The education thief

A homeless woman has been arrested for first-degree larceny for “stealing” $15,686 for her son’s education, reports the Stamford Advocate. Tonya McDowell, 33, used the Norwalk, Connecticut address of her after-school babysitter to enroll her six-year-old son in a nearby school. McDowell alternates between a friend’s apartment in Bridgeport and a homeless shelter in Norwalk, she told police.

The Norwalk Housing Authority discovered the ruse in January, evicted the babysitter and turned McDowell into the school district, which is cracking down on out-of-district students. This is the first time Norwalk has charged a parent with a crime for using a false address.

While (Mayor Richard) Moccia said it was sad the case involves a woman who appears to be homeless, he pointed out that if she had been living at the Norwalk shelter and registered her child there she would not be facing charges now.

I realize that McDowell doesn’t pay Norwalk taxes, but she’s not paying Bridgeport taxes either.  (I assume she has a job, since she needs child care, so she may pay some state taxes.) One woman has been evicted, another could go to jail and all because a little boy went to school in a district where he sometimes lives.

Of course, this recalls the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Ohio woman who spent several days in jail for using her father’s address to get her kids into a better and safer school.

Norwalk schools are better, notes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation, who has stats on “promoting power” for black students in the two districts. The Connecticut Parents Union is lobbying to let McDowell’s son finish out the school year and is raising money to pay the $15,686 in tuition for out-of-district students, Biddle writes. A pro-McDowell petition is here.

Low expectations for other peoples’ kids

Stop Limiting Poor and Minority Kids with Low Expectations, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The Harvard Ed report advocating multiple pathways — career tech as well as college prep — dooms low-income and minority students to dumbed-down curricula, instruction and expectations, Biddle believes.

He criticizes my call for  “realistic pathways” for struggling students.

What she fails to consider is that the reason why they are struggling in the first place: Low-quality instruction and abysmal curricula throughout their times in school, especially in the early grades.

The reading, math and science skills needed to earn a bachelor’s degree are the same skills needed to succeed at a community college or technical school, Biddle argues. Everybody needs a high-quality education whether they’re heading for Harvard or trade school. They’ll only get that on the college-prep track.

Expectations matter. If teachers and administrators think that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of college prep education, then they won’t actually put any work into even the most basic instruction and curricula. They won’t develop intense reading remediation for kids in the early grades.

. . . “Realistic pathways” in schools means ability tracking and denying poor kids entree into the college prep courses that teachers and guidance counselors often reserve for kids they think can learn. It means magnet schools that don’t actually reflect any sort of diversity. It means the lack of school choice in any form.

Biddle has a valid point. (And I appreciate the thoughtful way he makes it.) If expectations are low in elementary and middle school — if nobody intervenes to help the kid who’s not learning to read or multiply — then students will start high school so far behind that it will be very difficult for them to succeed in college-prep courses. It will be hard for them to succeed in vocational courses.

I see the risk of creating a separate, less demanding track for other people’s kids. But the “forgotten half” of students aren’t getting high-quality college-prep. They take classes with college-prep titles and dumbed-down content, because the teachers aren’t allowed to fail most of their students.  They go to community college and four-year colleges and fall into the black hole of remedial education, never to emerge with any credential.

Nearly all high school seniors plan to go to college; 89 percent think they’ll earn a four-year degree.  Expectations are high. Achievement is low. In a Florida study, 20 percent of high school seniors with C averages or below went on to earn a college credential of any kind, including a short-term certificate.

We need to do a much better job educating children in K-8 so they’ll have real choices in high school. But I think more students would succeed if they had the option of a high-quality career track or a high-quality college-prep track. Making sure those options offer strong academics will be a challenge. But it’s one we should tackle.