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When will we get serious about black boys in public schools?

o-BLACK-STUDENTS-facebookHow does it feel to be a problem?” – W.E.B. Dubois

Last year when the verdict was read in the George Zimmerman trial I predicted there would be a swollen outcry, followed by a return to peaceful apathy. I had seen this routine before. An outrage occurs, the outrage machines hums on high, and then, nothing.

The value of a black life, especially that of a black boy, remains the unanswerable riddle for justice loving and hating people alike.

I watched as people changed their Facebook profile pictures to reflect their “solidarity” with Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was killed by Zimmerman. I watched the nation put Trayvon on trial in the media for his own death. I clicked “like” on the passionate Facebook meme’s that were viral, participated in purgative community discussions, and agonized over the legacy of racial injustice that continues to play out day in, day out.

In my heart I knew the outcry for Trayvon (and the subsequent deaths of other black males) was an activist’s episode that would subside. Protesting in the moment is easy. Deep, long term analysis that continually engages the systems that oppress us is more difficult, which possibly explains our episodic activism that continually produces hollow victories.

A year later the Facebook profiles have reverted back, and the major American systems continue to normalize the mass dehumanization of black boys.

The public school plantation

Schools are where black boys first encounter a public system. In this institution they are supposed to receive effective support for their healthy intellectual development, but in truth, this is the system most responsible for diminishing their lives. It is the first place they are officially defined as lesser-than, and too often criminalized. It’s where they receive the first messages that this country isn’t for them, or by them, and that they are alien to all things considered great about the United States. Their overseers are mostly white, mostly female, and mostly incapable of understanding 400 hundred years of socialization that makes the casting of public schools all wrong.

I don’t say that carelessly, or ignorantly, but from years of experience, observation, and study. I bombed out of school myself, then labored over school decisions for my own child, and later I was fortunate enough to serve on an urban school board. That last experience was like being Neo in the Matrix. It revealed the systemic ways in which black boys are purposefully sequestered into schools with lesser academic programming, fewer learning opportunities, and with staff who often have misdiagnosed them with a range of deficiencies intended to draw more money to “the problem” while also vindicating the K-12 system from any responsibility for results.

I also learned that as they are corralled into these failure factories they are being harvested for their per pupil revenue to support unrelated district initiatives. Highly segregated schools characterized by poverty and black students draw enormous sums in categorical aid and become district profit centers where teachers who have quit teaching but continue to come to work can be conveniently accommodated after richer, whiter schools pressure them out.

It’s an open secret that black boys are channeled into a pipeline characterized by weak curriculum, prevalence of subjective special education labeling, hyper-vigilance in-school policing practices, and a dearth of culturally competent, qualified staff who believe it is possible to have melanin and intelligence simultaneously.

But, it’s not easy to make a meme out of that and get Facebookers to trade it broadly.

It’s all well and good to get activisty when we have a death in our national family, as we did with Trayvon, but what about the slow motion death of black boys who are being denied an education daily in large numbers?

We’re not serious.

We know that black boys are are disproportionately in schools where the average pay of their teachers gets lower as the classrooms become blacker and poorer. They are tracked into level I and level II special education resource rooms (instead of classrooms) with teachers that lack the pedagogical and content knowledge to teach them.

In 2007 when I first joined the Minneapolis Board of Education my colleagues enacted something called the Northside Initiative. We touted it as a plan to revitalize education in an impoverished section of town, but really it was a poorly conceived plan to close 5 schools and force seas of black children into crowded schools with the promise that the cost-savings would allow schools to offer more band, art, and wrap around services. As part of the plan we closed schools that had positive legacies in the black community, and at the same time, we left open two of the worst performing schools on planet Earth.

The reason? Because the bus routes would be easier to arrange.

Of course community activists fought the power. School board meetings filled with angry protesters. They brought signs, letters, and a list of speakers who offered recollections of many misdeeds of the district going back to the 1970s. It was an impressive show of force. I expected it to make a difference. Yet, a cynical district employee told me it wouldn’t be long before the protests would recede and normal business would continue. Apparently that had been a pattern district brass could count on.

In the end the district moved forward with the plan over the objections of the community. They “saved” $3 million, of which only $1 million supported enhancements for the newly over-crowded schools, and $2 million that went back into the district general fund for vanity projects elsewhere. It was a fleecing of black students, plain and simple. I was the lone vote against the plan, and my “no” vote was seen as petulance rather than vigilance against a half-baked plan that the community was right to oppose.

Today, in one of the new schools math and reading proficiency for black boys stands at 10% and 14% respectively. At the other math and reading proficiency rates are at 18% and 10% respectively. The goal touted by the district when closing their old schools and redirecting money was to have 80% of them proficient within 5 years.

