Monday Reading List: Philanthropy, System Change, and Racist Algorithms

Sarah Darville of Chalkbeat looks at a significant shift in strategy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Its massive education funding efforts have helped spread small high schools, charter schools, and efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. Now, the Gates Foundation is going in a new direction. In a speech Thursday, Bill Gates said the foundation is about to launch a new, locally driven effort to help existing public schools improve. The idea is to fund “networks” that help public schools improve by scrutinizing student achievement data and getting schools to share their best ideas, he said. Of the $1.7 billion the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend on U.S. education over the next five years, more than 60 percent will go to these networks — dwarfing the amount to be spent on charter schools, about 15 percent.

The United States spends more than $600 billion per year on schools, and all philanthropy in education adds another $60 billion, accounting for about 10% of all spending. Despite constituting a relatively small percentage of total spending, charitable giving has changed dramatically in the last generation. Whereas philanthropists of yore were likely to view donations as "charity," large institutional philanthropies like the Gates Foundation think of their gifts as "investments" that need to deliver either a demonstrable "return on investment" or "systemic change." The Gates Foundation and its peers think of their donations as leverage, through which they can use relatively small amounts of money to hasten their preferred changes to the broader education system. That's why this news important.


Speaking of systemic change, Carolyn Phenicie of The 74 interviewed Antwan Wilson, the chancellor of the DC Public Schools, a system that has transformed dramatically in the last decade:

A decade ago, former mayor Adrian Fenty and hard-charging chancellor Michelle Rhee instituted a number of sweeping reforms, including mayoral control, a teachers contract that rewards top-performing educators, and closure of underenrolled and poor-performing schools. Now test scores are going up — it was the fastest-improving big-city district, as judged by a 2015 national test — and its high school graduation rate rose 16 percentage points in five years. The man charged with continuing that progress, while getting at the continuing disparities across the city, is Antwan Wilson, who began his tenure as chancellor in February after leading the Oakland, California, schools.

DC is a fascinating story, and I need to admit my biases here: I worked in the system as a cabinet member until 2009 and also participated in a fellowship with Chancellor Wilson. Don't just take my word on the level of interest and complexity in DC, though; read the article!

In other news, the Blavity team examined a workshop that encourages more Black scientists to work in artificial intelligence:

Black researchers aren't standing by as future artificial intelligence recreate the racial bias people of color face in the present. They are taking it upon themselves to make the A.I. fair for everyone.  On Dec. 8, black computer scientists will converge on Long Beach, California for the first ever Black in AI event/workshop at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems that will serve as a meeting place for "sharing ideas, fostering collaborations and discussing initiatives to increase the presence of Black people in the field of Artificial Intelligence."  While the event sounds incredible on paper, critics from the tech industry came out of the woodwork as news about the event spread across social media. Many of these critics claimed that the Black in A.I. Workshop is segregationist and political correctness is running amok. 
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Of course they overreacted. What the haters don't realize is that there are real racial biases baked into artificial intelligence, system interfaces, and data algorithms. The article goes on to explain the various ways in which algorithmic decision-making can discriminate against people of color.

Finally today, Carolyn Jones of The Atlantic looks at the effects of wildfires on California schools:

Teachers, administrators and parents—many of whom either lost their own homes or are hosting families who did—are working to prepare for the gradual re-opening of schools in fire-ravaged areas of Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties. Some schools began welcoming back students on last Monday, but others closer to the fire zones will remain closed at least through this week. And some will never re-open, because they burned to the ground.

Different communities respond to disasters in different ways. It's important to remember, though, that the most economically insecure families have the most difficult time bouncing back from these events. Keep that in mind as you interact with the children in your lives and schools.

Have a wonderful week! 

Tuesday Reading List: Listening to #MeToo ... Plus a Rumination on Policy Hubris & Desegregation Strategy

Sophie Gilbert is in The Atlantic examining the phenomenon of women posting #MeToo statements online:

For a long time, most women defined their own sexual harassment and assault in this way: as something unspoken, something private, something to be ashamed of acknowledging. Silence, although understandable, has its cost. A decade ago, I couldn’t have conceived of the fact that so many women had experienced sexual coercion or intimidation; now, I’d be surprised if I could find a single one who hadn’t. On Sunday afternoon, the actress Alyssa Milano used her Twitter account to encourage women who’d been sexually harassed or assaulted to tweet the words #MeToo. In the last 24 hours, a spokesperson from Twitter confirmed, the hashtag had been tweeted nearly half a million times.

Every woman I know - including my wife, mother, and sister - has experienced things that should make men feel ashamed. Assault, harassment, and the abuse of power are problems that all men perpetuate through their passivity. I'm still learning a lot about these issues. Many women are sharing their stories right now, so my primary advice to other men is to A) listen to the women in your lives, and B) believe the stories they tell you.

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In other news, Katy Reckdahl of The Hechinger Report looks at the pressure to produce quick results in New Orleans's charter schools:

In 2008, a few years after Hurricane Katrina, school officials in Louisiana asked aspiring charter-school leader Andrew Shahan to consider taking over the failing Dr. Charles Drew Elementary School in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward. Shahan submitted a 170-page application, outlining his plans ... Shahan predicted that Arise’s test scores would increase by 10 percent each year over the course of five years, starting at 40 percent “proficiency” on state tests and stair-stepping up each year ... A Hechinger Report analysis found that such lofty goals were common in the 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, particularly between 2008 and 2013, when dozens of new charter schools opened across the city.

The punchline is this: very few schools achieved the lofty short-term goals that were established. Reckdahl presents an important story about weighing ambition against reality, and how that balancing act becomes combustible in a politicized context.

