Two Wise Articles about High School Graduation Requirements

This week brought two fine commentaries on today’s punitive high school graduation requirements. Stan Karp, an educator, demonstrates widespread flawed assumptions about the need for high school exit exams. And, in a stunning commentary, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exposes the serious flaw in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to demand that students present proof of a life plan in order to secure a high school diploma.

I hope Stan Karp, an educator and editor at Rethinking Schools Magazine, whose column is published by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, is correct when he says it seems to be going out of style to use exit tests artificially to raise the bar for high school graduation: “In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Karp’s article exposes the flaws in the myth that high school graduation tests ensure that students hold what has been called “a high-quality diploma.”

Karp lives in New Jersey, which still uses a standardized testing bar for high school graduation. I live in Ohio, where a new graduation plan, scheduled to begin with the class of  2018, requires students to accrue a total score of 18 points from a batch of required end-of-course exams. Projections indicate about a third of Ohio’s high school seniors will not have accumulated enough points to graduate and will be denied a diploma in June of 2018.

Karp opposes high school exit exams, what he calls, “the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.” He summarizes the research demonstrating that high school exit exams don’t, as their fans promise, ensure that students are “college and career-ready.” From a report by the New America Foundation, Karp explains: “(R)igorous exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effect on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates.”

What was the promise and where did it go wrong? “Exit testing relies on several related, flawed premises. One is that standardized testing can serve as a kind of ‘quality control’ for high school graduates, guaranteeing that graduates are ‘college or career ready.’  Another is that they have ‘predictive’ value for future success in academic or workplace situations, and serve a useful gate-keeping function for institutions that ration access to opportunity.  But there is little evidence for these contentions.  The tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure—intelligence, academic ability, college readiness—and they don’t measure at all qualities that high schools should nurture in all young people, like responsibility, resilience, critical insight, and empathy. Although the passing or ‘cut’ scores on standardized exit tests can be manipulated to produce varied outcomes, their main impact is to narrow access to opportunity for some, not to produce better preparation for all… Like the SAT and ACT before them, scores on the new Common Core tests closely mirror existing patterns of inequality and privilege.  Expanding their use would reinforce those patterns rather than disrupt them.”

In a Chicago Sun-Times column this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also worries about the way high school graduation requirements contribute to inequality.  Jackson examines the assumptions underneath Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new high school graduation proposal to require that, to earn their diplomas, high school seniors in Chicago’s public schools must present documentation of college or military enrollment or evidence of a job. (This blog covered Mayor Emanuel’s plan here.)  Jackson exposes Emanuel’s plan as another example of thinking that individuals should pull themselves up by their bootstraps through personal determination. At the same time Jackson lays bare a serious flaw: the problem isn’t so much each high school graduate’s lack of effort to make plan as it is society’s failure to ensure that students’ plans could possibly be realized.

Here are the realities Rev. Jackson describes in Chicago, his hometown: “Chicago has the worst black unemployment of any of the five biggest cities in the country. Across the U.S., a staggering 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are unemployed or underemployed (that is, forced to work part time involuntarily or giving up on finding a job). A majority of young black high school graduates are looking for full-time work and can’t find it. The mayor’s plan does nothing to address this grim reality. Instead, it erects a paperwork hoop for kids to jump through that is likely to have very little to do with their plans for their lives. Why not go a step further down the reform road? Establish the requirement and then guarantee every graduate a job, with the city acting as an employer of last resort.”

Jackson compares Rahm’s graduation requirement to the 1996 welfare reform, whose technical name betrays what was intended—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—that blamed the victims for their poverty. Jackson believes the law  failed because it didn’t follow through with a viable way to expand work opportunity: “Emanuel’s plan is a faint echo of his mentor Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. In 1996, when Clinton’s welfare reform bill was passed, the rhetoric was all about impoverished single mothers going from welfare to work. The plan was to abolish the welfare guarantee and require that poor mothers go to work after a limited period of time. Great, everyone is for work over welfare. But in order to hold a job, impoverished single mothers need some way to care for their children, job training, a way to get to their job—and a job to get to. None of that was provided in the welfare reform bill that eventually passed.”

