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“We Can Ratchet Up Accountability All We Want”: America’s Schools; Still Separate And Very Much Unequal

I have taught in two different Mississippi Delta high schools, and now work in a community college.

From the 30,000 foot level, at the federal Department of Education, and even in the Mississippi statehouse, we are told that the problem with our schools is low standards and lack of accountability for teachers. From the ground, it looks quite different. Schools that serve the highest-poverty students like the one where I teach are consistently and intentionally under-resourced, exacerbating the dire circumstances in which many of them live.

I once visited the three-room trailer home of one of my high-school students near the town of Alligator, Mississippi, which was housing 10 people — six of them young children. There were only two light fixtures: one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom. No tables, so they ate meals and did their homework on the kitchen floor.

Many Delta children are technically homeless. They “float around” from house to house, relying on strangers or relatives in very unstable living situations. And because there are not enough health providers, just getting to see a doctor can be an all-day event.

In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision identified segregation as the shameful and harmful toxin that it is. We have failed for 60 years to eradicate that toxin, with dire consequences for our schools.

Schools do not operate in a vacuum. Family circumstances that accompany students when they walk through the classroom door every day have a big impact on those students’ success. We all know this. But less often do we acknowledge that those students do not operate in a vacuum either; the communities in which they live have as big an impact on students’ learning as do their family circumstances. And when those communities are economically and racially isolated and segregated, schools face much larger challenges.

Even at the community college level, poverty’s effects sharply challenge the pursuit of education. Lack of transportation is a huge obstacle in this rural area. Students may walk four miles to get to school. I have seen kids walk in all kinds of weather. It’s heart wrenching to hear that they can’t make it to class or to lab or to get extra help because they have kids, or jobs they are trying to get to, or “my ride is leaving.”

Some reformers dismiss these as isolated issues, but when you see it over and over, you realize that it’s pervasive, and that people don’t know how to fight it or change it.

From the moment the Brown decision was delivered, political, civic, business and religious leaders across the Deep South adopted what became known as the “massive resistance” strategy. They refused to integrate schools, and did everything they could to stall the inevitable federal imposition of it. Local officials used all manner of diversions, impediments and excuses to either prevent desegregation or to sabotage its implementation so it could be deemed a “failure.” Indeed, most schools in the Mississippi Delta did not begin to desegregate until the late 1960s, and tens of thousands of black teachers and administrators across the South lost their jobs in retaliation.

We have not “abandoned” the mission, we never fully committed to it.

In 1995, 40 years after Brown, I was teaching at the black high school where my own children were enrolled. A colleague and I went dumpster diving at the other high school for the English textbooks they were throwing away, to get enough just for classroom sets for our students. The white high school had a fully equipped science lab; ours had no lab equipment or supplies. Decades of such inequities laid the foundation for today’s “failing schools.” They were designed to fail.

We can ratchet up accountability all we want, test students more often, and fire more teachers. That will likely cause more children to feel like failures, more dedicated and exhausted teachers to leave our schools, if not our profession, and fewer of our students to graduate from high school and become engaged, employed, productive citizens.

Fixing the complex, longstanding problems holding back our communities, however, will require acknowledging some harsh realities. Starting with the reality that we treat some children as if they are worth more, and mine as if they are worth less, and that growing up and going to school in segregated, isolated communities makes success elusive. We must ensure that money – to pay teachers (and parents) well, to make classrooms engaging, and to ensure that all children are fed, housed and healthy – is available to all. We must stop advancing policies that promote individual “choice” at the expense of developing good, equitable public schools, that treat public schools like market commodities, and that reward outcomes like increased segregation.

Shifting to policies that incentivize integrated, diverse schools and neighborhoods and community-level investment in our most precious public good are critical steps toward fulfilling Brown’s mission. It’s not too late.

 

By: Renee Moore and Elaine Weiss; Moyers & Company; Bill Moyers Blog, October 20, 2014

October 22, 2014 Posted by | Education, Public Schools, Teachers | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Waiting For Excuses For The Inexcusable”: When Talking About The Third Rail Of American Conscience, Brace For Dumb Excuses

What excuses will they make this time?

Meaning that cadre of letters-to-the-editor writers and conservative pundits who so reliably say such stupid things whenever the subject is race. Indeed, race is the third rail of American conscience; to touch it is to be zapped by rationalizations, justifications and lies that defy reason, but that some must embrace to preserve for themselves the fiction of liberty and justice for all. Otherwise, they’d have to face the fact that advantage and disadvantage, health and sickness, wealth and poverty, life and death, are still parceled out according to melanin content of skin.

So they become creative in their evasions.

They use made-up facts (Trayvon Martin was actually casing the neighborhood) and invented statistics (black men and boys commit 97.2 percent of all the crime in America), they murder messengers (“You’re a racist for pointing out racism!”) they discredit the source (Can you really trust a government study?).

One waits, then, with morbid fascination to see what excuse those folks will make as federal data released last week reveal that African-American children are significantly more likely to be suspended — from preschool. Repeating for emphasis: preschool, that phase of education where the curriculum encompasses colors, shapes, finger painting and counting to 10. Apparently, our capacity for bias extends even there. According to the Department of Education, while black kids make up about 18 percent of those attending preschool, they account for 42 percent of those who are suspended once — and nearly half of those suspended more than once.

Armed with that information, there are many questions we should be asking:

Are black kids being suspended for things that would earn another child a timeout or a talking-to?

