooner, though I'm glad it happened at all. The timing is important to consider here: by 1933, when the residence was named after Calhoun, the Civil War had been over for almost 70 years. It's a good reminder that terrible, old, prejudiced ideas have a tendency to resurrect themselves. It's also worth noting that removing Calhoun's name was one specific objective of a sustained, student-led movement. Symbolic victories are important.

Meanwhile, in France:

“No more playtime,” said the French presidential candidate Marine le Pen in a speech in December, as she called for an end to free education for the children of undocumented immigrants. “I tell them: If you come to our country, don’t expect to be taken care of.” Le Pen, who leads the far-right National Front party, could reach the final round of the French presidential election this May, and has routinely decried the multiculturalism—described with the nefarious term communautarisme, or “communitarism”—that she and her supporters believe is undermining the French social fabric. It’s no surprise that, in an electoral climate increasingly defined around perceived threats to French identity, Le Pen chose to insulate schools from migrants, whom she has demonized throughout her political career.

That's Karina Piser, writing in The Atlantic. Gosh, where have I heard language like le Pen's before? Some political leaders around the world want to construe our current era as an epic clash of cultures against one another. I reject that idea. I think it's a test of our fortitude, will, and ability to live together. Have a great week!

Friday Reading List: Closing the Racial Wealth Gap

Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch looked at recently compiled data on family wealth in the United States:

In 2013, the median white family held 13 times as much net wealth as the median black family and 10 times as much wealth as the median Latino family, according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. Just a decade earlier, the disparity was 7 to 1 for black families, and 9 to 1 for Latino families ... The median single-parent white family had roughly twice as much wealth as the median black or Latino family with two parents. This ratio is interesting ... it demonstrates that the financial advantages that come with marriage, like having two earners, qualifying for tax breaks for dependents, and the ability to share expenses, are insufficient to close the racial wealth gap.

I wonder if there's someone who can parse those results in a slightly different way. Let's go to Damon Young at VSB:

Whenever a large group of Black people happen to come together ... conversations about economic empowerment are not particularly uncommon ... And, when they happen, invariably you’ll have a few people who’ll lament the disproportionate amounts of money we spend on Jordans and weave and car leases and rims and apartment rentals; either implying or explicitly stating that this affinity for the type of depreciating assets that make us look wealthier than we actually are is what’s keeping us from actually building wealth. And perhaps, to make their point stick, they’ll even cite White people or Jewish people or Koreans as an example of who we need to model ourselves after. It’s an argument that persists because it retains the romantic veneer of pragmatism, logic, and pro-Blackness ... It has always been and will always be an argument based on low information and a latent belief that Black culture specifically cultivates an affinity for economic endangerment; one that was recently and thoroughly debunked by a study called “The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap."

Young dives deeper into the debunking with his characteristic verbal panache. These results are particularly fatal for the coterie of education policymakers who argue that better schools alone can ameliorate the crippling effects of institutional racism and poverty. It should go without saying that it would be impossible to create remedies that don't include better schools ... but alone they're empirically insufficient.

Sharif El-Mekki is in Education Post, drawing connections between different generations' approaches to education as a part of Black liberation, focusing on his home town of Philadelphia:

[The Black Panther Party] worked tirelessly out of 19th and Columbia, 36th and Wallace Street, and other places, making education and the protection of Black youth their priority.The foundational aspect of education in the Party’s early activities is often forgotten about but the struggle to end the racist, poor education of Black children was central. Within the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Platform education was a focal point with the Party calling for “a decent education for our people.” Their core belief in the need for educational justice, something that was far beyond what was being taught in the school system, led them to first develop a free-breakfast program, which attracted my mother because as she saw it, “They understood the importance of developing the entire child.” Later on, they were able to establish liberation schools that focused on teaching children about their history, how to be critical thinkers and ways to improve the community.