Jackson concludes: “Emanuel operates from the theory that poor graduates lack a plan for life after high school.  What they lack, however, is a real job or a real training program that would lead to a job. These kids grow up in impoverished neighborhoods and on mean streets. Often they come from broken homes, without adequate nutrition, with unstable housing. They attend schools with massive needs and inadequate resources. If they make it, they graduate into an economy that has little place for them.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand that students present a life plan and the states’ imposition of high stakes graduation exit exams do nothing to address the deeper problem of poverty and inequality that almost nobody ever mentions. Rev. Jackson’s commentary in a Chicago newspaper seems stunningly out of place in today’s plutocratic America where poverty has effectively been hidden. Rev. Jackson’s commentary is short; it is a must-read.

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Detroit Community Alliance Releases Scathing Report on Detroit Public Schools Disaster

Detroit has been under state takeover for fifteen years, and at the same time Detroit has been a test case for unregulated portfolio school reform with a large for-profit charter sector. School achievement hovers at the lowest level in the nation as measured by test scores.  On Monday night a new Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren released a scathing report on the condition of the city’s schools including a set of urgent recommendations the coalition believes will help Detroit get the situation under control.

Although the Coalition’s report does not suggest how the community can negotiate a path through the politics of a powerful and very conservative philanthropic and advocacy sector including the extreme-right Dick and Betsy DeVos (Americans for Prosperity) and the ultra-conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative Republican governor and Michigan legislature, and a politically influential for-profit charter sector, community leaders in Detroit—including philanthropies, civic organizations, religious leaders, state legislators, teachers and school principals, charter school leaders, and the business community—must be commended for putting together an incisive analysis of what has gone wrong.  The report’s authors seem to have few illusions about the difficulties they will face to get their recommendations implemented: “The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has laid out a comprehensive plan to make quality schools the new norm for Detroit families. Completed in a little over three months, it’s a first step on the long road back to excellence.”

Here is how the report’s authors describe Detroit’s realities: “Fifteen years after the state took over our school system, three years after the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) took control of the city’s lowest-performing schools, academic achievement remains tragically low, by far the worst of any big city in the country.”  Detroit is part of a network of Portfolio School Districts that combine traditional public and charter schools, and the authors do not propose to eliminate the city’s charter sector, while they do insist that it be regulated and that services be coordinated across the district’s traditional public and charter schools.

As the report declares: “No other city in the country has a system of schools quite like that of Detroit.  It is hardly a system but instead an uncoordinated hodgepodge of schools that are not educating Detroit’s schoolchildren well.”  “Detroit’s 119,658 students attend hundreds of different schools, which are run by 14 different entities (authorizers and districts).  These numbers don’t even take into account the many suburban schools that enroll mostly Detroit students.”   According to the report, 25,816 Detroit students attend suburban schools through an inter-district choice plan by which students carry their $7,246 in state aid with them from Detroit to surrounding school districts.  Such an arrangement advantages suburban districts which are also hemorrhaging enrollment in a region that is losing overall population.  In Detroit’s schools services are fragmented, and as the report declares: “There is no coherence or stability… no efficiency… no local responsibility or accountability.”

The report devotes a section to the devastating financial challenges for the Detroit Public Schools (DPS).  “DPS pays $53 million a year on debt service for its operating budget. That’s $1,120 per student before any instruction occurs.”  Since 2002, the number of school-aged children in Detroit has declined from 196,638 to 119,658 in 2013, a drop of 40 percent.  At the same time a publicly funded charter sector has grown explosively, the district has been struggling to downsize its operations including the need to accommodate children across the residential neighborhoods of a geographically large school district. Family poverty has increased:  “Overwhelmingly the population loss came from the middle-and higher-income segments of the city, leaving the schools with a higher percentage of students in poverty, many of whom are identified to have special needs.”  Transportation to and from school is overwhelming for many families: “Currently there is no mechanism for all schools (DPA, EAA, and public charters) to financially support an equitable and practical transportation system.”  “Given the amount of choice occurring and the absence of high-quality neighborhood schools, transportation is a major barrier.  The average Detroit student commutes 3.4 miles each way to and from school.  Ten percent travel more than 6.7 miles each way.  More than 75 percent of students rely on walking, city buses, or cars to get to school.  But the bus system is sometimes unreliable, 25 percent of Detroit families do not have cars, and walking is not an option when schools are so far from home.”

