Is Integration Too Much Bother?

Guest post over at Curmudgucation: http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2016/08/guest-post-is-integration-too-much.html?_sm_au_=iJVHnFRq5FNZRMHk (Thanks Peter!)

The debate over charter schools has slowly spread into wider and wider circles of public discourse. In response to data supported concerns that charter schools are contributing to the resegregation of our schools, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have expressed concerns. Some charter school advocates have taking an interesting stance in response. They propose that perhaps desegregating our schools is just too hard, too expensive, and too time consuming and simply shouldn’t be a goal or focus of education policy. A good example of this is a recent piece by Peter Cunningham. He leaves the reader with this question:

“So here’s the question: Should America spend hundreds of billions more to reduce poverty and should we risk more bitter battles to reduce segregation, or should we just double down on our efforts to improve schools? The liberal in me says we should do both. The pragmatist in me wonders if we can.”

The sheer absurdity of the question begs for a piece of satire along the lines of “A Modest Proposal.” This perplexing stance on desegregation, which seems to be held by a number of influential people in the world of education reform, isn’t really all that perplexing—it is the policy corner they have backed themselves into. This is exactly where the rabbit hole of uncritical support for school choice, accountability, and faith in “market forces” leads.

Contradictions

Lets start by addressing two important logical fallacies in this line of thinking. If desegregation is too complex and difficult of a problem for public schools to address, then so is the similarly vexing problem of poverty. If schools have no business solving segregation, then they have no business solving poverty. However, those who advocate education reform often espouse that very idea—that education is the solution to poverty. So it is our job as educators to end poverty, but when it comes to segregation, we must throw our hands up in despair because there is nothing to be done. Or just focus on instruction as if poverty and segregation have no impact on student learning. Reformers chide those who cite the numerous significant obstacles that child poverty presents schools as just “making excuses.” In that case, then it would appear that education reformers are just “making excuses” in regards to the issue of segregation.

Many within the education reform movement also see traditional public schools as rife with systemic racism. Therefore, the only way to ensure positive outcomes for students of color is by “disrupting” the system, introducing competition, and providing charter schools outside of the system. However, when faced with the data showing that charter schools are resegregating our schools (specifically in the case of white parents using charter schools to avoid diverse school environments), suddenly the issue is not systemic but simply the choices of racist parents. If you believe that systemic racism exists in traditional systems and elected boards, then you must also accept that is exists in other systems, such as charter schools and their non-elected boards. If you believe that racism is only the result of the actions of individual bad actors, then the public school system cannot be at fault (unless of course you believe the whole staff was hired from a Klan rally). Systemic racism must be addressed in all systems, including charter schools.

The Narrative

Education reform policies must shoulder some blame for the current state of resegregated schools, not just for blindly pushing a charter school agenda, but also for the proliferation of a narrative of failing schools. The goal of “reforming” public schools necessitated a narrative proving that they are in need of reform. Instead of a narrative of needed soul-searching, reorganization, renewed focus, community engagement, funding structures, teacher training, cultural responsiveness, addressing oppressive practices, or any of the other dozen legitimate issues of school and district improvement, it was quicker and easier to label public schools as failing.

Of course most education reform advocates profess motives as pure as the freshly driven snow. Even when true, this narrative aligned itself with the narrative of failing public schools pushed by those whose agenda is privatization of our public resources and profiteering. This narrative also conveniently fit the within the coded language of white parents who (consciously or not) found undesirable the prospect of sending students to truly diverse schools, or schools where white students are a minority. Instead of repudiating the use of such a narrative in dog whistle fashion, most in the education reform movement has remained silent. It is a disturbingly Trumpian move (you know, he can’t help if Neo-Nazis and the KKK choose to endorse him, right?). Unfair and unreasonable moving targets of accountability further fueled the narrative of failing schools; accountability mandates that were also provided without the necessary resources and support needed to meet them.

In my experience, the root of the struggle of public schools today is the damage brought by this narrative; seeds that were sowed far and wide in the fertile fields of white privilege. The public has lost faith in even the potentials of our public schools. Not because they should, not because it is justified, but because education reformers told them to. The reform movement relied so heavily on the narrative of failing schools the damaged just snowballed. Now traditional public schools simply can’t do anything right in face of evidence to the contrary. In yet another irony, education reformers have done exactly what the accuse teachers of doing but setting low expectations for disadvantaged students. Public schools are just like a disadvantaged student. We have been branded a failure; branded hopeless. Since we cannot reach the unreasonable expectations some have set for us, we are now given only the lowest expectations. We are the victims of the low expectations set by those who control the narrative.

The result is that many in our communities are no longer deeply invested in the success of public schools because they have been lead to believe we are beyond repair. All the efforts to reform public schools based on market models has change the perception of public schools from a collaborative effort to make our society a better place but factories of individual student achievement. Students and families are now customers, not collaborators. The result is a selfish competitiveness that has destroyed the soul of public education. To add insult to injury, those of us who dare speak out on behalf of the power and promise of our public schools are branded “defenders of the status quo,” a fact that could not be farther from the truth.