El-Mekki describes how his own work, as a principal in a public charter school, connects to that history. This focus on Black youth was front and center during the Obama administration, through the former president's "My Brothers Keeper" program. Nick Chiles at The Hechinger Report wonders if that effort will persist in the Trump administration:

Since Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) in February 2014, his engagement has led to an unprecedented surge in corporate, nonprofit and philanthropic support for this troubled population. In December, the White House described commitments of more than $1 billion from the private sector, calling the progress “remarkable.” MBK initiatives have been started in nearly 250 communities in all 50 states, along with nearly two dozen federal agencies and departments. Cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Compton and Detroit have started or expanded pre-existing programs. A range of foundations have committed millions of dollars for MBK’s six areas of focus: preschool education; reading proficiency by third grade; high school graduation; college attendance or career training; jobs; and reducing violence and helping ex-felons re-enter society. But as President Donald Trump takes over, leaders in the movement worry about his administration’s impact on the momentum they’ve created — and they hope Obama will remain involved.

The power of a decentralized approach, like the one described above, is that it can outlive the transition from one powerful executive to another. That's true in presidential politics, but it's also true in other forms or organizing and movement building.

Finally, I have a gift for you, which should keep you befuddled throughout the weekend. I went down a deep internet rabbit hole yesterday, when I learned that Steve Bannon - top White House advisor and central leader of the white supremacist alt-right movement - wrote a series of un-produced screenplays. One of those screenplays was a rap musical, based on Shakespeare's Coriolanus, set in the Watts section of Los Angeles during the 1992 uprising.

It's true! Here's Asawin Suebsaeng, a reporter at The Daily Beast:

Bannon also had an idea for a movie musical that even Lin-Manuel Miranda might find too aggressively left field: to take Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (based on the life of the Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus) and, according to Jones, “make a rap film out of it set in South Central during the L.A. riots—that was Steve’s idea." A copy of excerpts of the screenplay that was shared with The Daily Beast—The Thing I Am, written by Jones and Bannon—includes rap music, racial tensions aplenty, looting, gangster “foot-soldiers,” and chaos at “ground zero of the 1992 L.A. riots.” Coriolanus’s Menenius Agrippa, a senator of Rome, is recast as “Agrippa, ‘Mack Daddy’ of South Central, an ORIGINAL GANGSTA (O.G.) upper-echelon Blood.”

He also wanted to make a film about eugenics, which contains some questionable material, to say the least. As my mother says, "You can't make this s*#% up!"

Have a great weekend!

Thursday Reading List: School Accountability and Test Score Wonkery

This week, all eyes have been on the United States Senate, where confirmation hearings, partisan rancor, and grandstanding have attracted national attention. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives:

The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to overturn regulations crafted by the Obama administration for accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as those for teacher-preparation programs. If the ESSA resolution overturning the accountability rules is successful, it could have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. Department of Education, state officials, and local district leaders. These rules address school ratings, the timeline for identifying and intervening in struggling schools, indicators of school quality that go beyond test scores, and other issues. A Senate resolution to overturn the ESSA accountability rules is also expected in the near future.

That's from Andrew Ujifusa at Education Week. There's so much wonkery here, but the basic gist is that, during the Bush and Obama administrations, the federal government created rules that dictated how states rank their schools. At the risk of oversimplifying, one of the most important components of these requirements was that states had to look at subgroups of students within schools, like Black students, or students who speak English as a second language.

For example, let's say you have a high school in Princeton, New Jersey, where over 60% of the students are White, and less than 10% are Black. All of the Black students in the school could be getting systematically underserved, but even modest performance from the rest of the children in the school could hide that when data is averaged across the school. Before the early 2000s, many states and districts either avoided looking at, or willfully ignored, the performance of racial and ethnic subgroups ... particularly in places where the performance of a large group of White students could mathematically mask the underperformance of its non-White children. A lot of people hate testing, but there are substantial social justice and equity concerns that require some form of standardized assessment.

Sarah Darville at Chalkbeat watched Betsy DeVos's first speech as secretary of education, which she delivered to the staff of the department she now leads:

She told staffers that she valued their experience and ideas. She said students with disabilities and their families deserve the department’s full support, and that diversity and inclusion were important values. And she used language about “bending the arc” and “breaking the cycle” that echoed those who have tied education closely to social-justice work. DeVos also poked fun at the answer she gave about guns in schools during her confirmation hearing that inspired many a grizzly-bear meme. “For me personally, this confirmation process, and the drama it engendered, has been a bit of a bear,” DeVos said, to some laughter.

