Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

July 30, 2013

Indiana Changes Grade System for Schools to Make Charters Look Good

Filed under: Charter Schools,Mitch Daniels Indiana — millerlf @ 12:33 pm

By TOM LoBIANCO Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS July 29, 2013

Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold “failing” schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett’s education team frantically overhauled his signature “A-F” school grading system to improve the school’s marks.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan’s school received an “A,” despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a “C.”

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.

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MJS OP-ED: Recovery School District for Milwaukee?

Filed under: Recovery District — millerlf @ 12:21 pm

Look closely at school reform initiative

There’s talk of a new education “reform” initiative directed at Milwaukee Public Schools, based on the experience of what’s been done in New Orleans. We are being told it’s a miracle — a claim we should take with a large dose of skepticism.

For the past two years, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce has been talking about introducing a New Orleans-style Recovery School District (RSD). Recently, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute proposed the same idea in a report titled “Pathway to success for Milwaukee schools.”

WPRI’s proposal describes this as an independent school district, made up of schools identified as underperforming, chartered directly by the state and answering to an independent superintendent, who would in turn report to the state Department of Public Instruction.

The WPRI claims huge success over the past 10 years for the Louisiana Recovery School District. The data I’ve reviewed shows a different picture.

Academic performance for Louisiana schools is based on School Performance Scores (SPS) that lead to a letter grade for each school from the Department of Public Instruction. The RSD saw a one-year improvement in its SPS scores. But progress looks very different if one goes by the grade given to each school, based on the SPS scores. None of the 72 RSD schools received an A this year. All but 10 received an F or a D. Five got a B, and four a C. One was not given a grade.

Before last year, the RSD was 70th out of the 70 Louisiana school districts. It moved to 69 last year. This year saw a jump of six SPS points.

For those of us who follow education policy, the lack of clear incremental improvements since the RSD’s inception in 2003, and the individual school grades co-existing with the one-year jump for the district overall, is always a moment for caution.

Take what happened in Chicago when test scores increased significantly under Arne Duncan on Illinois standardized tests. The results from students taking the NAEP test (a test generated by the U.S. Department of Education) showed no improvement over the same period of time. The reason for the improvement in state testing? A change in the state test itself; it had been dumbed down. The same thing happened in New York. A more recent example occurred in Atlanta, where significant test improvements were the product of out-and-out cheating.

To claim that a “miracle” is occurring in New Orleans is, to say the least, premature. Even if this year’s jump in scores is verifiable and valid, it is wrong to claim victory just because there is a yardage gain. There has not been enough of a track record with the Recovery School District to take the show on the road.

The New Orleans education landscape is mired in questionable practices and outcomes. Critics point to the lack of transparency. A watchdog group called Research on Reforms has filed a lawsuit just to be able to get reliable raw data from the RSD and the Louisiana Department of Education.

In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action suit against the Louisiana Department of Education and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for failure to provide appropriate access to special education students. Charters in New Orleans have been accused of “counseling out” special education students both to save money and to increase high-stakes test scores.

The rate of suspension for the 2008 school year for the RSD was twice the state average and four times the national rate. In that same year, the expulsion rate was twice the statewide rate and 10 times the national rate. Such harsh discipline creates the impression that increases in student achievement are accomplished in part by forcing out low achievers.

Much criticism has been raised about what appears to be exorbitant amounts of money spent on security, consultant fees and property mismanagement. The New Orleans Inspector General recently said the Louisiana Department of Education wasted nearly $33 million in taxpayer money by overpaying the company overseeing the city’s $1.8 billion school building master plan, largely serving the RSD.

In 2011, a coterie of wealthy national contributors and supporters of the RSD turned the races for unpaid positions on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education into the most expensive in the state’s history. Seven “reform” candidates for the BESE spent $2,386,768, more than 10 times their opponents’ spending ($199,878).

There has been no shortage of money spent to make the Recovery School District appear as a model for success. But the only way that many of the national charter schools can show sustained academic progress is through a large infusion of dollars and clear access to a system of selection/de-selection and the ability to “counsel out” low-performing, special ed and students with behavioral problems. Many critics on the ground in New Orleans are arguing that both are true there.