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Speaking of which, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat takes a fresh look at academic results in the city of Newark:

It was announced with much fanfare on Oprah in 2010: dramatic changes were coming to Newark’s schools, financed with $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Those changes — including a new teachers’ contract and the expansion of charter schools — proved controversial and challenging to implement. But there hasn’t been a clear answer to the key question: Are students learning more now than they were then, thanks to the reform effort? A new study, released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research, is among the first to try to answer. It finds that by 2016, Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011. But the results are not uniformly positive. It finds no impact in math. And in both subjects, the reforms seem to have come with a cost: student achievement declined substantially in the first three years of the changes.

Because of the size and nature of the philanthropic investment in Newark's schools, the city became a rorschach test for education policymakers. Dale Russakoff's book, The Prize, attempted to assess the reform project in its early stages. That book was the best of the "examining a single city to epitomize the reform agenda" genre of the last decade.

In light of these results, though, I wonder if the outsized attention to these initiatives in the short-term is damaging to their long-term viability. Consider, for example, the current narrative about school segregation, which is perhaps best captured in the oeuvre of New York Times Magazine journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones, who just won a MacArthur Genius Grant. Alexander Russo, writing in Phi Delta Kappan, looks at how her writing affects the discussion on this particular policy issue:

It’s incredibly exciting that Hannah-Jones, writing about what many might think of as the least sexy, most outdated topic imaginable, not only influences large numbers of educators, parents, policymakers, and reporters but also has been recognized as one of the top thinkers and doers in the world. But what about the ideas she’s describing? Boiled down to its core, Hannah-Jones’ work – three much-discussed pieces in particular – makes the argument that school segregation has been and still remains a central factor in depriving black Americans from fully participating in society. “Nikole’s work vividly highlights the degree to which we as a nation have so far failed to live up to the promise of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision,” says former Obama education secretary John B. King, now head of the Education Trust.

School segregation is a massive problem, which is upheld not just by education policy, but also by housing segregation, the school-to-prison pipeline, wealth inequality, and a host of other local and national issues. Like all examples of institutional racism, we cannot solve the problem by erasing the "hate in our hearts." Segregation was created through the careful, multi-generational manipulation of public policy, and it must be unwound similarly. 

As such, I worry that too many of the people lauding Hannah-Jones's work exhibit the same policy hubris that I saw in the charter leaders of the early 2000s. 

The challenge of achieving school integration is just as complicated - if not more so - than producing increases in student achievement on standardized tests. "Busing" was the preferred mechanism of the last generation, but that concept places extraordinary transportation burdens on families who already live in economically insecure communities. I would love to see a busing scheme that takes kids en-masse from the suburbs to the city, but I sometimes wonder how that's substantively different than gentrification?

Another idea that wins favor among policy elites is the idea of the metropolitan school district, wherein officials draw school system boundaries over a large enough geographic area such that diversity is achieved through re-districting. This sounds great in theory, but given housing segregation, it's not practically different from busing. Moreover, recent attempts at re-districting highlight how technical change can cause equal and opposite policy reactions. That's what happened in Memphis and Shelby County several years ago, when in response to re-districting, the white communities of Shelby County literally seceded from the new, theoretically-more-diverse district. See also Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where decades of award-winning de-segregation work was unwound for similar reasons.

While we tend to think of the American South as the culprit on this issue, perhaps the most visceral episode of attempted de-segregation in the North happened in Boston in the 1970s. I spoke with Colin Diver recently, who famously appeared as the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed technocrat in charge of Boston desegregation in Tony Lukas's complicated book, Common Ground. I asked Diver to compare his experience in the 1970s to what he sees happening in education policy today. He mostly demurred, as he hasn't worked on K-12 education policy since the late 1970s, but he was forceful on one issue: we cannot eradicate institutional racism with policy alone, and there is no algorithm that will erase white America's sense of entitlement and unearned superiority.

I consider myself luck to have attended unusually diverse public K-12 schools. (Shout out to Eastern Camden County Regional.) As a white kid, that experience was not just important, but essential, to my personal growth and development. As I've gotten older, however, and I have had more explicit conversations about race with my non-white classmates, it has become clear that the experience was far more complicated for many of my peers. This personal experience, coupled with a career working in education policy, makes me very suspicious of elite policymakers in predominantly white institutions who have expedient ideas for how to improve education for Black children.

Which brings me back to the articles in today's reading list. The hubris of the predominantly white charter school organizations, whose preferred policy was all the rage in the early 2000s and 2010s, should be an important learning experience for the policymakers of today who are eager to dive through the Overton Window on the issue of school integration.

When technical ideas get ahead of both policymaking expertise and political strategy, overreach and under-performance is a foregone conclusion. On the issue of school integration, where centuries of institutional and interpersonal racism are at play, all of these risks are heightened.


I am a deep admirer of Hannah-Jones and her work, and I congratulate her on her well-deserved recognition. I am a proud graduate of a racially diverse public schools. I have chosen to live my life in a mixed-race community. I - quite selfishly, in fact - want racial integration to be a de facto feature of American life.

All of the experiences that make me desirous of that end, however, are the same things that make me clear-eyed about the process.

Have a great day ...

Friday Reading List: Remember to Support Puerto Rico

Mark Keierleber of The Atlantic looks at how Florida schools are responding to an influx of children from Puerto Rico:

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in all Florida counties on October 2 in response to Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic impact, opening disaster relief centers at the Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport, and the Port of Miami to help Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm. The school district was joined by officials from other state agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities of Central Florida. Orlando is among East Coast cities from Florida to Massachusetts where officials expect thousands of new students after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20. Fleeing the island has been difficult, but displaced students have already begun to arrive—and as more families score plane tickets, school leaders expect the influx to multiply.

