A Jaw Dropping Day

I had two jaw dropping moments in just one day, November 9, 2010. The first involved Black boys in and out of school; the second, Joel Klein.

Black Male Student Achievement, Jaw Dropping Data, Council of Great City Schools“Jaw-Dropping Data” and “National Catastrophe” were two of the attention-getting phrases in the press release from the Council of the Great City Schools, phrases I assumed were hyperbole designed to catch the reader’s eye.

Wrong! The data, from the report titled A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools (PDF), are jaw dropping, and we do have a national catastrophe.

Let’s start with educational attainment. Here are just a few of the numbers:

  • Only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys.
  • Only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.
  • In 2009, the average mathematics scale score of large city Black males who were not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch was eight points lower at grade 4 and 12 points lower at grade 8 than the score of White males nationwide who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
  • Young white male students in poverty do as well as young black male students who are not in poverty.
  • African-American boys drop out of high school at nearly twice the rate of white boys, and their SAT scores are on average 104 points lower.

But the crisis doesn’t begin in school, the report notes.

  • Between 2003 and 2007, Black mothers had infant mortality rates at least twice as high as White mothers.
  • In 2008, Black children ages 17 and under were nearly 50 percent more likely to be without private or government health insurance than White children.

And the unfortunate outcomes are all too predictable:

  • Only 5% of college students in 2008 were black men. At the same time, black men were incarcerated more than any other demographic group—at 6.5 times the rate of white males.

What’s to be done about this national catastrophe? The report (PDF) makes 11 recommendations. To this reader, too many of these recommendations use verbs like ‘encourage’, ‘compile,’ ‘convene,’ and ‘marshal.’ Naturally, a White House conference is at the top of the list.

I would have liked to see some very specific recommendations, such as schools exclusively for young Black boys, for example, or classes separated by gender. (Because so many of our public schools are now de facto segregated, one doesn’t have to mention race. Simply calling for gender specific schools and classes is enough to assure that all the boys will be Black, or all Hispanic, or all White. That’s where we are now, 56 years after the Brown decision.)

The French pre-school system has what it calls ‘economic priority zones (ZEP, in French), to which the government devotes more resources, not fewer. I know we’ve tried that in Kansas City, Newark and other places without much success, but I think that’s because the money was spent on buildings, or salaries, or adult needs.

Perhaps one of those national meetings the report calls for could come up with better ways to spend the additional dollars we are going to have to spend to solve this crisis.

Joel Klein

My jaw dropped a second time when I learned of Joel Klein’s resignation as New York City Schools Chancellor. He’s labored long and hard in the nation’s largest school system and has achieved some noteworthy success, particularly the large network of small high schools established on his watch. (Ironically, my colleague John Tulenko is preparing a PBS NewsHour report on those schools right now and actually interviewed the Chancellor a few days ago.)

Unlike his protégé Michelle Rhee, Chancellor Klein is leaving on his own terms, to return to the business world he came from. He has accepted a big job with the News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s organization. His detractors are going to have fun with that.

What’s fascinating is Mayor Bloomberg’s choice of a successor, another successful executive from the business world, in fact from publishing (Klein came from Bertlesmann). Catherine Black ran the Hearst empire, and now she’s coming into the schools, a novice at age 66.

I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that Mayor Bloomberg never even considered handing the reins to a traditional educator.

But Ms. Black is going to have to do what Joel Klein was not able to accomplish, and that is transform the city’s schools into 21st Century institutions, places where students learn to ask questions, not simply regurgitate answers. Is there a road map for that work? I believe there is, but I’d rather hear from you on that.

Watch Joel Klein talk about the job of NYC Schools Chancellor after his first three years on the job in 2005.


13 thoughts on “A Jaw Dropping Day

  1. True to form, Mayor Mike picks yet another business person with the wrong credentials and objectives to run the city’s schools. True to form, Mayor Mike picks someone to run the city’s schools who chose to educate her children at private schools.

    This is not a good thing for the kids who attend these schools; the parents who depend on the schools to educate their children or the teachers who teach.

    Can’t wait to see what’s next.


  2. John,
    My heart is heavy with your news today. And yet, there is no surpise. I know that my sisters and brothers who have given much effort to educating youngsters in public schools have worked long and hard, and large brush strokes do not erase the small miracles teachers produce each day.

