Why people fight to save bad schools

Can a bad school be good for the neighborhood? asks Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly.

It’s very difficult to “turnaround” a chronically low-performing school, he writes. By contrast, closing a bad school and starting from scratch “can move the quality curve to the right.” That’s his argument in  The Urban School System of the Future.

Furthermore, some arguments for keeping bad schools open are unpersuasive, he writes.

Their “closures-are-acivil-rights-violation” argument causes most to reply, “It’s a far greater violation to force low-income African American and Latino children to remain in failing, unsafe schools.”

However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that closing a school — even a failing, unsafe school — will destabilize the neighborhood, making things even worse, Smarick writes. It’s clear that “good schools are a powerful asset for troubled neighborhoods.” But “every school, even the lowest-performing, is woven into the fabric of its neighborhood—and tugging on that thread affects the entire cloth.”

Even if educationally dysfunctional, the school likely has its share of caring, educated adults who serve as role models and mentors for needy children.

The school may serve as the community hub for social services or civic activities.

Maybe its athletic teams still serve as a source of community pride.

. . . Maybe the neighborhood sees that school as the last thing that is actually theirs. Other families moved away. Businesses shut down. Churches closed their doors. But their school remains.

In There Are No Children Here Alex Kotlowitz describes how two boys try to survive in a dangerous Chicago housing project. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

Closing bad schools — a civil rights issue?

Closing or reorganizing low-performing urban schools discriminates against black and Hispanic students whose schools are most likely to be targeted, charge community activists in the Journey for Justice Movement.

Closing neighborhood schools is “a violation of our human rights,” said Jitu Brown, an organizer from the South Side of Chicago, in a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan yesterday.

Helen Moore, an organizer from Detroit, said the current reform movement is tantamount to racism. “We are now reverting back to slavery,” she said. “All the things that are happening are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we’ll fight to the death.”

The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating civil rights complaints against Philadelphia, Detroit and Newark. Closure plans in New York, Chicago and Washington also have been challenged. However, 27 investigations in the last few years found no bias in school closures. Duncan’s spokesman, Daren Briscoe, said the Education Department doesn’t have the power to order a moratorium on school closings. (Finally, there’s something the feds think is out of their jurisdiction!)

Why would anyone fight to the death for schools with low test scores, high dropout rates — and empty classrooms?

Urban schools aren’t just a place for education, says Sarah Garland, author of Divided We Fail on the end of school segregation in Louisville, Kentucky. “For most people their high school is part of who they are and who the community is.”

Ed Dept: Disabled have right to compete in sports

Disabled students must have “equal access” to school sports, the U.S. Education Department ruled Friday. If there’s no “reasonable” way to include disabled athletes on school teams, schools must set up separate programs.

“Participation in extracurricular athletics can be a critical part of a student’s overall educational experience,” said Seth Galanter, of the department’s civil rights office. “Schools must ensure equal access to that rewarding experience for students with disabilities,” he added.

The directive doesn’t require schools to open sports teams to everyone, regardless of athletic ability, officials said. But it’s not all clear what will be considered “reasonable.” One example — providing “visual clues” in addition to a starter pistol to allow hearing disabled students to compete in track events — seems like the sort of thing any school would and should do. The second — waiving the “two-hand touch” finish at swim meets to allow one-armed swimmers to compete — also seems fair. But it raises a question: Can a one-armed student swim fast enough to make the team?

In 1972, Title IX forced schools to offer equal athletic opportunities to girls. But there are lots of girls in high schools. There aren’t that many one-armed students who want to compete in swimming.

It was also welcomed by disabled student competitors, among them Casey Followay, a 15-year-old high school track athlete confined to a wheelchair by a birth defect, who under current rules, has to race on his own.

“This will help me become a better athlete conditioning- wise, because I have something to push for,” said Followay, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in 2011 asking that he be allowed to run alongside, but not against, the able-bodied.

If he’s not running against able-bodied runners, is he really on the team? He needs to compete against other wheelchair athletes. Schools are supposed to work with community groups to set up regional teams, if they don’t have enough disabled athletes in each sport. That could be expensive.

“The problem is this was done without any deliberation in Congress and no public input and it is not clear how expansive it will be,” says Fordham’s Mike Petrilli. “Just how far must a school district go to be compliant?”

Expect lawsuits charging “separate and unequal” sports opportunities for disabled students, predicts Rick Hess in When Good Intentions Run Amok.

Discipline: Playing the numbers game

If black students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, is that discrimination? The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a Florida school district on charges its discipline policies have a “disparate impact” on black students.

Black students made up 16 percent of Flagler students but accounted for 31 percent of the in- and out-of-school suspensions in the 2010-11 school year, the complaint states. Black students accounted for 69 percent of those expelled.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on School Discipline and Disparate Impact. “Most, but not all of the teachers reported no effort by school administrators to interfere with classroom discipline, but some reported onerous procedural and paperwork burdens before any disruptive student could be removed from class,” according to the executive summary.

School administrators said it’s important to tell students “what the rules are; why the school has those rules, what the consequences are for violating those rules, and being consistent in applying the rules.” (No kidding!)

