Racial Disparity in Student Discipline Isn’t All About Race

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Black students are suspended from school at substantially higher rates than white ones.

 

That’s indisputable.

 

When teachers send kids to the office, when principals issue detentions and suspensions, the faces of those students are disproportionately black or brown.

 

So what does that mean?

 

Are minority children more badly behaved than white ones?

 

Or is it an indication that our public schools are overrun with racist teachers and principals?

 

Those appear to be the only choices in Trump’s America.

 

There’s either something desperately wrong with children of color or the majority of white staff at public schools can’t handle them.

 

But the reality is far more complex, and no matter who you are, it will probably make you uncomfortable.

 

The problem is that there are variables the binary choice above doesn’t even begin to explain, and chief among them is child poverty.

 

In short, there are an awful lot of poor kids in America. And children living in poverty act out more than those living in middle or upper income brackets.

 

It’s not that these kids are inherently bad. They’re just coping with the stress of an impoverished life style by claiming whatever attention they can – even negative attention.

 

And since children of color are disproportionately more impoverished than white kids, it just makes sense that more of them would act up.

 

It should come as no surprise that living with economic deprivations translates into behavioral problems.

 

I’m not saying poverty is the only factor. I’m not saying that white teachers and administrators don’t engage in bias and racism. But it isn’t all one or the other.

 

Both are factors in this equation. And others variables as well.

 

To truly understand the problem, we have to give up the easy answers and the blame game and come together to find real, workable solutions.

 

SUSPENSIONS

 

About 15.5 percent of American school children are black, yet they make up 39 percent of students who are suspended from school, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first study on the issue.

 

The study used data from 95,000 schools compiled from the federal Civil Rights Collection.

 

Particularly alarming is the fact that almost the same disparity exists in our prison system, where nearly 38 percent of inmates are black.

 

Researchers concluded that this disparity persists in both rich and poor schools, so the primary cause is racial bias.

 

However, the study was also used by the GAO as a means to put pressure on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she considered whether to rescind 2014 civil rights guidelines from the Obama Administration. The report was part of a political move to force DeVos to keep using guidelines meant to ensure that students are not discriminated against when punishments are handed out or schools would risk being found in violation of civil rights laws.

 

The problem is that the study is undeniably partisan and politically motivated.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with its motivation. It’s just that we can’t let a single well-intentioned political action falsely impugn the nation’s teachers and public schools.

 

It IS important to keep the Obama era guidelines on civil rights violations. We DO need to be aware of possible incidents of discrimination against minorities in our schools and work to rectify these issues.

 

However, we can’t let this change the facts. The issue is whether poverty or race has a greater impact on racial discrepancies in student discipline. Are a greater percentage of black kids suspended mainly because of prejudice or is it more a symptom of their poverty?

 

And the answer can’t depend on whether it makes an odious person like DeVos squirm or smile.

 

POVERTY

 

The problem with answering this question comes from the various definitions of poverty we employ.

 

If we define poverty for students as those eligible for free or reduced lunch programs (a determination based on household income), then more than half – 51% – of public school children are poor.

 

But if we take the more conservative formula developed in the 1960s based on food expenses as a part of a family budget, poverty estimates shrink.

 

According to the Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) which uses the more conservative definition, childhood poverty in the U.S. breaks down as follows: 10% of white kids (4.2 million), 27% of Latino children (4 million), 33% of Black students (3.6 million), 12% of Asian children (400,000) and 40% of Native American children (200,000).

 

And those figures are rising. There are 1.2 million more poor children in the U.S. today than there were in 2000.

 

However, there is real reason to assume these figures don’t capture the whole picture. After all, in just the last 30 years, food expenses (up 100%) have not risen as dramatically as other costs such as health care (up 500%), housing (up 250%) and college tuition (up 1,000%). So any real-world definition of poverty would include substantially more children than just those who qualify under these out-of-date federal guidelines.

 

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes, “If the same basic methodology developed in the early 1960s was applied today, the poverty thresholds would be over three times higher than the current thresholds.”

 

And the GAO study used the conservative 1960s threshold.

 

It underestimated how poor our nation, families and children have become.

 

Consider: in the past 20 years as wages have stagnated, median household expenses increased by 25 to 30 percent. As a result, 3 out of 5 Americans today spend more than they earn – not on useless frivolities – but on essential needs.

 

It’s estimated that over three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

 

People are working more hours for decreasing wages and benefits. A Princeton study concluded that 94 percent of the nine million new jobs created in the past decade were temporary or contract-based instead of traditional full-time positions.

 

In 2016, the poorest 50% of American adults had an average net worth (home and financial assets minus debt) of just $7,500. To make matters worse, only a year previously it was $9,000. The difference all went to the top 1% who gained an average of $1.5 million during that same year.

 

These facts have real world consequences for every level of society – especially how our children behave in school.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

It seems clear then that the scope and effects of poverty have been underestimated by the GAO report and others who wish to emphasize the effect of racism and bias.

 

Again this is not to say that racism and bias are misrepresented or unimportant. It’s a question of how much – not an either/or situation.

 

The fact of the matter is that poverty has a more pervasive impact on student discipline because students of color experience it at greater rates than white kids.

 

This is mainly because of the way poverty affects students’ home lives – an area that has a much greater influence on education than what goes on in the school, itself.

