The Ravi rethink

An 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, Dharun Ravi bragged on Twitter about using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate and his male date, inviting friends to watch a second date. In a New Yorker story, Ravi comes across as immature, attention-seeking jerk, but not a homophobe. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, joked with a friend about a ”five sec peep,” unplugged Ravi’s computer to prevent spying and asked to switch rooms. Then he committed suicide.

Ravi now faces 10 years in prison and deportation to his native India. A New Jersey jury convicted him of invasion of privacy and “bias intimidation,” a hate crime. That’s prompted a mass rethink. Ten years?

Make the Punishment Fit the Cyber-Crime writes Emily Bazelon in a New York Times op-ed.

According to New Jersey’s civil rights law, you are subject to a much higher penalty if the jury finds that you committed one of a broad range of underlying offenses for the purpose of targeting someone because of his race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The idea of shielding vulnerable groups is well intentioned. But with the nation on high alert over bullying — especially when it intersects with computer technology and the Internet — these civil rights statutes are being stretched to go after teenagers who acted meanly, but not violently. This isn’t what civil rights laws should be for.

It was a “hateless hate crime,” writes Jacob Sullum in Reason. “Before the trial the prosecutors offered him a deal that involved no jail time and a chance to avoid deportation, which suggests even they do not believe he should be punished as severely as a violent felon.”

I doubt the verdict will stand, if only because the defense wasn’t allowed to see Clementi’s suicide notes, which were judged “irrelevant.”  Ravi wasn’t charged with causing the suicide, but it was very relevant to the decision to charge him with a hate crime, not just invasion of privacy.

Teens need to know that cyberbullying is a crime, counters Gregg Weinlein, a retired teacher, in an Ed Week commentary.

Too often, teens flip off the word “bully” as childish, knowing that assailants today are much more vicious than the playground bullies of the previous century. Teenagers today must fend off the silent assassins of the digital age, who operate with phones and tablets and plant emotional land mines in social-networking sites. The harassment and text assaults perpetrated by some teenagers should have a criminal connotation if we are to see a shift in how older students perceive and understand this abusive behavior.

In this case, “criminal connotation” means prison and deportation.

Discipline stats: What’s fair?

Black students are suspended, expelled and arrested at higher rates than whites, concludes a new report by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. ”The everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

What About the Kids Who Behave? asks Jason Riley in the Wall Street Journal. Though Duncan said the discipline statistics don’t prove discrimination, inevitably schools will be pressured to ease up on black kids who act up. That will be hard on their classmates, most of whom will be “students of color,” and their teachers.

The Obama administration’s sympathies are with the knuckleheads who are disrupting class, not with the kids who are trying to get an education. But is racial parity in disciplinary outcomes more important than school safety?

The report also found that high-minority high schools are half as likely to teach calculus as low-minority schools. That probably reflects fewer students who are prepared to take college-level math.

In addition, teachers in high-minority schools have less experience and therefore earn less. If these schools have more first- and second-year teachers — which I’d bet they do — that’s a real problem.

Meet the new teacher, Uncle Sam

President Obama has waived No Child Left Behind requirements for 10 states ”in exchange for embracing the Obama administration’s educational agenda,” reports the New York Times.

Education Trust analyzes what each state promised to earn a waiver, highlighting the best and “most worrisome” ideas.

Obama and Duncan Waive Goodbye to Systemic Reform, headlines RiShawn Biddle, who objects to putting low-income, minority, disabled and non-fluent student  in one high-needs subgroup.

States had to jump through a lot of hoops to get very limited flexibility, writes Rick Hess.

The U.S. Department of Education could be violating federal law by using Race to the Top to push Common Core Standards, argues The Road to a National Curriculum (pdf), sponsored by the Pioneer Institute, the Federalist Society, the American Principles Project, and the Pacific Research Institute of California.

By law, the department is barred from “directing, supervising, or controlling elementary and secondary school curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials.”

Lance Izumi piles on in Obama’s Education Takeover.

It’s time to reboot the ever-growing federal role in education argues Choice and Federalism by the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education: States should be free of federal constraints as long as they provide information on school performance and let parents choose their children’s schools.

The federal government has three critical responsibilities, the task force concluded:

creating and disseminating information on school performance, enforcing civil rights, and providing financial support to high-need students via “backpack” funding attached to individual pupils.

“Today, Washington is stuck in an education policy rut,” said task force chairman Chester E. Finn Jr. “On one side we find those who would simply let states do whatever they like with the federal dollars. On the other side are those who want the federal government to tighten the centrally prescribed accountability screws even harder. This debate is going nowhere, as is evident from Congress’s multiyear failure to reauthorize what just about everyone agrees is a badly flawed law.”