The report emphasizes that school choice must be brought under control and the public schools stabilized and improved to staunch the rapid loss of students to suburban school choice and unregulated charters.  The mechanisms of an unregulated education marketplace have turned Detroit Public Schools into a school district of last resort for the children with the greatest needs and the least capacity to escape through school choice: “DPS is educating a disproportionate share of special education students, partly because individual public charter schools do not have the capacity to accommodate these students’ needs. Going forward, a task force should determine whether Wayne RESA or another entity should provide citywide coordination and consolidation of special education and bilingual services across all schools in Detroit (DPS and public charter schools).  Services must give equal access, offer an equitable funding model, and be provided at the neighborhood level when possible.”

The report recommends substantial and far-reaching overall reforms:

  • Return governance of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) to an elected school board.  DPS should transition from emergency management….
  • “Charter authorizers and charter school boards should improve transparency, focus more on quality, and better coordinate all charter schools.  We also believe that changes to state law or local practice must be made to ensure that charters schools adopt best practices for charter authorizing….
  • “The state should assume the DPS debt…  Create a new nonpartisan entity, the Detroit Education Commission (DEC), to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions in partnership with Regional Councils to incorporate neighborhood-level input
  • “Establish advisory School Leadership Teams that include parents, staff, and students so that all schools create a culture of shared responsibility.
  • “Empower and fund the State School Reform Office (SSRO) and State School Reform District (SSRD).  The SSRO/SSRD should inherit the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) (the state’s takeover agency for struggling schools) central administration and execute its responsibilities.  The inter-local agreement between the DPS Emergency Manager and Eastern Michigan University should be terminated.  The SSRO should audit and assess EAA schools in Detroit and create a plan to responsibly transition those schools back to DPS….
  • “Create shared systems of data, enrollment, and neighborhood transportation.  These improvements will help solidify school choice in Detroit by making it easier for parents to learn about the quality of their options when enrolling their children.” (emphasis in the original)

Each section of the report includes its own more specific prescriptions to remedy particular problems.  The report’s authors seek to return the school district to local governance including, “local decision-making so that those elected by the people of Detroit set the policies that drive what happens in our schools and are held accountable for results.”  The goal is to ensure, “that those closest to the kids—teachers, staff, principals, and parents—are empowered to make key educational decisions at the school level.” The report seeks, “a coherent system of neighborhood schools with a consistent and transparent set of rules.”  In the section on governance, after advocating rapid transitioning out of state emergency management, the authors recommend  holding charter school authorizers more accountable and creating “a new nonpartisan board/legislative body… to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions.  Members will be appointed by the mayor of Detroit.”

The report demands, “fair student funding that does not penalize current and future generations of schoolchildren for the past mistakes of the state.”  The authors recommend that the state pay for a study of what it costs in Michigan today to provide adequate services for children in public schools, a costing-out study to be completed by the end of 2015.

Teachers are the heart of the schools, and the report suggests the creation of, “a citywide strategy to recruit, develop, compensate, and retain high-quality teachers, school leaders, and other staff for all schools in Detroit.”  This does not mean destroying the teachers union: “Our coalition recognizes that in fact, unions have been advocates for meaningful, research-based education reform.  Therefore, collective bargaining agreements must be honored… and the right of employees to unionize should not be undercut.”

