Themes in the News
A weekly commentary written by UCLA IDEA on the important issues in education as covered by the news media.
No More Willful Defiance
by UCLA IDEA
Week of May 13-17, 2013
This week, Los Angeles Unified became the first district in California to ban “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension. The nebulous category, which could include students being out of uniform, talking back to teachers, not being prepared for lessons, etc., had become a catchall in school discipline and was disproportionately affecting students of color. During the 2011-12 school year, almost half of the state’s 710,000 suspensions were attributed to “willful defiance” (Los Angeles Times).
The district will instead focus on restorative justice measures and positive behavior incentives as a way of reducing the number of students suspended from class. Restorative justice is an approach that focuses on repairing the harm caused and addressing root problems through shared decision-making among the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community. Passage of the resolution “ends a policy that failed to keep our students learning or our streets safe,” said Board member Nury Martinez, who authored the resolution along with Board President Monica Garcia (Wall Street Journal).
Los Angeles’ decision was a milestone in a national push against zero tolerance discipline policies, and the California state legislature now is considering legislation to curb policies that attach inflexible, automatic punishments to particular infractions. Zero tolerance is based on the mistaken belief that students’ disruptive behaviors will be extinguished when students know that there is no way they can escape the punishment. A growing body of research shows that suspensions disproportionately impact students of color and special education students, undermine student learning, and push youth further along the school-to-prison pipeline.
A report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project showed that in 2009-10, 24.3 percent of black high school students were suspended, compared to 7 percent of white students. Furthermore, the suspensions escalated when race, gender and special education status intersected; for example, 36 percent of black male students with disabilities. The disparate impact of out-of-school suspensions has prompted federal investigations in dozens of school districts nationally.
Suspending students does little to correct their disruptive behavior, and it sets them further behind academically. “Suspensions are off the table at Garfield High School. I can’t teach a kid if he’s not in school,” said principal Jose Huerta (NPR). Since implementing Garfield’s new policy, designed to address students’ misbehavior without suspending them, suspensions fell from 638 in 2008-09 to one in the past three years, and the school’s graduation rate is higher than the district’s.
Suspensions, dropping out, and prison or parole comprise a trajectory that many call the school-to-prison pipeline. There’s a direct link between suspensions and a greater likelihood of dropping out of high school. “And, because of that, you’re three times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system,” said Maisie Chin, executive director of CADRE, a South Los Angeles parent-organizing group that campaigned on behalf of the LAUSD resolution (NPR).
“Willful defiance” has been especially troubling for parents, students and community organizations because it is such a subjective category. Without knowing the specific problems, it’s difficult to find remedies that will help the student, teacher and the whole class. “It’s so broad, it’s not useful,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Community Coalition president (Huffington Post).
In the legislature, Assembly Bill 420 would ban “willful defiance” as a category of suspension for elementary students. In higher grades, suspensions would only be permissible upon a third offense, and only when alternative methods had already been exhausted (EdSource Today).
But AB 420 is a long way from becoming law. Gov. Brown vetoed a similar bill last year. And while AB 420 is an important step forward, it is just a beginning. Alternatives to suspension require more attention from counselors and other support staff and programmatic changes by the schools. This will require new resources. Moreover, because suspensions or “willful defiance” has been shown to include racial bias, addressing that bias in and out of schools must be kept at the core of new policies.
Standardized Tests Don't Measure Education Quality
by UCLA IDEA
Week of May 6-10, 2013
Over 14 years ago, testing expert W. James Popham summarized what was, even then, “old news” about American policymakers’ love of standardized testing:
Educators are experiencing almost relentless pressure to show their effectiveness. Unfortunately, the chief indicator by which most communities judge a school staff's success is student performance on standardized achievement tests.
It’s a bitter irony that the same testing policies that have distracted the nation from fixing what’s wrong with our education systems are still being promoted. The medicine prescribed for ailing schools has helped make 21st century schools sicker, so we double the dose. In his piece for the 140,000-member ASCD, Popham went on to say,
Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon. Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is.
We have years of evidence about what educators and policymakers can and cannot honestly do with test results; but this evidence, typically, is not decisive in determining school testing policy. Those who advocate expanding the use and power of standardized tests continue to capture the attention of policy leaders.