The goal was a fantasy, the Northside Initiative failed colossally, and no one talks about it any more.

In 2010 we came to another district plan that sought to close racial gaps in test scores. This time our district threatened to close North Senior High School due to very poor academics and vanishing community support. For years district leaders had promised to restore the school to an era when it had performed very well. But students, families, and staff only saw empty promises and programmatic chaos. By the time of the threatened closing the school had an 11% proficiency rate and not a single proficient student was a boy.

Get your mind around that for a minute. A nearly all black school where no boy was proficient.

A host of activists, almost none whom sent their own children to that school, came out of the woodwork to “save North High.” They managed to keep the building open, and since then the 4 year graduation rate for black boys who qualify for free or reduced lunch has tumbled from 56% to 38%. The school has a third of the curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular programming found in the district’s top two high schools. Because of the tiny enrollment about a third of the students per pupil funding evaporates to pay for a large facility.

But, while adults feel good about their “victory,” the school is not helping black boys reach their potential.

So, excuse me if I sound cynical about the the Minneapolis Public Schools’ new proposal to open a new Office of Black Male Achievement. It’s a great idea to have an office that will be charged with addressing the many systemic inequities that impact outcomes for black boys. As someone who has advocated this endeavor almost since I left the board, I see it as a bold move. It’s a long awaited recognition that lives are on the line, and our community is in a crisis. But closer inspection of the fine print reveals another half-hearted effort that lacks expertise and critical thinking.

The first sign is the anemic $200,000 budget allocated for the office. District leaders say this amount is “seed” money. More will follow once they have a plan. But even that is another flag. They don’t have a plan. They are out of the gate with a major initiative, without any internal expertise in the field of black male achievement, and with a budget that can only be viewed as a sign that their heart is not in it.

They are not serious. If we don’t put pressure on them, then we’re not serious either.

We must be vigilant and united

Recently a group of community activists banded together to demand the Minneapolis Public Schools make a greater investment into the Office of Black Male Achievement. We are an unusual alliance of people who often disagree on education issues. We sometimes get caught up in the left/right hegemony, joining opposing teams and failing to stand together as leaders in our community. But God has blessed us with a moment in time when discord is low and we stand united about the need for public school leaders to prioritize the needs of black males.

The thing we euphemistically call the “achievement gap” starts with a belief gap. It is the gulf between what our black boys are capable of achieving, and the low standards their caretakers too often believe they are capable of achieving.

While we talk about high standards for all, even school districts have internalized a disbelief about our children. They often speak to perceived deficiencies (poverty, absenteeism, behavior, culture, etc.). I sat on a panel with one district official who told a room of new teachers that research shows that classroom factors are only 30% responsible for student achievement. This is the same official who is tasked with managing the district’s black male initiative.

He isn’t terribly original in his perspective. When Nekima Levy-Pounds, as sister in our group, wrote a recent blog post in the Star Tribune about the crisis facing our black boys, the comments section went crazy.

Here’s what one symbolic commenter had to say:

The educational system is in crisis generally because of the relentless and ultimately ineffective calls for more and greater emphasis on racial disparities.  For better or for worse, school budgets are always a zero-sum game in the short term and the relentless myopic focus on “the achievement gap” has directed resources away from education generally to providing social services to specific identity groups, most always African Americans.  The school system doesn’t now and never will have the vast sums of money needed to overcome the endemic social and cultural problems of poverty, parenting, and crime.  These issues are too broad and too deep to expect the school system’s limited resources to overcome without twisting the educational system into something it’s not.  Case in point, my child tests as “gifted” according to MPS, yet there are ZERO gifted resources in our school.  Why should my child’s future and development be seen as something that can be shortchanged?

Sadly, this sentiment echoes many email messages I received while on the board of education. It mirrors what I hear teachers say in private conversations. It sounds like district leaders who believe the answers to a better education for black boys lies outside of schools and money spent on them is somehow wasted.

While it may be true that many of our sons enter schools with unique challenges that confound an education system that was designed to educate middle-class white children, it is also true that our sons bring unique gifts and talents that these schools have no expertise in discovering. Our children are strong, resilient, and brilliant. They can be tough, and they can be loving. They can be proud even when they’re shamed. And, they’re all different. It sounds a little stupid to have to say that, but so often our black boys are talked about as if they are a homogenous body that lack individual characteristics, abilities, and dreams.

President Obama has come out with a major initiative to focus on boys. Local and national foundations are slowly joining the effort. Politicians are seeing the viability of articulating visions, however small, for addressing justice issues.

My question is what will we do? How strong will we stand together in the face of a million excuses for why our children are not achieving to potential? How focused can we be, and for how long?

The answers to those questions will define how serious we are in this community about prioritizing black boys and loving them toward their God given potential.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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