The New Orleans education experiment with thousands of children from low-income families and communities has a lot more to prove before anyone should suggest that it become a model for education reform.

Larry Miller is a Milwaukee School Board member.

July 28, 2013

Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-hunt

Filed under: Rethinking Schools,Right Wing Agenda — millerlf @ 8:08 pm

Published on Friday, July 19, 2013 by Zinn Education Project

by Bill Bigelow

Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

But Gov. Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was not content merely to celebrate Howard Zinn’s passing. He demanded that Zinn’s work be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

We know about Gov. Daniels’ email tantrum thanks to the Associated Press, which obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Scott Jenkins, Daniels’ education advisor, wrote back quickly to tell the governor that A People’s History of the United States was used in a class for prospective teachers on social movements at Indiana University.

Daniels fired back: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?”

After more back and forth, Daniels approved a statewide “cleanup” of what earns credit for professional development: “Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings.”

Daniels recently defended his attack on Zinn’s work, telling the Associated Press, “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.” In a letter posted on his Purdue University webpage, Daniels claimed that, “the question I asked on one day in 2010 had nothing to do with higher education at all.” Daniels should go back and read his own emails.

There are so many disturbing aspects to this story, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The first, of course, is Daniels’ gleeful, mean-spirited reporting of Zinn’s death. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Howard Zinn’s career knows that his great passions were racial equality and peace. Finding cause for joy in the death of someone whose life was animated by confidence in people’s fundamental decency is shameful.

As someone who spent almost 30 years as a high school history teacher, I’m amused by the impoverished pedagogical vision embedded in Daniels’ emails and subsequent defense. Daniels wants Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States banned from the curriculum, so that the book is not “force-fed” to students. Governor Daniels evidently assumes that the only way one can teach history is to cram it down students’ throats. To see some alternative ways to engage students, Daniels might have a look at our lessons at the Zinn Education Project, which use Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in role plays, in critical reading activities, to generate imaginative writing, and to search for the “silences” in students’ own textbooks.

Take for example the last textbook I was assigned as a teacher at a public high school in Portland, Oregon, American Odyssey, published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. In the book’s one thousand pages, it includes exactly two paragraphs on the U.S. war with Mexico—the war that led to Mexico “ceding,” in the polite language of school curricula, about half its country to the United States. American Odyssey does not quote a single Mexican, a single soldier, a single abolitionist, a single opponent of the war. Well, in fact, the textbook doesn’t quote anyone. As one of my students pointed out when we read the book’s dull passages in class, “It doesn’t even view it as a war. It’s a situation.”

As the Zinn Education Project reveals regularly in its If We Knew Our History column, the version of U.S. history taught in the textbooks produced by giant corporations is anything but “true.” This scant treatment of such an important event in U.S. and Mexican history is one reason why teachers search out alternatives like A People’s History of the United States, which includes a full chapter on the conflict, focusing especially on President Polk’s hollow justifications for war, the anti-war resistance, and the human impact of the war. Unlike the gray prose of textbooks like American Odyssey, Zinn’s chapter on the U.S. war with Mexico—“We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God”—is filled with quotes from soldiers and poets, surgeons and abolitionists, generals and journalists, clergymen and presidents. Every passage reminds young people that war is much more than a “situation.”

“We must not falsely teach American history in our schools,” said Daniels to the Associated Press, implying that the true history is to be found in the officially adopted textbooks. As the Zinn Education Project reveals regularly in its If We Knew Our History column, the version of U.S. history taught in the textbooks produced by giant corporations is anything but “true.” The corporate textbooks hide the breadth of U.S. military and economic interventions throughout the world; they ignore the roots of today’s environmental crises; they refuse to explore the origins of the vast wealth inequality in the United States; and the textbooks neglect the role of social movements throughout U.S. history, instead focusing on famous individuals; thus, they fail to nurture an activist sensibility—a recognition that if we want the world to be better, then it’s up to us to make it better.

This is a point Howard Zinn emphasized when he spoke to teachers at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies conference in Houston—some of them from Indiana!—not much more than a year before he died. Zinn said: “We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.”