The devastation in Puerto Rico exacerbated an already dire financial situation on the island. This piece does a nice job of laying out some of the educational and public policy ramifications of people moving from Puerto Rico to other places in the United States.

To that point, Jessica Trisko Darden, writing in The Washington Post, wonders why the president is acting as if sending resources to the island is foreign aid:

Disaster assistance, like humanitarian assistance and other forms of foreign aid, is political. In the modern era, media coverage often drives the government’s response to natural disasters. And many Americans don’t support providing this type of emergency assistance to non-Americans. Surveys show again and again that many Americans believe the U.S. government spends too many taxpayer dollars helping foreigners, when it should be doing more at home. Even the most altruistic forms of foreign aid come under pressure: 45 percent of Americans support cutting humanitarian assistance. Trump’s recent tweets on Puerto Rico echo much of the criticism often leveled against foreign disaster and humanitarian assistance. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country (though many Americans think it is), the president seems insistent on treating it like one.
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Do your homework, America. Too many of us do not know even the most basic facts of our national geography. This weekend, remember to do what you can to support disaster relief in Puerto Rico.

In other news, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat examines the ways in which parents pick schools. The results suggest that parents place more value on the perceived academic performance of peers, than on the quality of instruction in a building:

There are a number of ways to interpret these results. One, is that families value characteristics — like safety or after-school programs — besides the metrics of school quality used in this study. That said, the study includes measures like high-school graduation and college attendance, that parents and students are likely to care about Another hypothesis is that families and students simply don’t have good data on which schools are good. “Without direct information about school effectiveness … parents may use peer characteristics as a proxy for school quality,” the study suggests. Indeed, there is evidence that families respond to information about school performance, but it’s unclear to what extent they would prioritize sophisticated measures of school quality, even if given that additional data.

It's possible for both of these things to be true simultaneously. That said, this research raises questions for school choice advocates. There always has been a tension between the ideas of "choice" and "accountability" in school reform policy. Policymakers on the political right tend to think that the opportunity for parents to choose is sufficient accountability in itself. Many of us on the left, including me, disagree with that position. Results like these help to make our case.

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Finally today, Michael Harriot of The Root squints at recent comments from the chief of diversity at Apple:

Apple is really white ... To fix its diversity problem, the tech company hired Denise Young Smith as its first-ever vice president of diversity, because it’s much easier to hire one person and claim you’re “working on your diversity problem” than it is to simply just hire brown people. Earlier this week, Young Smith ... was asked about inclusion and whether she would focus on any particular group, she said: “I focus on everyone. ... Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term ‘diversity’ is tagged to the people of color, or the women, or the LGBT ... There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse ..."

Yikes. Read the whole piece, because Harriot points out all of the problems with this argument, with the ultimate point being - in his mother's words - that "words mean things," and you can't just redefine diversity to divest it of any meaning whatsoever.

Have a great weekend, and shout out to all of the wise mothers out there ...

Wednesday Reading List: Recovering from Disasters of All Sorts

As cities throughout the United States continue to struggle with hurricane damage, Marva Hinton & Corey Mitchell of Education Week examine recovery efforts in Florida and Texas:

Schools may be open again in most parts of storm-ravaged Florida and Texas, but things are hardly back to normal as students and staff deal with cleanup, rebuilding, and the emotional disruption of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey ... Florida school officials also are girding for an influx of students displaced from Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, which devastated that island and shuttered a school system with some 700,000 students. Last week [Florida Governor Rick] Scott announced that the state’s online school system would accept 20,000 affected students living either in Puerto Rico or in Florida.

Speaking of Puerto Rico, the situation there continues to be an absolute emergency. Here's Frances Robles yesterday in The New York Times:

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, many sick people across the island remain in mortal peril. The government’s announcements each morning about the recovery effort are often upbeat, but beyond them are hidden emergencies. Seriously ill dialysis patients across Puerto Rico have seen their treatment hours reduced by 25 percent because the centers still lack a steady supply of diesel to run their generators. Less than half of Puerto Rico’s medical employees have reported to work in the weeks since the storm, federal health officials said. Hospitals are running low on medicine and high on patients, as they take in the infirm from medical centers where generators failed. A hospital in Humacao had to evacuate 29 patients last Wednesday — including seven in the intensive care unit and a few on the operating table — to an American military medical ship off the coast of Puerto Rico when a generator broke down.

The level of devastation on Puerto Rico is extraordinary, and it's hard to avoid thinking that the federal government is getting away with a lackluster response because of the island's status as a territory. You should call your senators and congresspeople to ask them to put pressure on FEMA to extend the timeline during which residents can file disaster claims; almost nobody on the island has power, so filing claims is virtually impossible for most citizens.

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Speaking of unresolved disasters, Nathalie Baptiste of Mother Jones reports that another Michigan official will be charged with a crime in relation to the Flint water crisis:

On Monday, the Michigan attorney general’s office announced that Dr. Eden Wells, who was the state’s chief medical officer, would be charged with involuntary manslaughter for her role in the Flint water crisis. In June, she was charged with obstruction of justice after she allegedly attempted misled investigators and tried to stop an investigation into the crisis. She is the sixth Flint official to be charged with involuntary manslaughter ... In 2014, emergency city managers appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River. Because the river had not been treated properly, the water began leaching lead from lead pipes outfitted in homes across the city.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the water in Flint - after three years - is almost back to acceptable levels for human consumption. It still stuns me that we allowed this to happen on American soil in the 21st century.