Do not underestimate the power of this narrative. Traditional public schools have successfully been branded uncool, undesirable along with other “public” entities. Part of the larger push for privatization is the careful crafting of a dog whistle narrative of public things as inferior, as only used by the poor and undesirable (to most whites unconsciously synonymous with black and brown people). To call the popularity of charters as being driven by “market forces” is hardly fair when the playing field has been rigged by a marketing machine that traditional districts cannot match. Public policy is often about encouraging people to make better choices. We have succeeded in changing public narratives on things like healthy life styles. Now fruits and vegetables are cool and smoking is not (I sure wish that was true during my formative years). If a public narrative can move McDonalds to a healthier menu, anything is possible. Think of where we could be today if the education reform narrative had not been, “our schools are failing” but “our schools need help, lets invest our time, energy, and money on improving them.” Truly integrated, diverse public schools are the best thing for the health of our democracy—that is the narrative that we must craft.

Integration the Right Way

When discussing the issue of school segregation, it is important to remember that most parts of the country never achieved integration in the first place. Many strategies were used to ensure the creation of white public school enclaves while skirting segregationist practices that would draw the attention of the courts. Some communities made halfhearted attempts at integration that failed. In many parts of the South, however, steely determination from a variety of parties, a multitude of strategies, and federal action equaled success. In the years following the Brown decision, my home of North Carolina was the most integrated state level educational system in the country. Those gains have been slowly walked back through the actions of conservative judicial appointments and policy decisions of state and local lawmakers, including the impact of voucher programs and lax charter policy. It is not accurate to say the school integration efforts have failed; powerful individuals and small groups have intentionally and systemically worked to undermine them, often against the collective will of communities. When desegregation was successful, it involved the control and crafting of a narrative that supported it as well as both small and large policy steps. Good public policy simply makes positive choices slightly easier than negative ones. There is nothing impossible about it.

Past integration efforts also illustrate some of the many possible pitfalls. Historically, integration has been done on white terms. Integration cannot come with the assumption of the inferiority of non-white educational environments.

After the fall of Jim Crow, it was the black schools that were shuttered and the black teachers and principals that were laid off. The assumption of superiority of white schools my have been true in the case of facilities and resources, but not necessarily in terms of instruction. Excellence can and does exist in all black or all brown spaces. Black and brown spaces also provide affirmation to students of their dignity and culture.

Ironically, it is often these very schools that have been labeled as “failures” by school accountability measures and shuttered. In the name of “improved” education, we often send students of color into spaces that are not culturally responsive and not affirming to their dignity and culture. In that case, it is easy to see while communities of color embrace a responsive charter school, even with uncertified teachers and fewer resources. We should not accept that this is the best we can do for underserved communities of color. They deserve the same culturally responsive, community controlled, fully funded, integrated public schools that more privileged communities receive.

Integration must be paired with cultural responsiveness.

We must also be mindful of who benefits from school integration. Those outside of the dominant culture (white, middle-class) often learn to negotiate diverse environments out of necessity. White people, however, can easily access enclaves of whiteness where little interaction with diverse individuals is required. The idea is that integrated environments are good for students because it gives them a competitive edge in the diverse workplaces. However, when that benefit is bestowed inequitably on white students or when the assumption is that student of color must adapt and conform to superior, white middle-class norms, then there is a problem.

Integration cannot be paired with the assumed superiority of whiteness.

The Urgent and the Important

The world of education leadership has long held dear a concept that is credited to President Eisenhower—we must never let the urgent get in the way of the important. It is an easy trap to fall into. A constant state of crisis in our public schools keeps us so busy that the things that are of the most importance go untended. While appreciating and addressing the urgency of improving educational outcomes for all students, we cannot loose sight what is truly of lasting importance in our public schools. The solutions proposed by the education reform movement have always been a Band-Aid at best. The misguided “pragmatism” that has some questioning the value of a focus on integration does exactly that—it sacrifices the important in the name of the urgent to the detriment of both current and future students.

Choice and Segregation

This blog is also posted in a shorter version with the Education Post.

Charter school advocates have recently expressed frustration in the final charter language in the Democratic party platform as well as a new NAACP resolution concerning charter schools and a platform produced from Black Lives Matters activists that raise concerns about charters “destabilizing” and “resegregating” traditional public schools. I can provide a well-documented example the legitimacy of these concerns in the district I have worked in for 16 years, Durham Public Schools in Durham, NC.

Though Faulkner’s words are misquoted, his sentiment is very true: in the South, the past isn’t history, in fact, it isn’t even the past yet. Like all Southern cities, Durham has its own unique and complex history of segregation and desegregation If you really want to understand the history of Durham, and by extension, of many of the challenges of race relations throughout the South, please watch this excellent documentary.

Durham’s two public school districts were fully desegregated by court order in 1970. White flight from the city to county schools was the result. The two districts coexisted for decades, the city district overwhelming black (including school board, administrators, and teachers as well as students) and the county district overwhelmingly white—though each individual district was technically “integrated.” Despite regular joint school board meetings and reoccurring productive conversations about merger starting in the 1970s, the two districts did not formally merge until 1992.