It will be interesting to see how DeVos's actions live up to her rhetoric. The Congressional moves described above do not bode well.

In other news, Meredith Kolodner of The Hechinger Report examined New York City's "Renewal schools," a systemic approach to addressing chronically underperforming schools. She zoomed in on P.S. 67 in Brooklyn:

Last year, 23 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state reading test, up from 0 percent in 2014. School staff members, in part, credit the improved academics and optimism to the targeted extra resources that come with being a Renewal school, a sort of supercharged version of a “community school” ... Where the model works, it offers hope for other struggling schools in poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods, not just in New York, but nationally ... But not all the Renewal schools have made the same progress as P.S. 67. By the program’s own measurements, a number of schools have not succeeded. More than one-third of the schools haven’t met even half of their own goals for attendance, academic progress and other improvements. Among its 31 high schools, graduation rates increased in 2i and decreased in eight last year over 2015 (two stayed the same).

Let that first sentence sink in. NONE of the children at the school were reading at grade level in the prior year. The next time someone tells you that things "aren't so bad" in American schools, ask that person whether she is okay with having schools in the country's largest, richest city where literally none of the children can read. The whole article is worth reading, because it captures the extent to which school improvement requires both serious changes to instruction and leadership, and support for children's non-academic needs. Both are important; neither is sufficient alone. Have a great day!

Wednesday Reading List: Can #DumpDeVos Become #DumpSessions?

Well, it's official:

After a bruising fight, Betsy DeVos, the billionaire philanthropist and school choice activist, got the votes she needed to become the next U.S. education secretary. It took a historic move to make it happen: a vote from Vice President Mike Pence, who was called in to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate. All of that body’s Democrats voted against DeVos, as did two Republicans ... The vote was historic for more than just Pence’s role. In the two months since President Donald Trump nominated DeVos, the Michigan power broker became his most controversial nominee, attracting more public opposition even than his choices for secretary of state or attorney general. 

That was Sarah Darville from Chalkbeat. We're going now to live footage of American educators reacting to the news:

Most attempts to parse the opposition to #BetsyWithTheGrizzBear focus on the role of organized labor and partisan politics. Those "takes" are missing the point. In appointing someone so flagrantly unqualified, who seems to know little to nothing about actual public education, the president has insulted educators. You can't fake this sort of outpouring, and I would remind cynics on both sides of the aisle what happened when they tried to write-off the Tea Party in 2009.

Liz Willen, writing at The Hechinger Report, thinks that the DeVos debacle signals a new movement towards education activism:

The enormous scrutiny and publicity surrounding the vote have reminded us that education is an issue nearly everyone cares about, although it’s too often overlooked in the coverage of horse-race politics and click-bait stories or obscured by inaccessible acronyms and jargon. Even ardent opponents to DeVos found some reasons to feel heartened ... After the vote, Senator Patty Murray of Washington told her Senate colleagues that the long nights, endless dramatic speeches, tweets and public statements had not been wasted. The vote followed opposition from  teacher organizations, civil rights groups, women’s rights activists, students, centrist think tanks, reform leaders, evangelical Christians, special education advocates. Even some choice proponents joined the protests.

The ragtag group that Willen describes, if it can find a way to work together, could be formidable. That's a big "if," though, as there are significant political, ideological, and tactical divisions within a coalition of that sort. Still, it's no more bizarre than the coalition that has been getting things done in reform for the last twenty years.

One next step for the anti-DeVos coalition could be to organize against Jeff Sessions, whose flagrant racism made him too unpalatable to get a judgeship ... in 1986. The confirmation of Sessions is shaping up to be contentious as well, as Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times reports:

Republican senators voted on Tuesday to formally silence a Democratic colleague for impugning a peer, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, by condemning his nomination for attorney general while reading a letter from Coretta Scott King. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, had been holding forth on the Senate floor on the eve of Mr. Sessions’s expected confirmation vote, reciting a 1986 letter from Mrs. King that criticized Mr. Sessions’s record on civil rights ... Democrats planned to hold the floor into the wee hours of Wednesday to protest Mr. Sessions’s nomination.