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Finally today, in the November print edition of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan turns in a long look at the death of a fraternity member at Penn State University. While student deaths an an unfortunate - and all too frequent - consequence of binge drinking and fraternity culture, Flanagan explains why this case is different:

Tim Piazza’s case, however, has something we’ve never seen before. This time the dead student left a final testimony, a vivid, horrifying, and inescapable account of what happened to him and why. The house where he was so savagely treated had been outfitted with security cameras, which recorded his long ordeal. Put together with the texts and group chats of the fraternity brothers as they delayed seeking medical treatment and then cleaned up any traces of a wild party—and with the 65-page report released by a Centre County grand jury, which recommended 1,098 criminal charges against 18 former members and against the fraternity itself—the footage reveals a more complete picture of certain dark realities than we have previously had.

It's a dark and troubling read, which you should take some time to absorb.

Have a great day ...


Monday Reading List: Can I Go Off for a Minute?

I was going to keep the reading list short and sweet today, but I ended up going off. I hope you'll bear with me.

As someone who works at the intersection of education policy and racial justice work, I often get questions that sound something like this:

"Hey, why do you talk about race so much?"

"Don't you care about education and social justice?"

"Isn't discussing race a distraction from the core policy issues at hand?"

My initial reaction to those questions:

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I realize, though, that the lasting impact of race on social policy is not self-evident to all Americans. Many of my peers haven't grappled with the fact  that the very concept of race is a product of social policy, and has no real biological or scientific grounding.

So, I strive to provide context. For example, this recent study by Professor David Quinn, from USC's Rossier School of Education, on the racial attitudes of educators, is helpful:

In 2014, 31% of preK-12 educators believed that inequalities were mainly a result of African Americans lacking motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty, and 20% of postsecondary educators believed this. Considering the mechanisms discussed earlier through which such a belief can negatively impact students, these are high numbers. While educators are more likely than non-educators to believe that inequalities are due to African Americans not having adequate educational opportunities (with 56% of preK-12 and 72% of postsecondary educators expressing this belief in 2014, compared to 42% of non-educators), students would be better off if fewer educators explained inequalities through racial differences in motivation or willpower, and if more perceived education as playing a corrective role. 

To some people, these numbers are stunning. (NB: my colleagues of color, on the other hand, have said to me, "This is what we've been trying to tell you.")

Quinn's research focuses on inputs, while decades of measuring the various opportunity gaps experienced by non-white children are sufficient evidence that race also has an impact on outcomes. Those outcomes extend well beyond education: college graduation rates, high school graduation rates, test scores, post-graduation earning potential, household wealth, health, etc. All of this is dreadful, but it's incredibly troubling that Quinn's work suggests that a huge number of our country's educators view these outcomes as a product of race-driven ability, not of broader social forces.

So, given all of this evidence, it's clear that race has an impact on inputs, outcomes, and everything in between. We obviously ought to be talking about race.

But how? Do we tiptoe around the issue? Or do we have an honest discussion about the fact that most American social policy was created to preserve a racial hierarchy?

I shared a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates last week, which pointed out that most Americans do not have a solid grasp of the definition of racism and "white supremacy." He argues that discussions about race are difficult, not just because some people want to preserve the social hierarchy, but also because of information gaps.

Coates's perspective, which is that white supremacy is a defining characteristic of American culture and social policy, is an expansive one. Vann Newkirk II goes deeper in The Atlantic:

... criticism of a broad definition of white supremacy isn’t new ... The provenance of that definition of white supremacy does not alone guarantee its usefulness, and 30 years is still relatively new in the academia-to-modern parlance frame ... The media likewise should not be merely a mirror of consensus; rather it should challenge groupthink any time it runs up against truth. And if consensus is that white supremacy is a thing that only exists in the hate-group fringe, that claim should be held in skepticism against the reality that many of the racial outcomes—income gaps, housing and education segregation, police brutality, and incarceration—of the era of naked white supremacy persist, or have even worsened. And when it comes to Trump, or any other politician for that matter, the knee-jerk consensus reaction that a mainstream politician cannot possibly be a white supremacist should be balanced with the truth that many or most American politicians have been, and that they were voted in by real Americans, many of whom are alive, well, and voting today.

I happen to buy Newkirk's - and by extension, Coates's and Baldwin's and Dr. King's - broad definition of white supremacy. I agree with their position, not because it feels good ... because let's be honest, as a white dude, it feels awful.

I agree with their position, both because it is a moral one, and because it is supported by data. As Newkirk reminds us, that data exists in housing, schooling, policing, and virtually every other corner of American culture.

The rebuttal to this broad view of white supremacy comes in many forms, but for centrists and progressives, a favorite trope is the idea that discussing white supremacy gives it power. Here's Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times offering that genre of counterpoint:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of [Ta-Nehisi] Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish. This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.

First, it's worth noting that the vast majority of people I saw nodding along to this article over the weekend are white.

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Second, Williams's argument is impossible to swallow if you agree with the idea that race is a factor that affects American life. He says later in his article that discussing race in this manner is tantamount to "fetishizing" race. It's an interesting choice of words.

Are we "fetishizing" the climate when we discuss the escalation of global temperatures?

Are we "fetishizing" the concept of wealth when we discuss income disparities?

