Category Archives: Race

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.

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.

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.

 

Is School Desegregation a Failed Movement?

I turned in the revisions of my book to my publisher yesterday (!), so my plan for the next few weeks is to get back into the swing of daily journalism. So. 

Over at Slate, Tanner Colby is writing a series on "The Massive Liberal Failure on Race." His first entry was "how the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration." 

Colby is right to point out that the progressive meme of "resegregation" of the nation's schools is flawed, because controversies over busing in the 1960s and 1970s meant the nation never fully implemented desegregation in the first place. He then concludes, "So far, nobody seems to have a solution that works" in terms of educating children of different races and classes together. That, however, is not really true. Here are some of the things that have worked: 

Recognizing that housing policy is schools policy. When neighborhoods integrate with mixed-income housing, schools integrate and test scores go up. Because more and more Americans in their 30s are choosing to put down roots in diverse urban neighborhoods, this presents an amazing policy opportunity to foster integrated schools. Charter schools like the Larchmont network in Los Angeles, Community Roots in Brooklyn, and Charles Drew in Atlanta are embracing integration as part of their missions, and are popular with families across lines of race and class. Last month President Obama  signed an executive order to allow charter schools that receive federal funding to weight their admissions lotteries in order to create diverse student bodies. 

Where busing is used, make it a matter of choice. Colby writes about an urban-suburban busing program that didn't work in Kansas City. But such programs are often quite popular: In Boston, Hartford, Milwaukee, and other regions, there are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists for voluntary inter-district transfers. 

When I began reporting on education in 2006, desegregation was seen as hopelessly outdated. Today there is actually growing consensus around the wisdom of integrating schools at the classroom level. (That means not using "gifted" or AP tracks as de facto tracking programs for affluent kids). So while it's important to acknowledge busing's flawed history, we need to bring this conversation into the present, too, and explore creative policy solutions to the problem of American children growing up without enough meaningful contact with children from backgrounds different than their own. 

Is Giftedness Real?

Check out the latest episode of Schooled, my Slate podcast:

Is your child “gifted”? What does that even mean? Some schools use old-fashioned IQ tests to identify gifted students. Others use teacher recommendations. A few schools are ending gifted programs altogether and are trying to implement gifted-level instruction for all kids. Which of these methods is fair? What should schools do to make sure that gifted tracks aren’t an option only for socio-economically advantaged children? In this episode, I talk to Sandy Darity, a researcher on giftedness at Duke, and Jeff Danielian, a Rhode Island teacher and giftedness advocate.

 Listen here!

Michelle Obama Has Always Leaned In

Michelle Cottle has written a Politico Magazine piece about Michelle Obama, called "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare." 

Cottle writes that Michelle has "always" prioritized the domestic sphere over the public, political one, thus enraging feminists. But that's not true. First, there are the basic facts of Michelle's biography, many left out of this piece. When Michelle and Barack met, she was his boss in the law firm where he was a summer associate. She worked full-time until her husband began his presidential run. She earned a lot of money. 

On the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, she spoke movingly about how fear had led the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Shortly after the inauguration, the first couple visited a Washington, D.C. public school. When Michelle asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up–and one little girl cried out, "First lady!"–Michelle responded, "It doesn't pay much."

If that's not embracing the "Lean In" ethos, I don't know what is. A FLOTUS with a wry take on her transition from a $316,000 per year job to that of an unpaid figurehead? That's not the Michelle Obama we see in Cottle's portrait. Nor do we see the woman who went on a speaking tour to federal agencies to support the stimulus, and who pushed hard behind the scenes for health reform.

And to be fair, that's not the Michelle Obama that her husband's political advisors are most eager to show off. There has been a concerted push to portray Michelle as the "mom in chief." At times, it has rankled. 

But what's most problematic about the Politico piece is that although Cottle acknowledges race, she doesn't at all address what leading black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry have been talking about for years: that Michelle Obama's focus on portraying herself as an exemplary mother is, in and of itself, somewhat radical, in a country in which the black family is openly pathologized as dysfunctional.

There's another, point, too. The supposedly "soft" issues Michelle has embraced, like healthy eating, exercise, and college-going, are ones that disproportionately affect the black community. Her partnership with Wal-Mart to address inner city food deserts didn't really take off, but at least Michelle helped put this problem on the national agenda.

The first lady role is infuriatingly fluffy, but that isn't Michelle Obama's fault. 

For more on these issues, check out this dialogue on black feminism between Melissa Harris-Perry and philosopher bell hooks.

New Episode of Schooled – “Confessions of a Bad Teacher”

Check it out at Slate. I discuss the challenges and opportunities of teaching in high-poverty urban high schools with two teachers. John Owens lasted less than a year after leaving publishing to teach in the South Bronx. Alex Caputo-Pearl, a member of Teach for America's inaugural class, has been working for two decades in Los Angeles public schools, and was dismissed from Crenshaw High School after he led a controversial curriculum reform effort there.