In the face of severe, indisputable, and embarrassing criticism, some high-profile testing advocates have backtracked on their unqualified support for tests; however, they appear willing to sustain what many experts and education professionals say are inevitable inequalities, wrong judgments, and other harms.
For example, promising education reforms such as the Common Core State Standards are likely to carry the burden of test misuse. The purpose of the new standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories, is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help.” AFT President Randi Weingarten does not want testing to overwhelm Common Core before teachers have time and professional development to change curricula and adjust instruction (Education Week). Weingarten said, “These standards, which hold such potential to create deeper learning, are instead creating a serious backlash—as officials seek to make them count before they make them work.”
Even as some test advocates concede the serious shortcomings of the prevailing testing regime, they want schools to press on with the tests—just iron out the rough spots in order to preserve all the good that testing does or will do as soon as they get it right. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appears to be in this category. Last week, Duncan’s audience at the annual American Educational Research Association conference appreciated his strong criticism of how some schools were misusing standardized tests. For example, he alluded to a Florida case where some k-2 teachers have sued because they were evaluated based on grades of students they never taught and are already years ahead. However, Duncan lost the favor of many attendees when he said, “The solution to mediocre tests is not to abandon assessment” (EdSource Today).
That sleight of hand mischaracterized testing critics who strongly favor better, proven, and responsible assessments such as formative assessments that help students and teachers identify individual strengths and needs as well as inequities within the system (EdSource Today, Education Week). Rather, Duncan’s critics take issue with policies that require schools to use tests irresponsibly. Further, many of these tests and their uses are not just mediocre, they are actively harmful.
Duncan’s position echoed that which has followed recent testing scandals. For example, cheating at all levels of Atlanta Public Schools and an emerging Washington, D.C. scandal are widely interpreted as the acts of a few bad apples or weak oversight and regulation. However, these incidents expose a much deeper core problem. Attaching test scores to high-stakes decisions, including judgments of individual teachers’ competence, affects careers for teachers and learning opportunities for students. The temptation is powerful to falsify or cheat or teach to the test (EdSource Today). High-level administrators and high-profile politicians such as Duncan rarely dwell on the structural flaws that are inherent in fiercely competitive, score-driven American schooling—flaws that work in concert with unfairly distributed resources.
Hunger is Not an Option
by UCLA IDEA
Week of April 29-May 3, 2013
The United States has a staggeringly high rate of child poverty. It should come as no surprise, then, that many thousands of children are hungry as they try to focus on lessons. School-based breakfast programs meet some of that food need, but it’s not easy. Consider what’s taking place in Los Angeles Unified School District.
Until recently, breakfasts were offered before school at various locations on school campuses; however, these environments were a poor way to make sure that children received and then ate the food that was available. So, for the past two years, many Los Angeles schools have brought breakfast into classrooms for more than 200,000 students. Moving the food into classrooms at the start of the school day has increased the number of students eating breakfast in a structured environment. Participation in the breakfast program has grown from 29 percent to 89 percent.
By many accounts, the program has been a success (Los Angeles Times). There is anecdotal evidence tying it to higher attendance and lower tardiness rates. Earlier this year, Shadette Loper, a first-grade teacher in South Los Angeles said, “Before, they would complain about headaches or ask, 'Is it time for lunch?’ Now you're seeing everyone has an opportunity to eat before they start the school day." And the program appears to be popular with many parents. Speaking out for the breakfast program that serves her two sons at Hoover Elementary, Janet Torres said, “This program is really important for the kids to eat and open their minds.”
But, a recent survey, performed by United Teachers Los Angeles, revealed some problems with program implementation that hadn’t been anticipated (except, perhaps, by the teachers).
About half of the respondents said they saw more sanitation issues and pests. Some have said that students still ignored food or threw it away just as they did when food was distributed outside. Plus, a majority said it took time out of the instructional day, and that they’d prefer the program to take place in the cafeteria instead of classrooms (Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times).
No one is calling for students not to be fed. “Classroom lessons are important, but we cannot ignore the social and economic realities that impact children’s learning,” said Cournti Pugh, SEIU Local 99 executive director (Daily News). The union represents cafeteria workers and other classified employees and notes that elimination of the program would mean the loss of 900 jobs. Parents have protested that some structure is necessary for students, otherwise it’s predictable that students will show up late or prefer to spend their time playing instead of eating (KPCC, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Times).