A community facing desperate conditions in the schools that serve its children has come together to demand that the state phase out top down control, provide adequate funding, and help to establish regulation of an out-of-control charter sector.  The question will be whether Detroit’s leaders can wield enough political power on behalf of  a very poor and disenfranchised population in a state dominated by far right philanthropists and think tanks and influential for-profit charter operators.

Dr. King and Today’s World

The Rev. John Thomas, the retired general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, where he publishes a blog.  His post this week explores the meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.

Thinking about Ferguson and other examples of racial injustice that have erupted today in our nation and the world, Rev. Thomas quotes Tavis Smiley’s description—in Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year—of Dr. King’s understanding of the violence that had erupted in Detroit and Newark and Memphis:

“A riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that promises of freedom and democracy have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Rev. Thomas reminds us: “The yearning for tranquility is understandable, even natural. Few of us enjoy watching riots on our televisions, or navigating demonstrators on our way to Christmas shop, or coping with traffic delays on our commute home caused by protesters. ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ But tranquility is almost always a possession of the privileged.”

“As long as we embrace the privilege of tranquility over a commitment to justice and the dignity of all humanity, the language of the unheard will continue to cry out.”  “King’s word from Montgomery still resounds: ‘My people, my people, listen!’”

I urge you to read Rev. Thomas’s profound post as we remember Dr.King today.

American Dream Features the Individual; Justice Is the Community’s Solution

In a fascinating academic study, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, sociologist Heather Beth Johnson and a group of researchers conduct interviews to try to discover how we “acknowledge structured inequality as we teach our children that individual achievement determines life chances.”

She is exploring our society’s cultural narrative of the American Dream, the idea that we live in a meritocracy where all can succeed if we work hard—where if we are strategic and patient, we can all win—where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.  The book is filled with transcripts of the interviews the researchers conduct.  Here is a typical sample:

  • Interviewer: “Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?
  • Responder: “Yeah.”
  • Interviewer: “So you think there are certain groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?”
  • Responder: “Sure.  Definitely.”
  • Interviewer: “Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?”
  • Responder: “That’s a very good definition.”
  • Interviewer: “Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?”
  • Responder: “Yes.  Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.”

Again and again those who are interviewed acknowledge structural inequality—that some people face far greater barriers than others—but they also explain that with hard work, we all have an equal chance.

In a brand new, expanded and revised edition of his 2009 education philosophy, Why School?, UCLA professor and well known education writer Mike Rose adds a chapter to address the latest pop psychology attempt to explain the American Dream in a way that makes it possible for the poorest children to succeed at school despite the challenges segregation and poverty present.  Rose has just shared this chapter, Being Careful about Character, on his website as a delicious morsel to tempt us to get the book and read more.

Introducing the new chapter on his website, Rose writes about books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: “I certainly don’t dispute the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility and, as is the case with so many teachers, do my best to foster them, but I am also worried that we, once again, are seeking a miracle cure for the entrenched social problems of poverty and inequality. What follows is a kind of extended cautionary tale.”

The chapter follows, and I urge you to read it and then get the new version of the book.  Rose concludes the chapter on character-strengthening this way: “But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.”

The narrative of the American Dream is a story of the triumph of individuals who are able through grit and character to overcome whatever their individual circumstances may be.  Another way to look at all this is through the ethical lens of the world’s major religions.  Not one of them defines justice individually.  Justice is about the responsibility—the obligation—of a society to create conditions where all can contribute.  I like the definition of justice presented by the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., in a relatively old book, first published in 1988, Christian Perspectives on Politics:

“Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be  participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (pp. 216-217)

Segregation, Poverty and Inequality: What Ravitch Calls the Toxic Mix At School

In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch identifies what she believes are the factors that affect academic achievement: “Segregation is most concentrated in the nation’s cities.  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.  Many black students are doubly segregated, by race and by poverty.”(p. 292)

Several important articles published this week explore the issues of poverty—and the related issue, inequality—and racial segregation, the factors Ravitch calls “the toxic mix.” According to all three writers, we misunderstand our history and hence the issues that plague us today.