 

For instance, children who don’t know how to “play school” – to navigate the expectations, routines, social situations and academic demands – don’t learn as much as those who do. In fact, this may be a partial reason why children of color don’t do as well academically as kids from other groups. Certainly biased standardized assessments and the high stakes decisions made based on these tests play an even larger role. But at least some of the gap may be caused by lost opportunities due to behavioral issues.

 

Sadly, children who act out in class usually do the same at home. We must ask then: are parents present when this happens? Do they have similar standards of misbehavior? Do they know how to correct misbehavior when it happens?

 

Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that many parents aren’t able to be present for their kids.

 

They are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary to eliminate behavior problems before their children go to class. They don’t have the time to set up routines, expectations, rewards and punishments, etc. And even when they do attempt to do these things, they have less ability to get it right because their attention is focused on putting food on the table, providing clothing and shelter, etc.

 

This is not because these people are bad parents. In fact, they are good parents who are doing the best they can. But this is a symptom of a deformed society that requires a disproportionate investment of time from the poor for the essentials that is not required of those in higher income brackets.

 

This is not something unique to black and brown families, either. It is a feature of millions of white households as well – but the demographics of poverty cluster these impacts disproportionately on children of color.

 

HOME LIFE

 

There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.

 

Some would put blame squarely on the increasing prevalence of one-parent households. I think this is deceptive, though, because many one-parent households are stronger and more stable than two parent ones. It really depends. But it makes sense that households with two parents – where one adult can lean on the other for support – are often more stable than those without this feature.

 

This may be an area where black children have a disadvantage since according to census data the percentage of white children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of black children. While 74.3 percent of all white children below the age of 18 live with both parents, only 38.7 percent of African-American minors do the same.

 

There is also the issue of parents who aren’t just absent during the workday but absent altogether. People of color also are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to white people – even when convicted for the same crimes. This is not to say that black people commit more crimes, but that they are more harshly punished for them than whites – they have higher conviction rates and serve longer sentences.

 

This has consequences for children of color. It adds to the prevalence of grandparents and/or other siblings or foster caregivers filling that parental role. Again, these households can be exceptionally strong and stable. But there is less support, more struggles and the increased possibility that children’s behavioral home foundations may be less robust.

 

RACIAL TRAUMA

 

People of color also experience racial trauma compounded from our national history of slavery, racism and prejudice. Black and brown people today are still dealing with the effects of generational slavery. This is one of the reasons they are disproportionately poor – they did not have the chance to gather wealth over successive generations as white families did.

 

Moreover, the culture of black people was disrupted by the slave trade. Genealogies, legacies, traditions, faiths, etc. were stolen from them by the slave industry. Parenthood, as we know it today, was forbidden to black people. Is it any wonder that they have struggled to regain what was taken from them by white society?

 

Finally, there are the effects of Jim Crow and racial discrimination after the end of slavery. Black people have continually been told they had the same rights and opportunities as white people but when they went to claim these alleged boons, they were beaten back. This has had the effect of turning some of them against the very idea of many of the behaviors they see exemplified by white people.

 

Some students of color don’t want to behave like the white kids because they want to assert their blackness. There is among some of them an internalization of negative behaviors as black and positive ones as white. This misdirected self-determination results in racial pride for acting up regardless of the academic consequences.

 

RACISM AT SCHOOL

 

Of course by the same token there is certainly bias, prejudice and racism among white teachers, administrators, faculty and staff.

 

The fact that our public schools are mostly staffed with non-black and non-brown people, itself, ensures that bias will be prevalent in our schools. It is vital that we increase the percentage of black staff – especially teachers – in our classrooms. Though this will require the elevation of the profession of educator to attract teachers of all backgrounds.

 

The problem is that white people often don’t understand black culture or even recognize how much white people have been enculturated to accept stereotypes and bias as the norm.

 

This has a direct impact on school discipline. Many discipline policies are written to unduly target students of color. I’m not saying this is necessarily intentional – though it may be in some cases – but that these policies result in discipline discrepancies.

 

Many of these are dress code policies. How many schools criminalize the wearing of black hair in certain ways or the simple hooded sweatshirt? Hoodies, for example, are a preferred manner of dress for many students of color and really cause no harm to academics or social interactions. But administrators and/or school boards ban them – why? It’s just another way to police black bodies and minds.

 

These sorts of practices are everywhere in our schools and take reflection to undo. For instance, I found myself guilty of this same thing for years in my classroom when some of my black students started compulsively brushing their hair at their desks. These were mainly boys with short hair who were trying to get a wave effect their peers considered stylish.

 

At first, I found this incredibly annoying – the sound of constant brushing as students were doing their work. But then I realized that these students WERE doing their work. The brushing in no way interfered with academics. It didn’t bother anyone except for me and perhaps some of the white students.

 

Simply allowing cultures to express themselves should not result in disciplinary action. And since I’ve permitted the behavior, I’ve had less reason to discipline my students and no negative impact on academics.

 

SOLUTIONS

 

Most analyses of this problem stop with blame.

 

Who’s responsible for this? And once we have an answer – and it’s usually one very simple answer – then we’ve done all we set out to do.

 

In the case of the GAO report, once again the blame was put on everyone’s favorite scapegoat, public schools and teachers. But this is not earned given how much poverty was overlooked. The reality is that the responsibility for the problem is multifaceted with much of it stemming from cruel economics.

 

The solutions to the issue, if we are ever to really try to do more than just point fingers, must address a variety of ills.

 

First, we need to monitor and help public school staff to be less biased.

