Friday, May 16, 2014

Sixty Years Ago: Brown v. Board of Education

Sixty years ago tomorrow the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. What was America then like?

Donald Sterling would have been mainstream.

At the heart of the court case was Linda Brown, an eight-year-old Negro. (You were lucky to be called a “Negro” sixty years ago. In 1954 the “N word” was usually “nigger.”)

What was the question before the court? Could Miss Brown attend school with white children? Most Americans forget today: but this case was brought against the school board of Topeka, Kansas. This wasn’t about the virulent racism of the Deep South. This was the habitual kind, as American as apple pie during that era.

Linda was too young to understand how the 9-0 decision of the high court would change the nation.

Linda Brown (foreground).
Segregated schools were then common even in places like Loveland, Ohio
where I long worked.

But it wouldn’t be easy. Four years earlier the University of Oklahoma lost a long-drawn legal battle. The school was ordered to admit G. W. McLaurin to its graduate program. McLaurin was a Negro. So university officials had to be creative. McLaurin was allowed to enroll but still segregated in classrooms, lunchroom and library.

“RESERVED FOR COLORED” signs helped him decide where to sit.

How bad was it in those days? Many doors to employment were barred to Negro workers. In 1950 they earned 52¢ for every $1 white workers made.

How bad? South Carolina voters sent Strom Thurmond to the U. S. Senate in 1954. Segregation was the foundation of his career. Thurmond once assured an audience:
“I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

For some reason he failed to mention that Negroes had already “invaded” his bedroom. Three decades earlier, Thurmond had fathered a child by the black maid in his family.

Housing discrimination was then commonly accepted. From Los Angeles to Levittown, New York home buyers routinely signed racial covenants. This was a promise never to rent or sell to Negroes.

Fred Morrow was a special assistant in the White House under President Eisenhower. As a Negro, he had trouble finding an apartment in Washington. One landlord agreed to rent to Morrow. But he must agree never to linger in the main lobby. And would he mind riding the freight elevator?

Morrow passed on this offer.

Racists everywhere defended the “color line” with fervor. You could never be too careful about this “race-mixing” idea. So: blood banks stored white and black and blood separately.

The University of Kentucky was a basketball powerhouse in the 50s. But the school wanted no part of minority players. Big Blue teams remained lily-white for another decade.

How bad? Alabama outlawed interracial checker playing in public.

How bad? How ridiculously bad? In Richmond, Virginia a high school tennis player named Arthur Ashe was unable to schedule matches against white opponents. When a judge ordered integration of city parks Ashe showed up ready to play. Park officials turned him away. Then, to ensure good order, they cut down the nets to put an end to this foolishness.

Even Southern libraries were segregated. One Negro was arrested—for disorderly reading, possibly. Entering a segregated library he had the nerve to ask to check out a biography of Robert E. Lee.

How bad? There were no Negro head coaches in the NFL. And, of course, there were no Negro quarterbacks. Most whites, even rabid football fans, assumed blacks weren’t smart enough to be leaders.

The Washington Redskins (o, irony!) were the last NFL team to integrate. George Marshall, the team owner, held out eight years longer.

No major U. S. city had ever elected a black mayor in those days. 

No black had ever served on the U. S. Supreme Court. (Today we’re stuck with Clarence Thomas.)

Thomas was five years old in 1954. His marriage to a white woman years later would have been illegal in Georgia at the time. A number of states, including Virginia, banned interracial marriage. Alabama banned it between a white and anyone with Negro blood down to the third generation.

Many states avidly suppressed Negro voting. The poll tax was still legal. (At Fox News they refer to this era fondly as “The Good Old Days.”) Literacy test were enforced selectively. Negroes never passed. If Negroes insisted on registering and voting gunfire and bombings often followed.

It wasn’t just bad. It was terrible.

Panola County, Mississippi had one Negro registered in 1954. This: out of 7,250 old enough to be eligible. (At least sixteen majority-black counties in the South had no registered Negro voters.)

With almost no black voters there were almost no black jurors. The first great trial of the civil rights era revolved around the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Till, only 14, had come South from Chicago to visit relatives. Unfortunately, the young man made the mistake of whistling at a white Mississippi woman.

He was grabbed by two white men, beaten savagely, and shot in the head. His mangled remains ended up in the Tallahatchie River.