You cannot discuss an issue without naming it. I know many policymakers who have no problem discussing social outcomes in racialized terms, but they get dismissive when we start asserting that race might be an important factor in creating those outcomes. Just as common are the commentators who acknowledge that race is a factor, but they're so afraid to talk about it, that they reach for euphemisms or other cultural signifiers to replace race. The former is ignorance, while the latter is obfuscation.

The bottom line is this: you can't stand in the middle of a conflagration, screaming, "WE SHOULD BE TALKING LESS ABOUT THIS FIRE!!"

This week, be sure to address the fire consuming the room.

Have a great day!

Friday Reading List: Millenials Differ With Their Elders on Charters & A Scary Look at White Nationalism

Shavar Jeffries writes in The Hill about generational differences in education policy perspectives:

... new data from GenForward at the University of Chicago shows that Millennials, including Millennials of color, strongly support charter schools. Unlike standard opinion polling, GenForward over samples young adults of color to understand the variations between racial and ethnic groups in the largest and most diverse age cohort in our country. This survey asked Millennials to discuss education-related views ranging from free speech to school discipline. The results show a generation divided along racial lines in many ways — with the exception of only a few issues ... Many of these young people may have attended a charter school, or know someone who did. Unlike many of the people making education policy choices in national organizations, charters aren’t  a foreign concept to those who were most recently in the elementary and secondary school system.

This data doesn't surprise me, especially since we saw something very similar at play in Massachusetts last year. Charter supporters shouldn't be complacent with this data, though. This generation of voters will abandon you in an instant if they perceive that you are on the wrong side of other critical social issues.

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Maya Rupert of Slate expands on that last idea. She points out that, for people of color, the idea of having a "debate" about race is beside the point:

As heightened racial tensions around an emboldened white supremacist movement increasingly shape our political discourse, cross-racial conversations about race have become both more necessary and more common, and thankfully so ... White people are an absolutely crucial component in the discussion and actions that must take place in order for concrete progress to occur, particularly in the current political climate. But in order for their participation to be valuable, they must be willing to confront white supremacy head-on rather than by way of harmful mental gymnastics. There is no way to productively ask a person to participate in an argument that questions their equality as an epistemological experiment.

What's mind-boggling to me is that the fierce, right-wing protectors of "free speech" will cry "censorship" at this premise ... when Rupert is literally saying that her own humanity and equality cannot be conditional upon winning an argument.

In the meantime, Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed looked deep inside that right-wing outrage machine and found - shockingly - Nazis:

... new emails and documents, however, clearly show that Breitbart does more than tolerate the most hate-filled, racist voices of the alt-right. It thrives on them, fueling and being fueled by some of the most toxic beliefs on the political spectrum — and clearing the way for them to enter the American mainstream. It’s a relationship illustrated most starkly by a previously unreleased April 2016 video in which Yiannopoulos sings “America the Beautiful” in a Dallas karaoke bar as admirers, including the white nationalist Richard Spencer, raise their arms in Nazi salutes. These documents chart the Breitbart alt-right universe. They reveal how the website — and, in particular, Yiannopoulos — links the Mercer family, the billionaires who fund Breitbart, to underpaid trolls who fill it with provocative content, and to extremists striving to create a white ethnostate.
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My first reaction to seeing this article was, "There is no fucking way I'm going to read 5,000 words to remind myself that Breitbart and Bannon sympathize with Nazis." That's not news, and if it took you until today to figure that out, welcome to the dark side.

While it's jarring to see a video of a bunch of White men doing Nazi salutes in a karaoke bar, the far more revelatory component of this piece is its deep-dive into the mechanics of the White supremacist infrastructure in this country.

Spoiler alert: it's not just "poor" or "working class" White people!

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In the article we learn that Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire, bankrolls many of the institutions and individuals who propagate these messages, including Milo Yiannopoulos himself. This isn't news if you read Jane Mayer in The New Yorker in March, when she wrote a deep dive on Mercer and his activist family ... but there are some new and revealing angles on the Mercer-Bannon-Yiannopoulos relationships here. As a good friend reminded me over text message last night, "People don't realize how close many of these guys are to the mainstream."

The point is this: some people on the right are doing their best to construe the White supremacist element of the Republican infrastructure as a fringe phenomenon. It's not. Influential donors in the party are working to expand the reach of the White nationalists within its ranks, and that is - to put a fine point on it - scary as fuck.

Have a great weekend, I guess ... lol.

Wednesday Reading List: Civil Rights and Honesty in Teaching History

Ta-Nehisi Coates is in The Atlantic, with a reminder that Civil Rights protests have always been unpopular:

As The Washington Post noted last year, only 22 percent of all Americans approved of the Freedom Rides, and only 28 percent approved of the sit-ins. The vast majority of Americans—60 percent—had “unfavorable” feelings about the March on Washington. As FiveThirtyEight notes, in 1966, 63 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King. The popular hostility toward King extended to the very government he tried to embrace—King was bugged and harassed by the FBI until the end of his life. His assassination sprang from the deep hostility with which he was viewed, not by a fringe radical minority, but by the majority of the American citizenry.

Coates makes the appropriate comparison between those popularity statistics, and the scorn for contemporary protestors. It's important to remember that our current perspective on the Civil Rights movement has been sanitized in myriad ways.