Jamie Frank, a teacher who’s taught in a variety of schools, said pressure to meet accountability targets affected discipline policies.

. . .  in some school districts teachers were ordered to reduce racially-disparate suspensions in spite of threatening behaviors toward teachers involving weapons. For example, in her school teachers were ordered to substitute a day of “exclusion” at home for what otherwise would have been a suspension. Her view was that the schools felt pressured to pass some minority students through high school regardless of how many days they did not appear for classes to keep graduation numbers high for each racial group.

. . . Ms. Frank said that in her school the administrators were told to reduce their suspension numbers. As a result, they developed a euphemism –“in-school exclusion or intervention” — which allowed the school to avoid reporting the data as suspensions. In addition, the teachers had to fill out a form that required contacting a parent three times before disciplinary action was possible, and that usually a minority student simply reappeared in school even if parents did not respond.

Commissioner Kirsanow asked about the effect of retaining disruptive students on the learning experience.

“Horrible,” said Frank.

Feds will monitor suspensions for racial bias

Federal officials will monitor 38 Oakland schools charged with suspending too many black male students, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Almost 20 percent of the district’s African American males were suspended at least once last year, six times the rate of white boys.

In middle school, 1 out of every 3 black boys was suspended at least once.

The board approved a five-year plan that includes mentoring, teacher training, parent education and programs to address the impact of trauma and community violence on student behavior. In addition, the plan calls for “restorative justice” as an alternative to suspension. Students, parents and school officials meet to encourage  “the offender taking responsibility and making amends.”

The district already has an Office of African-American Male Achievement, which has created programs such as a daily after-school “manhood development” class at Edna Brewer Middle School for 24 black males.

As the boys built drums out of wood and tape, their instructor, who goes only by Jahi, described the benefit of working with the boys, giving them help with their homework and encouragement to focus on school and their futures.

“We try to create this culture of success,” he said. “We can’t change what’s happening outside in the world.”

Eighth-grader William Bolanos, 13, said he’d had some trouble in the past at school, with a few suspensions on his record.

But that won’t happen this year, with help from Jahi’s class.

“It just shows you how to be a man, a leader, a big brother to people,” he said. “I’m just going to try to get honor roll this year.”

Brewer Middle, a relatively high-scoring school, is 34 percent Asian, 31 percent black, 16 percent Latino and 13 percent white. And, no, the district doesn’t have a special office for any other racial or ethnic group.

Implementing the plan — including  “comprehensive and frequent documentation to prove compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964” — will cost the district “millions,” according to the Chronicle.

Discipline by race

Racial quotas in school discipline could be coming to Maryland, writes Hans Bader in the Examiner.

“As a lawyer who used to bring civil-rights cases for a living, I am very disturbed” by the Maryland State Board of Education’s proposed school discipline policy, Bader writes.

This proposed rule violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by pressuring schools to discipline students based on their race, rather than their individual conduct and the content of their character.

. . . (The rule) would require school systems to discipline and suspend students in numbers roughly in proportion to their racial percentage of the student body, and require school systems that currently don’t do so to implement plans to eliminate any racially “disproportionate impact” over a three-year period. Thus, it is imposing quotas in all but name.

The Obama administration has supported the use of “disparate impact” to evaluate school discipline policies.

The Maryland board also wants schools to discipline special education students — including those diagnosed with behavioral disorders — at the ame rate as other students. However, there’s no plan for gender balance in school discipline.

Of course, reducing out-of-school suspensions makes a lot of sense, if it can be done without threatening the safety of other students.

Desegregation is dead…

so says Professor David Kirp (Public Policy, Berkeley) in this morning’s New York Times.  It’s a piece that begs, I think, of a firm response.  And because it’s about desegregating schools, I think it’s appropriate material for this blog.  Here’s how his piece gets under way, though you should read the whole thing.

AMID the  ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments…. But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.

A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices.

The balance of Professor Kirp’s essay, which laments the fading of court-ordered desegregation orders, can be summed up as follows:

(1) Desegregation/integration produces empirical academic benefits for Black students.

(2) Desegregation/integration produces no empirical injuries or drawbacks for White students.

(3) Therefore Desegregation/integration is a good thing.

(4) The courts should support good things.

(5) Therefore the courts should support Desegregation/integration.

To be fair, this is my summary of his work.  I could be misrepresenting it, though I obviously don’t think I am.

Now I’m willing to grant him (1) and (2); he’s a public policy expert and presumably he’d know better than I would whether the evidence supports these things.  I’ll even grant him (3), so long as we keep it at “a good thing” and not “an unqualifiedly good thing, all-in.”  If something gives relevant benefits, and doesn’t have the most obvious sorts of drawbacks one might suspect, odds are that it’s a good thing.

But I seriously question what I’ve presented as his implicit premise (4).  Kirp seems to lack a certain understanding of how the law works, as demonstrated by the fact that he has linked to Milliken v. Bradley (418 U.S. 717 (1974)), but doesn’t seem to actually understand what the case is about.  That’s a serious charge to level at an academic, so let me explain.  Along the way, I think it will become clear both why I think (4) is wrong, and that Kirp does indeed hold it as a view.

[Read more…]

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.”