In the wake of the coronavirus crisis with most people self quarantined at home, schools across the country are shut down.
Some offer (or are considering offering) distance learning over the Internet.
However, this poses problems.
Not all student services can be provided via computer.
And not all students even have a computer, online compatible device or Internet access.
Should our nation’s public schools soldier on anyway and provide some kind of learning experience for those not thus encumbered at the expense of those who will be left behind?
The U.S. Senate’s proposed coronavirus aid package includes a provision to waive existing federal law that requires all schools to provide services to special education students. Removing this specification would allow districts to move forward with virtual learning without having to worry about meeting the needs of their special education students.
Advocates worry that even a temporary suspension of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) could have devastating long term effects on students with disabilities and ultimately remove the requirement upheld for the last 45 years that they receive a free public education.
“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids. This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.
“Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction. We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear. These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion, and the Department stands ready to assist you in your efforts.”
The Department of Education issued a Fact Sheet that went even further:
“To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”
This is tantamount to prioritizing the education of some students over others. In short, if we follow DeVos’ guidelines, we will be saying that regular education students are more important than students with special needs.
It is a dangerous precedent.
However, perhaps even more dangerous is the abdication of any responsibility for, even complete erasure of any mention of poor students without Internet access.
I understand that we are in a crisis. I understand that some think it is better to take half measures so that something gets done rather than nothing.
However, the coronavirus outbreak is expected to be a temporary situation. It may last weeks or months, but it will not last forever.
We want to do things in the best interests of children now, but we also must be aware of later. And trying to meet some kids needs now while writing off a large chunk of the rest would have a huge negative impact later.
According to the most recent federal data, nearly 7 million students in the United States do not have Internet access at home. That is about 14 percent of all U.S. students. And of those with online access at home, 18 percent do not have home access to broadband Internet so they would also have difficulty retrieving lessons or participating in Zoom meetings online.
Moving to distance learning on the Internet would leave tens of millions of children behind.
Is this really what we want to do?
In addition, there is the question of quality.
Few teachers are trained or have experience with distance learning. They will probably be able to provide some kind of learning – but it will almost certainly not be the best they could be providing.
Businesses are on every corner, but they aren’t set up for the convenience of those living there.
Ethnic isolation – whether caused by poverty, legal coercion, safety in numbers or white flight – often puts the segregated at a disadvantage. It creates a quarantined economy set up for profiteers and carpetbaggers to get rich off the misery of the poor.
The system is set up to wring as much blood as it can from people forced to live as stones.
These businesses aren’t located in the suburbs or wealthy parts of town. You find them typically in the inner cities and poor black neighborhoods. They promise temporary help with one-time purchases and unexpected expenses, but in truth most are used to pay for necessities like rent or food.
They end up trapping users in a debt spiral where they have to take out payday loans to pay off previous payday loans. This is mostly because these loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations.
And these are just two of the most common features of this predatory economy – capitalist enterprises designed to enrich businesses for exploiting consumers beyond their ability to cope.
Others include high priced but limited stock grocery markets, fast food restaurants, gun stores, inner city rental properties and charter schools.
Think about it: (1) charter schools disproportionately locate in poor black communities, (2) offer the promise of relief from inequality but end up recreating or worsening the same unjust circumstances and (3) they are often owned by rich white folks from outside the neighborhood who profit off the venture.
Who attends charter schools and where are they located?
The charter sector represents only a tiny fraction of students attending public school.
This doesn’t come close to a majority for any racial group. Consider the fact that authentic public schools enroll approximately:
•7 million black students (14% of the total)
•12 million Hispanic students (24% of the total)
•24 million white students (48% of the total)
More students of all ethnicities attend authentic public schools than charter schools – by orders of magnitude. However, those that are enrolled at charter schools are not distributed evenly. Charter schools do educate a disproportionate percentage of students of color – especially among Hispanic students.
Why? Do black and brown families seek them out or is it just the opposite – charters seek out melanin abundant children.
So like liquor stores and payday lenders, charter schools are disproportionately located in highly segregated, urban communities often with a majority black and Hispanic population. And since they are businesses (unlike their authentic public school counterparts), they literally target this demographic because it fits their profit model.
These are the people they think they can sell on the charter model. And they often do.
How do charter schools disadvantage the students enrolled there?
Like other vulture capitalist enterprises, they exploit the students they purport to serve by convincing people of color to accept fewer services than they already get at authentic public schools.
Charter schools are permitted to run without elected school boards. Decisions are often made by appointed bureaucrats behind closed doors. They are not required to hold public meetings or present school documents as public records. Parents have no way of having their voices heard except that they can take it or leave it.
Authentic public schools have to accept all students who live within their boundaries.
Charter schools are not required to accept all students who live in their coverage areas or even all who apply for enrollment. They can and often do cherry pick the easiest students to educate. The can dissuade special needs students or students with less stable families from applying by forgoing special services and/or requiring prerequisites like costly uniforms and parental voluntarism. Or they can simply choose whomever they wish from the applicant pool and claim the decision was based on a lottery that never needs to be audited for fairness.
But that’s just academics. There are even clearer economic indications of how charter schools squander the tax dollars that fund them while authentic public schools are more stable and provide better value for the money.
•In 2011 and 2012, the federal government gave $3.7 million in taxpayer dollars to 25 Michigan “ghost” schools that never even opened to students.
•In California, more than $4.7 million in federal taxpayer money was handed out to create charter schools that subsequently closed within a few years.
•In Ohio, out of the 88 schools created by planning and implementation grants under the federal “Charter School Program” (CSP) for state education agencies between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years; a further seven schools never even opened. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer dollars.
There is even more evidence that charter schools are not nearly as stable as authentic public schools.
So charter schools provide fewer services, worse results, and a greater chance of closure or wasting limited funding without even opening at all – not a good return on investment for students of color.
And who owns and operates these charter schools?
There has been very little research on this topic.
The most detailed information I could find comes from the charter school industry, itself, specifically the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”
According to the NAPCS, about one-third of charter schools in 2016-17 were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools. This includes KIPP, Success Academy, Green Dot Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Charter Schools.
The remainder (57%) are owned by what they call freestanding charter schools – which just means organizations that run only one school.
These institutions can be run by a wide range of groups including religious organizations and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce or economic development authorities.
They are a kind of “false consciousness,” an extension of the segregation economy exploiting black and brown children.
They are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods because operators think they can sell their educational model to people of color fed up with the inequality of their neighborhoods.
Yet they provide fewer services at greater cost to black communities – they convince impoverished minorities to give up the few educational guarantees they already have in favor of a worse situation. And the result is a continuation or worsening of the status quo while enriching vulture capitalists.
It’s a scam, a flimflam ripoff, a bamboozling hoax.
Like the liquor stores and payday lenders that dot the inner city landscape, charter schools are yet another way to exploit black people for the crime of putting their faith once again in capitalism to break their chains.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.