Through a variety of measures — magnet programs, equitable funding, new school construction and redistricting, urban planning and housing programs — the community successfully diversified most of its schools at that time. However, care was taken to honor and preserve the community’s beloved historically black high school, Hillside. Hillside is the oldest and one of only five historically black high schools that still survive in North Carolina (from 300 that existed prior to desegregation).

Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, DPS worked to maintain the delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system. Using testing data and diverse community input, the district developed an ambitious 10-year plan starting in 1997 to attack various achievement gaps. Throughout the early and mid-2000’s, DPS worked to maintained the complex and delicate balance necessary in a diverse Southern school system that is simultaneously urban, suburban, and rural.

The rapid and unmanaged growth of charter schools in the county has now destroyed that delicate balance. The impact increased after 2011 when the state cap on charters was lifted and a number of steps were taken by state lawmakers to loosen oversight of charters. In NC, the state authorizes charters with no input from the local districts. There are no guidelines to ensure that charter enrollment mirrors the diversity of the surrounding community. Charter schools are also not required to provide transportation or meals. Even the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has expressed concern about charter policy in the state.

As a result of these policies, charter schools in the state are more segregated than traditional public schools. Researchers at Duke University have pointed out that 20% of all charter schools in the state are 90% or more white. Durham, a district with less than 40,000 school-aged children, now has 13 charter schools with number 14 scheduled to open this fall and number 15 already approved for the future.

The net result of the growth in charters is that they have concentrated poorer children of color in the district schools. According to the 2010 census, 40% of Durham County’s population is white. As of last school year, only 18% of Durham Public School students were white.  Meanwhile, four Durham charter schools are 54%-67% white. Essentially, since the growth of charter schools beginning in the 2007-08 school year, approximately 1200 white students have disappeared from Durham Public Schools.

Both research and anecdotal evidence (here and here) demonstrate that white parents prefer schools where their child will be in the majority, often as a more important factor than school quality. Research by Helen Ladd at Duke University on white parents in NC found that a 20% black population was the threshold that white parents preferred.

Three of the four majority white charter schools are not part of a charter management chain. They are grassroots charters started by the local community. Some associated with some of those charters have expressed a seemingly honest desire for a more diverse student body but are unable or unwilling to address the underlying reasons why many families of color do not consider the school a viable option. It is notable the other nine charter schools in the county are a majority students of color.

Of course, the reasons behind all parents’ school choices are complex. I know this first hand as the magnet coordinator at my school where I work directly with parents involved in the school choice process. They look for convenience; they look for “fit;” they are often far more concerned about social aspects of the school than the quality of instruction.

At the same time, I routinely hear white parents make coded statements that expose unconscious racism and both black and white parents express unconscious classism. Parents lament that if only DPS schools were “safer” they would send them there instead. One can also hear concern over “fair treatment” from a black principal or their children being around “disruptive” students who “don’t take their academics seriously.”

Many white and middle class parents are looking for rich, progressive learning environments for their children, something they often wrongly assume can’t be found in traditional public schools serving urban youth. They assume those schools provide only rigid and narrow approaches to education with an excessive focus on testing. DPS already has a lot of choice built in the system. It has a liberal transfer policy and 40% of the schools are part of an award winning magnet program. Testing data shows that the four majority white charter schools do no better than most, and worse than a few, DPS schools. None of those four charter schools provides a specialized curriculum that is not already available within the district schools.

While each student who leaves the district for a charter school takes with them their average per-pupil spending, the district has been left with students who are more expensive to educate. In a district with a 30% child poverty rate, Durham Public Schools now has a 65% free and reduced lunch rate as well as higher concentrations of students with disabilities and English language learners. Students who return to the district after the 20th day of school do not bring any funds back with them.

In a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle, the exodus of white and middle class families may cause the district schools to look more like those very schools those families want to avoid. Concentrated poverty and disadvantaged students have impacted school test data and the district faces greater testing pressures.

The future holds even more uncertainty. The number of charter schools has destabilized the whole school system. Charters can and do close mid-year leaving the local district to suddenly accommodate those children, sometimes without the benefit of transcripts. A lot of time and money spent on careful and responsible planning for future growth and facility usage in the district can be thrown out the window. The district now faces uncertainty about student movement to and from charters and the number of charters may be approved in the future.

While area charters still claim long wait-lists, insiders express concerns of charter market over saturation with some new charters failing to meet enrollment goals and charters investing more time and money into recruitment efforts. Area charter teachers also quietly express concern about practices of grade inflation and lack of rigor as charter schools try to keep students and families satisfied.

Any readers who are still looking for another explanation must have more faith in white acknowledgement of privilege and racism than I do. What is happening in Durham raises a lot of questions and should give pause. The intersection of race and school choice is complex. Given the known benefits of school integration for all students, it is time to consider policy approaches that ensure that school choice leads to more integration rather than contributing to more racial and economic isolation in our public schools.

As white students quickly become a minority in America’s public schools, we now have a taste of what the white privilege fueled response may look like.