If aid were tied to graduation rates …

Linking federal student aid to college graduation rates or other success measures could shake up higher education. Open-access colleges and universities enroll many low-income students who qualify for Pell Grants. Graduation rates are low.

Federal civil rights investigators are expanding their scope, including an investigation of whether low graduation rates at a community college violates students’ rights.

Education reform’s future

It’s not quite the lion lying down the lamb, but Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford ed professor who served on Obama’s transition team, have co-written a New York Times op-ed, How to Rescue Education Reform.  They disagree on some key issues, but agree that the federal government should stick to what it alone can do and avoid trying to micromanage schools.

The first federal role is transparency:  No Child Left Behind required states to measure and report achievement, so parents, voters and taxpayers could “hold schools and public officials accountable.” However, states were allowed to set their own, low standards.

Instead of the vague mandate of “adequate yearly progress,” federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

The second federal role is “enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly.”

Third is supporting basic research in fields such as “brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring.”

Competitive federal grants can support innovation, they conclude. However, the “Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition . . .  ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.”

The feds should stop trying to improve schools by order from above, write Hess and Darling-Hammond. “The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well.”

Schizophrenic, responds RiShawn Biddle.

The odd couple call adequate yearly progress a “vague mandate,” but elsewhere  complain it’s too prescriptive, writes Andrew Rotherham.  The left and right are uniting to kill education reform, he adds in Time.

 

Civil rights, disability groups trash Harkin bill

Adequate Yearly Progress bites the dust in Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind, now out in draft form. Instead, students would have to make “continuous improvement,” reports Ed Week.

There would be no specific achievement targets, either for entire groups of students, or for particular subgroups, such as minority students, English-language learners, or students with disabilities. In the vast majority of cases, states would decide how—and whether—to intervene in schools.

Harkin worked with Republican Sen. Mike Enzi on the bill.

Where’s the teeth? ask critics.

. . .  Democrats for Education Reform already likened the draft’s “continuous improvement” standard to saying you’re losing weight without ever getting on the scale.

Advocates for poor, minority and disabled students complained the bill has “no meaningful mechanism” to hold schools, districts or states accountable in a letter to Harkin and Enzi. The groups included the National Council of La Raza, the Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The lack of goals is “a total deal breaker,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust.

 

Schools liable for cyberbullying

Under civil rights law, school officials must act to curb harassment of students off campus and after school, including cyberbullying, declares a “Dear Colleague” from the Education Department. From the Daily Caller:

“Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet… it does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents [but] creates a hostile environment … [which can] limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school,” according to the far-reaching letter, which was completed Oct. 26 by Russlynn Ali, who heads the agency’s civil rights office.

School officials will face lawsuits even when they are ignorant about students’ statements, if a court later decides they “reasonably should have known” about their students’ conduct, said the statement.

. . .  “The school may need to provide training or other interventions not only for the perpetrators, but also for the larger school community, to ensure that all students, their families, and school staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond… [and] provide additional services to the student who was harassed in order to address the effects of the harassment,” said the letter.

Facebook is adding a feature that will let users “report content to someone in their support system (like a parent or teacher),” Facebook announced March 11 after the White House conference on school bullying. Presumably some children will report perceived harassment to a teacher or principal, making the school responsible for doing something about it.

The National School Board Association objects to expanding schools’ ‘legal risks,” reports Reason.

The remedies being pushed by administration officials will also violate students’ and families’ privacy rights, disregard student’s constitutional free-speech rights, spur expensive lawsuits against cash-strapped schools, and constrict school official’ ability to flexibly use their own anti-bullying policies to manage routine and unique issues, said the NSBA letter.

School officials have a responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment when they’re in school. Making that a 24/7 obligation . . . It’s too much to ask.

Update: Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, plans to introduce legislation requiring schools that receive federal aid to report bullying to the federal government and specify whether disabled students were involved.

‘Disparate impact’ debate on discipline

Educators criticized — and defended — the use of  “disparate impact” in school discipline cases in a hearing before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, reports Ed Week.

Obama administration officials announced last spring that they’ll question discipline policies disproportionately affect blacks, Hispanics or some other subgroups, even if there’s no intent to discriminate. However, discipline policies would be “out of compliance only if an equally sound policy would have less of a disparate impact.”

At the Feb. 11 briefing, Ricardo Soto, the deputy assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office for civil rights, said, “there is no universal, one-size-fits-all approach to discipline that will be right for every school or all students.” However, the department will release new federal guidance on school discipline this year.