The solution seems to be to find methods (instruction, among them) and resources to supervise students so they can take advantage of nutritious school meals. That objective is certainly within the charge of what schools and society ought to find important and be able to accomplish.
Superintendent John Deasy has removed this fledgling but popular program from his budget, and has turned the issue over to the school board to vote on its future. The vote is scheduled for May 14, but the board majority seems interested in keeping the program—although with some fixes (KPCC).
There are two very important goals here that should not be competing with each other. We want policies that ensure more and better nutrition. We also want to ensure that students have full instructional programs. As this issue plays out, it highlights the importance of schools as places that are entrusted with a child’s full well-being.
The administration and board should look to other models—“community schools,” for example—to figure out how to bring two good things to children (food and knowledge) instead of neglecting one, the other, or both. By providing more resources, community schools call upon members of the community to collaborate and solve problems of education, nutrition, health care, and more. If the status quo doesn’t allow us to feed and teach children, then it’s up to us to change and learn how.
Linked Learning: A Guide to Making High School Work
by UCLA IDEA
Week of April 22-26, 2013
To stem the tide of high school dropouts and a lack of college and career preparedness among graduates, a growing number of schools and districts across the state are turning to the promising practices and opportunities of Linked Learning.
Linked Learning, delivered through widely varied “pathways,” blends rigorous academics, a challenging career-based core, an opportunity for students to apply learning in real-world contexts, and individual support services. The practice is not uniform—pathways may vary in their theme or career focus, how they organize coursework, the extent to how much time students spend on and off campus, etc.—yet it can be equally successful, in a wide range of settings, for all students.
Linked Learning is in the process of expanding statewide. The California Department of Education identified 63 districts and county offices of education that will pilot programs beginning this fall (EdSource Today). As such, it is a key moment to identify many of the shared and effective strategies employed by schools and districts implementing the approach.
Linked Learning: A Guide to Making High School Work, along with an accompanying DVD, highlights the experiences—both the struggles and successes—of sites that have committed to the hard work of transforming the high school experience for students by using the Linked Learning approach. Based on a UCLA IDEA study of 10 high school sites across California, this guidebook provides educators, policymakers and stakeholders interested in revamping their school communities a solid launching point. The guidebook does not offer hard-set rules or checklists for implementing Linked Learning; rather, it presents six conditions that are strongly associated with successful Linked Learning pathways. The following conditions provided the foundation that allowed Linked Learning to take root and transform high schools:
1. A Commitment to Equity: Each participating pathway was guided by a commitment to prepare all students for college and career. Before opening their doors, sites spent considerable amount of time establishing an equity-based purpose, and planning and designing a program around it. Pathways used desired student outcomes to serve as a school’s starting point and moved to shape the curriculum and structures to support this equity-based purpose.
2. Connecting Linked Learning Components: Linked Learning pathways work to integrate disparate pieces of the curriculum into a more coherent whole. A rigorous academic core, for example, that fails to connect to the pathway’s technical core or to real-world experiences re-creates the fragmentation seen at the traditional high school. Pathways often rely on overarching industry sector themes to integrate the curriculum.
3. A Culture of Care and Respect: Pathways use various strategies to establish caring and supporting relationships between students, teachers, and other adults that help teachers and school leadership identify students’ existing and developing needs. By personalizing relationships, the school communicates its high expectations and high value on a caring culture—emphasizing civic as well as academic and workplace preparedness.
4. Grounding in the Real World: Participating sites established relationships with individuals, businesses, institutions, and organizations situated in the world outside of school. Expanding the learning community to include a wide range of partners allows outside agencies to invest in students and the school community, and acknowledges the role of multiple stakeholders in the learning, growth, and development of young people.
5. An Environment that Works for Adults: Teacher enthusiasm is one of the most impressive features of Linked Learning. Linked Learning sites created environments that work well for adults as well as students by shifting the way schools operate and rethinking traditional adult relationships. Distributed leadership, collaboration, and support are common strategies employed by pathways to create professional and creative atmospheres.
6. Redefining Success: Participating Linked Learning sites use multiple means to measure their students’ success and to judge their own progress in meeting established goals. The sites studied did not define success solely on mandated standardized-test scores, but by students’ preparedness for the adult world. Understanding success in this way requires new and authentic assessment tools that go beyond test scores and course completion to capture college and career readiness, students’ civic orientations, and eagerness for life-long learning.