Durham shows us that decades of violent and intense desegregation battles can be quickly undone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Class Privilege 101

Check out this post as a guest post over at Edushyster: http://edushyster.com/class-privilege-101/ 
I was really intrigued by the recent discussion about college and disadvantaged students. Research is showing us that those who come from poverty still earn less in their lifetime even with a college degree than those from more affluent backgrounds. And those are the students who actually finish.  Far too many low-income students rack up large amounts of debt, but fail to graduate. In the long run, they are worse off. These are profoundly important facts to inform our discussions around education policy. This matters to me because I am a public school teacher and education scholar. It matters even more to me because I once was a poor kid in college.

I was born and raised in Southern Appalachia in one of the many lingering pockets of extreme rural poverty in America. Not only was my family and most of my community impoverished, we were culturally and physically isolated. Violence and alcoholism were common fixtures. My mother was a product of the foster care system, my father struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability, and I had a special needs sibling. I graduated in the top 5% of my class with a 4.65 GPA despite working 35-40 hours per week, starting the week of my 16th birthday. I was a first generation college student. I am sure I would have been a dream come true for an Ivy League admissions officer in search of a scholarship recipient. I didn’t apply to any Ivy League schools, though. I attended the closest public university to me, 30 miles away. And I only did that instead of going to the local community college because I was offered a scholarship to become a teacher, something that I was passionate about.

I also tried to quit three separate times. By quit, I mean car-packed-up-and-driving-away-in-the-middle-of-the-semester quit. This would have been a disaster for me as the largest chunk of my full financial aid package was a scholarship loan that had to be paid back with my service as a teacher—or in cash with interest. Quitting college would have left me in significant debt. My advisor came and got me each of the three times and convinced me to come back, and talked me down at least one more time before I made it to the car. Why did I want to leave? Why was college so difficult for me? It wasn’t academics; I maintained a 4.0. The problem for me was culture shock. Specifically, I had been thrown into the deep end of unacknowledged middle-class norms and values.

The problem for me was culture shock. Specifically, I had been thrown into the deep end of unacknowledged middle-class norms and values.

For example, the polite but formal, pleasant but distant *professional* approach that many of my professors took to student interaction seemed cold, impersonal, heartless, and utterly foreign to me. I had no model to work from. Where I came from, exceeding politeness and formality was a sign of disrespect and distrust. Those of us from a working-class culture have a level of comfort with expressions of emotions and even anger that can make middle class folks squirm. Even today, the idea of compartmentalizing *personal* and *professional* is remains utterly foreign to me. It’s probably clear by now that my early interactions with professors didn’t go smoothly. Like the time I called one of my professors to tell her I would be missing class due to a death in the family. She couldn’t comprehend how the sudden passing of my fiancé’s grandfather justified missing multiple days of classes. To her, that was irresponsible. I couldn’t comprehend how I could offend my future in-laws by not being with them during that time. To me, that was irresponsible.

We have very strange habit in this country of pretending that class differences (and the profound cultural difference that come with them) don’t exist. In education, we discuss concerns that poor students are being approached from a *deficit model.* Which is a really polite way to say that middle-class folks assume their culture and value systems are superior to that of working class people.

Here’s a handy description of the differences taken from the work of Barbara Jensen, a scholar who has extensively research the culture of class in America:

values

 

Of course, this is a neutral depiction. It is easy to see how value judgments can be made from each position. From my perspective as a young college student, middle-class culture was selfish, greedy, disloyal, materialistic, opportunistic and shallow. Frankly, I still think that way to some extent. Why should we value individualism more than loyalty and commitment to a community? I have never been competitive or understood the value of being goal-oriented. How, exactly, does creating a goal in any way help you accomplish it? What is the point other than to establish an artificial sense of accomplishment by achieving some arbitrarily defined thing?

There are so many ways that K-12 education and especially higher education force middle-class culture onto all students. An excellent example is the fact that most colleges force students to live in the dorm for at least the first year. Numerous obstacles such as lack of public transportation and policies that prohibit cars on campus can make it difficult for students to get home for visits. In addition to rules and obstacles, there is often active discouragement or stigma placed on commuting from home or even making frequent visits. One of my high school students lost her only living parent in the February of her senior year, just two weeks after her 18th birthday. I helped get her off to college, but despite working our request way all the way up to the chancellor, she was forced to spend her first year in the dorm. This meant she was homeless during breaks, had to pay for storage for her belongings, and find new homes for her beloved pets. The only concession the school allowed was for her to be able to park her car on campus, of course with an added large parking fee.

Despite working our request way all the way up to the chancellor, she was forced to spend her first year in the dorm. This meant she was homeless during breaks, had to pay for storage for her belongings, and find new homes for her beloved pets. The only concession the school allowed was for her to be able to park her car on campus, of course with an added large parking fee.