One of the mechanisms for that revision of history is education. For example, as Sierra Mannie of The Hechinger Report finds, most Mississippi textbooks barely mention Civil Rights:

In Mississippi Studies, a required high school course, “Mississippi: The Magnolia State” is commonly used. Published in 2005, it describes ardent segregationist John C. Stennis as “politically moderate.” The Freedom Riders, scores of mostly young activists who traveled by bus across the South to challenge Jim Crow laws – who appear prominently in the state standards – aren’t mentioned at all. Neither are the laws they challenged, Mississippi civil rights activist T.R.M. Howard, or the Congress of Racial Equality, an organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters. In contrast, James K. Vardaman, Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908, who supported lynching African-Americans, is mentioned 69 times, according to a Hechinger/Reveal text analysis of the textbook. The state standards don’t mention him once.
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Ah yes, James K. Vardaman, who was a pioneer in running for office on post-bellum White supremacy, and whose nickname was LITERALLY "The Great White Chief."

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The Mississippi textbook is a good reminder that there no such thing as avoiding politics when teaching civics and history. Sharif El-Mekki, writing at Education Post, encourages fellow principals to embrace the political nature of their work:

Many of the lessons I have learned and continue to learn, are no different than any leadership advice that I have read in countless articles and books about leadership: Be curious. Be humble. Read. Read some more. Use data to decide what’s the best course of action. Listen. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Set a high bar of expectations and be flexible in your approach. As a tribute to National Principals Month, and a reminder to myself, I wanted to share several of these messages with you ...
4. Be political. I often hear that schools should be devoid of political statements. But, proponents of such misguidance fail to realize that everything an educator does, from choosing materials, books, and curriculum, delivering instruction, or remaining silent on issues of oppression are political decisions. Being apolitical doesn’t mean remaining silent, silence is often the most political of all statements and actions.

El-Mekki is right to remind us that neutrality is, in itself, a political choice. This message is particularly important for educators whose students come from backgrounds that are dissimilar from their own. It's possible to make authentic connections across difference, but educators must work hard to understand the social and political context in which their students are living.

One person who is trying to do just that is actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who is releasing a series of children's books. Blavity has the story:

It was just five short years ago when Wallis stole our hearts with her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress ... In 2015, Wallis made the big announcement that she will be releasing a series of children's books with publisher Simon and Schuster. Two years later, the first two books, A Night Out With Mama and Shai and Emmie Star in Break An Egg!, are here! A Night Out With Mama is a glitz and glam-filled story loosely based on Wallis' night at the Oscars. Shai and Emmie Star in Break An Egg! is a tale about best friends who find themselves in a dance competition that becomes a must-win situation for bragging rights and cupcakes.

Ok, so maybe not everyone can relate to a night at the Oscars.

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But there is a huge demand for children's books featuring Black girls, and it's good to see new offerings in the marketplace.

Have a great day!

Monday Reading List: The Problem With Arguments About Social Mobility & Schools

United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a speech at Harvard last week. Sarah Darville and Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat unpacked the most salient nuggets:

The first question lobbed at DeVos came from a parent who has sent her children to district, charter and parochial schools, but argued that “as a whole, most [school] systems … aren’t working for black parents like me.” The question focused on DeVos and the federal government’s role in ensuring quality schools: “Why don’t you think that you should have any say or any control over setting minimums … so systems aren’t the wild, wild West?” DeVos, a skeptic of the federal role in education, immediately pivoted back to school choice. “My goal, my hope, is that all parents like you and all others would have the power to choose a school that is right for your child,” she said. “Accompanying that there has to be a lot of great information available to parents.” DeVos also demurred when Peterson asked her a nitty-gritty question on ESSA, the federal accountability law.

As I've said before, choice without accountability is a scam, and it's troubling that DeVos eschews one of the few agenda items that used to unite centrist technocrats on education issues.

MIke Petrilli, writing in National Affairs, seems to agree:

For more than three decades, the conservative approach has been to pursue a two-track strategy: Push for more school choice, but also demand greater accountability from traditional public schools ... To better understand this question, a simple thought experiment is clarifying: Imagine that conservatives are wildly successful in expanding school choice. Every parent in America, however poor or rich, gains access to several educational options, including religious schools. In a thriving marketplace, these schools compete to attract market share, innovate in ways currently unimaginable, and provide unprecedented levels of customer satisfaction. School choice turns out to be everything conservatives promised it would be. But what if, with all of that, America's international rankings in reading, math, and science are still mediocre, or even decline?

I'm glad to see Petrilli posit this question, because it's the exact hypothetical that reveals important shortcomings in an ideological approach to school choice. As a card-carrying lefty, I learned a lot from reading this perspective, and I hope that educators who trend left will give this piece the time it deserves, even when they find themselves disagreeing.

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Rachel Cohen is in The Atlantic with another edition in the "education doesn't affect outcomes" genre:

Using data from several national surveys, [Jesse] Rothstein sought to scrutinize [Raj] Chetty’s team’s work—looking to further test their  hypothesis that the quality of a child’s education has a significant impact on her ability to advance out of the social class into which she was born. Rothstein, however, found little evidence to support that premise. Instead, he found that differences in local labor markets—for example, how similar industries can vary across different communities—and marriage patterns, such as higher concentrations of single-parent households, seemed to make much more of a difference than school quality. He concludes that factors like higher minimum wages, the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries are likely to play more important roles in facilitating a poor child’s ability to rise up the economic ladder when they reach adulthood.

First of all, we shouldn't be THAT surprised that our current schools alone don't solve the problem of social mobility. Our educational system was set up at a time when the country was segregated by race, women were not expected to enter the labor market, and the radio had not yet been invented. (Read: they're old AF.) Moreover, most educational decisions still sit in the hands of the members of local school boards, so problems like residential segregation, and the economic disparities reinforced by those divisions, further exacerbate inequitable outcomes.

This is exactly what progressive reformers have been saying! We shouldn't give up on improving schools because they're not already amazing!