 

We need more teachers of color without a doubt, but this will never happen until all teachers are better paid, have stronger labor protections, autonomy and prestige. On top of that, there should be additional incentives to attract teachers of color. It’s hard for white teachers to notice their own biases unless there is someone in the building who can see them more clearly and offer advice. Just making the staff more multicultural will make white teachers more reflective of their own practices.

 

Of course actively pointing out prejudice is extremely difficult for co-workers to do by themselves. In addition, white teachers need cultural sensitivity training. And not just them. Since no educator comes from all cultures, everyone could use frequent reminders of how to be more inclusive, impartial and fair to students from various backgrounds.

 

Next, we need to broaden our idea of what discipline is. Every infraction doesn’t need a detention or suspension. We can enact interventions like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution and other positive procedures that actively teach kids how to deal with their emotions and better behave.

 

In short, we’re teaching kids what they should have learned at home, but like so many things in our society, it’s left to the schools to get it done. I bring this up not to shame anyone but to remind society that any expectation that schools can fix this problem by themselves is laughably naïve – but someone has to try.

 

At the macro level, we need to take steps to reduce and eliminate poverty.

 

This is one of the richest countries in the history of the world. Surely we can find ways to better share that wealth to the benefit of all. If parents don’t have to work multiple jobs to survive, they are more able to teach, model and discipline their own kids. And when parents are present in children’s lives, those kids don’t have as great a need for attention. It would certainly cut down on negative attention seeking behaviors.

 

In addition, with schools at the center of neighborhoods, we can have more adult education classes for parents. This would be not just courses on how to effectively raise children but on job skills and lifelong learning. After all, parents who value learning raise kids who do, too.

 

Finally, we need to enact antiracist policies at the local, state and federal level to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) prejudice of all kinds. We need integrated schools and neighborhoods. We need more antidiscrimination policies. We need to end mass incarceration and selective enforcement of the law. And we need some form of reparations to black people for the generations of racism they have had to endure.

 

I know these are big goals. But they are the only way to make a just society for everyone.

 

We cannot continue to blame our school system for reproducing the society that created it. Education is aspirational and strives to better itself. But it cannot reach that goal alone.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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America’s New School Lunch Policy: Punishing Hungry Students for Their Parents’ Poverty

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There are few things as bad as a hungry child.

 

Hunched over an aching stomach as the school day creeps toward its end, one in six children go hungry in America today.

 

It’s harder to learn when you’re malnourished and in pain – especially for children.

 

It should be harder for adults to let them go hungry.

 

Yet for many policymakers, nothing is as bad as feeding children and letting their parents avoid the bill.

 

About 75% of US school districts report students who end the year owing large sums for lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association. And of those districts, 40.2% said the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year.

 

In fact, that has become the central issue – not child hunger but lunch debt.

 

Policymakers at the federal, state and school district level are finding new ways to force impoverished parents to pay for their children’s meals even if doing so means penalizing the children.

 
Just yesterday the Trump administration announced a plan to tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that could result in hundreds of thousands of the poorest children losing automatic eligibility for free school lunches.

 

In my home state of Pennsylvania, a district made headlines by threatening to send kids to foster care if their parents didn’t pay up.

 

The state legislature even voted in June to reinstate lunch shaming – the practice of denying lunch or providing low-cost meals to students with unpaid lunch bills.

 
That is how America treats its children.

 

Progressive Approaches and Challenges

 

Throughout the country, students whose families meet federal income guidelines can receive free or discounted lunches. However, many families don’t know how to apply to the program or that they can do so at any point in the school year. Moreover, districts can minimize debt if they help families enroll.

 

Unfortunately, too many school administrators are opting on coercion and threats instead of help.

 

In the poorest districts, a federal program called community eligibility has been providing relief.

 

When 40 percent of children in a district or school qualify for free or reduced meals, the federal government steps in to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students in the district or school regardless of parental income.

 

It’s an enormously successful program that avoids the pitfalls of penalizing or shaming students for their economic circumstances.

 

 

But it’s exactly what’s come under fire by the Trump administration.

 

 

The Department of Agriculture’s new proposed limits on which students should qualify for free meals could change the status of 265,000 children. This would cause a chain reaction at many districts making them unqualified for community eligibility.

 

It would literally take away free meals from whole neighborhoods of youngsters.

 

The Agriculture Department will accept public comments on the proposed rule, called revision of categorical eligibility in the SNAP, for 60 days.

 
This measure is exactly the opposite of what’s being proposed by the most progressive Democratic challenger to Trump – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

 

Instead of reducing the numbers of children who can get free meals, Sanders wants to increase the numbers to include everyone.

 

As part of his Thurgood Marshall Plan, the lawmaker seeking the Democratic nomination for President promises to enact a federal program to feed all students year-round.

 

This means free breakfast, lunch and even snacks. The program would be open to every child, regardless of parental wealth.

 

No one would be shamed because they are the only ones eligible for these free meals, and we wouldn’t be stuck wondering why needy kids have difficulty learning on an empty stomach.

 

Providing school meals, even at cost, is a losing proposition. The price of unpaid lunches and the cost to complete mountains of paperwork involved in collecting the money is put on the backs of local taxpayers.

 
Sanders is offering a truly humane approach to the problem that would eliminate administrative threats and even bolster district budgets.

 

This is how good government responds to the needs of its citizens – not by terrifying and degrading parents and children due to economic hardships.

 

And it flies in the face of nearly every other measure offered to deal with the problem.