The goal of policies such as this seems to be the development of independence, adulthood, and adult identity separate from family. These goals, of course, are pretty much the archetype of middle-class values. On the other hand, poor kids generally have already learned a lot of adult skills and independence. Forcing poor students away from the grounding that family and community provide and also exposing them to peer pressure from students who have far less to lose from unwise choices can lead to disaster. Adding insult to injury, many people advocate exactly for such policies since they get disadvantaged college students away from *negative influences* and *poor role models.* There was a 60% freshman dropout rate at my college when I attended. In trying to address this problem, the university assumed the reason was that students were bored in a rural location (especially those from down state), which was exacerbated by the fact that so many students went home every weekend. They desperately tried to solve the *suitcase problem* instead of more closely examining the reasons why students went home.

So, if we really believe in college opportunities for all and we really want poor students to succeed in college, then it is long past time to unpack and deconstruct the culture and value systems that are being privileged on campus—and in many K-12 schools as well—and reconsider policies that belittle and dismiss working-class cultural values.

Connection

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my grandparents, 1936

Well these have been an eventful few weeks. I have struggled to write in both time and ability to articulate. What meaningful thoughts could I possibly add to the current dialog? My shared grief over the graphic footage of yet more police shootings of black men as well as the tragedy in Dallas for me were aligned with my own private grief as well as the hectic start of a new school year (I work at a year round school).

In a ritual that I imagine is familiar to most families, we are in the process of sorting through the accumulated belongings of my grandparents. My grandfather passed last November at 98 and my 97-year-old grandmother is now in a nursing home. It is a bittersweet process full of sadness, joy, and existential questions, sometimes with unsettling answers (along with a large helping of dust and mold on the side).

As I sorted through my grandparent’s life experiences, I reflected on the wide gulf between our perspectives. Could I ever truly understand a worldview and mindset formed in a context that was so different from my own? Could they ever truly understand me? I saw the connection of this question to the content I would be teaching soon. As my AP Art History students study prehistoric art, how will I help them understand how different our modern worldviews are from prehistoric humans, while not underestimating the fundamental similarities that still shape us?

In the same way that we find it hard to build a bridge across these gaps, it is a struggle to understand the perspective of those of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Some understandings are just inscrutable by those on the outside. Some shoes simply cannot be walked in. As I pondered, theme of connection seemed to be thread tying together these disjointed experiences.

Humans seek connection with other humans. Those who don’t find it often turn to violence and rage (isn’t every mass shooter described as a “kind of a loner”?). Those who find connection and lose it are grief stricken. The abused continue to tolerate their abusers in avoid the loss of connection to them. If we often struggle to connect with people with whom we share DNA (and physical resemblance) simply because we are a few decades removed, what hope do we have as teachers walking into diverse classrooms? Yet, teachers and students often do create deep connections with each other and with their peers across the widest gulfs.

As Black Lives Matter movement has shaped and encouraged the greater discourse about systemic racism, the issue of white fragility comes to the surface. White fragility is certainly an accurate description of a real phenomenon. However, narratives of white fragility tend to focus on adults, not students; corporate settings, not schools; and ignores in how white fragility is manifest differently based on class differences. As the mostly white teaching force works in increasingly diverse schools, we face a daunting challenge—how do we help students understand and come to terms with their place and role within systems of power and oppression while also developing the agency and desire of all students to create a more socially just society?

Or to put it more simply, how do we help all students (and possibly ourselves) make sense of the truth and reality of inequity in our society and give them the tools to help create more equal society? It is complex challenge made more difficult by the dynamics of power within our districts, schools, and classrooms.

Part of white fragility manifests itself in the fear and sadness over lost connection. Admitting that there are gaps we cannot cross means throwing the whole notion of connection in question. That is scary on a deeply psychological level. For some, being vocally anti-racist or supportive of LGBTQ rights appears to risks existing connections while also appearing to deny the ability to forge new ones. Evolutionarily speaking, fairness and justice have an uphill battle against the human desire to belong. This is powerfully evident to those of use who work in school settings. It is root of all bullying behavior.

One of the most challenging ideas that Paulo Freire presented is that the oppressor is also hurt by the process of oppression: “the oppressor, is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others.”(Notice neither he nor I suggest that they are more hurt by it, nor that it is the job of the oppressed to comfort them, simply that systems of oppression are dehumanizing to all).

As educators, we must find a balance. No, we cannot simply ignore all “this stuff” and “focus on the curriculum”—that is the answer that perpetuates the inequity. Education is fundamentally political in nature, denying this fact is naive and misguided. No, there is no room in our schools for race neutral, kumbaya, “can’t we all just get along” nonsense. We cannot deny reality. At the same time, we also cannot we entertain hopelessness.

As Freire puts it: “in place of immobilist fatalism, I propose critical optimism…I recognize reality. I recognize the obstacles, but I refuse to resign to silence or to be reduced to a soft, ashamed, skeptical echo of the dominant discourse.” Yes, teachers are human and most fail to recognize and understand our privilege at times. We will make mistakes and missteps as we navigate the racial, social, and political crosscurrents of our diverse classrooms and schools. We should take those opportunities to listen and learn, but we should not choose to be silent simply because our efforts are imperfect.

