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Rev. Sharpton: Education problems are a ‘five-alarm’ fire

Rev. Sharpton continues his push for better education

Now would be a good time to listen to Rev. Al Shaprton.

You didn’t see that coming. Me, of all people, pointing to a left-of-center Civil Rights leader on the issue of education?

Mark the day.

I’m wore down by the scant attention the issues has seen during the run up to a historic election. After all of political campaigning and several mock debates, the two old men -both private school parents – vying for the American presidency failed to utter anything meaningful about the ineffective training our kids are getting.

It’s almost as pesky education problems that presidents have talked about solving for ages will suddenly go away like Trump’s Covid by spring (“like a miracle”).

Be patient folks. All we need is incremental changes through bold sounding and weak acting policy tweaks. That and a bazillion because that always works.

Not.

Maybewe may have tired of hearing the “failing schools” narrative and the subsequent lack of solutions that an exorbitant number of dollars thrown at it have failed to produce. I get it. Some might say, “we get it, not all kids are learning, but….”

I don’t know what the “but” is.

A problem doesn’t go away because you shut your eyes out of exasperation.

In fact, the same issues that fueled decades-long school reform movements continue to dog our students, our workforce, and our economy. The pandemic is raising that simmering pot to a rolling boil.

That’s why I’m happy to see a surprising piece from Rev. Al Sharpton show up in my feed that points to the specifics of how Covid is worsening educational failure for populations that already struggle economically.

He says:

Four out of 10 young black men don’t finish high school, and student absenteeism runs as high as 30% in some cities.  Education is about capturing the curiosity and imagination of young minds; how is our system failing so many young students of color?

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned this long-smoldering crisis into a five-alarm fire. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has torpedoed its way through the lives and wallets of Black and Hispanic communities with a vengeance, and the lash of this scourge is being felt just as acutely in our schools.

Nearly half of the nation’s public school students checked out of distance education when schools shuttered in March, and Black and Hispanic students fell even further behind.  Private schools saw just an 18% drop in student participation.

A full 70% of teachers say they weren’t adequately trained for the transition to distance education. Amazingly, only one in three districts expected teachers to teach live lessons and track student progress. But students in wealthy districts were twice as likely to get live, real-time learning.

Among teachers, 60% report that parents were unavailable to help their kids with online learning. Black and brown households — disproportionately headed by single parents working jobs where telecommuting just isn’t an option — were given a Sophie’s choice of either helping their children with schoolwork or taking a second or third job to keep a roof over their heads. Nearly half of our low-income workers lost jobs during the crisis, and many are just too exhausted to help after struggling to make ends meet and are, appallingly, offered next to no help.

One bright spot has been helping to get students connected.  A total of 95% of U.S. homes have broadband access, but still 15% of households with students haven’t signed up. Industry leaders, building on aggressive efforts to get everyone connected, stepped up with offerings of free broadband to low-income neighborhoods.

Chicago and Atlanta, led by African American woman mayors, forged groundbreaking public-private partnerships to make free home broadband service available to any public school students who need it.  And while the Trump administration dithers, Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing for an “Emergency Broadband Benefit” to get everyone connected to broadband.  This is an example where one of the key challenges for distance learning — residential broadband service — appears solvable by getting the key players to come to the table.

But this is only a start. One in four underprivileged teens has no computer in the house. Our failure to address digital literacy in low-income communities and to modernize digital curricula to stir the curiosity millions of students is another jaw-dropping failure. We will never win the future or achieve racial justice with festering ills like this unaddressed.

While I’d love to see more here in the way of support for direct educational funding to parents, more power for families to choose from an array of educational providers, and more roads to alternative learning opportunities, I give the Rev. props.

More leaders would keep their eye on the educational prize and focus the public’s attention on the problem, and then push policymakers to produce new policy solutions.

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

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Public Schools

Cobb County public schools: academically excellent, racially backward

Forget the hype about democratically elected school board ensuring racial equity and local control in public education.

By the most basic measurements, Cobb County schools in Georgia exemplar the great American public school system.

With 112,000 students in 113 schools (22 of them are Blue Ribbon schools, and the state designates 56 as “schools of excellence”), the district is the second-largest in Georgia and the 23rd largest in the nation.