Governor Daniels’ advisers evidently found no evidence that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was in use in K-12 schools in Indiana. I guess they didn’t look hard enough. There are more than 300 Indiana teachers registered at the Zinn Education Project to access people’s history curriculum materials to “teach outside the textbook.” And these are only the teachers who have formally registered at the site; many more share people’s history-inspired lessons.

And at the Zinn Education Project we’ve heard all week long from Indiana teachers, professors, and parents who have committed themselves to work against censorship in K-12 schools. Their defiance is reminiscent of Indiana’s Green Feather Movement that challenged the McCarthy-era attempt to ban Robin Hood from the elementary school curriculum in 1954. What began as the anonymous posting of green feathers on bulletin boards by a few students at Indiana University spread to campuses across the country. As Howard Zinn wrote at the end of his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

© 2013 The Zinn Education Project

Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

more Bill Bigelow

July 17, 2013

Zimmerman Verdict: It’s Time to Wake the Hell Up

Filed under: Trayvon Martin — millerlf @ 10:30 am

July 17, 2013 9:44 a.m. MJS Leonard Pitts

Four words of advice for African-Americans in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal:

Wake the hell up.

The Sunday after Zimmerman went free was a day of protest for many of us. From Biscayne Blvd. in Miami to Leimert Park in Los Angeles to the Daley Center in Chicago to Times Square in New York City, African-Americans — and others who believe in racial justice — carried out angry, but mostly peaceful demonstrations.

Good. This is as it should have been.

But if that’s the end, if you just get it out of your system, then move ahead with business as usual, then all you did Sunday was waste your time. You might as well have stayed home.

We are living in a perilous era for African-American freedom. The parallels to other eras have become too stark to ignore.

Every period of African-American advance has always been met by a crushing period of push-back, the crafting of laws and the use of violence with the intent of eroding the new freedoms. Look it up:

The 13th Amendment ended slavery. So the white South created a convict leasing system that was actually harsher.

The 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship. So the white South rendered that citizenship meaningless with the imposition of Jim Crow laws.

The 15th Amendment gave us the right to vote; it was taken away by the so-called grandfather clause. The Supreme Court struck that down, so the white South relied on literacy tests and poll taxes to snatch our ballots all over again.

Our history is a litany: two steps forward, one step back.

The civil rights movement was the greatest step forward since emancipation. So we ought not be surprised to see voting rights eroded again, the Civil Rights Act attacked, the so-called War on Drugs used for the mass incarceration of black men. Or to see the killing of an unarmed child deliver a message as old as the Constitution itself: Black life is worth less.

We are in another period of push-back. And worse, we don’t even seem to know.

It feels as if we have taken the great advances of the last half century — the protective laws, the rise of the black middle class, the winning of the ballot, the flowering of options once considered unthinkable — for granted. It feels as if we have come to regard progress as somehow inevitable, preordained, carved in stone and irrevocable as a birthright.

So, yes, we need to wake the hell up.

While we were celebrating, others were calculating.

While we were writing nasty rap lyrics, they were writing senators.

While we were organizing Obama victory parties, they were organizing tea parties.

While we were buying DVDs, they were buying candidates.

While we were sending texts, they were building propaganda machinery.

While we were resting on the past, they were seizing the future.

Granted, the preceding casts a wide net. Yes, there are many of us, African-Americans and others, who don’t need the admonition, who are already awake, who have always been awake. More power to them.

But there are also many of us still sleeping. So let Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer be a wake-up call. Let it be a spur to stop reacting and start pro-acting. Let it be a goad to become better informed. Let it be a reminder to organize. Let it be a reason to send a check to the NAACP. Let it be an incentive to join the social justice ministry at church. Let it be cause to write your congressperson. Let it be an impetus to teach and nurture your kids.

Most of all, let it be an alarm clock, ringing in the darkness of a new morning, calling conscience to account. Do not waste this moment. The time for sleeping is done.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Email lpitts@miamiherald.com

The Truth About Trayvon

Filed under: Trayvon Martin — millerlf @ 10:19 am

July 15, 2013 NYTimes By EKOW N. YANKAH

THE Trayvon Martin verdict is frustrating, fracturing, angering and predictable. More than anything, for many of us, it is exhausting. Exhausting because nothing could bring back our lost child, exhausting because the verdict, which should have felt shocking, arrived with the inevitability that black Americans know too well when criminal law announces that they are worth less than other Americans.