While Linked Learning: A Guide to Making High School Work is based on the research findings of 10 unique schools implementing the approach, the implications extend well beyond the school level. The successes highlighted are meant to serve as a springboard to effect system-wide change. Indeed, earnest efforts to expand Linked Learning must pay attention to the on-going classroom and school practices, principles, beliefs, and norms that undergird the approach—the six conditions described in this report.
It is a daunting task to reform high schools. Those hard efforts are reflected within the 10 participating sites. None of them emerged overnight as successful Linked Learning pathways. They have worked steadily over a number of years to develop an engaging curriculum, a culture of care, support and collaboration, and committed partnerships. But they have gained the growing support of their communities and districts, which recognize Linked Learning as a means to achieving systemic change.
A Legacy of Fighting for Rights
by UCLA IDA
Week of April 15-19, 2013
Sal Castro, a longtime Chicano activist and Los Angeles Unified teacher, died Monday. He was 79 (Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Fox News Latino).
Castro taught social studies at Lincoln High School in the late 1960s, and was a pivotal figure in the 1968 “blowouts,” where thousands of students from East Los Angeles marched in protest of over-crowded classrooms, discrimination, and a lack of access to quality education. The walkouts spread to 15 schools over several days. Castro was arrested and charged with 15 counts of state and federal conspiracy—charges that were dropped in 1972.
“Sal Castro held a mirror up to our district that showed the need for a youths’ rights agenda more than 45 years ago,” said John Deasy, LAUSD superintendent (LA Weekly). Of course, with hindsight it’s easy to praise a movement’s social justice goals while, perhaps, slighting the intelligence and personal risks shown by movement leaders in defying entrenched systems and those who defend the status quo.
At the time, many Mexican-American students faced discrimination inside their schools as well as in their communities. For example, they might be punished for speaking Spanish in classrooms. Often, they were funneled onto menial career tracks instead of college-preparatory courses. In East Los Angeles schools, which had majority Mexican-American student populations, dropout rates were about 60 percent. Before the “blowouts,” Castro encouraged students to draw up a list of demands that were presented to the school board: “What emerged was a list of thirty-six demands that highlighted material deficiencies (dilapidated buildings, overcrowded classes, too few counselors) and the students’ desire for a stronger community voice in shaping their education.”1
As we remember Castro’s life and legacy, it’s important to reflect on those particular 36 conditions—where we have seen progress and where we haven’t. We should also keep in mind that “progress” in addressing the multiple forms of school discrimination does not mean that inequality and discrimination disappear. For example, as recently as 2004—36 years after the “blowouts” and several generations of school children later—the Williams v. California lawsuit was settled to address persistent schooling inequalities that “shock the conscience.” And many of those conditions remain. Neither the “blowouts” nor Williams diminished the need for today’s continuing youth and community organizing and activism, which are as much Castro’s real legacy as the demands made decades ago. Those demands are still relevant though their shape and expression might change.
“No student or teacher will be reprimanded or suspended for participating in any efforts which are executed for the purpose of improving or furthering the educational quality in our schools.”
Today, shutting down schools or “reconstituting” faculties can be an effective strategy to discipline, remove, or isolate outspoken teachers and activist parents and students who organize for social and educational justice.
“Bilingual-Bi-cultural education will be compulsory for Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles City School System where there is a majority of Mexican-American students. … In-service education programs will be instituted immediately for all staff in order to teach them the Spanish language and increase their understanding of the history, traditions, and contributions of the Mexican culture.”
Today, underserved communities are still fighting for schools that provide academically rigorous, culturally relevant courses. Educators lack career-long professional-development opportunities to keep pace with the school and societal demands placed on the state’s poorest students, English learners, and other most at-risk populations.
Sal Castro’s legacy lives on in the tangible benefits wrought by his activism, but it is also found in the organizing and civic engagement of education activists who follow in his tradition.