The United States attorney general has significant discretion to prosecute, or ignore, civil rights violations. We know that our criminal justice system, and our schools, disproportionately punish people of color. A justice department under Sessions would likely exacerbate those issues. As Chris Stewart points out in Citizen Education, the line between schools and the criminal justice system is thin, and getting thinner:

You remember the video from 2015. A black student ripped from her chair by a Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy – Ben Fields – and flung across the floor like a bag of beans. The incident caused outrage and a national discussion about the existence of police officers in public schools, which led to a federal investigation ... An analysis done by Ed Week found a strong presence of school resource officers accompanied by disproportionate arrests of students. They say 46% of high schools, 42% of elementary schools, and 18% of elementary schools have an onsite school resource officer. Those officers are sometimes trained for their unique role in public schools, but often they lack special training. While black students make up 16% of public school students overall, they represent 33% of those arrested at school.

First of all, we need to kill one particular euphemism: "school resource officers." They're police officers, and their training is in law enforcement, not the developmental needs of children. That's a huge problem. Second, this situation is great conversational fodder for the crowd that thinks it's possible to isolate what happens in the classroom from every other facet of a child's life. Children and their families do not live in a vacuum, and neither can education policy.

Tuesday Reading List: Immigrant Students, Solidarity, and a New Podcast Episode!

Educators around the country are grappling with the implications of the presidential administration's travel ban. Corey Mitchell and Francisco Vara-Orta of Education Week examined the magnitude of the problem:

Foreign-born students represent 6 percent of the population in American schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Influxes of immigrant students—who may have large gaps in schooling and whose linguistic and cultural differences can present challenges for educators—have at times caused friction in communities where some parents raised concerns that new arrivals negatively impact their children's education. The anxiety over Trump's order is particularly acute for students and educators in immigrant-rich communities like Minnesota's Somali strongholds, California's heavily Latino communities, and blooming Syrian enclaves around the country. Trump’s freeze on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—is casting a shadow on immigrant students. The ban also hit home in places like Houston and Nashville, Tenn., both with a growing number of Islamic students. The districts also have large Kurdish communities, many of whom come from countries targeted in the immigration ban. In Nashville, at least 1,000 students from affected countries are in the city's schools.

What's striking to me is the cognitive dissonance of anti-immigration sentiment. The communities that have higher concentrations of immigrants - like the urban centers described above - tend to welcome and embrace their immigrant communities. At last night's #GetOrganizedBK event here in Brooklyn, for example hundreds of people showed up to demonstrate solidarity:

Sharif El-Mekki, writing at Philly's 7th Ward, compares the refugee experience to that of Black Americans:

Oppression comes in all forms. And victims are many. As activists, new and veteran, seek to utilize the supports that immigrants and refugees need, it should come as no surprise that Black children are “refugees” in the very country that many claim. Marginalized, living in communities starved for resources, and deported, en masse, to prisons, Black families have historically suffered America’s contempt, the very contempt that today engulfs us in regard to Muslim immigrants.

El-Mekki describes a recent trip to France, wherein he and other educators studied the education of marginalized groups there. It's a fascinating comparison of how former colonial powers navigate inclusivity.

In other news, Alyson Klein of Education Week looks at Betsy DeVos's likely confirmation:

School choice advocate and billionaire GOP donor Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, has been at the center of a social-media maelstrom and stirred more opposition than any other nominee to lead the agency in its more than three-decade-long history. But regardless of those strong feelings, it remains to be seen whether DeVos—if confirmed, as appears likely—would have the clout to be an effective education secretary. The litany of prohibitions on the secretary's role in the year-old Every Student Succeeds Act means DeVos would take office with far less executive firepower than such predecessors as Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings, who used waivers and pilot programs to reimagine implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, the law's previous version.

Whereas prior education secretaries had wide berth to drive policy change, the role's executive authority was diminished in the last iteration of the nation's federal education law.

