Category Archives: High-Needs Schools

Are School Letter Grades a Form of Institutional Racism?

All y’all that know me have probably figured out that I find it darn near impossible to hide my disdain for North Carolina’s hard-right legislature.

Since rising to power over the past five to seven years, they’ve spent the majority of their time together pushing through hateful legislation targeting marginalized populations.  The best part:  Pretty darn close to all of their decisions — think banning same sex marriage, creating incredibly gerrymandered voting districts, or forcing transgender citizens to use bathrooms that mirror their biological gender — have been overturned by the court system.  So while simultaneously waving their pocket Constitutions around, they pass law after law that are ruled unconstitutional.


That same legislature has also made it their goal to gut public education.

Perhaps most notably, they’ve created a system of “opportunity scholarships” that allow parents to take public tax dollars to the charter schools and/or private schools of their choice.  The result are pretty darn amazing:  93 percent of voucher recipients are using public tax dollars to put their students in Christian, Islamic and other faith-based schools.

Worse yet, the bulk of that funding is going to schools that aren’t held accountable for performance at all.  As a parent of a second grader, I support the innovation potential and alternatives that school choice represent — but as a taxpayer I also expect a return on that investment, something that’s hard to prove when millions of dollars are channeled into schools with no real oversight or accountability and where teachers don’t have to be licensed or certified.

What drives me the craziest is that while simultaneously funneling monies into schools that are not held accountable for student performance, the SAME legislature passed a sweeping bill in 2013 — patriotically named the Excellent Public Schools Act — that is specifically designed to HOLD public schools accountable for student performance.

The law was odious all the way around, stripping tenure rights from teachers, putting all teachers on one year contracts, revamping the teacher pay scale to nudge veterans out of the classroom, and instituting rigorous retention policies for students in third grade.  Thankfully — like most of the legislation passed by our ham-handed politicians — much of the law has been reversed by our state court system in subsequent years.

One piece of that legislation remains in place, however:  An A-F grading system for public schools based on scores earned by students on standardized tests given at the end of every school year.

Here’s how it works:  Every public school — and remember, that DOESN’T include private schools taking public dollars — is given a single letter grade that is supposed to make it easy for parents to determine how their child’s school is performing.  Go to a school that is rated an A?  It’s time for a celebration!  Have a child in a school that is rated an F?  It’s time to abandon ship.  Apply for an opportunity scholarship and run to one of those private schools popping up all around you.  Never mind the fact that similar school accountability systems in other states have been abject failures, open to constant revision and manipulation by influential politicians and communities.  Let’s do this!

But it gets worse:  Here in North Carolina, 80 percent of a school’s letter grade is based strictly on performance and only 20 percent is based on actual student growth — and that’s an improvement over the original proposal that didn’t include student growth as a consideration for school ratings at all.

What’s the consequence of emphasizing performance over growth in school ratings?

Schools and systems serving high percentages of students living in poverty are at a real disadvantage.  Need proof?  Then check out this WRAL review of the 2015-2016 School Performance Grades:

“The data show school grades continue to correlate closely with the poverty levels of schools. Among all schools last year that received a D or F, 93 percent had enrollments with at least 50 percent of students from low-income families. Conversely, among schools that received at least a B, 75.7 percent had enrollments with less than 50 percent of students from low-income families, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.”

Simple translation:  Your child is WAY more likely to go to a school labeled as a failure if you live in a poor community than if you live in a middle to upper middle class community — even IF the kids in your child’s classes are moving forward faster than peers in wealthier schools.  After all, growth doesn’t matter much to North Carolina’s legislators.  Final performance does.

Think about the logical consequences of that simple truth.

Year after year, poor communities — which both nationally and here in North Carolina are often disproportionately populated by people of color — are told that their public schools are failing children.  That discourages investment in the community — what business is going to relocate to a region where every school is rated a D or an F — and depresses home values.  Finding high-paying jobs and building long-term wealth both become more difficult, making it even harder to advance as an individual OR as a community.

Then, here in North Carolina, parents from those same poor communities are offered “opportunity scholarships” to take their students to private schools that are NOT REQUIRED to report at all on their performance.  Worse yet, those private schools often spend less than half of what is spent on a student in a public school.  Teachers are underpaid and uncertified, programs like school lunches and athletics aren’t offered, and extra services for students with special needs are not always available.

That feels a heck of a lot like institutional racism to me.  Am I wrong?


Related Radical Reads:

Want to Fix Education?  Start Addressing Poverty.

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools





Want to Fix Education? Start Addressing Poverty.

Let me ask you a simple question:  How closely associated do you think consuming a boatload of alcohol and dying of cirrhosis of the liver are?  Stated another way, how convinced are you that people who spend their lives on the wrong side of the bottle are more likely to die of cirrhosis than the teetotallers in your community’s Anti-Liquor League?

If you guessed that the odds are pretty darn good that people who drink like fish are more likely to die of cirrhosis than people who don’t, you’d be right.

According to Dr. Michael Freemark, Professor of Pediatrics at the Duke University Medical Center, linear regression tests — which are statistical measures used by medical researchers to study the correlation between two or more variables   — prove that alcohol consumption and death by cirrhosis are strongly related, with an R2 value of 0.4-0.5.