1 Rogers, J., & Morrell, E. (2011). "A force to be reckoned with": The campaign for college access in Los Angeles. In M. Orr and J. Rogers (Eds.), Public engagement for public education: Joining forces to revitalize democracy and equalize schools (pp. 227-249). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Not going to say, 'We told you so,' but ...
by UCLA IDEA
Week of April 8-12, 2013
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently cautioned in the Washington Post against using standardized test scores as the primary way of gauging teaching and learning (Education Week, Education Week, School Finance 101).
Briefly, these are some of Gates’ newly expressed concerns about the use of testing. Gates worries that schools are over-saturated with high-stakes testing that leads to harmful practices, inefficiencies, and inane classroom experiences like simplified learning goals and rote learning. He recognizes that schools have used tests to unfairly and narrowly evaluate teachers, thus limiting the range and potential of their professional contributions and growth. (For example, value-added measures, or VAM, can create competitive teaching environments that undermine collaboration and far outweigh other important reform metrics and methods, like student surveys, classroom observations, teacher collaboration, and leadership.) Gates calls for greater attention on improving teaching and learning through collaboration, trust and professional development for teachers.
This is a remarkable piece of reflection, especially given the emphasis that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had placed earlier on value-added measures as a strategy to drive improvement and to make teacher evaluation the key lever for change. It is hard to overstate the impact of the Gates Foundation’s efforts in this area. As the world’s major philanthropic power, it has extraordinary influence over school systems, local schools, and on government offices including the White House.
The Los Angeles Times was one of the many media outlets to comment on Gates’ backtracking on his position on testing. A Times editorial decried the rush-to-reform approaches, generally, but clearly had standardized testing in mind when writing, “When philanthropists have potentially useful ideas about education, they should by all means try them out, establish pilot programs, put their money where their mouths are. But before government officials incorporate those ideas into policy, they must study them carefully and make sure that what sounds reasonable in theory works in practice.”
Noticeably absent in the Times’ critique was its own role in the VAM frenzy. In 2010, the Times was the first major newspaper to publicly release test score data on individual teachers and rank their effectiveness. The Times vigorously defended both the evaluation methodology (though conceding it hadn’t been perfected) and the paper’s role in amplifying the consequences of the policy. Other media outlets followed. In the rush to publicize individual teachers’ value-added rankings, the Times and other papers failed to heed experts’ concerns about invalid and unreliable methodologies and negative consequences for the teaching profession (Huffington Post, Education Week).
In a closely related case, the New York Times reported on powerful reformers failing to heed the cautions of thoughtful and experienced education and testing experts. Referring to Texas, it recently reported, “In this state that spawned test-based accountability … lawmakers are now considering a reversal that would cut back … standardized testing.” The article also identifies long-known limits to using tests as educational tools or as policy levers to influence education improvement.
We can hope that we are seeing a small trend for highly influential people (e.g., philanthropies, media, governments at all levels) to think more carefully about standardized testing. And while they're at it, they might save some space for reflecting on other reform favorites (school takeovers, online learning, etc.) that are sure to disappoint if these leaders’ enthusiasm crosses the line to hubris.
'If You Ain't Cheating, You Ain't Trying'?
by UCLA IDEA
Week of April 1-5, 2013
This sports adage, attributable to multiple sources, seems to excuse cheating as an admirable expression of one’s urge to win in competition. Evidently, school superintendents and other school personnel are as susceptible as sports heroes and lots of others who function in environments where winning delivers the rewards and rules the day. It’s in this competitive vein that our nation’s signature education program is called “Race to the Top,” not an admittedly less catchy, “Schools Must Teach Every Child Well.”
A months-long investigation into one of the nation’s largest test-cheating scandals culminated with a steady stream of almost three dozen educators surrendering themselves to authorities this week. Indictments came down against Atlanta Public Schools former Superintendent Beverly Hall, along with 34 other administrators, specialists, coordinators and teachers, on multiple counts of attempting to falsify students’ standardized test scores, including racketeering, fraud, and making false statements (Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic).
Atlanta’s cheating is believed to have dated back to 2001. Much of the investigation has focused on Hall’s heavy push to increase test scores at any cost. “Not only were the children deprived, a lot of teachers were forced into cheating, forced into criminal acts,” said Michael Bowers, former Georgia attorney general who investigated. “Now, granted, they did wrong, but a lot them did this to protect jobs” (CNN).