How bad was it for Negroes? Sickeningly bad. Sheriff Clarence Strider was in charge of the “investigation.” Strider’s sentiments in the matter could not have been clearer. He was furious when Northern reporters—including Negroes—showed up to cover the trial. “There ain’t going to be no niggers in my courthouse,” he told listeners.

(Courtrooms in Mississippi and all across the South still had separate seating areas for “Whites” and “Coloreds.”)

Was a fair trial then even possible? The prosecutor insisted that the two suspects in the case had simply gone too far. “The most [Till] needed was a whipping if he and done anything wrong,” he explained to the all-white jury. The defense lawyer was blunt about the key legal issue to be decided. “Your ancestors will turn over in their graves if [these defendants] are found guilty,” he warned jurors. “And I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [Northern] pressure.”

The jury quickly returned a “not guilty” verdict. It took sixty-seven minutes, including time for a pop break.

In Montgomery, Alabama blacks were still sitting in the back of the bus, as the law required. If the “Whites Only” section filled the driver could order black passengers to give up their seats. If the “Colored” section filled and seats in the “White” section remained Negroes could not fill them.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress, was arrested. After a long day at work she refused to relinquish her seat. Martin Luther King Jr. soon decided to help organize a bus boycott. His father begged him not to get involved. The whites would kill him. “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion,” he argued. When Martin Jr. could not be dissuaded the elder King wept.

At a mass meeting a few days later, the 26-year-old King delivered the first great speech of his career. The church where he spoke was packed to overflowing with listeners. “As you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he told them, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

The battle for equality was about to begin.

The battle would not be easy.
It would take federal marshalls and troops in some cases to integrate schools.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Standardized Testing: So Far, We Might as Well Dump the Money in the Ocean

Teachers, imagine you had $1.7 billion to spend this year to buy good books and hand them out to students. Do you think average reading scores might rise because you put millions of books in eager young hands?

Of course you do. You’re teachers. You have faith in children.

Unfortunately, you don’t have that money because states are busy paying for all the standardized tests.

Do you think profits for testing companies are rising? And do you believe campaign contributions to politicians (by testing companies) are increasing? Yes. Yes, you do.

How much has Pearson Education, the leader in standardized testing spent on lobbying in recent years?

Well, with all this lobbying and testing how are students doing now? According to one study, students spend between 60 and 110 hours each year in grades where standardized tests are given—preparing for those tests. As a result, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports reading scores for America’s seniors are soaring!

No, no, I’m just messing with you.

We’ve wasted a decade and we’ve been marching in place, if not backward. NAEP scores for seniors, since 1992:

How about scores in mathematics for seniors? This time there’s joy in Mudville! Now we’re talking progress!!!!

I’m being sarcastic. Scores are up three points since 2005, with no gain since 2009:

Even worse, huge racial gaps remain. The school reformers promised one virtue of No Child Left Behind would be closure of this racial gap. Now they have nothing to show for all their talk and all their meddling.

Curtailing teacher tenure? Didn’t help. More charter schools? No. Opening up new paths to teacher certification? Nope. More Teach for America geniuses in the classroom? Nope, you dopes. That didn’t help. How about more paperwork for teachers to fill out to prove they’re actually teaching? Oh, hell, nope.

None of this helped.

The white-black gap in math remained unchanged:


In reading it got worse:

Oddly enough, Asian-American/Pacific Islander kids continued to do better. Sitting in the same classes, listening to the same teachers, drinking from the same water fountains, they continued to score higher than their lighter and darker-skinned peers.

Not three points higher either.

Way higher.

(If you didn’t know better you might think factors beyond the control of teachers had a potent impact on learning. You know: factors like poverty concentrated among certain ethnic groups. Or cultural attitudes.)

Only twelve states chose to release their data. Nevertheless, we see that some states do better than others when educating children.

I suppose this means Massachusetts teachers are way better than those poor dolts teaching in West Virginia. (Sarcasm intended.) Therefore, I am calling on my favorite school reformers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Wendy Kopp, to send a convoy of Teach for America stars to the Mountain State to save all the children! In both math and reading, West Virginia students finished last:

Of course, when all is said and done, simplistic “comparisons” mask a host of complex social issues. But we do know this. We’ve spent twenty billion dollars or so on standardized testing since 2002—and the end result when kids graduate is a giant pile of nothing. 