Peter Cunningham, a former Obama administration official, wonders aloud in The Hechinger Report whether she can be effective:

There’s no question she’s starting much further behind than former Education Secretary Arne Duncan did eight years ago, following a bipartisan lovefest at his confirmation hearing and a voice vote in the Senate even before President Barack Obama took office. Duncan had a few advantages: $100 billion in Recovery Act funds to save teacher jobs and drive reform, making him especially popular in his early years. DeVos won’t be nearly as lucky. There are, however, a few things she can do to soften the strident opposition she’s faced since her nomination, and since she made remarks taken as evidence of her lack of understanding for and about public education. She could start by honoring the federal government’s historic role in promoting educational equity and access.

Cunningham also suggests that she should use her bully pulpit to push her own party on controversial issues. Color me skeptical. DeVos has a long track record of taking firm policy positions, but she rarely challenges her own party's orthodoxy.

Finally, if you're a veteran reader, you'll remember that Chris Stewart and I enjoy dabbling in podcast cohosting.

After a long hiatus, we are back! The newest episode of our podcast - The Beard Brothers Dope Show - is available on iTunes, Blubrry, and your favorite podcasting platforms. Also, whereas the podcast title was a misnomer for many months, because I had shaved my beard, my facial hair has made a triumphant return to ensure fidelity to our marketing artwork. You're welcome, Chris.

Monday Reading List: Education on SNL, Vouchers, and School Safety

The Senate confirmation of education secretary designee Betsy DeVos is imminent, with sources reporting that the vote is scheduled for Tuesday at noon. In the meantime, journalists around the world are wondering why #BetsyWithTheGrizzBear is so unpopular. I have a theory:

No, I don't mean that she's unpopular BECAUSE of Kate McKinnon's devastating portrayal in this SNL sketch. The sketch, however, neatly encapsulates the caricature of DeVos that has emerged:

For an administration obsessed with appearances and theatrics, it's revealing that they have done very little to portray a different image of DeVos. Why not send her on a talk show, to prove that she does in fact know what she's talking about? Could such a move worsen her image? Maybe they think so?

Moving from politics to policy, Ian Whitaker of The Atlantic looked into a DeVos-backed voucher scheme in Nevada and found problems:

More importantly, the voucher was baked into the existing budget for public education, allowing parents to take money the state would otherwise spend on schools and use it on things like private-school tuition, tutoring, and even homeschooling. It was the closest any state had come to the universal voucher originally envisioned by the economist Milton Friedman, who saw unfettered choice as the only hope to ensure poor families had access to good schools. But data from Nevada, consistently ranked at the bottom in the nation for student achievement, quickly showed that a vast majority of applicants were not from low-income areas, but the wealthiest neighborhoods in Reno and Las Vegas. In fact, applicants came disproportionately from neighborhoods that already had access to the highest-performing public schools.

I'm not surprised to learn this, as voucher enthusiasts frequently overlook the role of power in these circumstances. Moreover, it's important to remember that a voucher does not provides poor families with "the same options that wealthier families have," which is a misleading talking point. Even the most generous vouchers cover only a fraction of the cost of the elite education experiences that wealthy families enjoy.

Daarel Burnette, II at Education Week looks at the uneasy relationship between schools and law enforcement in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Administrators, teachers, and students are...actively debating whether the district’s efforts to remake school security have gone too far or not far enough. They’re talking about what role, if any, the district’s school resource officers should play in keeping schools safe. Black high school students said in a districtwide survey released in June that they don’t see school resource officers as trusted adults they can turn to for help. They complained that their interactions with police were mostly negative, and questioned why those officers carry guns or are in schools at all. Teachers’ union officials agree in principle that teachers shouldn’t burden school police officers with basic classroom management, such as dealing with an unruly student. But the union also says the district isn’t providing enough counselors, school nurses, or social workers to handle the social ills that plague the schools.

This is a long, complicated story that raises many questions about perception and reality around school safety.

Finally, The New York Times has a fun interactive math quiz for readers, to see whether or not you are "college ready." Give it a try, and have a nice week!