This is not the first test cheating scandal, and it may not even be the largest or most comprehensive (considering we only know the extent of Atlanta’s problems after the governor ordered an independent investigation). According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), cheating has been documented in 37 states and the District of Columbia. FairTest also noted a spectrum of ways that adults cheat on high-stakes tests, from blatantly giving answers to teaching to the test.
Atlanta provides an illustrative example of how a high-stakes testing culture distorts and then replaces an educational culture—what happens when incentives for high scores replace incentives for learning. In Atlanta, as elsewhere, those scoring incentives can lead to criminal fraud, gaming, and negligent representation.
Criminally fraudulent actions among adults include having students erase and fix mistakes, changing students’ answers after the test, telling students the right answers, or even letting other students take exams.
Gaming involves manipulating the schooling circumstances so the tests measure something other than what they are intended to measure—namely what students have actually learned. It could include teaching “test-taking skills,” such as reminding students to “fill in all the blank answers with choice ‘C’ before you hand in your answer sheet.” Sometimes schools encourage likely low-scorers to stay home on the day of the exam; or they might discourage special education or English learner students from attending the school. A common practice is to concentrate resources on “bubble” kids—students who are scoring just below “proficient”—while other students with higher or lower scores get less attention.
Negligent representation is when test scores are purported to measure something beyond the narrow capabilities of the test. For example, when students, teachers, or whole schools are credited as being successes or failures based on small score differences on narrowly constructed tests.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a joint statement with the head of Georgia’s teacher union, “standardized tests have a role in accountability, but today they dominate everything else and too often don’t even correlate to what students need to know to succeed” (Huffington Post).
The problem, as Weingarten writes, is not that test scores are not indicators of some level of learning; it’s that they are not indicators of everything. Standardized tests in math and English language arts offer little insight on students’ knowledge of science or social studies, let alone their capacity to solve novel and complex problems or to express themselves in persuasive and original ways. Nor do they tell us all we need to know about how well prepared students are for college or career. For this, we need multiple indicators of student learning.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s bill (SB 1458), which caps the use of standardized test scores at 60 percent of a school’s API score is a move in the right direction. There are on-going conversations in Sacramento about how to allocate the remainder, including the use of graduation rates. It will also be important to ensure that teachers and others have not only the data on how students perform, but also the resources and time to make use of the data for better instruction.
A broad assessment system that doesn’t favor single-dimension, high-stakes testing is a safeguard against fraud, gaming and misrepresentation. Such subversions of instruction and learning undermine the legitimacy of public education particularly for at-risk youth. Prosecuting fraud sends a powerful message to avoid getting caught at fraud, but it alone does not respond to flawed systems of student assessment or using tests to leverage education improvement.
Pink + Red = Equality
Week of March 25-April 1, 2013
For the first time in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the issue of same-sex marriage. Last week, the justices heard arguments for and against California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, which withholds federal benefits from gay couples.
The court’s deliberations take place against a backdrop of rapidly changing social attitudes on liberty, equality, fairness and inclusivity. All national polls conducted this year point to greater support for same-sex marriage than opposition to it (New York Times). In the last 10 years, viewpoints have shifted among multiple demographic groups.
The considerable—though still unfulfilled—success of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community’s quest for civil rights evokes admiration and even astonishes many progressive Americans in their 40s and older. How did this apparent trajectory toward social justice happen before our eyes? Are there lessons to be learned for promoting other progressive social change? Do the lessons apply to those who fight for educational justice? We offer the following “conditions” among many others that have shifted an LGBT cause to become a cause for all Americans.
Fighting on Multiple Fronts Matters. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s opinion, expected in June, change has already happened—otherwise we wouldn’t see the highest court even touch this still-controversial and formerly taboo issue. A social movement has reached families, communities, local governments, states, and houses of worship. No single, concentrated power, organization, or funder is responsible for equitable same-sex marriage becoming a national policy debate. The fight has occurred in many different venues, and has been moved along by the democratizing power of social media. Just how many times did you see the above image this past week on Twitter and Facebook? (TIME)
Seizing Language Matters (even if media professionals didn’t think of it). Responding to DOMA attorney Paul Clement, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “There’s two kinds of marriage, there’s full marriage and then there’s sort of skim milk marriage” (Huffington Post). This down-to-earth metaphor introduced a human element not captured in abstract language and principles such as “equality,” “constitutionality,” or “second-class citizenship.” Justice Ginsberg’s language combined personal fulfillment with a righteous cause.