Now let me ask you another simple question:  How closely associated do you think struggling academically and growing up in poverty are?

Ready to be shocked: Writing about a linear regression test that he completed using recently released 2013 testing data from public schools in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, Freemark found that the correlation between a child’s economic condition and the likelihood of passing North Carolina’s end of grade exams is 0.85 — TWICE as high as the correlation between spending your life chugging Kentucky bourbon and dying of cirrhosis.

Freemark — along with Raleigh-based attorney Anne Slifkin — summarize the findings of their linear regression testing like this:

This very high value signifies that 85 percent of variability in school performance is explained by the economic well-being of a child’s family, as measured by eligibility for subsidized lunches, and/or is associated strongly with, most factors that determine performance during the elementary and middle school years.  For one factor to have such a powerful impact on educational outcome is revealing and must be addressed.

What does this mean for those who are passionate about fixing education?

Given that recent data released by the US Census Bureau show that the percentage of students living in poverty has risen by 32% since 2001, that 48% of all students in America’s public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunches, and that students living in poverty are now a majority in 17 states, it means that if we are REALLY serious about seeing students succeed, we simply must start investing in struggling communities.  Asking schools to close achievement gaps while ignoring the economic gaps that exist between students growing up in wealth and students growing up in poverty is just another #edpolicy disaster waiting to happen.

More importantly, asking schools to close achievement gaps while ignoring the economic gaps that exist between students growing up in wealth and students growing up in poverty is just another NATIONAL disaster waiting to happen.



 Related Radical Reads:

Living a Silent War

What Parents Don’t Understand about High Poverty Schools

The Crappy Refrigerator Approach to Fixing Schools


Here’s Why Competition Doesn’t Work in Public Education

If you are (1). interested in public education and (2). living with an Internet connection, you are likely to already know that North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature has passed a TON of new legislation in the past few weeks that have educators more than a little riled.

(See here for a quick primer)

I’ve spent some time reading the comment sections of education stories appearing in the local newspaper (see here) and the strand that seems to resonate the most with readers is the suggestion that introducing competition to the public education system — achieved here in North Carolina through vouchers and charter schools — is the only way we can kick start stalled schools.

That’s a common refrain in thinking around education here in the States, isn’t it?  We automatically believe that because competitive risk — having to stand out in a marketplace by constantly producing better products — moves businesses forward, the same strategies will move schools forward too.  To suggest otherwise is seen as downright Un-Amurican.

So let’s take a close look at how competition works and then decide if it really IS right for schools.

When businesses compete, their first step is to identify the marketplace that they are trying to serve.  Their second step is to figure out just how much money they have to spend in order to make a profit in that marketplace.  Profitable businesses spend just enough to keep their primary marketplace happy.  Spend more than you need to and you are essentially giving profits away.  Spend less than you need to and you won’t carve out a space in the marketplace that you are trying to serve.

Here’s a practical example of what that looks like in action:  My wife and I bought a new refrigerator a few months back.  To be honest, we were blown away by the full range of refrigerators available in the local Home Depot.  There were stainless steel units with huge capacities, interesting configurations, and four different types of ice dispensed automatically standing alongside basic units made from cheap plastic, ready to do little more than freeze your cheese.

You see the competitive lesson there, right?

Real-live apple-pie eating, baseball loving American businessmen are trying to carve out a space for themselves in SPECIFIC markets, producing refrigerators for certain KINDS of customers.  Some — like Subzero — are producing high end refrigerators for people who own $500,000 homes and are ready to drop a few grand on top end appliances that will serve as centerpieces in their kitchens.  Others — like Kenmore — don’t even bother with the bells and whistles, instead focusing their attention on developing functional-but-not-fancy machines for people like you and I.

And then there’s guys like Joe — the landlord who showed up in my driveway when he noticed the delivery truck bringing our new refrigerator to our house.

Hey — have you got an old unit you’re trying to get rid of?  I’d be happy to take it off your hands,” he said.  I told him that he wouldn’t want my refrigerator.  It was 20+ years old, had been sitting unplugged in my backyard for about two weeks, had been rained on three times, and barely kept anything cold anymore.

That don’t matter,” he said.  “I rent houses out in the poor section of town.  As long as it blows a little cool air, those people will be happy.  I’ll give you $50 bucks and haul this thing away right now.”

Joe has figured out competition, hasn’t he?  He’s identified a marketplace — “those people in the poor section of town” — that no one is serving.  Then, he’s figured out just how much he has to spend to keep his customers happy.

He’s not putting Subzero machines in his rental houses — heck, he’s not even putting WORKING machines in his rental houses — because his customers wouldn’t expect those machines to begin with.  Turning a profit means putting the cheapest refrigerators that he can find into his properties in the poorest corners of town.  He would never slip a rotting machine in a home that he planned to rent to you or I, but he’s not renting homes to you or I.  He’s renting them to people who are down on their luck.

Cheap and crappy will do just fine.