The student body here is racially balanced: 37% white, 30% Black, 22% Hispanic, and 6% Asian.

And, Cobb students have higher average ACT and SAT scores – 22.8 and 1,107 respectively – than the nation, while having a higher graduation rate too.

Above all, a democratically-elected school board governs this high-performing district, something that teachers’ unions and public education advocates nationally argue makes the schools accountable to the public they serve.

Those advocates should have seen the heated meeting Cobb County school board members held this past Thursday. During that meeting, one of the board’s three Black members (the board splits between four white Republicans and 3 Black Democrats), Jaha Howard, seemed to accuse his colleagues of participating in “systemic racism.”

His calmly delivered rebuke came after the board voted to abolish a community advisory committee scheduled to reconsider how schools and district buildings are named. A second proposal up for vote would require board members have four votes to put items on the public meeting agenda. Both of these proposals are anti-democratic in my eye, but what’s new?

It was the first proposal that drew the most heat. The East Cobb News reports that the community advisory group on school renaming was “approved by a 4-3 vote in August.” Back then, a Black school board member took issue because of the district’s 113 schools; there wasn’t one named after a Black person.

Cutting deeper into that wound, community members have complained that two of the district’s best schools are named for racially problematic people.

A student at Walton High School started a Change.org petition to rename the school, saying:

Walton High School is named after George Walton, one of Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence. For many in history class, that’s where the conversation stops. No one ever talks about how George Walton was a white supremacist, belonged to a slave owning family, and spent his political career championing white supremacy in Georgia by stripping Native Americans time and time again of their land. For a school well known on the national stage, it is sickening that they choose to carry themselves using a man who represents one thing: continuing white supremacy in the American South.

It is no surprise that Walton High School specifically chooses to exonerate a figure who oppressed minorities his entire life, as the same behaviors that the school is named after are behaviors that plague the halls of that school to this day. It is no coincidence that Walton High School is only 6% black, significantly lower than the county average of 30.2% and the state average of 36.3%. Walton has always been districted to block minority students and especially black students from enrolling in a sizable number, acting as a beacon of white supremacy in a majority-minority school district.

According to the East Cobb News, “Georgia Department of Education data…indicated that Walton, which opened in 1974, had 155 black students out of an enrollment of 2,616.”

I’d have to dig really hard to explain how that is possible in a district with 30% Black students.

Another high school was also under community pressure for a name change. Wheeler High School alumni formed a private Facebook group that led to a call for that school to rename.

The Wheeler “Wildcats” had this to say:

“Students do not deserve to attend a school whose namesake celebrates a Confederate history and one that was named for a hateful purpose: to hurt and shame Black youth that were, by court order, integrated into our county’s white school system. It does not go unnoticed that the school was named after the passing of Brown v Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. It does not go unnoticed that the school was named after the state of Georgia finally began to adhere to the ruling, seven years after it passed. It does not go unnoticed that the Cobb County School Board finally voted to desegregate in 1965—the same year they named Joseph Wheeler High School.”

In this dispatch from Cobb County, there should be plenty here for public education believers to address in stories like this one. Does an elected board really ensure accountability to local concerns when the power dynamics of those boards break down along racial and political lines?

Is this messy form of democracy, as practiced by school boards, a safeguard against discrimination and racial inequality?

Doesn’t the very idea that four board members could pass rules to prevent three other board members – all of whom are the voices of a public constituency that voted for them to have a say – from even putting items on the agenda create suspicion?

Shouldn’t it bother us that the white leaders of the Cobb County school board, in an effort to stifle Black thought, voted last year to prevent board members from making comments at the end of board meetings?

And, shouldn’t we all take note when one of America’s largest districts, one that prides itself on academic excellence for all, should lift up the names of dead Confederates over the objections of living educators, parents, and students?

I think you know the answers.

And, in keeping with Dr. Martin Luther King’s words “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I’d ask that you take an interest in letting the local leaders in Cobb County know that we are watching from afar. You can find their email addresses here, and perhaps you can send them a quick note to tell them they need to listen to communities of color.

Watch the contentious board meeting here:

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Public Schools

School boards have too much power they aren’t using to fix education

School board member shops during impassioned community member testimony

Considered me triggered. Again.

This past Sunday my 8 Black Hands crew did a show on the missing importance of school boards, and then this article pops up saying the National School Boards Association (NSBA) has launched a campaign called “Public School Transformation Now!”