 

Regressive Policies

 

One of the worst offenders is Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania.

 

Though one of the poorest in the state as measured by per-pupil spending, administrators sent letters to dozens of families demanding they pay their children’s school lunch debt or their kids could be taken away on the basis of neglect.

 
The former coal mining community fed poor children but felt bad about it. School administrators were so incensed that these kids parents didn’t pay, they resorted to fear and intimidation to get the money owed.

 

Children can’t control whether their parents can pay their bills. But that didn’t stop administrators from taking out their disdain for impoverished parents on these youngsters.

 

In the Valley district, parents had run up approximately $22,000 in breakfast and lunch debt. This is a fraction of the school district’s $80 million annual budget and could have been reduced had administrators concentrated on helping parents navigate the system.

 

Instead they simply demanded parents pay – or else.

 

After sending mailers, robocalls, personal calls and letters to families, administrators took more drastic measures.

 

About 40 families whose children owed $10 or more were sent a letter signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the district, which said:

 

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

 

When the story hit the national media, experts from across the country weighed in that this was a bogus claim. Parents cannot have their children taken away because they can’t pay for school lunches.

 

And district officials have apologized and vowed not to make these kinds of threats in the future.

 

Perhaps the best news is that the district’s increasing poverty has qualified it to take part in community eligibility in the Fall.

 

All students would get free meals regardless of their parents income – unless, of course, the Trump administration’s new SNAP eligibility goes into place.

 

In that case, the district could continue to twist parents arms in a futile attempt to get blood from a stone.

 

State Dysfunction

 
But don’t look for help from Harrisburg.

 
In June the state legislature voted on annual revisions to its school code which brought back lunch shaming.

 

Now districts that aren’t poor enough for community eligibility will be able to deny lunches to students who can’t pay or provide them a lower quality meal until parents settle any lunch debts.

 

It’s a surprising about-face from a legislature who only two years ago voted to end this policy. Now lawmakers are going back to it.

 

Why?

 

Republicans are claiming this is a solution to districts racking up thousands of dollars in lunch debt. Democrats are claiming ignorance.

 

Many state representatives and state senators are saying they didn’t read the full bill before voting on it.

 

Lawmakers are actually saying they were surprised that lunch shaming was back. Yet it was many of these same lawmakers who voted for the omnibus bill that reinstates it.

 
The only difference between the old lunch shaming bill and the new one is the threshold for inclusion. The old measure allowed schools to provide “alternative meals” to children with $25 or more in unpaid lunch bills. The new measure inserted into the school code allows alternative meals for students who owe $50 or more. Students could be fed these lower quality meals until the balance is paid or until their parents agree to a repayment plan.

 

The Shame of a Nation

 

Stories about student lunch debt have been all over the news.

 

Yogurt company Chobani paid off a large chunk of a Rhode Island districts $77,000 lunch debt in May after administrators threatened to feed kids sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches until their debt was paid.

 

The same month a New Hampshire lunchroom employee was fired for letting a student take food without paying. The employee said the student owed $8 and she was confident the child would eventually pay her back.

 

A Minnesota high school even tried to stop students with lunch debt from attending graduation.

 

Will America continue to prioritize late-stage capitalism over ethical treatment of children?

 

Or will we rise up to the level of our ideals?

 

That has been the challenge for this country since its founding.

 

And the answer is far from assured.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Let Voters Fix Harrisburg School Board – Not State Takeover

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Pushing the self-destruct button is the ultimate measure of last resort.

 

But that’s how several Pennsylvania lawmakers are suggesting we fix the dysfunctional Harrisburg School Board.

 

An election that could oust most of the very school directors responsible for the district’s troubles is less than a month away. But Democratic Representative Patty Kim, Republican Senator John DiSanto and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse all say we shouldn’t wait – The state should takeover the Harrisburg School District immediately.

 

This would effectively destroy all democratic government in a district located in the state capital.

 

While senators and representatives from all over the Commonwealth work to enact the will of their constituents from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, residents at city schools a few miles away would be robbed of their own voices.

 

Under state law, if the district were put into receivership, a court-appointed receiver would assume all the functions of a locally elected school board, except the power to raise and levy taxes. This appointee would effectively take charge of the district’s personnel and finances.

 

Oversight and public input essentially would be repealed. The receiver could do whatever he or she liked and there’s little anyone could do about it.

 

It’s a bad idea anywhere, though one can understand why state lawmakers have suggested it here.

 

Harrisburg Schools are a mess, and it’s largely because of the inept leadership of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and five of the nine-member school board who consistently support her every move.

 

Declining academic performance, high teacher turnover rates, and poor fiscal management – all are hallmarks of the way Harrisburg schools have been run.

 

The state even suspended more than $10 million in funding to the district after the board voted not to cooperate with an audit requested because of allegations administration had mismanaged federal grant funds.

 

But the district’s problems begin before the school board even enters into the picture.

 

Like nearly every urban district in the Commonwealth, Harrisburg has a history of being neglected and underfunded. One estimate puts the Harrisburg shortfall between $35 million and $38 million a year.

 

That’s why the district is already under a state-mandated recovery plan. It serves a poor community whose tax base simply cannot support the needs of its own children. Like other impoverished schools, the administration and board are required to work with a recovery officer.

 

This recovery plan has not miraculously fixed the district’s problems. It’s magical thinking to suppose that a court-appointed receiver would do any better.