Lawyers on both sides argued repeatedly that this case was never about race, but only whether prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman was not simply defending himself when he shot Mr. Martin. And, indeed, race was only whispered in the incomplete invocation that Mr. Zimmerman had “profiled” Mr. Martin. But what this case reveals in its overall shape is precisely what the law is unable to see in its narrow focus on the details.

The anger felt by so many African-Americans speaks to the simplest of truths: that race and law cannot be cleanly separated. We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day. We are tired of pretending that “reasonable doubt” is not, in every sense of the word, colored.

Every step Mr. Martin took toward the end of his too-short life was defined by his race. I do not have to believe that Mr. Zimmerman is a hate-filled racist to recognize that he would probably not even have noticed Mr. Martin if he had been a casually dressed white teenager.

But because Mr. Martin was one of those “punks” who “always get away,” as Mr. Zimmerman characterized him in a call to the police, Mr. Zimmerman felt he was justified in following him. After all, a young black man matched the criminal descriptions, not just in local police reports, but in those most firmly lodged in Mr. Zimmerman’s imagination.

Whether the law judges Trayvon Martin’s behavior to be reasonable is also deeply colored by race. Imagine that a militant black man, with a history of race-based suspicion and a loaded gun, followed an unarmed white teenager around his neighborhood. The young man is scared, and runs through the streets trying to get away. Unable to elude his black stalker and, perhaps, feeling cornered, he finally holds his ground — only to be shot at point-blank range after a confrontation.

Would we throw up our hands, unable to conclude what really happened? Would we struggle to find a reasonable doubt about whether the shooter acted in self-defense? A young, white Trayvon Martin would unquestionably be said to have behaved reasonably, while it is unimaginable that a militant, black George Zimmerman would not be viewed as the legal aggressor, and thus guilty of at least manslaughter.

This is about more than one case. Our reasons for presuming, profiling and acting are always deeply racialized, and the Zimmerman trial, in ignoring that, left those reasons unexplored and unrefuted.

What is reasonable to do, especially in the dark of night, is defined by preconceived social roles that paint young black men as potential criminals and predators. Black men, the narrative dictates, are dangerous, to be watched and put down at the first false move. This pain is one all black men know; putting away the tie you wear to the office means peeling off the assumption that you are owed equal respect. Mr. Martin’s hoodie struck the deepest chord because we know that daring to wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt too often means that the police or other citizens are judged to be reasonable in fearing you.

We know this, yet every time a case like this offers a chance for the country to tackle the evil of racial discrimination in our criminal law, courts have deliberately silenced our ability to expose it. The Supreme Court has held that even if your race is what makes your actions suspicious to the police, their suspicions are reasonable so long as an officer can later construct a race-neutral narrative.

Likewise, our death penalty cases have long presaged the Zimmerman verdict, exposing how racial disparities, which make a white life more valuable, do not undermine the constitutionality of the death sentence. And even the most casual observer recognizes the painful racial disparities in our prison population — the new Jim Crow, in the account of the legal scholar Michelle Alexander. Our prisons are full of young, black men for whom guilty beyond a reasonable doubt was easy enough to reach.

There is no quick answer for the historical use of our criminal law to reinforce and then punish social stereotypes. But pretending that reasonable doubt is a value-free clinical term, as so many people did so readily in the Zimmerman case, only insulates injustice in plain sight.

Without an honest jurisprudence that is brave enough to tackle the way race infuses our criminal law, Trayvon Martin’s voice will be silenced again.

What would such a jurisprudence look like? The Supreme Court could hold, for example, that the unjustified use of race by the police in determining “reasonable suspicion” constituted an unreasonable stop, tainting captured evidence. Likewise, in the same way we have started to attack racial disparities in other areas of criminal law, we could consider it a violation of someone’s constitutional rights if, controlling for all else, his race was what determined whether the state executed him.

I can imagine a jurisprudence that at least begins to use racial disparities as a tool to question the constitutionality of criminal punishment. And above all, I can imagine a jurisprudence that does not pretend, as lawyers for both sides (but no one else) did in the Zimmerman case, that doubts have no color.

Ekow N. Yankah is a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

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