Category Archives: Education

On “Show Me a Hero” and Suburban New York Poverty

show me a hero 2Via HBO, white people arguing about where non-white people should live.

At times it is unsubtle, but I generally like “Show Me a Hero,” the HBO miniseries from David Simon and Paul Haggis about the 1980s battle to integrate housing in the Westchester city of Yonkers.

Like Brentin Mock, I wish the NAACP, which sued Yonkers to locate affordable housing in traditionally white neighborhoods, was a bigger part of the story arc. Critics have also complained that the compassionately drawn public housing residents, many of them single mothers, are divorced from much of the political intrigue. Yet the absence of people of color in the scenes that depict local electoral politics rings true to me. I grew up in a nearby Westchester town called Ossining, with demographics similar to Yonkers. White ethnics were a slim majority, with public and affordable housing clustered close to the railroad tracks and Sing Sing prison. Though about 40 percent of Ossining was black and Latino when I was growing up, there were no black council members at the time I was paying attention, as a student journalist and stringer for a local paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mayors were white. There were big debates about how to redevelop the village’s post-industrial waterfront, but there was limited, organized social justice activism on development questions, even though the black, Latino, and poor communities lived closest to the area slated for luxury apartmentsHundreds of families were on waiting lists for affordable housing while existing voucher housing was being transitioned to market-rate. Still, at one point the town’s NAACP chapter was decommissioned by the national organization for focusing more on national issues, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, than on local ones. So to my eye, “Show Me a Hero” sketches many of the challenges around the suburbanization of poverty, especially the way in which outside of major cities, the infrastructure for progressive activism may not exist.

The show also reveals class tensions among whites. I particularly liked the recent scene where the Alfred Molina character, the anti-integration politician, talks smack to a youngish New York Times reporter who’s bugging him for an interview in a diner (and yes, diners are actually where important things happen in these Westchester towns). “Where do you live,” Molina asks him, “I bet on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope.” He lectures the reporter about how the judge who ordered housing desegregation and other affluent, liberal whites are more insulated from the problems of poverty than working class white people are in Yonkers. This reminded me of some of the folks I grew up around, who were civil servants, nurses, teachers, and owned small businesses. They were not eager to be exposed to what they saw as social dysfunction that they couldn’t afford to buy their way out of through private schooling. Note that when young Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the show’s accidental hero, is booted from office after belatedly supporting integration, he packs up his copy of Common Ground,  Anthony Lukas’ classic narrative of working class white opposition to school busing in Boston.

The show is making the point that the intergenerational poverty that white anti-integrationists feared living near was, in fact, a direct result of the geographic concentration of poverty that they fought to maintain. As I write in my book, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is an effective way of helping poor children become upwardly mobile, and does not tend to negatively affect the achievement of middle-class kids who come into contact with poor peers. If some of these social scientific facts are getting across to viewers of “Show Me a Hero,” I think the show is making a powerful contribution. The most important dialogue comes from the housing expert who wants to build townhomes at many different sites in Yonkers, instead of apartment complexes clustered together. He explains that the architecture of high-rise public housing fosters crime, because it is isolated from street retail and includes many internal no-man’s-lands that criminal organizations are able to exploit.

Separately, I think Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Nick Wasicsko, and totally transformed from his equally impressive portrayal of the folk singer Llewyn Davis. He captures both the self-involvement and charisma of a young, rising politician. My major pet peeves are that his wife is so sketchily drawn and that Winona Ryder, as another town politician, isn’t given more to do. I’m looking forward to the final two episodes.

What Is Justice For Kids Who Kill?

My new feature story is a partnership between The Marshall Project and Slate. It’s a longread about a 14-year old boy, Kahton Anderson, charged with murder as an adult. You may remember him from last year’s tabloid coverage: He was a middle school kid who got involved in street crews and shot an innocent man on a Brooklyn bus. This spring, he went on trial. A bill currently in front of the New York legislature would reform the legal landscape for kids charged as adults in criminal court, so this heartbreaking story is especially timely.

In 2012, Kahton Anderson found a gun.

The .357 Magnum, a revolver with a silver barrel, was hidden inside the radiator in the kitchen of the apartment Kahton shared with his mother and two siblings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Kahton said he had watched his older brother, Lakim, hide the gun there.

At first, Kahton, who was 12 at the time, only looked at the gun in its hiding place. But he quickly got to know the weapon better, removing it from the radiator, toying with it, and taking pictures of himself holding it. “If I could get some bullets for this mag, we would clear a lot of shit out,” he boasted to a friend on Facebook. By March 2013, Kahton was writing, “When beef come, we ready!”

A year later, this boy, with this gun, would take an innocent man’s life on a New York City bus. The case was easy fodder for the tabloids, which quickly dubbed Kahton a “fiend” and “thug.” It also raised some of the most difficult and pressing questions in criminal justice.