The goal, flimsy as ever, is to “bring equity issues front and center.” I’m triggered because leaders, especially in education, consistently go for sophistry over function. They focus on the feel-good rather than the complex. They love the fashion instead of the fix.

If you read through the article and the NSBA’s Twitter timeline you’ll be browbeaten with the words “reinvent!” and “reimagine!” and “transform!” With America’s massively ineffective public schooling gasping for air from the shock of Covid, I don’t blame them for branding their effort in aspirational terms even as parents and journalists complain about the remote learning “disaster” across cities. And I certainly don’t blame them for ringing the bell on important issues like increasing teacher diversity, stemming potential teacher shortages, the urgent need for flexibility on how special education services are delivered, and the national need to ensure kids can access the internet. But it feels like some essentials are missing from their hubbub.

Look at the ten items Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond offered to the NSBA members during their recent webinar. She sees these things as critical for education school board members to focus on when “reimagining” their school systems.

These include:

1. Closing the digital divide.
2. Strengthening distance and blended learning.
3. Assessing what students need.
4. Ensuring supports for social and emotional learning.
5. Redesigning schools for stronger relationships.
6. Emphasizing authentic, culturally responsive learning.
7. Providing expanded learning time.
8. Establishing community schools and wraparound supports.
9. Preparing educators for reinventing schools.
10. Leveraging more adequate and equitable school funding.

This is all good stuff. No sober person will quibble with school districts doing better with remote learning, increasing the range of supports for students, deepening important relationships, and making school funding “equitable.” Except for me. I am not sober. I’m tired of nicey-nice pablum. I’ll quibble.

School boards are powerful animals made up of elected or appointed individuals who collectively are to govern the budgets and curriculum of school districts through a single employee, the superintendent. Sticking with that basic frame, my list for school boards to earn their relevance during these tough times looks a little different than Dr. Darling-Hammond’s.

First, leaders should “reinvent!” public school fiscal stewardship. The lowest of hanging fruit on this front is to stop the routine practice of signing labor contracts behind closed doors that they know they cannot afford and that any reasonable observer can predict will cause financial instability that hurts children and families.

Going deeper, the NSBA could commit to a national campaign aimed at training board members and local leaders to spend public money wisely and equitably. School finance is in fact a form of rocket science, so I won’t attempt an insightful take on that issue here, but suffice to say, as a former school board member and student of the spending problem over a decade, I can tell you that as public education boosters speak globally about the need for increased school funding, they fail to act on the equally important issue of how local districts spend locally. If money matters, spending matters more.

Second, beyond the vague goal of “strengthening distance and blended learning,” which for my ears sounds like a plan to put Band-Aids on heart attacks, school leaders need to modernize their pedagogical schemes using evidence-based practices so that informed teaching results in demonstrative learning.

Third, wouldn’t it be nice if school boards focused on improving educational leadership, beginning with themselves? The pipeline for competent and sharp school board members and superintendents is among the most obvious weaknesses in public education. Who is working on it? What is the NSBA doing about the problem?

Not to be sensationalist, while many school boards are models of civic efficacy, many others descend into appalling dysfunction. Salt Lake City has school board members who have recently apologized for sending “vulgar and inappropriate” hate messages to each other. The East Baton Rouge’s school board is finding it difficult to execute on its very first job of hiring a superintendent. Nashville ran its first Black superintendent out of town because three of its school board members were drinking Diane Ravitch’s temperance tea from white dixie cups.

I could go on.

This leads to another area the NSBA could put their back into, educational democracy.

Even as we’re sold the mirage of public schooling as the “bedrock” of democracy because they are governed by we-the-people through transparent and open elections, the truth is that school board elections are often held during off-years from bigger elections, which virtually ensures the undemocratic problems that come with startling low voter turnout. School board elections are too often dominated by local public employees who bundle their dollars and marshal their free groundworkers to hire their own bosses. As for voters, election results are largely determined by white voters and the outcome is that 78% of school board members are white even as only 48% of America’s 50 million public school students are white. Add to that the fact that less than a third of school board members are parents of school-aged children and you can see the disconnect between the governors of schools and the governed.