In a piece memorializing Nelson Mandela, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute remembers that in South Africa, Mandela believed that deep confession—getting at the truth of the history that makes us who we are—is necessary as the path to reconciliation.  Rothstein asks Americans to be more honest about the factors that have segregated our neighborhoods, our cities, and our public schools.  “One of the worst examples of our historical blindness is the widespread belief that our continued residential racial segregation, North and South, is ‘de facto,’ not the result of explicit government policy but instead the consequence of private prejudice, economic inequality, and personal choice to self-segregate.”  Explaining the policy choices that caused housing and transportation patterns in the half-century after World War II, Rothstein examines high school history textbooks that make it appear instead as though racial segregation has really always been merely a southern phenomenon, and that today we can’t do anything about it.  Our blindness to the truth of our history is dangerous, writes Rothstein, for,  “If we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it.”

Two pieces in the NY Times over the weekend raise the issue of another kind of blindness, the blindness to poverty that may easily come with economic privilege.  Shamus Kahn, a Columbia University sociologist explores how our experience shapes the way we explain the world to ourselves: “We can think of elites as selfish power-hungry monsters, or we can think of them as being like others: products of their particular experience and likely to overgeneralize from it.  Elites understand their own world well enough.  Yes, they underestimate the advantages that helped them along the way and overestimate their own contributions to their status.  But they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago.  What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.”

Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s recent column, Why Inequality Matters, condemns the impact of the kind of attitudes Kahn describes.  Criticizing Washington’s obsession with closing budget deficits through austerity measures like the sequester, cuts to food stamps,  and threats to pare back Social Security and Medicare, Krugman writes: “Surveys of the very wealthy have… shown that they—unlike the general public—consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs.  And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse… Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping—and distorting—the debate.”

While it might seem that these more abstract commentaries on our deepest assumptions about race and class don’t touch on achievement at school, Diane Ravitch believes that honestly recognizing the long held attitudes that shape today’s inequality and racial segregation will be essential  if our society is to lift academic achievement. Schools cannot by themselves change the life trajectories of their students: “If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools… We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of.  We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation.” (p. 9)

How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter

“I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built,” reports Othella Stanback, a Philadelphia high school senior whose high school was closed over the summer.  She knows no teachers at her new school well enough this fall to ask someone to write the recommendations she needs to apply for college.  In Dispatch from Philadelphia: The Brutal End of Public Education Julianne Hing reports for ColorLines on the meaning for students of the school closures in Philadelphia and the implications of similar problems in other struggling city school districts.

“Last year the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools.  On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution… In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s.  This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.”

At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia where hundreds of students were transferred this year from closed schools, cuts in previous years have pared the curriculum, eliminating pre-Calculus, honors classes for ninth graders and an advanced writing class. Today the school is served by only one counselor.  In November, after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett finally released an additional $45 million to the Philadelphia schools, 80 counselors were hired by the district, ensuring that every high school has one counselor.  The reporter notes: “Instability is the norm at Ben Franklin now.  Seven weeks into her last year in Philly public schools, Othella’s course schedule has been changed three times.”

Compounding the financial problems in Philadelphia is the imposition by the state imposed School Reform Commission of a “portfolio school reform” plan, prescribed by the Boston Consulting Group.  This is a plan designed with business-model “creative disruption” in mind—open and close schools including private charters in a continuing cycle, rewarding success and punishing failure.  But as the reporter notes, instability and loss are the way this looks to the students, and they are adolescents who desperately need stability in the institution on which they depend.

“Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone.  In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty—lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas.  In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor…. the consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system are falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates.”

A Powerful Reflection on Inequality for This Thanksgiving

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a teacher and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary.

His blog post for this Thanksgiving lifts up the research on widening inequality in America and the inequality he observes in Chicago.

Thomas explores the implications of growing inequality not only for those trapped in poverty but also for the sequestered affluent. What does it mean for all of us that the powerful—including an increasing number of our leaders—are more and more insulated?