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Cops, teachers and reform: same issues, different allies.

Ferguson plastic tags

Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty, Guardian

Awhile back, I heard a BBC report on “Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?”  and I was struck by the similar issues when we’re talking about cops, teachers and reform.

In both cases, we’re dealing with public employees who:

  • tend to be mostly white, middle-class and living outside of the communities they serve;
  • raised in a media culture that views black people as often dangerous and criminal;
  • see their job as controlling, “taming” and/or teaching black youth that many of them seem to fear;
  • represented by powerful unions who make it nearly impossible to dismiss low-performers or  “bad apples” no matter how ill-suited they may be for the job.

I mean, heck, given all this, what could possibly go wrong when people of color deal with their police or schools?

Anyhow, here are the BBC’s four main points on police violence followed by my comparison to what’s happening in education.

1) Ferguson and Baltimore are not isolated incidences. 

On MappingPoliceViolence.org there’s a map with a red, glowing dot for each of the 304 fatal police shootings of black people in 2014. If you click on the link, it looks like much of the country is on fire. If you mapped out districts where children of color were failing en masse, you’d see the same thing.

2) Many police have an implicit bias against blacks, although in fairness, it’s not just cops, it’s our whole culture. Computer-simulated studies show people are far quicker to shoot an unarmed black men than unarmed white man. And study after study shows that schools are far more likely to suspend black boys than white boys as well as refer them to special education .

3) Police have created a “warrior” police culture which is willing to maim or kill innocent civilians rather than risk injury to a single officer.

This is both fascinating and harrowing.  Seth Stoughton, a former cop-turned-University of South Carolina law professor, explained to the BBC how police culture has become even more extreme than the military when it comes to tolerating civilian casualties.

“”When the military is designing a mission, they have in mind the fact that they’re going to lose soldiers, “ Stoughton says. “The police profession has strongly repudiated that notion. No officer fatalities are acceptable.”

Instead, Stoughton says, police now see a high civilian death as an acceptable price to pay for police safety although I’d add the caveat….as long as those civilians are people of color. (Witness the different way police responded to the Baltimore protests vs. the white biker shoot-out in Waco.)

On the education front, we see a similar dynamic except since teaching is overwhelmingly female, the culture is more Besieged Martry  than “warrior. ” But if you add up implicit bias + Besieged Martyr culture  + powerful unions who make it nearly impossible to dismiss anyone for poor performance, you get school districts where high black failure rates are an acceptable price to pay to insure sure no teachers lose their jobs.

As with police shootings, the demise of children of color in the classroom has been going on for so long that most white people have basically normalized it. Yet if police were  killing unarmed white suburban kids at the rate they kill urban black ones, we’d have demanded a wholesale re-working of policing in this country. Just as if white boys were failing at the same rate as black boys, we’d have already remade our schools to work better for them.

So we’re looking at similar issues although they tend to attract very different political allies. Politicans are mostly loathe to criticize either group. Republicans/conservatives will defend the police over teachers.  Democrats/liberals  are more prone to defend teachers over the police.

4) “We have to fix the wider social problems first.”  The BBC’s last point came from Charles Ramsey, who heads both the Philadelphia Police Department and Obama’s new Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and said. “”We live in a society where everybody wants to point fingers, but we have a lot of deeply-rooted societal problems: poverty, education, poor housing stock. We’ve got to deal with the issue of extreme poverty.”

Yep. We hear the same thing about the equity gap in education.  As a progressive ed reformer, I agree with Charles Ramsey: I think poverty and poor housing and the rest are all huge issues and we need to make serious public investments in these areas. However, I do take issue with that little word: “first”.

Because we need to fix poverty AND we need to change our police and education systems.  We don’t have to choose. We don’t have to fix them in a chronological order. If Black Lives Matter, they matter in both the street and the classroom. So it would be nice if both Republicans and Democrats—and their various allies– would stop treating them as entirely separate issues.  As a Democrat, I’m especially interested in Democrats getting this right.

—–Lynnell Mickelsen, May 29, 2015

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Why the opt-out movement targets affluent white parents

anxious white parents

photo credit:blog.youmeeting.me

In response to my Six Thoughts About The Opt-Out Movement and Beth Hawkins’ earlier piece at Minnpost Test Anxiety: Is it the kids or the teachers who are driving drop-outs? , a few people have wondered why teachers at the city’s best-performing high school (well, at least for white kids) would urge affluent white parents to opt their kids out of standardized tests?

I mean, aren’t these are the very students whose high test scores would make both the teachers and Minneapolis’ Southwest High School look good? So doesn’t this show that these teachers are brave and altruistic to go against their own self-interest here?

Great questions. But I think we need to look at the larger chess game,  Here are my five theories on why organizers for opting-out focus on affluent white families.

1) Affluent white parents have the most political power. So if your goal is to dump the data, you need to first discredit the tests with this key demographic by convincing them that these tests are bad, immoral and destructive to their own children .

2) If enough powerful white parents believe tests are harmful to white children, they’ll assume it’s the same for black and brown kids too. Which gives them one more reason to shrug off data about the achievement gap and keep the status quo intact.

3) Affluent white parents tend to be an oddly anxious bunch, convinced that their brilliant, creative children are extremely fragile creatures whose exceptional childhoods can be destroyed by an unkind word, a stressful bubble test, non-organic lettuce, I mean, the list goes on and on and on.  So if you want to make standardized tests into a new bogeyman, this is a great demographic to target.

4) Affluent white parents rarely worry that their kids may be two or three grade levels behind in reading or math because white kids tend to do very well in our traditional system which was designed for white people, by white people and employs mostly white people. So if you’re confident that your kids are academically on track, opting of the state tests isn’t a big deal.