Commissioner Todd F. Gaziano told Soto the new approach puts “an extremely heavy burden on the school to justify any disparity.”  Educators might avoid imposing warranted discipline to avoid overrepresentation, Gaziano said.

Allen Zollman, a teacher of English as a second language at an urban middle school in Pennsylvania that he did not name, said he . . . is opposed to having to give “a thought to disparate impact” if he needs to remove a disruptive student from class, saying he views it as a constraint on effective discipline.

Should his school require such a policy, Mr. Zollman said, he would respond in one of three ways: disregard it and continue to refer whatever students he sees fit for disciplinary action, do nothing and tolerate chaos in his classroom, or take an early retirement from teaching.

Jamie Frank, who said she has been a teacher for 11 years in the suburban Washington area, said she worked in a district that stopped failing students who cut class because the policy was disproportionately affecting some groups of students. Teachers were required to reteach and retest students who’d missed class and give them time to make up work, she said.

Some district administrators supported the administration’s new policy.

For example, Hertica Y. Martin, the executive director of elementary and secondary education for Minnesota’s Rochester public schools, reported that from the 2007-08 to 2009-10 school years, the district reduced an overrepresentation of expelled African-American males. She credited a disciplinary approach gaining traction in schools nationwide, called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, with helping to support fairer disciplinary action. She also emphasized the importance of classes about racial and ethnic diversity that the school district has provided to teachers, with titles such as The Role of Whiteness and The Culturally Relevant Classroom.

It’s possible expulsions fell because the discipline model worked well. Or teachers got the message to go easy on black male students.

Chicago schools sued for flunking minorities

Chicago’s policy of flunking third-, sixth- and eighth-grade students who do poorly on state exams disproportionately harms black and Latino students, charges Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) which has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Students who are held back get discouraged and drop out, said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE.

The threat of retention has pushed low-achieving students to work harder to raise achievement, said Elaine Allensworth, chief research officer at the University of Chicago‘s Consortium on Chicago School Research. But there is a down side.

“We saw and still see students held back two or three years and entering high school really old,” she said. “They have no chance of graduating by 18, and so there’s no way they are going to stay in school.”

Students may be required to attend summer school for scoring below the 24th percentile in reading and math, earning D’s or F’s in reading and math or having more than nine unexcused absences. Those who fail summer school must repeat the grade.

Retaining students cost up to $100 million in 2008, PURE estimates. The group wants students who are falling behind to get help before third grade. Nobody objects to that, but it leaves the problem of what to do about students who aren’t prepared to move on to the next level.

Bully-free school is a civil right

After a wave of student suicides, the Obama administration is launching an anti-bullying campaign, warning educators that students’ civil rights may be violated by bullying and harassment. Punishing bullies may not be enough, wrote Russlyn Ali, assistant Education secretary for civil rights, in an advisory letter.

As an example, Ali noted in the advisory that a gay student might withdraw from school activities after being subjected to anti-gay slurs and other intimidation. If the school reprimands the perpetrators to stop the bullying, her advisory said, that would not necessarily be enough to ensure that students are free from harassment based on gender stereotypes.

“The school had an obligation to take immediate and effective action to eliminate the hostile environment,” Ali wrote.

As part of the It Gets Better project to persuade gay teens to keep going, President Obama made a video. “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage,” Obama says.

In New Jersey,  a bipartisan coalition of legislators has introduced an “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” which would require more training on preventing bullying and stiffen reporting rules.

Last month, Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate set up a webcam and streamed online a gay sexual encounter in his dorm room.

Update: After a conversation with Russlyn Ali, who’s a friend, Rick Hess is concerned about implementation. Ali said the feds will move to “enforcement” only if local officials ignore a systemic problem.  He trusts her judgement, but . .  .

My uneasiness is that I know of far too many cases where overeager federal bureaucrats have turned reasonable processes into ludicrous exercises, and where knee-knocking state and local officials have responded by winding educators in a bubble wrap of infuriating, time-consuming requirements and process.

. . . I fear that the current Department is inclined to adopt an expansive view of its role. And I worry about teachers and school leaders getting wrapped in new rules, procedures, and processes designed primarily to keep the feds at bay.

Bullying and harassment are common on school campuses, if federal data are accurate. Hess wonders if we’ve “defined bullying down”  to include teasing.

We absolutely need to protect vulnerable youth from bullies and harassment. We need schools to be places where students are safe and able to learn.

But we need to appreciate “the difference between asking schools to combat harassment and expecting overburdened educators to bring peace on earth and good will among men.”

Yes.