But there are two other thing to keep in mind here. First, the narrative at play in this piece is dead-on-arrival with parents in economically insecure communities, who often have no other option but to pursue schooling as their primary vehicle for improving children's lives. We cannot say to those parents, "I'm sorry, the school system is rigged beyond our control. But you should look forward to labor unions and industry working effectively together to provide a living wage at some point. That will help your children down the road."

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Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this argument about schools is nihilistic. If you follow the argument to its logical conclusion, we would ignore schools and invest only in other social programs. In the meantime, many of the same people who make this argument are on the front lines of pushing for more money for the schools, which they continue to claim are incapable of making a dent in the social fabric. It's just an untenable position, given that half of this country doesn't want to provide more money for anything, ever. I would love to see progressive tax increases in dozens of states to support greater financial equity for schools, but we will never get that done while this argument is consuming air.

All of which is to say ... of course schools can't solve all of our problems. Despite the heated education policy rhetoric of the last decade, nobody thinks they can. That said, there is a slippery slope involved in suggesting that schools are a minimal factor in advancing social mobility, even if the current data suggests they're failing at that job. Other countries with newer, more robust national education systems have far more equitable outcomes than ours, and it's not just because their other social systems are stronger.

Have a great week!

This Yom Kippur, I'm Atoning for White Supremacy

When Jews around the world observe Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the word “celebrate” is not quite appropriate. Saturday, on this “Day of Atonement,” Jews will ask forgiveness for the various sins of the past year. Many pray, observe a ritual fast, and attend services.

The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, now the home to the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, now the home to the National Civil Rights Museum.

But the central tenet of Yom Kippur – captured in the moving “Al Chet” prayer – requires us to seek public, private, and spiritual atonement, not just for our “intentional” sins, but also for those we “inadvertently” commit. I thought about this prayer on the Jewish New Year, which I spent in Memphis last week, with a group of close friends visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel. As I stood in silent, tearful reflection in the room where Dr. Martin Luther King was killed almost fifty years ago, I contemplated atonement.

I considered forgiveness on that day, in that place, because all White Jews in America have participated in the maintenance of White supremacy. The privileges created by our uniquely American system benefit all White people, including Jewish people of European heritage. Some of the effects are subtle. As a White, Jewish dude, I can walk into the lobby of a fancy hotel and pretend it’s my home office, with little fear of confrontation or consequences. There also seem to be no limits to how many red lights I can ignore while riding my hipster bicycle through Brooklyn, while my Black friends get ticketed for tiptoeing in crosswalks. Those quotidian advantages can seem inconsequential, but they are not. Black Americans experience extraordinary harassment, often masquerading as mere inconvenience, from law enforcement and other authorities, just for living in their own skin.

Those daily micro-privileges, however, pale in comparison to how years of systemic advantages have compounded to White people in much more concrete and pecuniary ways. My White, Jewish grandfather – whose parents were refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe - served in the army during World War II, worked for the federal government, and bought a house in a middle-class neighborhood. A cousin of his once tried to steal his right to a Veterans’ Administration home loan, that’s how tangibly valuable these government-sponsored ladders to the American Dream were. My dad benefitted from my grandfather’s ability to accrue wealth, as did I. All of this happened after the abolition of slavery, not to mention in the putatively progressive American Northeast.

In the meantime, while my grandfather “played by the rules,” the rules were rigged against people who didn’t have White skin. Black families – whose longevity in this country far outstrips that of my Jewish forebears – were barred from voting, holding federal jobs, buying homes in middle-class neighborhoods, and attending public schools. My grandfather attended what was then one of the country’s few mixed-race public high schools (Philadelphia’s Central High), and he reminds me still today that there is simply no comparison between the advantages he has enjoyed, and the hardships his classmates of color have faced.

Several years ago, my grandfather – who is now in his mid 90s – went to a high school reunion at a country club in the Philadelphia suburbs. The president of his class, who was Black, looked around at the few living members of the class, all of whom were either Black or Jewish. Reflecting on their similarities and differences, he said, to big laughs, “You know, we never had everything in common. But I can tell you one thing: NONE of us would have been ALLOWED in this country club when we were in high school!”

My grandfather's middle school picture.

My grandfather's middle school picture.

My grandfather cracks up when he tells this story, even though the punchline is impossible to get without knowing this country’s complicated relationship to race, Whiteness, and discrimination. When he was in high school, Jews weren’t really considered “White.” But after generations of assimilation and social progress, Jews of European descent can seem indistinguishable from other White Americans.

Eventually, though, something shatters that fragile sense of belonging and progress. When White supremacists marched in Charlottesville last month, chanting Nazi slogans and proclaiming “Jews will not replace us,” they brought into the surface something that Jews have always understood about their status in America: “provisionary Whiteness.” Provisionary Whiteness can be revoked for a whole host of reasons: for speaking forcefully against White supremacy; for looking TOO Jewish; for not looking Jewish ENOUGH; and for many other perceived offenses against the supposed benevolence of the dominant culture.

But while anti-Jewish sentiment is real, White Jews must reckon with the fact that we will never walk in Black skin, that our history in America is nowhere near as devastating as the history of that of Black Americans, and that our Jewish-ness does not give us a “get out of jail free card” when it comes to being allies in the fight for racial justice. We must not say “but what about us?” when we bear witness to the racism visited upon Black Americans, and we cannot ignore the injustices that are invisible only because we do not experience them.

From left to right: me, my grandfather, and my dad.

From left to right: me, my grandfather, and my dad.