As we reflect on the coming year (or for some of us, face our students now) Paulo Freire charges each of us with these responsibilities to our students:

  • “…to unveil opportunities for hope, regardless of the obstacles”
  • to accept the political and directive nature of education
  • to express respect for differences in ideas and positions
  • to respect the students, never manipulating them
  • to be tolerant, open, forthright, and critical, teaching is not simply the “transmission of knowledge concerning the object or concerning the topic”
  • to teach so that students can learn to learn “…the reason-for, the “why” of the object or the content.”
  • to challenge students with a regard to their certitudes so that they seek convincing arguments in defense of the why

Let’s all take his words to heart. Let us focus on the challenge of forging deep connections that do not deny the reality of our differences. We all have done it before, we can do it again.

Context, Local Control, Democracy, and Public Schools

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photo credit: Mika Twietmeyer @mikajhunter

Context matters. It is pretty simple idea. One of the most solid indictments of the education reform movement is the fact that they advocate blanket policies that impact all schools, all districts, and all states based on experience in just a few districts. From an analysis of a few urban centers, generally in the Northeast, assumptions have been made, policies have been written, and lines have been drawn in the sand. From reading the ed reform blogosphere, it would appear that New York State is an assumed to be an analog for the entire country—urban, suburban, and rural. The conversation about rural poverty is slim, often based on wrong assumption that rural poverty does not impact students of color or that issues in rural schooling are similar to those in urban settings. The constant discussion and debate about teacher’s unions ignores the large number of non-unionized teacher work forces in this country. Also ignored are the varying histories of segregation and desegregation in different regions or the existence (or lack thereof) of a traditional presence of private schooling.

More concerning that the ignorance that education reform advocates seem to have about important structural and contextual factors is the fact that many seem to simply not care. Whatever they perceive is the “crisis” in public education is the only thing that matters. Everyone else be damned, even if we can clearly demonstrate the negative consequences of those blanket education policies on disadvantaged students in other contexts. Perhaps they don’t believe the evidence. Perhaps they play moral equivalency games and decide that these students over here are somehow more worthy or somehow more vulnerable than students over there. Maybe it is simply a game of “out of sight, out of mind” and they just choose to ignore the problems that aren’t visible to them every day.

Given that, it is refreshing when someone in the ed reform camp can drop a little of the arrogance and spend some time contemplating larger implications of their policy positions. Andy Smarick does that just a bit in this article, while simultaneously demonstrating the many flaws within education reform logic.

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.” …We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match their kids to the programs that fit them best… We could rid ourselves of all the campaign nastiness and government sclerosis that comes with embedding public education within a political system.

(On a side note, the idea that education reform was meant to empower teachers is some sort of revisionist fantasy. The burden of proof is on Mr. Smarick here since there are mountains of evidence out there that policies of “choice” and “accountability” have caused, and were in fact designed to cause, the deprofessionalization and disenfranchisement of teachers.)

Of course, the problematic assumption here is that the needs and desires of all families are somehow magically in alignment. Public education is embedded in a democratic and political system because public schools are ground zero for the balancing of individual rights and the greater good of a community that is the nature of living in a democracy. A system based solely on parent choice ignores the fact that parents make decisions based on inherent self-interest. It also makes the incredibly wrong assumption that the primary function and role of public schools is instructional.

Educators watch as some vocal parents serve as unwavering advocates and supporters of public schools—that is until their last child graduates. Then they are never seen again, well until that county commissioner meeting where they show up to speak out against high taxes. We politely listen to the parents who want books banned, want prayer (to just their God, of course) back in school, want the kids with AIDS and those who wear hijabs kicked out of the schools. They want the coach that benched their child fired. We watch, as many who advocate for the needs of black students remain silent as brown students are arrested on their way to school, imprisoned, and deported. We watch, as many advocates for brown students stay silent about the inequity faced by black students. We watch, as the same people who express concerned about policies that perpetuate oppression for students of color demand that transgender students not be allowed in the restroom with their children. If you have ever had the pleasure of studying and reading original historic school board minutes, like I have,  you will see the same themes, patterns, and concerns addressed repeatedly throughout at least 100 years of public schooling.You will see the fundamentals of democracy at work in interesting and surprising ways. In the ed reform utopia, exactly who is negotiating these issues and how? 

Finally I am still confused as to what Mr. Smarick thinks a democracy is if removing democracy gives power to “families, educators, and civil society.”

Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

I contacted a couple of people I know who have been involved in state level education policy and politics for many, many years in NC. I asked them how many politicians they could name whose “stepping stone” throughout the years was service on one of the 115 local school boards in NC, or even the state school board. They both laughed—hard. I don’t think NC is an outlier, in fact, if there is any truth to the idea that school boards are populated by “1) aspiring politicians for whom this is a rung on the ladder to higher office; 2) former employees of the school system with a score to settle; and 3) single-minded advocates of one dubious cause or another who yearn to use the public schools to impose their particular hang-up on all the kids in town” those few districts would be the outliers. (Irony alert: education reformers being concerned about “single minded advocates of one dubious cause or another.”)