Listen!

TFA Teachers Perform Well in a New Study — But Teacher Experience Still Matters

Before I dive in to Mathematica's new, positive research on Teach for America, a major caveat: Past studies of TFA suggest its recruits are more effective at teaching math than other subjects, and this study looks only at math. Across the board, it is easier for schools and teachers to raise math test scores than literacy scores. That's because most kids encounter math only at school, while in reading and writing, middle-class kids get a huge boost from vocabularly and book-rich home environments.

Here we go.

The study design: Mathematica compared the performance of 136 TFA math teachers and 153 Teaching Fellows math teachers in 11 unnamed school districts to the performance of "matched" math teachers from other training programs, working within the same school buildings and with similar low-income student populations. Student outcomes were measured using end-of-schoolyear standardized tests. TFAers and Fellows were not compared to one another, in part because they tend to work at different schools.

The big takeaway: TFA math teachers outperformed non-TFA math teachers in their schools by .06 standard deviations in middle school and .13 standard deviations in high school. The talking point will be that this is the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of learning per schoolyear. But it's important to realize this represents a relatively modest improvement in student achievement. For the average child in this study, who scored in just the 27th percentile in math compared to her peers across the country, having a TFA teacher will help her move up to the 30th percentile–still a long way off from grade-level math proficiency.

Teaching Fellows teachers, who tend to be career-changers, not recent grads, performed similarly to their non-Fellows peers. They were slightly less effective than traditionally-certified teachers, but more effective than teachers who came from non-elite alternative certification routes.

Teacher experience still matters: The bias against first-year teachers is borne out in the data. The students of second-year teachers outperformed the students of first-year teachers by .08 standard deviations–a larger gap than the average one (.07) between the students of TFA and non-TFA teachers. And even though TFA recruits did well in this study, that doesn't mean teachers reach their pinnacle after two years on the job. To the contrary, the researchers found that for teachers with at least five years of experience, each additional year of work was associated with a statistically significant increase of .005 standard deviations in student achievement. Interestingly, during years 2, 3, and 4 of teaching, there is no observable improvement. So this study shows a big leap in effectiveness from year 1 to 2, a flat line for a few years, and then slow and steady improvement year-to-year after year 5.

College selectivity is not a magic cure-all: Are TFA teachers successful because they hail from elite colleges? Maybe not, this study suggests. Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

It doesn't matter much what teachers majored in: One of the big critiques of traditional teacher education is that not enough teachers have college degrees in the subjects they teach. But in this study, traditional teachers were actually more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. That coursework didn't necessarily help them become better teachers.

And teachers' own test scores are not all that predictive: TFAers and Fellows demonstrated better standardized test scores in math–they scored an average of 17-22 points higher than their counterparts–perhaps because they were much more likley to have attended academically selective colleges, which require good test scores for admission. The relationship between teachers' own test scores and student achievement remains murky, however. The researchers conclude that at the high school level, higher teacher test scores are associated with slightly better student outcomes, but that there is no relationship between teacher and student test scores at the middle school level.

Coursework is distracting: When a teacher is taking night courses–as all first-year TFA teachers do, to meet state certification requirements–student achievement declines. 

So, why are TFA teachers successful? If it isn't college selectivity or their higher test scores in math, what's the theory of change? After observing TFA's summer training institute this July, I'd guess that there are two major factors. First, TFA teachers are incredibly mission-driven and optimistic. They actively choose to teach in low-income schools and they are selected because they believe closing the achievement gap is not only important, but possible. This inspires them to work hard. (Of course, many non-TFA teachers have these characteristics, as well, and also tend to be great at their jobs.) Second, TFA's training emphasizes data tracking of student outcomes and the importance, specifically, of raising standardized test scores. That could lead to the students of TFA teachers getting more test-prep and hearing more messages about why performing well on tests is important.

Update: The researchers tell Dylan Matthews that although they used the results of high-stakes state exams to measure student outcomes in the middle-school grades, at the high school level, the tests they used were completely new to the teachers, so they couldn't have prepared students for them. I'd still make the point that the students of TFA teachers may be more likely to take testing seriously, for the reasons I outline above.

Don't forget race and class: Of TFA's 2012 class of recruits, 62 percent are white. But the TFA sample in this study was a whopping 89 percent white, while the demographics of the non-TFA comparison teachers were starkly different: only 30 percent white. The student population, meanwhile, was 80 percent low-income children of color. As I research my book, sources across the country are telling me, anecdotally, that urban districts are losing teachers of color, especially African American teachers. Given what we know about the importance of race-similar role-models for minority students, and how this, too, can affect achievement and school culture, it's important to gather more information on how well districts and teacher training programs are doing at putting teachers of color in front of students of color.