Education Reform and Civil Rights

Here’s Sandra Alberti, Director of Math and Science Education at the NJ DOE. in NJ Spotlight:
We have this thing called Algebra I that exists in very different forms, even within the same school.
That's her admirably candid response to the results of pilot tests of Algebra I and Biology, which demonstrates the gap in proficiency between poor and wealthy students. “On the biology test, just a quarter of the students in the poorest districts were proficient, compared with more than 80 percent in the wealthiest.” For Algebra I, “75 percent of students in the poorest districts were deemed “below basic,” while that number was 11 percent in the richest districts.”

In other words, 75% of NJ’s poor students failed both the biology test and the algebra test while only 20% of NJ’s wealthy students failed biology and 11% failed algebra. Odds are high, based on Alberti’s comment, that the vast majority of the poor students passed their coursework in spite of lack of proficiency.

This is old news. Here’s Derrell Bradford of E3 in the Star-Ledger in April 2009:
We have argued that New Jersey has two education systems. One you attend if you are white and live in an affluent suburb, and one you attend if you are poor, minority, and live in a city. The DOE report frames this differently. There is one system you attend where the classes are what they say they are, the teachers understand the subject, and students actually pass the classes.

And there is one…where the name of a course is just "a name." Where, as Assistant Commissioner Jay Doolan describes, schools can "call a course anything they want." One where students "take" and "pass" college prep classes despite having learned nothing. And one where a teacher-quality vacuum likely staffs these classes with adults who know little more than the students.
Here’s the weird part. You would think that advocates for kids who are stuck in the poor, minority, urban school system – the ones where kids pass coursework yet fail basic proficiency exams -- would be panting for substantive change. But Gordon MacInnes, a fellow at The Century Foundation and former Assistant Commissioner of Abbott Implementation for the DOE from 2002-2007, insists in an editorial also in NJ Spotlight that these test results don’t reveal a problem with instruction or oversight or lack of course standardization. Instead, in direct opposition to current DOE officials like Alberti who point to lack of consistency of academic expectations among our 591 school districts, MacInness says that “the problem is concentrated poverty.”

No disrespect intended, but duh. Of course concentrated poverty is a huge problem. Everyone knows this. But then somehow MacInness moves from that truism to an attack of the Obama Administration’s School Improvement Grants (SIG), which target the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools for extreme make-overs. (New Jersey gets $66,672,258. Here’s a list of our eligible schools.) Under SIG, schools have a choice of four plans: turnaround (replace the principal and rehire no more than ½ the teachers); restart (reopen the school as a charter or under an education management organization); school closure (close the school altogether and send the kids to a better school); or transformational (replace the principal, keep the teachers, and institute major curriculum and professional development reform, extend learning time, etc.)

MacInness regards all these makeovers as badly flawed. There’s too much authority granted to the new principal, he says, too much “frenetic activity,” not enough time devoted to differentiating effective and ineffective teachers. Then he remarks that the other big problem is that “when a district applied for a SIG Grant in late April, it had already gone through the complicated process of evaluating (with an eye to possible litigation) each teacher.”

“Eye to litigation.” The issue is not improving teacher quality in poor urban districts. The issue is which teachers can be removed without provoking lawsuits.

(For more on this, see Bruce Baker in “Pondering Legal Implications of Value-Added Teacher Evaluation,” especially his discussion of how school reform plans (like SIG) will lead to more teachers in poor districts being fired than in wealthy districts, which means that more Black teachers (who tend to teach in poor districts) will be fired than White teachers, which means that dismissals will be “racially disparate” and violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

We’ve moved from ameliorating the harsh effects of poverty on student achievement, to criticism of federal education reform efforts like SIG, to protecting teacher jobs, specifically minority teachers. How did we get to a point where primary advocates for poor urban kids in Jersey -- like Mr. MacInness -- ignore lack of student achievement in order to protect jobs? Do founding Abbott reformers regard students or teachers as their primary plaintiffs?

The assumption that job dismissals will be "racially disparate" may speak more to lack of faith in and understanding of value-added teacher evaluations. Or maybe we need to start talking about integrating staff as much as we worry about segregating students by economic class and color. County-wide staffing, anyone?

Labels: ,