Courts Matter (but only so much). Litigation has played an important role in this movement, as it has in so many other social movements. The courts have been a powerful site for advancing the rights and freedoms of the LGBT community. Simply by taking up these two cases, the Supreme Court has focused public attention on the issue of marriage equality. And, the forthcoming decisions from the high court may well establish new protections. Yet, a ground-shaking decision is unlikely, as the justices have signaled their reluctance to get out in front of the political process. The lesson of this and other movements is that litigation strategies are most potent when combined with sustained grassroots mobilization and political advocacy.
Relationships Matter. In some respects the quest for LGBT rights has an advantage over fights for civil rights by other groups. Starting with small numbers of brave gays and lesbians—including high-profile individuals who “came out,” more Americans understood that to be gay or lesbian knows no boundaries of social class, families, religious congregations, race, education, work groups, civic engagement, or other categories that are historically used to love or despise others. It’s harder to argue for exclusion when it affects someone close to you.
On the other hand, whereas sexual orientation cuts across all lines of race, wealth, geography, and so on, educational inequality does not. It’s possible for a well-off or middle class family to have absolutely no personal or social contact with a very poor family or colleague; in fact, with our highly segregated neighborhoods and schools, being well off is often defined by not living near or going to school with children who are poor
Schools are often seen as the one social institution where Americans can participate together to learn and to form a more tight-knit social fabric. Creating schools where diverse students can establish relationships with one another must be a vital part of an educational justice agenda. But schools can’t shoulder that entire enterprise. We also need a public sphere and public speech that models inclusivity so that schools can both lead and follow. And this suggests why educational justice advocates must create conditions that place young people impacted by educational inequality in relationship with powerful (and otherwise insular) stakeholders. As we have seen last week, through such relationships, a better future is possible.
March Madness and June Sadness
by UCLA IDEA
Week of March 18-22, 2013
For a couple of weeks in March, no education-related activity will gather more attention than basketball. While watching TV and rooting for our bracket selections, it’s worth giving a moment’s consideration to an important aspect of college basketball—namely, college (particularly, graduation). Millions of younger youth will be watching the games as ersatz first-round picks, but will they be imagining themselves as academic successes—in college or high school?
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida released its annual study comparing graduation rates among the student athletes in the tournament, with particular emphasis on African Americans (Colorlines). And, in California, Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-Rialto) introduced a bill last week designed to improve the graduation rates among student athletes, by requiring public universities to guarantee scholarships for five years, among other things (Riverside Press-Enterprise).
Sacramento policymakers have also been discussing how to consider graduation rates with or alongside the Academic Performance Index scores (EdSource Today). The public pays lots of attention to students’ year-by-year test scores but the more important metric might be whether students actually graduate.
Forty years ago, the United States led much of the world in high school and college graduation rates, but since then we keep tumbling. According to Henry Levin and Cecelia Rouse, “In 1970, the United States had the world’s highest rate of high school and college graduation. Today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion, as other countries surpassed us in the quality of their primary and secondary education” (New York Times).
Graduation pays off. The problem is that thinking about graduation doesn’t get the blood flowing quite like a close fourth quarter in the Elite Eight. The following stats and conclusions might sound boring to an 11th grader, but young and old Americans must find their relevance to personal and public lives: Studies show that for every dollar invested in higher education, there is a return of $1.45 to $3.55 (New York Times). Graduates experience higher wages, lower unemployment, and an increased ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The benefits trickle down to the larger society and include higher tax revenues, lower incarceration rates, better public health, and more civic participation.
So will the players in March be the graduates in June? March Madness is a great time for viewers to have fantasies about being a winner, associating with a superior school (Go Bruins!), feeling like a superior athlete, receiving adulation from fans, moving to the “next level” (NBA), and so on. But college graduation has to be more than a fantasy. It needs to be real and certain both for the athletes themselves and for the youngest fans that watch.
Image source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
by UCLA IDEA
Week of March 11-15, 2013
in·fra·struc·ture n. 1. An underlying base or foundation especially for an organization or system. 2. The basic facilities, services, and installations ...