Seems like something that would be easy to compile data on, yet Mr. Smarick does not cite any data. He sites a 12-year-old article also coming from the Fordham camp. This article only quotes 2001 data from a “representative national sample of 827 school districts” to demonstrate that teacher’s unions donated more money to school board elections than parent groups did. So we have completely outdated data that does not reflect the current realities of campaign finance laws or patterns and again, completely ignores that fact that there are a very large number of states where teachers unions basically do not exist. I won’t even bother addressing the flawed logic that the needs of teachers are somehow in opposition to the needs of students or that the “union” is somehow a separate entity from “the teachers” with nefarious string pullers in control.

But a curious thing happened along our righteous, electorally watertight path to greater choice: People decided that they liked democracy, too. [Well, they didn’t just decide that, they have always felt that way] So today, in cities with too few options, families clamor for more choice. At the same time, in cities where charter sectors have blossomed [um, you mean where the earth was salted for traditional public schools?] (e.g., New Orleans, Detroit, Newark), communities are demanding more democratic control. How to balance the two has turned out to be one of the most interesting and difficult quandaries in schooling today…A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected. The “local” and “democratic” aspects of school authority can be especially important in historically underserved communities. Because of segregation, redlining, and other unjust policies, many of our fellow citizens don’t merely suffer unfair conditions; they suffer environments they’ve been precluded from changing. They want and deserve the right to have a significant influence over the policies affecting them and their neighbors— especially those related to the education of their kids. And therein lies our fundamental challenge…So what in the world do we do?

Wow, what a cogent and thoughtful discussion. It almost seems sincere enough to even be divorced from the profiteering motives and market forces mumbo-jumbo that generally underlies the corporate education reform movement. This clearly articulates exactly why so many are deeply opposed to these reform policies. So Mr. Smarick, of course the logical conclusion is that we must embrace democratic control of schools and work to strengthen and improve that practice of democracy and to correct the disenfranchisement of people within the democratic system. We must get rid of charter schools with unelected boards those run by private management companies since they are the antithesis of democratic public schooling. Right…? Surely that is where you are going next…?

We need to begin experimenting, in earnest, with democratically controlled authorizers. If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district. The city would preserve its diversity of schools and operators, as well as the right of parents to choose schools, through such an arrangement. But voters would have a say in how the system worked… this approach recognizes the virtues of decentralization and choice as well as democratic control. It gives the community a voice while making it clear that the board’s role is to authorize schools, not operate them.

Nope—so close, yet so far. First of all, notice all the mentions of “cities with large charter sectors.” Yet again, we are writing policy for the whole country based on some isolated examples. Also, if you really believe the problem is cumbersome democracy, how exactly is the creation of two parallel and possibly contradictory democratic systems better? In fact, placing a “democratically controlled authorizer” in a performance oversight role over schools “operated by the district” removes the democratic control of existing public districts run by elected school boards. A plan like this gives citizens less democracy, not more.

Also, Mr. Smarick is forgetting democratically controlled authorizers already exist in many states. North Carolina is one of those. In NC, state lawmakers determine charter schools authorization and review policy. The authority to grant and revoke charters is given to the State Board of Education whose membership consists of two state elected officials (the Lieutenant Governor and the State Treasurer) and others who are appointed to the position by the Governor with confirmation by the state legislature. An elected State Superintendent of Schools guides the work of the State Board of Education. Despite the rather democratic nature of the authorizers, our state has been riddled with charter school scandals (here is one of the best examples), abrupt school closures, and negative impacts on students statewide.

Unfortunately, the evidence already exists that democratic authorization without democratic operational control and continual democratic oversight of public and charter schools can create even more inequity and reduce the quality of education that students receive. The conversations we should be having are about how to actually strengthen and improve democracy in our public school system, not continue to undermine it with schemes that only provide the appearance of democracy.

 

Cartoon gravity and reform logic

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Most people who don’t work with them see teenagers as moody, impulsive, and unpredictable. Actually, the opposite is true. Teenagers are completely predictable—that is once you understand teenage logic. Teenage logic is sort of like cartoon gravity; it has its on set of strict rules, that just don’t always happen to align with reality. As a new kid on the block of the education policy blogosphere and twitterverse (really, did I just use those words?) I am beginning to see that education reformers seem to have their own form of cartoon gravity logic. So here we go in no particular order, the most head scratching logical fallacies I have seen so far (this is likely to be a reoccurring series).