Read the whole piece.

The Rural School-to-Prison Pipeline

I’m excited to share my first piece with The Marshall Project, called “No Country for Young Men.” It is a story about Junior Smith, a teenager in West Virginia who made a lot of mistakes, but who ultimately became ensnared in a tough, rural version of the school-to-prison pipeline. In Junior’s Appalachian county, strict policing of school-based and low-level juvenile offenses is entirely unmatched by any commitment to providing troubled kids with the social services they need to avoid crime and finish their educations (and which are cheaper than juvie, too).

The article was produced in partnership with Slate, which is also publishing the piece.

How Did Writing My Book Change My Own Opinions?

Thanks to Nona Willis Aronowitz for a perceptive interview at NBC.com about The Teacher Wars:

Did any of your opinions change over the course of your research?

I started the project with the assumption that teachers are somewhat unfairly maligned and attacked in our public discourse. And I didn’t necessarily change my mind about that, but I did start to think more deeply about whether some of the attacks on teachers are in fact fair. This really came home to me when I was researching how teachers historically treat children of different races. We see that they often treat them differently, whether it’s the rigor of the curriculum that’s presented to kids or the expectations teachers have of how well a specific student will do, or how a teacher will discipline two children of different races for the same infraction.

I came to understand that this whole reform discussion about having high expectations for all students is very powerful. The teacher who has high expectations is going to see higher performance, especially from students of color and poor students. And that requires teachers to come to terms with their own biases and be aware of the cultural stereotypes that affect every single one of us.

Read the whole thing.

The Most Important Figure in School Reform We Never Talk About

It’s the principal.

Check out my new piece at Slate:

There is good reason for reformers and policymakers to pay much more attention to principals. When McKinsey surveyed top teachers on what it would take for them to move to a higher-poverty school, they responded that the biggest draw, even more important than a raise, would be a respected principal who created a positive school environment.

What makes a principal great? Historically, school leaders served as building and personnel managers while teachers made classroom-level decisions mostly on their own. Now principals are expected to do their old managerial jobs and oversee instruction, too—what and how students are learning. An effective principal begins her job by clearly articulating a school’s mission, whether it is project-based learning, “no excuses”-style strict discipline, or a curriculum oriented around the arts. That vision provides intellectual coherence for teachers. The next step in effective school leadership is familiarity with the research on how children learn each subject. Great principals know how to help teachers build specific pedagogical skills, from creating classroom assessments that push beyond multiple choice to showing students how to back thesis statements in essays with evidence.

When an excellent principal is hired at a high-poverty school, time for teacher training and collaboration increases, student test scores rise by 5 to 10 points annually, and ineffective teachers begin to leave—yes, even under today’s often overly restrictive tenure policies. When a good principal departs, the progress unwinds and student achievement drops. In short, principals have a unique power to multiply the effects of good teaching and help close achievement gaps.

And just a reminder: The Teacher Wars goes on sale today!

What We Know About Michael Brown’s High School

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Normandy High is deeply racially segregated. It has a staggeringly high suspension rate. The school’s curriculum has little rigor. And Michael Brown was one of just 58 percent of his classmates who graduated.

After Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday, his mother, Lesley McSpadden, said: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

We know Brown’s alma mater, Normandy High, has struggled to remain accredited, and that Brown was enrolled in a special program there to help at-risk kids finish their coursework. I was curious about the school’s curriculum and disciplinary strategies, so this morning, I checked out the federal Department of Education’s civil rights database.

In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Normandy had 1,064 students. Ninety-eight percent were black and 74 were percent low-income. Those deeply segregated demographics aren’t surprising. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, while less than a third of the population of the St. Louis region is black, 73 percent of black children there attend schools that are 50 to 100 percent black, and more than half of black children are in schools that are over 90 percent black. Nationwide, only Pittsburgh has deeper black-white school segregation than St. Louis.

At Normandy in 2011, just four students took calculus, while 33 took physics. There was only one AP class offered, which 12 students enrolled in — but zero actually sat for an AP exam. And there were 476 students who received out-of-school suspensions, most of whom were suspended more than once. That means 45 percent of Normandy students were suspended in 2011; indeed, the school has the highest discipline rate in the St. Louis region.  We know schools that aggressively suspend have higher dropout rates and more students involved in the criminal justice system than schools that suspend less often, even when demographic traits are held constant.

Lastly, the graduation rate at Normandy High School is 58 percent, compared to an average of 80 percent in the state of Missouri.

 

Should it be Harder to Become a Teacher? Harder How?