We might as well take next year’s $1.7 billion out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and dump it. I can think of a few school reformers I'd like to dump in the ocean, too.



If you agree with my premise you might also like my book: Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching. It is based on my 33 years in a classroom; and makes the best case I can against standardized testing as a measure of true learning.

Now available on Amazon.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Do Schools Fail or Do Homes Fail?

As a veteran teacher (now retired), I’ve long been interested in the role parents play in American education.
I spent 33 years in a classroom. 

So I understand that teachers matter.

What bothers me, particularly in recent years, is the laser-like focus in school reform on those who stand at the front of every class. Our “leaders” in education, various and sundry fools like Arne Duncan, insist that the key to improvement is holding teachers accountable for everything, even inclement weather. These leaders claim that we nust now measure everything teachers do, from respiration to defecation, to raise academic standards. They believe if we create enough charter schools and hand out enough vouchers then critical problems in education will magically fade away.

Call me a skeptic.

I was flipping through the pages of my personal diary last week when I came across a brief mention (in the fall of 1980) of a young New Jersey couple who offered to trade in their 14-month-old son for a used Corvette.

The dealer wanted $8,800 but…hey…these lousy parents had an extra child they didn’t want. How about a swamp: flesh for metal?

I don’t think in this young boy’s life that teachers were going to be the problem. 

In 1998, after spending an evening calling parents at home to inform them their sons or daughters were behind on their work in my class, I again jotted down a few thoughts in my diary (only the names have been changed below):

Spent 1 ½ hours on phone tonight with five parents. Bill Hawley’s mom has him in AA three nights a week and says he’s rated chemically dependent. (Carol [his sister] is also in the program on a limited basis.) Bill’s dad started him drinking at six—Bill got into his father’s cocaine.

Sure. Teachers matter. But parents play a fundamental role in education—shaping their children from the moment they’re born.

In my experience, most parents did a good job—just as did most teachers. But where children were badly warped by life in the home my colleagues and I could only mitigate the harm already inflicted.

My wife (also a retired educator) and I were watching an old CNN documentary about education recently, narrated by Morgan Spurlock. Spurlock, you might not remember, first became famous when he tried to live on McDonald’s food for a month. So his take on education was interesting. First, he visited a school in Finland—because Finland is now supposed to be a leader in education. (I think that’s a bit of a myth; but leave that issue aside.) Spurlock was trying to be fair and even did a little teaching, admitting later it was much harder than expected. Then he returned to visit Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a successful charter operation in Brooklyn.

I know there are good charter schools out there and based on Spurlock’s story, I think most of us would be happy to send our children to Williamsburg. I visited Discovery Academy in March, myself. This Toledo charter school is run by one of my former students, Mr. Noah Campbell. As expected his school was well-run and I came away impressed. I also talked to his faculty and again came away impressed. Most of his teachers we’re first-year educators but all were clearly serious about their crucial work with children. Good administrators and teachers always make schools better. But even dedicated individuals like those on staff at Discovery Academy can’t do everything.

Near the end of Spurlocks documentary, he makes a bold and erroneous statement. He says every parent wants their child to succeed in school. 

That’s not true. 

Or: in too many cases, it’s only true to this degree sense. All of us who want to lose weight care about losing weight. We just don’t care enough to take real action.

The grim truth is that not all parents are equal—and truly bad parents cripple their children in ways educators find incredibly difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to overcome. All too often this crippling effect begins in the womb, with one in ten American mothers abusing drugs or alcohol during pregnancy. You can’t cure that kind of problem by grading schools as many of our school reform “leaders” insist.

You might as well grade hospitals.

To say all parents really care is absurd. Suppose your dad is Travis Henry, former NFL running back with the Denver Broncos. Dad has trouble finding time to help with your homework because…well…Dad has nine children by nine different women. Dad would like to pay child support, too, but Dad can’t do it, despite millions of dollars earned during his career, because he’s been busted several times for drug possession and finally for cocaine trafficking.

Bad parents come in all colors and can be seen at the top of the economic heap just as often as at the bottom. I taught in an affluent suburban district near Cincinnati and almost all my students were white and from well-to-do families. That didn’t stop one father from repeatedly molesting his seventh grade daughter—and stalling off teachers when we began to home in on root causes of the girl’s depression. I called that son-of-bitch several times and invited him in twice for meetings and he always assured us his daughter was happy at home. She just didn’t like school.