Finally, if the NSBA wants to go for a true game-changing moonshot in public education, the one that attacks a fundamental problem that is within their power to fix; if they want to correct the one thing in public education that would do more damage to systemic inequities than a million professional development self-flagellants about racial inequality; if they want to truly reimagine, redesign, and reinvent public schools and transform them from being inequality’s greatest student sorting machine; then they will immediately put all of their attention on the foundational problems of educational redlining and school district gerrymandering. These two issues create the basic blueprint for educational inequality in our supposed cornerstone of democracy, yet, after a million popular journalism stories about integration and the supposed racist origins of school choice and the attempts of evil people to privatize education by offering redlined families roads out of their redlining, there are so few calls for immediate demands that the people ultimately responsible – the school board members who rule America’s 14,000 school districts.

Alas, school districts have an outsized role in determining district boundaries, and, subsequently, district boundaries play a determining role in how zip codes become deadly to the hopes, dreams, and potential of American children.

I know that’s a lot for the NSBA to chew on. I won’t blame them for opting to focus on their more reasonable goal of laying fiber-optic tracks so that every kid gets internet soon. That’s clearly more realistic and on task.

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Personalized Learning

Students aren’t missing. It’s the computers, stupid.

Do you need help finding those “missing students” that haven’t made it to online school yet? I can help.

A piece by ABC’s Ted Oberg follows a Houston student who hasn’t been schooled since last spring because she hasn’t had a computer or wifi access. Her name is Raquel and she represents the millions of kids nationally who have been “missing” from school district rosters, and falling behind.

These are the stories that break my heart. In a nation boastful of our economic power, we can’t get kids all they need for an education. We used to be able to put a man on the moon. Today we can’t get a Chromebook into a child’s hands.

A laptop during a pandemic. Apparently that’s too much.

Here’s the story:

The last time Raquel was in class was in March, just before Spring Break. After that, HISD shut down in-person learning and classes went online. Raquel didn’t follow there, “I don’t have no computer to use at home.”

Without a computer and without Wi-Fi, Raquel was one of the thousands of HISD students who just disappeared last year from online learning. At its worst, nearly one out of four HISD students was less than fully engaged. State figures show 49,514 students like Raquel either lost contact or were less than fully engaged.

It may be far less now. Thousands of the missing students have been contacted and HISD handed out nearly 100,000 tablets and computers, but thousands more are still waiting.

[…]

Like many parents, Raquel’s mother, Monique Smith, was anxious to get her daughter a device. “I am just worried about if she can get a tablet this year, so she could be doing some things, exercising her brain and staying positive.”

When Smith walked to school to get Raquel a device on Tuesday, she was turned away. Smith told 13 Investigates she informed the district she needed a device during a home visit in June, but on Tuesday the district initially said paperwork indicated she already got one.

Smith was in tears as she told ABC13 it wasn’t true.

Raquel didn’t have time for tears as she said, “I don’t want to be far behind because I don’t have a laptop.” Raquel is the kind of student the district is worried about.

“Very worried,” Dr. Lathan said. “And will continue to be worried until we know we’re back face to face and we’ve been able to engage with all of the students that are assigned on an HISD roster.”

[…]

Tuesday morning, the district opened some 36 distance learning centers so students without devices could sign on somewhere, but HISD didn’t announce that until late last week.

Smith said she wasn’t even told about the centers specifically for families like her, until Tuesday afternoon, and her school is one. We suggested they go back and ask.

Raquel was optimistic, “I was hoping I’d get me a laptop so I can go to school and be in my classes now, since it’s a new year.”

How many Raquel’s are there?

As my friend Dirk Tilotson points out regularly, the digital divide is actual an injustice canyon. It’s estimated that as many as 40 million Americans are without the reliable internet access that is critical to getting an education. Tens of thousands are without laptops.

These aren’t missing students, they’re victims of incompetent leadership nationally and locally.

And, guess who is most hurt? According to a McKinsey report, “only 60 percent of low-income students are regularly logging into online instruction; 90 percent of high-income students do.”

In schools that are predominantly Black and Brown, just 60 to 70 percent are logging in regularly.”

Something is wrong with us.

I don’t care what else we do as a nation, whatever else we tout as evidence of our being “great again.”

We ain’t shit until Raquel gets a laptop, WiFi, and teachers who can teach.

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