On this Yom Kippur, I will atone for White supremacy. It is the most devastating sin in which I inadvertently participate, and I do so just by walking in the skin in which I was born. While I possess no choice regarding my skin-tones, I can control how I either uphold or undermine the unfair advantages conferred to me by those hues. Some prominent White Jews want to define White supremacy on their own terms, so that we might avoid culpability. These efforts at rebranding are an evasion of responsibility and an affront to the work of our friends of color, who have worked for generations to define and fight these bedrock sins of our culture. Until all White people – Jewish or not – take responsibility for the faults of our country, none of us can ever truly be free.

I ask my Jewish brothers and sisters to join me in this act of atonement. Please don’t stop there, though, as you should also talk to your family and friends about racism, while preparing yourself to be a part of a long struggle. The rooms that precede Dr. King’s at the National Civil Rights Museum constitute a march through several decades of activism and organizing. Each exhibit is striking on its own: the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Freedom Riders; the Memphis Sanitation Strike; the March on Washington; and more. The overall effect is to contextualize each action as part of a much larger, multi-generational movement for justice. As Jews, we have no shortage of that particular theme in our own history. What better way, then, to spend our holiest day, than in solidarity with our friends and families of color, whose multi-generational march for progress endures today.

Wednesday Reading List: What Schools Measure, American Education Spending, and Voter Suppression Data

Alyson Klein of Education Week looked at states' plans to comply with ESSA, the federal education law. Some of the most interesting trends are in accountability:

Attendance—particularily [sic] chronic absenteeism—and college-and-career readiness are by far the most popular new areas of focus for accountability among the 40-plus states that have filed their plans to implement the Every Student Success Act, an Education Week review shows. At least 33 states are looking at chronic absenteeism or attendance in some form to hold schools accountable under the new law. And some states chose factors that are related to attendance. California, for instance, is looking at suspensions and discipline rates. At least 33 states are incorporating some kind of postsecondary-readiness measure, whether that's ACT scores, SAT scores, dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, career and technical education pathways, a mix of those factors, or something else. 

While just about everyone agrees that grade-level standardized tests alone are an insufficient way to judge school progress, there's very little agreement about what schools ought to be measuring, and in what proportions. In the future, states and districts should follow their graduates' progress after K-12 graduation. We should know how many students enroll in and complete college, and who's earning a living wage after her terminal education experience.

Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report looks at American education spending relative to other countries:

U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined 3 percent from 2010 to 2014 even as its economy prospered and its student population grew slightly by 1 percent, boiling down to a 4 percent decrease in spending per student. That’s according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators, released last week. Over this same 2010 to 2014 period, education spending, on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD. In some countries it rose at a much higher rate ... How lower spending constrains learning is subtle. [The OECD's Andreas] Schleicher has pointed out for years that there isn’t a clear relationship between money spent and student outcomes. Some countries that spend far less than the United States on education consistently outshine this country on international tests.

Barshay looks at other countries whose performance outstrips ours. In some high-performing Asian countries, for example, teacher expertise is more specialized; instructors teach fewer classes, but class-size is much larger. We rarely discuss such trade-offs in domestic education policy.

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In other news, Ari Berman of Mother Jones looks at the consequences of new voting laws in the last election. He focuses on a Wisconsin statute that makes voting more difficult:

A comprehensive study released today suggests how many missing votes can be attributed to the new law. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison surveyed registered voters who didn’t cast a 2016 ballot in the state’s two biggest counties—Milwaukee and Dane, which is home to Madison. More than 1 out of 10 nonvoters (11.2 percent) said they lacked acceptable voter ID and cited the law as a reason why they didn’t vote; 6.4 percent of respondents said the voter ID law was the “main reason” they didn’t vote. The study’s lead author, University of Wisconsin political scientist Kenneth Mayer, says between roughly 9,000 and 23,000 registered voters in the reliably Democratic counties were deterred from voting by the ID law. Extrapolating statewide, he says the data suggests as many as 45,000 voters sat out the election ... “We have hard evidence there were tens of thousands of people who were unable to vote because of the voter ID law,” Mayer told me.
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Voter suppression is real, and this study attempts to quantify the extent of the problem. As with other laws that seek to disenfranchise people, it shouldn't matter what the "intent" of the law was; its consequence was to depress voter turnout within specific demographic groups. Moreover, the extent of voter suppression outlined here is FAR greater than any evidence of voter fraud, which does not seem to exist in meaningful ways. We cannot have a functioning democracy while people are barred from the polling place.

Finally today, Thomas P. Abt is in The New York Times with a sober examination of two consecutive years of rising crime rates:

What to make of this two-year spike in death and violence is unclear, but you can be certain of this: Partisans on all sides will seek to spin this situation to their advantage ... Criminal justice reformers will worry that fear of violent crime could slow the momentum of their movement. As a result, they’ll play down the data that says it’s increasing. They’ll say that it’s too soon to call this a trend, that a few neighborhoods in a few cities are driving the numbers, and remind us that overall rates of violence remain near historical lows. Opponents of true reform, including President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will do far worse. They will likely use the latest numbers to push the culture-war-fueling narrative about “American carnage” that Mr. Trump described in his Inaugural Address. They’ll double down on outdated tough-on-crime strategies like aggressive prosecutions, mandatory minimum sentencing and drug education and follow a strategy that my colleague David Kennedy, a criminal justice researcher and director of the National Network for Safe Communities, recently called a “criminologist’s nightmare.

Read the whole thing. I'm not a criminologist, but the ones I trust tend to agree with Abt's perspective. You can't solve a problem while being dishonest about its existence ... but the solutions we've been using for the last generation are both unjust and ineffective.

Have a great day!