Tuesday Reading List: We Suck at Math, Rural Schools, and Civility

Jill Barshay at The Hechinger Report looks at the latest scores on the PISA exam, an international test of mathematics that countries use to measure themselves against one another. The United States did worse than usual:

The math achievement of American high school students in 2015 fell for the second time in a row on a major international benchmark, pushing the United States down to the bottom half of 72 nations and regions around the world who participate in the international test, known as the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA.  Among the 35 industrialized nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. now ranks 31st. Both reading and science scores were steady, with U.S. students scoring near the international average in both subjects ... the 2015 PISA results showed that students across the board, from bottom to middle to top performers, were doing worse in math. It wasn’t just one segment of students who brought the national average down.

That last sentence is critical, because even our top performers cannot compete on an international level anymore. It's not just that the United States is getting worse at math, but also that the rest of the world is getting better. Part of the reason is cultural. It's entirely acceptable in this country to say, "Oh, I suck at math," whereas saying "I can barely read" would be borderline heretical.

Rural America in particular suffers from weak schools. Donald Trump appealed to rural voters, but as Alan Richard writes in Chalkbeat, his proposed solutions are unlikely to help:

Rural students and families often have no viable choices beyond their local public school. That’s especially true for children of color in the rural Southeast, Southwest, and on Native American lands. In these areas, the next-closest school can be very far away. Trump’s vouchers, therefore, would rarely be a reasonable option. Charter schools aren’t prevalent in rural areas either, and likely never will be, given the expense of running isolated schools. So if Trump’s school choice plans would have little impact on rural America, how could he and other leaders make an impact in the thousands of schools in places that supported him the most? What do they really need First, financial resources are flat-out scarce in many rural schools, and that leads to a far lower quality of education for students in poor communities ... There’s Carrollton, Mississippi, where the county schools superintendent surrendered most of his own salary to help keep his destitute district afloat. No one there has ever discussed offering Advanced Placement courses.

Richard is right to point out that school choice can never be a panacea for improving schools. He highlights some promising ideas for rural schools in particular, which you should read, as my experience is that policy experts and activists tend to have less knowledge of the rural context, than of urban and suburban schools.

Alyson Klein of Education Week looks at whether or not Capitol Hill will have the stomach for Trump's proposed reforms, given that they just passed a big education law (ESSA):

Republicans and advocates for practitioners were on the same page when it came to a lot of what's in ESSA, the [Senate] aide said. And, in the aide's view, nothing has changed there. In fact, if Trump's secretary of education takes federal authority too far and tries to mandate particular priorities—including vouchers—through regulation, GOP lawmakers are probably not going to be very happy. "I don't know that Republicans in Congress would put up with that," the aide said. "There's no role in mandating vouchers unless we pass a new bill." Unless and until that happens, the real K-12 action is now with the states, the aide said.

In general, it's hard to get big, sweeping changes to federal law passed; all the more so when such changes just happened in the previous legislative cycle. Consider me skeptical that any of Trump's biggest education plans will come to pass.

Speaking of policy changes, Allison Keyes at The Root imagines policing accountability in a Trump administration:

President-elect Donald Trump offered strong support to police officers during the campaign, posting on Facebook back in February that law-enforcement officers are not respected in this country. But Trump also referenced the racial divide in the nation in a Facebook posting after the killing of the police officers in Dallas. He secured the endorsements of several law-enforcement agencies, including the National Fraternal Order of Police. But what all this will mean for policing and police brutality under a President Trump isn’t quite clear ... civil rights leaders and activists of color are concerned that under a Trump administration, the Justice Department could move away from the aggressive stance it has taken against police misconduct and discrimination as well as for civil rights under President Obama. Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told the Los Angeles Times that Sessions “must be committed to equal justice under the law for all.

Sessions in particular has a track record that worries criminal justice reformers and civil rights activists. Naming that track record is important, which requires acknowledging Sessions's history of personal bigotry and institutional discrimination. Vann Newkirk II, writing at The Atlantic, wrestles with the necessity of calling out those things, even when the results challenge the dominant culture's frameworks for "civility":

There is a reason why movements like the civil-rights movement and Black Lives Matter that have had dramatic impacts on the course of American history have developed around rather vivid and unflinching call-outs of white supremacy and racism, even leveled against their own white members. The movements and empowerment built around calling out racism are what give activists the vocabulary to disassemble it, regardless of whether they choose to use the tactics of civility in individual conversations or not ... maybe incivility can be used to empower people of color, establish social penalties for racism, and change social mores and modes of mass communication, which all in the aggregate could push white society towards inclusion and away from bias. Or perhaps calling out racism just helps people of color cope with racism. Civility is not the highest moral imperative—especially in response to perceived injustices—nor is hand-holding and guiding reluctant people to confront their bigotry gently. American history is full of fights, including the ongoing struggle for civil rights, that have been as fierce as they are ultimately effective. Civility is overrated.

I agree, and there's an argument to be made that paeans to civility are the ultimate manifestation of what Martin Luther King called the preference for a "negative peace," that is the absence of actual justice. Naming bigotry is not the only tool in the racial justice activism tool box, but it's an important one whose absence would neuter the cause ... maybe that's the point of all the hand wringing? Have a great day.