    That said, I think we need an overhaul of the entrenched systems that stand in the place of educational institutions. As Mother Teresa said, small works with great love. We need to look at our 21st century resources and begin to apply a new structure to public education, one that cultivates a sense of community from parents whose children attend a school; one that institutionalizes mixed demographics; one that puts student worth at the center of school decision-making. And one that brings in the perspectives of educators, not just skilled businesspeople as architects of 21st century learning.

    I hope to spend a good deal of time reading the document you provided. Thank you. Let’s hope this news inspires school leaders to take off their vests of hubris and old thinking and gets people to roll up their sleeves.


  3. Bloomberg made the correct decision to hire someone outside the traditional education system because they are not encumbered by that very tradition. Whether this particular person is successful will depend on them, but Bloomberg was correct.

    I just watched “Waiting for Superman” this weekend; I needed a small box of kleenex watching the injustice being done to the children in lower economic communities. But…as the movie said, we know what works; we just don’t have the strength to do it. It then goes on to highlight KIPP schools and their spin offs. I would toss into the mix Character Education (www.character.org) which many KIPP schools use. We don’t need another software program or new math. All children need a school that supports respect for others from staff to students as well as a totally dedicated (and compensated) faculty. Black boys will shine along with everyone else. Otherwise, we are headed for catastrophe.


    • On the other hand, the Mayor could have reached across the divide and spoken with Randi Weingarten (whom he has praised in other venues) and asked her for advice. Maybe he did, but I kind of doubt it. See my comment below about what I think schools must do to survive. I think Randi gets this as much as anyone in public education.


  4. We need more data before being breathless. Only 12.3% of Americans are African Americans, only about 6.2% of their age cohort could be black males, so if 5% of the college graduates are black males, the number is low but much better than one might guess. It’s particularly GOOD given the income and dropout rates documented in the Council’s report and in many, many other places.

    I’m mostly concerned that the NAEP data are all so test-driven, and ignore so many other metrics that describe the life of a child – in poverty and not in poverty. In contrast, the Council’s concern with health care and criminal justice disparities begin to fill in some of the blanks left by NAEP’s obsession with hard data derived by testing. The discomfort I feel about test data and dropout data is that no one ever tries to answer the question of what skills these young people ARE developing, if they’re not developing testable skills or where ARE they going if they’re not going to school and have such miserable job prospects. It is the culture of youth which is so profoundly ignored, and in that culture lies the heart of solving the problems still largely obscured in the clutter of test and attendance data. They are not all selling their sisters or dealing drugs! What ELSE are they doing? What are they learning? And how are they learning it?

    There are several corollary questions that underscore the ignorance that test data obscure. How many are retained in grades 1 through 5, where most of the long term dropout decisions seem to be made, according to the Chicago Early Indicators studies? How many retained in Grade 9, for reasons often as spurious as a principal’s need to pump up his “gain scores” in Grade 10 from Grade 7 averages? And, probably most important, how many other questions might we raise before ever getting to the deeper issues of why some kids find school so boring, and why some schools deliver that boredom with such a vengence!


    • This is very thoughtful. I agree with your point about going beyond the test data, even when it’s NAEP data, and I probably should have included more of the non-school information. It’s an incredibly detailed report, well worth your time.

      As for school, don’t get me started. Well, you have, actually. Here’s my elevator speech: “You and I went to school because they kept the knowledge there, in books and encyclopedias, on microfilm and in the teachers’ heads. Not true today, because knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7. Kids should be learning to ASK questions, so they can sift through the deluge of information and separate wheat from chaff, but schools still expect students to ANSWER questions, usually a process of regurgitation. That, in essence, is why schools are, for the most part, failing to prepare our kids for today, let alone the future. And poor kids get a double dose of the regurgitation drill.”


      • A vignette of a few years ago you may enjoy: I was teaching English with a batch of boys in a lock-up (note the preposition!) and they chose each to read a different book from the in-house library of paperbacks rather than face a test. Celebrating their creativity, I asked each one to fill in three 3×5 cards with three different questions “we could ask the next little creep who reads that book.” Gleefully, they wrote great questions – which I actually intended for a Jeopardy game and had one student put into a database. They then compared and contrasted their questions, contesting whose questions were harder, whose were more interesting, and whose required more reading. One, typically in the back of the room, noted “Ya got us to do YOUR work for ya!” to which I heartily agreed. Two of the students had serious reading disabilities, and the SPED teacher could not understand how they came up with such good questions.