 

If the state wants to help, it should provide equitable and sustainable funding. However, it is completely reasonable that state lawmakers wait until responsible adults have taken back the school board first.

 

A citizen-led school reform group called CATCH (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg) has been pushing to oust the incumbents who have consistently supported the administration’s disastrous decisions, most of whom are up for re-election.

 

There are nine board members. Five invariably vote with the administration: Danielle Robinson, Ellis Roy, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, and Lionel Gonzalez.

 

 

Three unfailingly vote against the administration: Brian Carter, Judd Pittman and Carrie Fowler. There is one wild card: Joseph Brown, who was just appointed to take a vacant seat on the board this month and has mostly abstained from voting.

 

Of these, Brown and all of those supporting the administration but Robinson are up for re-election.

 

To flip these seats on the board CATCH is pushing for Gerald Welch, Doug Thomson-Leader, Steven Williams, and Jayne Buchwach. The local teachers union, the Harrisburg Education Association (HEA), and the local chapter of The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsed all of them and an additional one – James Thompson.

 

If even two of the newcomers are elected, that will shift the balance of power away from those who have enabled an administration infamous for irresponsible errors and neglect purchased at the expense of personal favors to weak willed school directors.

 

This includes an accounting error that kept 54 former employees on its healthcare plan, an investigation into improper grading allegations at one of its high schools, rapid teacher turnover, and falling student test scores. Administrators haven’t even presented a budget for the 2019-20 school year yet!

 

Meanwhile, this same quintet of school directors rewarded administration by reappointed Superintendent Knight-Burney last spring, hiring controversial attorney James Ellison as solicitor despite a record of fraud, lawsuits and delinquent taxes, and three times refused to fill Melvin Wilson’s vacant board seat with a candidate who had broad public support and instead punted the decision to the courts.

 

Despite an almost laughable record of corruption in the district, voters have a chance to change course in less than a month.

 

All of the reform candidates are Democrats so the matter could be settled by the May 21 primary.

 

It would be beyond absurd for the state to step in and deny the public the right to correct its own ship.

 

However, though new candidates could be elected in a matter of weeks, they wouldn’t be sworn in until December. So even under the best of circumstances, city schools would remain under the dysfunctional board for the foreseeable future.

 

That’s not good. There’s a lot of damage a lame duck board could do in that time. However, the alternative of receivership is worse.

 

Once you take away a school district’s right to govern itself, it’s hard to get it back again. Plus there is no guarantee that appointed bureaucrats will do a better job. In fact, they rarely do.

 

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has remained silent on the issue of receivership. But in a recent statement he said his department “will consider all actions allowable by law” to guide the district through a financial recovery plan.

 

Here’s hoping that democracy is allowed to flourish in the capital of Pennsylvania.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Trouble with Test-Obsessed Principals

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When I was a child, I couldn’t spell the word “principal.”

 

I kept getting confused with its homonym “principle.”

 

I remember Mr. Vay, the friendly head of our middle school, set me straight. He said, “You want to end the word with P-A-L because I’m not just your principal, I’m your pal!”

 

And somehow that corny little mnemonic device did the trick.

 

Today’s principals have come a long way since Mr. Vay.

 

Many of them have little interest in becoming anyone’s pal. They’re too obsessed with standardized test scores.

 

I’m serious.

 

They’re not concerned with student culture, creativity, citizenship, empathy, health, justice – they only care about ways to maximize that little number the state wants to transform our children into.

 

And there’s a reason for that. It’s how the school system is designed to operate.

 

A new research brief from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance concluded that the lowest rated principals generally work at schools with the most economically disadvantaged students.

 

So schools serving students with the highest poverty and lowest test scores often have the least experienced and least effective principals.

 

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Now the first question I had when reading this report was “How do they measure effectiveness?” After all, if they rate principals primarily on student test scores, then obviously those working at the poorest schools will be least effective. Poor kids earn low test scores. That’s all the scores consistently show – the relative wealth of students’ parents. If you define an ineffective principal as one who works in a building with low scoring students, it would be no shock that those principals worked in the poorest schools.

 

However, researchers didn’t fall entirely into this trap. According to the working paper:

 

“We measure principal quality in two ways: years of experience in the principal position and rubric-based ratings of effective principal practice taken from the state’s evaluation system.”

 

 

In Tennessee this means evaluating principals partially on student test scores at their buildings – 35%, in fact – higher than the 20% of classroom teachers’ evaluations. However, the remaining pieces of principals’ effectiveness are determined by an observation from a more senior administrator (50%) and an agreed upon score by the principal and district (15%).

 

 

Since researchers are relying at least in part on the state’s evaluation system, they’re including student test scores in their own metric of whether principals are effective or not. However, since they add experience, they’ve actually created a more authentic and equitable measure than the one used by the state.

 

It just goes to show how standardized testing affects nearly every aspect of the public education system.

 

The testing industrial complex is like a black hole. Not only does it suck up funding that is desperately needed elsewhere without providing anything of real value in return, its enormous gravity subverts and distorts everything around it.

 

It’s no wonder then that so many principals at high poverty schools are motivated primarily by test scores, test prep, and test readiness. After all, it makes up a third of their own evaluations.

 

They’ve been dropped into difficult situations and made to feel that they were responsible for numerous factors beyond their control. They didn’t create the problem. They didn’t disadvantage these students, but they feel the need to prove to their bosses that they’re making positive change.

 

But how do you easily prove you’ve bettered the lives of students?