If racial bias pervades even the way we treat our youngest citizens, how can anyone still say it has no impact upon the way we treat them when they are older?

What does being identified as “bad” at such an early age do to a child’s sense of himself, his worth and his capabilities?

Does being thus identified so young play out later in life in terms of higher dropout rates and lower test scores?

How can we fix this, build a society in which every one of our children is encouraged to stretch for the outermost limits of his or her potential?

Those are the kinds of smart, compassionate questions we should ask. But again, we’re talking about the third rail of American conscience. So one braces for dumb excuses instead.

Maybe someone will claim African-American preschoolers are 73.9 percent more likely to fail naptime.

Maybe someone will contend that they thuggishly refuse to color inside the lines.

And you may rest assured someone will say that for us even to have the discussion proves hatred of white people.

What a long, strange road we have traveled from the high land of idealism and hope to which the human rights movement brought us 50 years ago, down to the swampy lowland of justification and circumscribed horizons we find ourselves slogging through now. It is noteworthy that this story of institutional bias against children barely out of diapers scarcely skimmed — much less penetrated — an American consciousness presently preoccupied by basketball brackets and the mystery of a doomed jetliner.

Small wonder. Those things ask very little of us, other than a love for sport and a capacity to feel bad for other people’s misfortune. This, on the other hand, cuts to the heart of who we are.

Last week we learned that their schools routinely bend little black boys and girls toward failure. And the people who make excuses should just save their breath.

There are none.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Miami Herald; Published in The National Memo, March 26, 2014

 

 

March 27, 2014 Posted by | Public Schools, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suspending Preschoolers?: Troubling Pattern Of Zero-Tolerance School Policies That Disproportionately Impact Minority Students

There’s nothing especially surprising about the notion that some kids will get into trouble and face school suspensions. But the fact that in the United States, thousands of preschoolers get suspended, and the pattern disproportionately affects African-American children, is very surprising, indeed.

A staggering new report released by the Department of Education and the Justice Department on Friday highlights a troubling pattern of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that disproportionately impact minority students in general, but also trickle down to the nation’s youngest students.

Overzealous enforcement of school discipline policies and all of the negative outcomes associated with them are often framed around older children and middle and high school students, but the government’s report shows just how deeply the disparities extend.

The entirety of the report is online here.

“This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain,” U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said this morning. “In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.”

Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, told the AP, “I think most people would be shocked that those numbers would be true in preschool, because we think of 4- and 5-years-olds as being innocent.”

“Shocked” is certainly the right word. Trymaine Lee’s report included this remarkable statistic: “While black children represent only 18% of preschool enrollment nationally, they make up 42% of students suspended once and nearly half of students who are suspended more than once.”

Let’s also not overlook the consequences of such punitive measures.

Jamelle Bouie had a good piece on this.

Suspensions lead to more absences, as students become disconnected from the school. In one study of 180,000 Florida students, researchers found that just one suspension in ninth grade can drastically reduce a student’s chance of graduating in four years. What’s more – compared to their white peers – black teenagers are more likely to be stopped by the police and arrested for drug possession, despite similar rates of drug use.

When you put all of this together, you have a world where African American youth – boys and girls – have vastly higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison…. In other words, we have a status quo that’s nearly designed to deliver the worst outcomes to African American students.

Good for Duncan and the Department of Education for shining a light on the problem. Now it’s time for educators to address these policies in practical, sensible ways.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 22, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Education, Public Schools | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Socialized Education”: Another Republican Who Thinks It’s Time To Close The Doors At Public Schools

Once in a great while, a conservative policymaker will condemn the existence of public schools in the United States. They’re usually not quite as direct, though, as Ohio state Rep. Andrew Brenner (R), who recently published an online item insisting, “Public education in America is socialism.”

In the post, titled “Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution?,” Brenner laid out his argument. He noted that the Tea Party, which “will attack Obama-care relentlessly as a socialist system,” rarely brings up “the fact that our public education system is already a socialist system […] and has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.” […]

Brenner’s solution: more privatization. “In a free market system parents and students are free to go where the product and results are better,” he wrote.

Did I mention that Brenner is the vice-chair of the Ohio House Education Committee? He is.

For what it’s worth, the Ohio Republican apparently looked up “socialism” on Wikipedia and found that the word means “a social and economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy.” And since he sees public education fitting this bill, and because he believes all socialism must always be bad in all instances, Brenner seems to think it’s time to close the doors at public schools.

Of course, the same could be said for public police departments and fire departments, which would also have to be privatized, but one assumes Brenner and his allies will get to this on another day.

To be sure, even most far-right policymakers rarely talk this way publicly – most Americans celebrate the nation’s public-school system as an important institution and would generally oppose candidates eager to close them all down – but it’s worth noting that Brenner isn’t entirely alone.

Indeed, former senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, just a few years ago, made very similar noises about public education. “Just call them what they are,” Santorum said in 2011. “Public schools? That’s a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools.”

In early 2012, CBS’s Bob Schieffer asked Santorum, “Are you saying that we shouldn’t have public schools, now? I mean, I thought public schools were the foundation of American democracy.” The Republican didn’t back down, reemphasizing his belief that federal and state governments should not be involved in public education.

Republican pollsters have frequently suggested that it’s a mistake for party officials to call for shutting down the federal Department of Education because it gives the appearance of hostility towards public education.

But this apparently doesn’t stop some GOP candidates and policymakers from going even further.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 14, 2014

March 17, 2014 Posted by | Education, Public Schools | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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