Every teacher comes to understand what Spurlock and all the reformers miss—that every imaginable type of human being can become a parent. You don’t even need to be sane to produce sperm or egg. Remember Ariel Castro, the sociopath who chained up three women in the basement of his home for more than a decade? He had a daughter by one of his victims.

Who in their right mind would argue that the biggest problems a child like that would face in life would be the quality of her elementary teachers?

How about Fred Phelps, who died this April? Phelps headed the Westboro Baptist Church, a hateful religious operation famous for picketing the funerals of American service people.. According to Time magazine one of his sons claimed dad kept all his offspring in line with fists and a club. Nate Phelps spoke of a life “filled with anger, fear and violence.” On one occasion his father used the handle of a mattock to beat his children into good behavior.

If all parents wanted their children to succeed in school or even lead a decent existence stories like that of Megan Huntsman wouldn’t make lurid headlines. The bodies of seven dead newborns, apparently born to Huntsman over the last decade, were found swaddled in rags in cardboard boxes in her garage. Where was her former husband, father of the couple’s three surviving daughters? Oh yes. In 2005 he was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges.

You can look at the problem on a case-by-case basis or consider it societally. It’s simple true. Not all parents are equal. Not even close. In 2013 it was reported that 2.7 million U. S. children had one or both parents locked up behind bars.

Most teachers I’ve ever met care deeply about helping every child—but when they can’t save them all, blaming them only makes their job, already hard, much harder. And it does nothing to help the children who most need help. I’m retired. Technically, I don’t have to worry. But if we really cared about every child we’d do far more to help every child. 

Think all parents care? Don’t be so naive. In 2009, for example, CBS reported that one fourth of all mothers and fathers who owed child support paid nothing. Zip. If we’re going to grade schools, as many of our reformers say we must, what do these deadbeat parents earn for a grade?

A ZERO in the gradebook seems appropriate.

In fact, even our greatest school reformers haven’t been able to fix broken families. Arne Duncan couldn’t fix the problem of youths in gangs in the Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had three terms in office to improve schools in New York City? That didn’t help the rising tide of homeless children—22,000 of them. And remember Michelle Rhee? The Broom Queen was going to fix the Washington, D. C. public schools by sweeping out all the bad teachers. According to an article in the Washington Post last week it turns out teachers weren’t the biggest problem where thousands of D. C. students were concerned. Nout unless we’re going to fault teachers for lack of telepathic powers.

Even after all of Rhee’s sweeping, it turns out that one in five D. C. children piled up at least twenty days of unexcused absences last year; and that doesn’t factor in any excused absences. To put it simply: 20% of parents in D. C. allowed children to miss school 20% of the time. Even grading such moms and dads on a curve, they’d earn no better than a D- for ineffective parenting.

I have a good friend, a conservative fan of Fox News, and if you ask him he believes most public school teachers spend their days having sex with children and running to union representatives for protection. We know, of course, that scum bags do occasionally find employment in the classroom—and the faster we get rid of them the better. But one teacher having sex with a student garners more attention than 10,000 parents sexually abusing their children. There are, after all, an estimated three millions cases of child abuse and neglect in this country annually, involving six million children.

On average, four or five youngsters die every twenty-four hours.

Every good teacher and every good administrator I’ve ever known could have told you pretty much the same. These people devote their lives to trying to help the kinds of students who badly need help in school because they get no help (and often harm) at home. But our leaders continue to miss this dilemma. They talk about education as if only teachers factor into results. How would they help a homeless child and that homeless child’s teacher? Grade the school if the child can’t read at grade level. What about that seventh grader who was being molested by her father? How do our leaders help me, if I’m still teaching, help this poor young woman? 

Oh, hell, here’s their bold idea; Let’s have the girl take more and more and more standardized tests.

I’m retired. Maybe I’m just old and crotchety. But, if you ask me, I don’t believe our education “leaders” have any clue what they’re doing.

POSTSCRIPT:  Let me note very clearly that I am not bashing parents. Most of the parents I dealt with over the years were doing a fine job, just as I did with my children, just as most parents across the nation do every day.

In my experience, however, the kids who most needed saving usually came from homes where parents had failed badly. If we want to save ALL children we need to focus on that reality and do more to help teachers.