Amanda Ripley has a thoughtful piece at Slate on how states are passing regulations that raise the SAT score/GPA bar for getting accepted into teacher training programs. I thought a lot about this as I wrote The Teacher Wars, which is a history of teaching in America (out Sept. 2! Plug plug!). It became pretty obvious to me that one of the original sins of our public education system was the normal school, a special school for preparing teachers — segregated from other higher education — which originally accepted only women, because women were cheaper to employ en masse as teachers. These normal schools, which began opening in the 1830s, were, at first, a substitute for academic high school. They sometimes accepted students with the equivalent of only a sixth or seventh-grade education. Later, the normal schools evolved into many of today’s non-selective regional state colleges. These colleges continue to prepare the majority of American teachers, who enter the classroom with undergraduate degrees in education.

As early as the 1850s, smart people who cared about public schools began to critique the “normals.” Susan B. Anthony, who began her activist career organizing her fellow female teachers to demand higher pay, believed teachers would never be respected until they were educated alongside other white-collar professionals. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “It was not enough that the teachers of teachers should be trained in technical normal methods; they must also, so far as possible, be broad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.”

Like Amanda (a friend and colleague, whose book I loved) I believe teaching is difficult, highly intellectual work. But here’s what I found in my research. First, while a teacher’s intellectual capacity — measured through the size of their vocabulary, for example, and their writing skill – seems to drive increased student achievement, there is a much more tenuous connection between teachers’ own standardized test scores, their grades, the selectivity of their colleges, and student learning. (High school level math seems to be an exception; there, the teacher’s own achievement matters more.) Research on highly-rated teachers who stay longterm in the profession, and who are willing to commit to work in high-poverty schools, has found that although they have deep content knowledge, they are actually more likely to have been educated at non-selective institutions. And although we are currently over-producing elementary school, English, and social studies teachers in some major cities, we still need a lot of teachers every year, especially because teacher turnover is increasing. In some recent years, as many as 200,000 new teachers have been hired. High-poverty schools hire about 70,000 teachers annually. So we have to prepare teachers on a very large scale. Currently, only about 10 percent of teachers are graduates of selective colleges.

There is lots of room to improve teacher prep. And yes, it should be harder to become a teacher. But harder how? Working on my book, I came to believe, like W.E.B. Du Bois, that a first step would be to provide teachers with a broad undergraduate education, one in which they are fully and deeply introduced to the disciplines (math, science, history) they will teach in the classroom later on. For example, an education major would select a subject-matter concentration, such as biology, and take a sequence of classes equally rigorous to those of a biology major (there are some teacher prep programs where this is already happening). Secondly, as Amanda writes, teacher-ed students need to observe and then practice their skills in real classrooms. In my book, I report on one interesting model for doing that, the teacher residency, and look closely at the residency program in Memphis.

My hesitation is of a definition of intellectual or rigorous or selective for teachers that is too narrowly focused on standardized test scores or the grades teachers earned, as opposed to what trainee teachers have learned and done during their preparation. In some parts of the United States, such as in rural areas, there are teacher shortages, and we still need to cast a wide net to attract enough people to the profession. But overall, I agree with Amanda that teaching is difficult and we must conceive of teachers as intellectuals if we truly want to improve our schools. Beyond admission standards and training programs, this also means structuring the teaching job as one in which there is real collaboration and autonomy — in which teachers have the opportunity to rise into higher-paid mentorship roles, and in which they are empowered to help craft the curriculum. If we want teachers to be intellectuals, we have to give them some measure of intellectual leadership.

Much more on all of this in the book.

Discussing Teacher Tenure on “Melissa Harris-Perry”

Here is part of my conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten, accountability reformer Derrell Bradford, and Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now.” We squeezed in a lot (the full segment was 40 minutes), but I would have loved to add the following points: First, surveys show teachers themselves strongly support tenure, but believe it should take longer — about five years — to earn it. Second, a major challenge in high-poverty schools is not that too few teachers are leaving, but that there is constant staff turnover (and turnover itself decreases student achievement). Third, teachers say a great principal would be the number one draw to get them to take a job in a high-poverty school, more attractive than incentive pay.

There’s more on all this evidence in chapters 9 and 10 of my book.

How College Contributes to Inequality

Check out my Atlantic interview with political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who is doing some of the best thinking on exploding college tuition, student debt, and for-profit colleges. 

Should we pay attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college?

With the liberal arts, there’s long-term payoff. By the time you are 40, you are doing much better. As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. There’s been a reframing of higher education in the media in the last few years. The media looks at higher unemployment among college grads and says, ‘Maybe a college degree is not worth it.’ That’s wrong. You’re always better off to try and get more four-year college degree recipients. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?

Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. 13 percent of college students are now enrolled at for-profits, yet they make up nearly 50 percent of student loan defaults. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up?

No. That’s an inadequate explanation. To the contrary, there are various scholars who’ve looked at this. As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college. What I’m trying to emphasize is the financial part of it. The major reason why students drop out and don’t complete college has to do with finances and with their varied ability to stay enrolled and afford it. That’s true across the board, whatever kind of institution the student is attending.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent. We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They don’t have student support services and they don’t emphasize learning. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

Read the whole thing