The capitalist in me sees nothing wrong with Joe’s choices, y’all.  While I feel bad for the people living in his homes, the refrigerators owned by other people aren’t something that I’m ready to lose sleep over.  We really DO live in  dog-eat-dog world where, for a variety of reasons, some people are going to get ice sliced and diced while other people are stuck struggling to make ice at all.  Whether we like it or not, that’s life. It’s not society’s job to make sure that everyone has the refrigerator of their dreams.

Translate that lesson to schools, though, and competition gets ugly.

If we REALLY encourage competition in education — if we really ARE committed to letting private companies drive our public school systems — businessmen will bring those same profit-making practices to our communities.  Tapping into an affluent marketplace with a ton of disposable cash to burn, some entrepreneurs will develop Subzero schools with all the bells and whistles.  There will be small class sizes, highly skilled teachers, and a heaping cheese-load of resources spilling out of every classroom storage closet.

But make no mistake about it:  The entrepreneurs developing schools for “those people in the poor section of town” will take Joe’s approach to making a buck.  Their buildings will be stocked with cheap supplies and unqualified teachers. The only thing spilling out of their classrooms will be kids.  Like the good businessmen that they are, they’ll stick worn out Kenmores into poor communities — cutting their expenses to the quick regardless of the quality of the product they are producing because they know full well that the marketplace they are serving can’t afford anything better.

You DO see the problem with this approach to education, don’t you?

While the quality of other people’s refrigerators doesn’t affect ME in a deep and meaningful way, the quality of their education most certainly does.  Ensuring that ALL children — including “those people living in the poor section of town” — have access to Subzero schools means ensuring that ALL children will grow up to be competent citizens ready to make positive economic and social contributions to our communities.

That’s an outcome we should ALL care about — capable neighbors really DO fuel economic growth and ensure a healthy future for everyone — but it’s an outcome that competition doesn’t automatically advance.



 Related Radical Reads:

Living a Silent War

Staffing High Needs Schools

What Parents Don’t Understand About High Poverty Schools

Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon






The Mitchell 20 Didn’t Wait for Superman

I've read a ton of reviews lately of The Mitchell 20 — a remarkable education documentary film driven by my good friend Kathy Wiebke that details the efforts of a group of 20 teachers in a high-poverty Phoenix elementary school to change the lives of their students by changing their own practice.

I guess I'm struggling to find the right words to explain how powerful the film is.

That's why I was so jazzed to find a comment from a teacher named Jill Saia on Nancy Flanagan's review of The Mitchell 20. 

Jill wrote:

My faculty and I can't wait to see The Mitchell 20; for some reason we feel that we are living the same story right now.

Like Mitchell, we are NOT waiting for superman; we are digging in, collborating, and working very long hours to improve our students and ourselves.

In the end, that's the BEST summary for The Mitchell 20:  It is the story of a group of teachers who collectively recognize that waiting for superman is a strategy that is failing our poorest students.

 It is the story of a group of teachers who recognize that super powers really do rest somewhere deep within every teacher who takes up the challenge of working in our highest needs communities.

It is the story of what one group of colleagues can do when they decide to fight back by studying their practice collectively with one another—even when their backs are against the wall and they're working in forgotten communities.

I won't lie: The Mitchell 20 made me wet in the eyes more than once simply because it is the story of passion and service and professionalism and need and hope all wrapped into one.

And I needed that. 

Surrounded by failed policies, destructive policymakers, and constant attacks, I've started to doubt that our public schools — and more importantly, children in our poorest communities — REALLY have a chance.

What The Mitchell 20 reminded me is that as long as there are teachers with a heart for children and a determination to study their craft together — and as long as we are politically willing to get out of their way — there is ALWAYS a chance for EVERY child in EVERY community.

That's a message we ALL need to hear.

Here's the trailer:




When are YOU going to see the whole film?

More importantly, when are YOU going to forward the trailer to YOUR local school board members, state representives, or federal legislators?

This isn't a film that they can afford to miss if we really care about EVERY child.


Related Radical Reads:

Are YOUR Kids Living a Silent War?

Are High-Poverty Schools Just Another Debate?

Does ANYONE Love Public Schools?

Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon





Need MORE Proof that Testing is Destroying Education?

Back in April, I spent a few minutes with one of my professional heroes:  Dick Sagor—whose work on action research has been a direct attempt to raise the professional status and credibility of educators. 

Our conversation was anything but optimistic, though.  Dick was convinced that the teaching profession in America was at a turning point and that our nation was going to head in one of three directions:

(1). We’re going to completely abandon formal teacher preparation programs and rely on TFA style staffing patterns—kind of like Switzerland’s volunteer army or the Peace Corps.

(2). We’re going to completely strip down teaching and script the crap out of it so that we can hire warm bodies instead of professional educators to staff our schools.

(3). We’re going to reinvest in education to make it a true profession, paying teachers richly, but at the same time, expecting them to be well-trained and capable.

Considering the miserable direction that conversations around education have taken in the kill-em-all-right-wing world we live in, which of those scenarios do you think we’re likely to see play out?

Things got worse for me this week, though. 

You see, I ran Dick’s thoughts past an AMAZING teacher and good friend of mine—let’s call her Jill—who happens to live in New York—a state that is sucking hard from the testing teat.

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