 

Once again, standardized test scores – a faux objective measurement of success.

 

Too many principals buy into the idea that if they can just make a difference on this one metric, it will demonstrate that they’re effective and thus deserve to be promoted out of the high poverty schools and into the well-resourced havens.

 

Yet it’s a game that few principals are able to win. Even those who do distinguish themselves in this way end up doing little more for their students than setting up a façade to hide the underlying problems of poverty and disinvestment.

 

Most principals at these schools wind up endlessly chasing their tails while ignoring opportunities for real positive change. Thus they end up renewing the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure.

 

Researchers noticed the pattern of low performing principals at high poverty schools after examining a decade’s worth of data and found it to hold true in urban, rural and suburban areas. And even though it is based on Tennessee data, the results hold true pretty consistently nationwide, researchers say.

 

Interestingly enough, the correlation doesn’t hold for teachers.

 

Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and the faculty director of the Research Alliance, says that the problem stems from issues related specifically to principals.

 

For instance, districts are hiring lower-rated principals for high poverty schools while saving their more effective leaders for buildings with greater wealth and resources.

 

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As a result, turnover rates for principals at these schools are much higher than those for classroom educators. Think about what that means – schools serving disadvantaged students are more likely to have new principal after new principal. These are leaders with little experience who never stick around long enough to learn from their mistakes.

 

And since these principals rarely have had the chance to learn on the job as assistant principals, they’re more likely to be flying by the seat of their pants when installed at the head of a school without first receiving the proper training and mentorship that principals at more privileged buildings routinely have.

 

As such, it’s easy for inexperienced principles to fall into the testing trap. They buy into the easy answers of the industry but haven’t been around long enough to learn that the solution they’re being sold is pure snake oil.

 

This has such a large effect because of how important principals are. Though they rarely teach their own classes, they have a huge impact on students. Out-of-school factors are ultimately more important, but in the school building, itself, only teachers are more vital.

 

This is because principals set the tone. They either create the environment where learning can flourish or smother it before the spark of curiosity can ignite. Not only that, but they create the work environment that draws and keeps the best teachers or sends them running for the hills.

 

 

The solution isn’t complicated, says Grissom. Districts need to work to place and keep effective and experienced principals in the most disadvantaged schools. This includes higher salaries and cash bonuses to entice the best leaders to those buildings. It also involves providing equitable resources for disadvantaged schools so that principals have the tools needed to make authentic positive change.

 

I would add that we also need to design fair evaluation systems for both principals and teachers that aren’t based on student test scores. We need to stop contracting out our assessments to corporations and trust our systems of government and schools to make equitable judgments about the people in their employ.

 

Ultimately, what’s required is a change in attitude.

 

Too many principals look at high poverty schools as a stepping stone to working at a school with endless resources and a different class of social issues. Instead, the goal of every excellent school leader should be to end their career working where they are needed most.

 

Such professionalism and experience would loosen the stranglehold of test-and-punish and allow our schools not to simply recreate the inequalities already present in our society. It would enable them to heal the divide.

 

As John Dewey wrote in 1916:

 

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

 

And that’s what’s needed – a revolution.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Holiday Season Brings Fear and Resentment for Many Students

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“I hate Christmas.”

 

Teachers hear that with surprising regularity around this time of year.

 

I hate Christmas. I hate Thanksgiving. I hate every holiday.

 

America’s public school students are living under tremendous pressure.

 

The social safety net is full of holes. And our children are left to fall through the ripped and torn fabric.

 

The sad fact is that one in four students in America’s classrooms have experienced a traumatic event.

 

So if your classroom is typical, 25% of your students have witnessed violence or been subject to a deeply distressing experience.

 

That could be drug or alcohol abuse, food insecurity, severe beatings, absent caregivers or neglect.

 

These figures, provided by Neena McConnico, Director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project, are indicative of a truth about this country that we don’t want to see.

 

Our Darwinian public policies leave many children to suffer the effects of poverty – and our society doesn’t want to deal with it.

 

In impoverished communities, these percentages are even higher and the results more devastating.

 

The Center for Disease Control’s comprehensive Adverse Childhood Experiences study links the toxic stress of unaddressed trauma to heart disease, liver disease, and mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

 

Young children exposed to more than five adverse experiences in the first three years of life face a 75 percent likelihood of having delays in language, emotional, or brain development, according to McConnico.

 

This translates directly to negative behaviors in the classroom.

 

Children who witness violence often have trouble in school because they suffer from post-traumatic stress, which can manifest as inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, insomnia, aggression, and emotional outbursts.

 

Or, alternately, these children can sometimes withdraw and appear to be unfazed by their experiences. In some ways, that’s even more dangerous because while they avoid negative attention, they often get no attention at all.

 

It’s bad enough in the everyday. But it gets worse around the holidays.

 

Some of it is due to the structure and safety of school being removed. During holiday breaks, children are left to the mercy of sometimes chaotic and uncertain home lives.

 

Some of it is due to unrealistic expectations inevitably conjured up by the holiday season, itself. Even grown adults have trouble with depression around this time of year. But when you’re a troubled child, the unrealistic expectations and disappointments can be doubly impactful.

 

Loved ones are missing due to incarceration, divorce, abandonment, health issues, or death. Talk of family gatherings or a special meal can trigger hurt feelings for children who know their caregivers can’t or won’t provide them.

 

And it’s not always neglect. Sometimes there just isn’t the money for these things. We live in a gig economy where many people work multiple jobs just to survive. All it takes is missing one paycheck or one illness to disrupt holiday celebrations.