The “underlying base” and “basic facilities” of America’s schools are crumbling. According to State of our Schools, released by the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, the disrepair of America’s schools will take $270 billion to return elementary and secondary school buildings to their original conditions, and $542 billion to get them up to date.
The Green Schools report, the first in almost 20 years on the conditions of school facilities, concluded that there’s a huge need to modernize buildings for student and teacher health, safety and educational performance (Contra Costa Times, American Public Media, Business Insider). Even with this report, it’s hard to know the full extent of the problem because there has not been a large, comprehensive survey of school facilities since the first Clinton administration. However, when a closer look is taken, serious problems quickly appear. It doesn’t take much probing to turn up examples of students learning in classrooms with leaky roofs, no air conditioning or heating, broken pavement, infestations and more (Los Angeles Times, California Watch).
“Schools are the backbone of our communities, and it is unacceptable that we would allow any of our children to show up in classrooms that compromise their ability to learn. We must do more,” said Rick Fedrizzi of the U.S. Green Building Council (PR Newswire).
So why do facilities matter? According to Maureen Berner, who has studied student learning in buildings deemed to be in poor condition, “Kids who study in a rotten environment where the toilets don’t function and windows are broken and the paint is peeling on the walls are going to do worse” (APM).
Just as important, the quality of school facilities communicates to students how the state values different groups of people. Reflecting on the dilapidated conditions in her school a few years ago, a California student told researchers:
It make you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs and you see rats in the buildings, the bathrooms is nasty, you got to pay. … And that just makes me feel real less about myself because it’s like the State don’t care about public schools. If I have to sit there and stand in the class, they can’t care about me.
The State of our Schools report recommends more information-gathering. This is a good first step. California and other states need better data to identify and publicize the most pressing facilities needs. “When we talk about a quality education, we talk about the ‘who’ and the ‘what’—teachers and curriculum—but we don’t talk about the ‘where.’ That needs to change,” said Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools (Contra Costa Times).
Of course, school facilities are just one of the weak links in a chain of public responsibilities. Schools are joined by other infrastructure systems, including transportation, energy and healthcare. Taking a broader perspective we can look beyond counting the amount of vulnerable highway bridges, electricity blackouts, children lacking preventative medicine, or vermin crawling and ceiling tiles falling in schools. These are not competing interests, but each is a piece of an unconscionably wasteful neglect of the nation’s general welfare. Infrastructure, whether it’s highways or schools, must be made robust, sufficient, and, as underscored by the new report, energy efficient.
Can this Marriage Succeed?
by UCLA IDEA
For Teachers, March is Pink Slip Month
by UCLA IDEA
Week of Feb. 25-March 1, 2013
The prospect of receiving a pink slip has been a painful and nasty California school-employment ritual for decades. Receiving a notice that you are not assured of a teaching assignment after June is a gut-wrenching experience that affects entire faculties. It doesn’t matter if you are secure in your years of employment and you don’t personally receive the pink slip; just sharing the disappointment of your valued colleagues saps energy and casts a pall over the whole teaching experience. If you are a school administrator, good luck trying to plan for next year—trying to develop that “master schedule”—trying to encourage and build the skills of promising young teachers who have been told not to count on a job next semester.
The pain and uncertainty accompanying pink slips becomes more likely today, March 1, when 5 percent across-the-board federal program cuts are triggered by sequestration (EdSource Today, Huffington Post, NPR, Education Week). For California’s federally funded education programs, sequestration could mean a loss of $262 million, including $91 million for Title I spending, $72 million for special education, and $49 million for Head Start (CDE, NEA, EdSource Today). Many California districts faced with cuts to these programs likely will need to “protect” themselves by sending out pink slips on March 15.
Sadly, after some weeks of good news about California schools including promising economic conditions, the passage of Proposition 30, and Gov. Brown’s push for a funding formula that distributes resources based on students’ needs, school districts’ attentions now turn to teacher layoffs, program cuts, and more crowded classrooms. “These cuts come at a time when California is just beginning a recovery from state-level cuts of over $20 billion of education spending over the last five years,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
Most education cuts will not be felt overnight. Rather, sequestration casts a dark shadow over the optimism and enthusiasm of the entire education enterprise. Reform? No, let’s return to deciding what gets cut. According to Torlakson, “the cuts would come at a crucial time in a student’s life. Many of these students may never make up the lost ground.”
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