  1. “The public school system is broken because it is horribly bureaucratic and inefficient…so lets make that same system give secure high stakes standardized tests…!” Seriously? You give a system a bureaucratic task to do and then try to deflect blame when ridiculousness ensues?
  2. “Democracy is not working and communities of poverty and color are disenfranchised…so lets break democracy even more and give those folks charter schools with unelected boards and start pumping money into local school board elections to impact the outcome…” So exactly how are those disenfranchised people now empowered? How exactly to they have a voice in their children’s education? Why do you trust their decision-making skills when it comes to school choice but not when it comes to authentic democracy?
  3. “The public schools system perpetuates systemic racism, so the solution is different systems run by for-profit companies.” Racism is not systemic, it is endemic; it impacts all systems, even the very education reform movement itself. Replacing public schools with charter schools does not address the problem, relying on another government system does not address the problem. Systemic racism can only be addressed by the building of solidarity, community, and authentic democracy.
  4. “Those darn selfish, greedy teachers are always using the union to what they want at the expense of students…lets give the money instead to these charter operators who are making ginormous profits at student expense.” Or the simpler way to say this: unions = bad, capitalists = good. Seriously, this is where I start cussing. Teachers are selfish and profiteering for daring to demand reasonable working conditions (that also benefit students) but testing companies and charter schools are just doing an honest business (despite the market forces that pit their interest against student interest)? Excuse me while I put on my Furman University t-shirt…
  5. “We want social justice for one group of people (students of color and disadvantaged students) and to accomplish it we engage in perpetuating oppression another group of people (the overwhelmingly female teaching force).” We are all fighting the same systems of power and privilege. Divide and conquer is a key tool of oppression—pit one group against another. Y’all quibble amongst yourselves and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…
  6. “We want social justice for these groups of students over here, but we don’t care if those same reforms actually oppress other disadvantaged youth in other contexts across the country.” Apparently reformers sleep well at night under the illusion that they have “saved” some young people and can ignore all the others that their policy decisions have negatively impacted.
  7. “Public schools perpetuate systemic racism; now where did all those teachers of color go after we weakened the unions and career protections…?” Really, did y’all think systemic racism is only a problem for students? Reformers have done everything they can to destroy the teaching profession and now wonder “where all the black and brown folks at?” Hint: there are several thousand of them y’all fired somewhere near New Orleans
  8. “Education solves poverty…” I have written at length on this one. Lets also add the fact that those who come from poverty and earn a college degree will make 91% more in their lifetime that high school graduate of similar demographics. A college graduate from a more affluent background will make 167% times that of a similar high school graduate (see this blog from EduSyster). Currently black women are the demographic with the highest rate of college attendance. Of course that fact is reflected a proportional representation in the workforce, leadership, and salary, right? (In case the sarcasm is not clear, the answer is no). No, equity in education does nothing to address the larger inequities in out society.

Unfortunately, I doubt any education reform minded folks actual read this as they tend to ignore and dismiss all voices outside of their own echo chambers. Despite painting all teachers and all traditional public schools with a broad brush they also get rather testy when the same is done to them, preferring to draw fine distinctions between what reforms they do and don’t support and between their ideological grounding and that of others. Most troubling is the fact that they eschew the very accountability that they demand of teachers and schools and stubbornly deflect any blame for the negative consequences of the policy efforts they have a been a part of.

Testing and Ethics, Part 2

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After I wrote this post about the testing code of ethics in NC, a few parents and teachers contacted me about practices in some districts. It appears that one of the big sticks being used by districts to discourage parents from refusing to test is AIG placement. This is in opposition the state testing code of ethics that seems to define using test scores to make such decisions as unethical. The NC Academically or Intellectually Gifted Program Standards specially states “measures that reveal student aptitude, student achievement, or potential to achieve” are to be used including “both non-traditional and traditional measures that are based on current theory and research” that “respond to traditionally under-represented populations…including students who are culturally/ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged, English language learners, highly gifted, and twice-exceptional.” Despite the all-important OR in the statement on measures, a review of school district AIG plans demonstrates a majority include EOG scores as a possible pathway to identification and some as a required part of placement. That would mean that a family that refuses to take EOG test would be considered ineligible for AIG placement in that district as the student who does not test is given a score of 1.

This is problematic for other reasons. State EOG tests are supposed to measure student mastery of a set of standards, not necessarily academic achievement in general. We are also repeatedly told that EOG scores are design to hold teachers accountable and measure the ability of teachers, yet the use of such scores for AIG identification would point to student test scores as a result of innate student ability, not teacher instruction. We also know that the tests are culturally biased and have the greatest correlation to student poverty level. That would place using EOG scores as an identification marker in direct opposition to the state mandate that districts must take measures to identify traditionally under-represented students.

Now we get to the worst part. Universal screening is expensive and teacher recommendations can be problematic. So it makes some sense that districts would take advantage of EOG data as a tool for targeting AIG screening. However, that data can take months to be compiled and disaggregated. From multiple reliable sources, it appears that some districts in the state are also using EVAAS data as a short cut to help them to target students for identification.

In other words, some districts are using the predicted student test scores produced by a black box algorithm (that statistical experts have expressed grave concerns about) to help identify student giftedness. Not an actual student score, but one predicted by the software. I can’t think of a better example of how far down the rabbit hole the standardized testing obsession has taken us, or a better example of highly unethical testing practices.

To be clear, there is no evidence that EVAAS data is being used in isolation or without multiple paths to AIG identification. However, in some cases those other paths can place the burden on the family to pay for student testing. On the other hand, many NC districts actually have put in place innovative practices that ensure equity and identification of under-represented groups. Moving forward, it is time for North Carolina to provide guidance on how both actual EOG test scores and EVAAS predictions should and should not be used in student AIG placement.