 

Even when parents have enough money, some just don’t bother to buy their kids anything. Sometimes families get to a better financial point but children have had to live through a period of food insecurity and are haunted by it. So even though the household is stable now, kids eat all their treats on the way to school because they always are fearful that the food will run out.

 

When kids have these sorts of fears, the ubiquitous holiday movies, TV shows, Christmas songs and commercials can set them off further.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of year for some, but not for all. For many students, the holidays are a time of dread and resentment.

 

That’s why it’s so important for teachers to be aware of what’s happening to their students.

 

For the quarter of American children who experience trauma at home, school may be their only safe harbor in a world of storms. Teachers may be the only people they see all day who offer a safe place, a stable environment and a friendly word.

 

For some kids, teachers are the only adults in their lives who make them feel valuable and supported.

 

We offer our students so much more than reading, writing and math. We’re allies, mentors, protectors and role models.

 

I wish we could save them from all the terrors of this world, but we can’t.

 

Let me be clear – I am in no way a super teacher.

 

But here are a few things I do in my classroom to help alleviate some of the stresses of the season – and often year round.

 

1)  Prioritize Relationships

 

Let your kids know you care. The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Nourish it. Be reliable, honest, and dependable.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

2)  Listen to Them

 
Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is just listen to students’ problems. You don’t always have to offer a solution. Our kids are dealing with so many adult pressures. Offering them the ability to get it all out in the presence of a caring adult can be a treasured gift.

 

“It’s really that simple,” McConnico says. “Listen, reflect back to them that they have been heard, validate the child’s feelings without judgment, and thank the child for sharing with you.”

 

3)  Create Opportunities to be Successful

Some people see teaching as essentially an act of evaluation and assessment. We observe students and then tell them what they did wrong.

This is extremely narrow-minded. When you get to know your students, you can offer them tasks in which you expect they’ll succeed. It’s the kind of thing we do all the time – differentiating instruction and offering choice so that students can achieve the goal in the manner best suited to them.

Sometimes you really have to work at it. If a child has extreme behavior issues, you can observe closely to find the one thing he or she does right and then praise them for it. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it pays off tremendously!

Positive experiences lead to more positive experiences. It’s like putting training wheels on a bike. It scaffolds learning by supporting kids emotional needs before their academic ones.

4)  Routines

I am a huge fan of routine. Kids know exactly what we’re going to do in my class everyday – or at least they have a clear conception of the normal outline of what happens there.

I try to have very clear expectations, timelines and consequences. For kids who live in chaotic homes, this is especially comforting. It’s just another way of creating a safe place where all can learn.

 

5)  There’s Nothing Wrong With Downtime

I know. Teachers are under enormous pressure from administrators to fill every second of the day. But sometimes the best use of class time is giving students a break.

 

Let students finish assignments in class, read for pleasure, draw, even just daydream and relax. You can overdo it, but everyone can benefit from a little R & R.

 

This is especially true for traumatized children. Give them time to regroup from the mental and emotional stress. I find that it actually helps motivate kids to work harder when assignments are given.

 

The holidays can be a stressful time in school.

 

Kids get overexcited, they can’t concentrate, they’re torn left and right by the various emotions of the season.

 

As teachers, it’s our job to understand the full scope of what’s going on with our kids and make our classes as nourishing and safe as possible.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Wealth – Not Enrollment in Private School – Increases Student Achievement, According to New Study

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Students enrolled in private schools often get good grades and high test scores.

 

And there’s a reason for that – they’re from wealthier families.

 

A new peer-reviewed study from Professors Richard C. Pianta and Arya Ansari of the University of Virginia found that once you take family income out of the equation, there are absolutely zero benefits of going to a private school. The majority of the advantage comes from simply having money and all that comes with it – physical, emotional, and mental well-being, living in a stable and secure environment, knowing where your next meal will come from, etc.

 

The study published in July 2018 attempts to correct for selection bias – the factors that contribute to a student choosing private school rather than the benefits of the school, itself.

 

The study’s abstract puts it this way:

 

“Results from this investigation revealed that in unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the sociodemographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools benefited more from private school enrollment.”

 

This has major policy implications.

 

Corporate school reformers from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, from Arne Duncan to Betsy DeVos, from Cory Booker to Charles and David Koch, have proposed increasing privatized school options to help students struggling in public schools.

 

Whether it be increasing charter schools or vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, the implication is the same – such measures will not help students achieve.

 

We need programs aimed at poverty, itself, not at replacing public schools with private alternatives.

 

According to the abstract:

 

“By and large, the evidence on the impact of school voucher programs casts doubt on any clear conclusion that private schools are superior in producing student performance…

 

“In sum, we find no evidence for policies that would support widespread enrollment in private schools, as a group, as a solution for achievement gaps associated with income or race. In most discussions of such gaps and educational opportunities, it is assumed that poor children attend poor quality schools and that their families, given resources and flexibility, could choose among the existing supply of private schools to select and then enroll their children in a school that is more effective and a better match for their student’s needs. It is not at all clear that this logic holds in the real world of a limited supply of effective schools (both private and public) and the indication that once one accounts for family background, the existing supply of heterogeneous private schools (from which parents select) does not result in a superior education (even for higher income students).”

 

Researchers repeatedly noted that this study was not simply a snapshot of student performance. It is unique because of how long and how in depth students were observed.