        Moral: Questions are a lot better than answers! for both teachers and kids.


      • thats what i meant, as soon as these educators reliase that boys have different emotional needs, the predominant form is a feminised form of emotion thats being taught in schools, boys emotions are different and focused differently, like on the playground rather than in the classroom. when i was growing up we had a lot of jockeying for position in the playground, classes were an aside. they were suggesting stopping the fail word and change it to deferred success, you cant use red pen to mark as it has bad feelings linked to it. (if you dont beleive me check it out)i live in a different country, with different teaching styles in general, but i can see it, all boys school was made to fit the boys needs, run by the dela salle brothers, the girls school was run by nuns, they merged them a few years back, and the girls are getting to be in charge, the boys are effectively being punished for being and acting like boys should.


  5. I hope people like Wendy, Joe and you are included in those predictable meetings–so we don’t simply rearrange the chairs. While the statistics may not reflect the entire picture, one trip into inner city communities tells you that we need to radically change the way we address the social issues that have demoralized families and relegated so many to grim lives.


  6. Judy Steininger, “Waiting for Superman” conveys a considerable number of false and misleading messages (OK, why mince words — it’s a pack of lies). Unfortunately, the fact that you were watching fiction doesn’t mean that you can now cheer up.

    The challenges faced by schools that enroll a critical mass of high-need, at-risk students are not exaggerated. The fact is that it’s our nation’s very high poverty rate and minimal social safety net that leads to those problems — not “bad teachers” or evil teachers’ unions. And that should make us weep.

    Not to bother with yet another point-by-point refutation of the falsehoods in “Waiting for Superman,” but I’ll just make a couple of points.

    Also, as to the issues both of attrition and black males: I did an analysis a few years ago of the attrition at California’s KIPP schools, using publicly available data from the California Department of Education’s Dataquest website. (I did this as an unpaid volunteer blogger; the working press is derelict in not having done this research while showering KIPP with praise.) The majority of California KIPP schools showed the high attrition I mention, and also, the attrition rate was much higher for the most academically challenged demographic subgroup — either black males or Latino males, depending on the school. The most jaw-dropping was Oakland’s KIPP school, then named KIPP Bridge. 79% (seventy-nine percent) of the African-American boys who started that school as fifth-graders had left by the BEGINNING of grade 8 — the figures are based on a count at the start of the school year, so I didn’t have access to data on how many (if any) finished grade 8.

    So as you can see, KIPP schools are not likely to be the road to success for African-American boys if that’s the way they function. Too bad this reality is so drowned out by propaganda.

    — The states in which laws do not allow unions — or unions with teeth — tend to be the states with the lowest academic achievement, and the converse is true — the most strongly unionized states (Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey) have the highest academic achievement. So that on its face demolishes Davis Guggenheim’s (and the exceptionally clueless Jonathan Alter’s) claims that teachers’ unions are the problem. And Finland, hailed in “Superman” as the model of top-quality education, has a fully, strongly unionized teaching force.

    — The charter schools hailed as the magic-feather miracle solution in “Superman” are not necessarily as portrayed. For example: The SEED school and the L.A. KIPP school shown both have attrition rates that are as jaw-dropping as anything John Merrow writes about here. The students who leave (jumping or being pushed) are not replaced, so both schools end up with small, streamlined upper grades consisting only of the highest-functioning students. The good news for the movie’s Daisy is that if she just waits around for kids to start streaming out the door of that KIPP school, she should be able to get a spot.

    Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy gets vastly more funding than public schools do; it posts troubling academic achievement figures; and Canada kicked out the entire 8th-grade class a couple of years ago — all facts that cast a little doubt on the “miraculous” nature of the school, though much of Canada’s work is admirable.

    And based on a little research here in my area, the entire portrayal of the “failing” Woodside High School vs. Summit Charter school is a lie. Emily Jones has said that Woodside is a “great school” and she just preferred Summit for various reasons, and tracking (portrayed as the road to hell in the movie) actually isn’t a particular concern to her.

    We should weep for the crisis of our young people living in poverty. But we shouldn’t be unduly influenced by Davis Guggenheim’s false and malicious piece of teacher-bashing propaganda.


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