5) Affluent white parents are rarely asked to be accountable for receiving state benefits—-like $14,000 a year K-12 education.  Accountability is for low-income people. Opting out is for affluent people.

You add these five factors up and you have a very white, mostly affluent opt-out movement.

In contrast, parents of color know their kids are heading into a hostile world where the odds are against them; so fragility is not an asset that tends to be coddled or nurtured. In general, I find affluent white parents want their children protected; black and brown parents want their children prepared.

Parents of color are acutely aware that the margin of error for their children is far slimmer than for whites. George W. Bush could be an aimless C-student, go to Yale, be alcoholic until age 40 and still be president.  Trust me, neither Barak Obama nor any other person of color, is usually given this kind of  extended latitude and forgiveness.

Instead, there’s a well-built pipeline to prison for kids of color who fall behind. Which is why standardized tests—and system accountability–still matter.

Should we make them better? You bet. Should we stop over-testing, over-prepping?  Of course. But white people opt-outing are living in a very privileged world and once again, it’s showing.

—–Lynnell Mickelsen

(originally posted March 25, 2015.  Edited for brevity and clarity, March 26th.)

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Six thoughts about the opt-out movement

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True story:

Last week, the 16-year-old daughter of friends came home from a Minneapolis public school with a form that would allow her to opt out of the upcoming state standardized test.

According to the girl, her 10th-grade English teacher had handed out the forms to everyone in class and had urged them to get their parents to sign it. The teacher said that if enough students opted out of the Minnesota Comprehensive Exams, eventually the state would stop giving them. He also said he’d conduct regular classes for everyone opting out, leaving the impression that those who took the test would fall behind.

“Please,” the girl pleaded, “Everyone else is opting out.”

My friend said no. He thinks the state should annually assess how students are doing. So his daughter appealed to his wife, who also said no. Three hours of high drama, tears and anxiety ensued, after which the mom caved in and signed.

So that’s the little tale behind one opt-out family. Six quick points:

1)I don’t blame the 16-year-old. Who wouldn’t want to opt out of a long standardized test — especially when your own teacher urges you to skip it and implies that you’ll fall behind in class if you don’t?

2)I don’t blame the mom, either, because honestly, unless you’ve been besieged for hours by a teenage daughter, you really can’t judge. Teens in full meltdown make Guantanamo interrogators look like amateurs. I’m surprised this mom held out for three full hours.

3)I do blame this teacher and others who urge their students to opt out. Can we be real here? Much of this recent movement has been organized and funded by the teachers unions, who seem to have a clear goal in mind. Namely, dumping the evidence.

Ever since passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, the feds and the state have required annual testing in grades three through eight and then once during high school. The results show how our schools are horribly failing black and brown children who now make up the majority in many of our cities. Alas, Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.

Granted, poverty plays a huge role and we need to end it. But there are two more ways of getting rid of the gap.

Option No. 1:We can change our schools to better fit the needs of students in the 21st century.

Option No. 2:We can stop collecting the incriminating data. No evidence. No gap. No need to change a thing.

I can see why the teachers unions like Option No. 2, since this group is notoriously resistant to change. So let’s stop pretending this is all about the terrors of testing and the loss of childhood and creativity, etc., because —

4)Historically, teachers have never had a problem with so-called “high-stakes” or “high-stress” testing. Hell, this is the profession that invented the dreaded final exam and surprise pop-quiz. Nor is standardized testing something new. The SAT exams were introduced in 1926. The Iowa Basic Skills Test, which even I, an ancient crone, took back in my elementary days, was first administered in 1935.

So why the new fuss? I think the real catalyst is the recent Minnesota law that requires 35 percent of a teacher’s job evaluation to be based on students’ academic growth, some of which can be measured by standardized test scores. The law went into effect last fall and — surprise, surprise — come spring we have teachers organizing students to opt out of testing.

5)There’s something really off about a teacher urging his students to opt out of the very exam the state uses to measure the teacher’s job performance. I mean, if the guy is so worried about his students being stressed by tests, he could dump one of his own exams. Or he could urge his students to opt out of a different standardized test. But, no, he chose the one test the state uses to measure both teacher and school performance. It’s sort of like a doctor urging his patients to forgo blood pressure tests because he doesn’t want to be evaluated on their health outcomes.

6)The state currently pays about $14,000 per pupil per year for students to attend Minneapolis Public Schools. All three of my kids went to MPS, so thank you, fellow taxpayers. But we’re talking no small chunk of change here. Statewide, K-12 spending takes up 42 percent of the state’s general fund. So I think the state, i.e., We The People, have both a right and a responsibility to assess how students — and their schools and their teachers — are doing.

Why not skip the bubble tests and simply trust a teacher’s own assessments, as some teachers have urged? Because too many kids have received straight A’s only to flunk college entrance exams. Others have been tracked to low-ability groups only to ace standardized tests. We use standardized tests for a reason.

Do I support overtesting, endless test prep, and getting rid of art, music or gym? Nope. I’m happy to stand with teachers and parents and fight all of those things. But if that 10th-grade English teacher doesn’t want his students to take a state standardized test, he should stop taking state money. Go work for a private school. Ditto for parents who are opting out.

—-Lynnell Mickelsen

This piece also appeared as commentary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on March 24

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Older Entries...

Fixing ourselves: three suggestions for fellow white liberals. Dumping the evidence–remind me again why anti-testing is “progressive”? Forget about “fixing” black kids. What if we fixed white liberals instead? Why all the conspiracy theories and pearl-clutching in this year’s school board race?
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