 

The study looks at student outcomes at multiple intervals giving it a much longer time frame and much greater detail than other similar investigations. Researchers examined wide ranging family backgrounds and contextual processes to reduce selection bias.

 

Participants were recruited in 1991 from ten different cities: Little Rock, Arkansas; Irvine, California; Lawrence, Kansas; Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charlottesville, Virginia; Seattle, Washington; Hickory and Morganton, North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin. They were followed for 15 years and had to complete a month long home visit. In addition, they submitted to both annual interviews and home, school, and neighborhood observations.

 

The final analytic sample consisted of 1,097 children – 24% of whom were children of color, 15% had single mothers, and 10% had mothers without a high school diploma.

 

Moreover, student academic achievement wasn’t the only factor examined.

 

Researchers also assessed students social adjustment, attitudes, motivation, and risky behavior. This is significant because they noted that no other study of private schools to date has examined factors beyond academics. Also, there is a general assumption that private school has a positive effect on these nonacademic factors – an assumption for which the study could find no evidence.

 

From the abstract:

 

“In short, despite the frequent and pronounced arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools as a solution for vulnerable children and families attending local or neighborhood schools, the present study found no evidence that private schools, net of family background (particularly income), are more effective for promoting student success.”

 

One reason behind these results may be the startling variation in “the nature and quality of private school classrooms.” There is no consistency between what you’ll get from one private school to the next.

 

The x-factor appears to be family income and all that comes with it.

 

We see this again and again in education. For instance, standardized test scores, themselves, are highly correlated with parental wealth. Kids from wealthier families get better test scores than those from poorer families regardless of whether they attend public, charter or private schools.

 

It’s time our policymakers stop ignoring the effect of income inequality on our nations students.

 

If we really want to help our children, the solution is not increased privatization. It is increased funding and support for anti-poverty programs, teachers and a robust public school system.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Study: Closing Schools Doesn’t Increase Test Scores

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You might be tempted to file this under ‘No Shit, Sherlock.’

But a new study found that closing schools where students achieve low test scores doesn’t end up helping them learn. Moreover, such closures disproportionately affect students of color.

What’s surprising, however, is who conducted the study – corporate education reform cheerleaders, the Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO).

Like their 2013 study that found little evidence charter schools outperform traditional public schools, this year’s research found little evidence for another key plank in the school privatization platform.

These are the same folks who have suggested for at least a decade that THE solution to low test scores was to simply close struggling public schools, replace them with charter schools and voilà.

But now their own research says “no voilà.” Not to the charter part. Not to the school closing part. Not to any single part of their own backward agenda.

Stanford-based CREDO is funded by the Hoover Institution, the Walton Foundation and testing giant Pearson, among others. They have close ties to the KIPP charter school network and privatization propaganda organizations like the Center for Education Reform.

If THEY can’t find evidence to support these policies, no one can!

After funding one of the largest studies of school closures ever conducted, looking at data from 26 states from 2003 to 2013, they could find zero support that closing struggling schools increases student test scores.

The best they could do was find no evidence that it hurt.

But this is because they defined student achievement solely by raw standardized scores. No other measure – not student grades, not graduation rates, attendance, support networks, community involvement, not even improvement on those same assessments – nothing else was even considered.

Perhaps this is due to the plethora of studies showing that school closures negatively impact students in these ways. Closing schools crushes the entire community economically and socially. It affects students well beyond academic achievement.

The CREDO study did, however, find that where displaced students enrolled after their original school was closed made a difference.

If Sally moves to School B after School A is closed, her success is significantly affected by the quality of her new educational institution. Students who moved to schools that suffered from the same structural deficiencies and chronic underfunding as did their original alma mater, did not improve. But students who moved to schools that were overflowing with resources, smaller class sizes, etc. did better. However, the latter rarely happened. Displaced students almost always ended up at schools that were just about as neglected as their original institution.

Even in the fleeting instances where students traded up, researchers noted that the difference between School A and B had to be massive for students to experience positive results.

Does that mean school closures can be a constructive  reform strategy?

No. It only supports the obvious fact that increasing resources and providing equitable funding can help improve student achievement. It doesn’t justify killing struggling schools. It justifies saving them.

Another finding of the CREDO study was the racial component of school closings.

Schools with higher populations of blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be shuttered than institutions serving mostly white students. In addition, schools with higher poverty populations were also more likely to be closed than those serving middle class or rich children.

Yet you really don’t need an academic study to know that. All you have to do is read the news. Read about the closings in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit – really any major metropolitan area.

The fact that CREDO admits it, only adds credence to arguments by critics like myself.

It is no accident that poor black schools get closed more than rich white ones. Poor students of color are targeted for this exact treatment.

Corporate education reform is not just bad policy; it is racist and classist as well.

Greg Richmond, President of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, was shocked by these findings.

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” he said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

But his industry benefits from these practices. Just as CREDO’s backers do.

Never has our country been less prepared to deal with the real problems besieging it. But if the time ever comes when sanity returns, we cannot simply go back to familiar habits.

School closures and charter school proliferation are bad no matter who proposes it – Republicans or Democrats.

Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, regardless of who represents us in federal, state and local government, we have to make sure they do the right things for our children.

That means learning from our mistakes. Beyond partisanship. Beyond economics.

It’s the only way to build a better world.

CREDO’s study just adds fuel to the fire surrounding the regressive education policies of the last decade.

If we’re ever in the position to hold a match, will we have the courage to strike it?