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Please Don't Roll Out This School 'Reform'

Ask yourself if this is the type of school you'd like for your son or daughter:
* At one charter school, an array of 48 "infractions"-- such as "Lying/falsehood” and "Sleeping in class" -- will get students suspended or expelled.
* At another charter, students and parents are warned that "cutting class, school, detention and related mandatory school events can lead to suspension or expulsion. Other offenses that warrant out-of-class dismissal include possession of electronics and printed text deemed vulgar or profane . . . items confiscated can be held by the school permanently, irrespective of costs and fees."
* Another threatens parents that "a child with 12 unexcused absences for the year can lead to the school reporting the parent to the Louisiana Department of Social Services."
* And one more, a KIPP charter school, mandates that "five or more instances of the student being tardy or absent can result in a $250 fine, an official police report, a summons to perform 25 hours of community service by the parent, guardian or child or permanent removal from the school."

These examples of school discipline policies gone wild are from a stunning new article in The American Independent. Reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn explains how three trends -- student poverty, punishment, and teacher experience -- are combining to create prison-like apartheid schools that condemn young people to low education attainment and greater risk of dropping through the cracks.

What's even more disturbing, however, is to see how this trend for NOLA schools is being writ large across the nation.

To be fair, the problems in New Orleans aren't confined to the city's charter schools alone. As Zinshteyn references, a new report from The Southern Poverty Law Center recounts numerous instances of severe, even life altering, disciplinary practices among public schools in New Orleans in general.

However, because NOLA charters are the very schools being held up to the public as an ideal model for school reform, it's even more alarming to see the reality of school being practiced in these places.

And what we're all too likely to see in the very near future is this triumvirate of high poverty, harsh punishments, and low teacher experience -- and I would add a fourth: government de-funding -- rolling out across the nation.

For example, not only does the US have the second highest child poverty rate in the world, but what's much less talked about is that nearly half of students in this nation, in 2008-09, are classified as low income, which qualifies them for reduced price lunch. Because this data comes from before our current economic problems, no doubt the figure is already worse and likely will worsen.

This upward trend in poverty is so problematic for schools because there is indisputable evidence that poverty is strongly correlated to low standardized tests and poorer performance in school.

Regarding harsh punishments and "no excuse" discipline policies, they are certainly not exclusive to NOLA schools either. Another new report, this one from Texas, found that "almost 55 percent of recent Texas public school students -- a disproportionate number of them African-American or with learning disabilities -- were suspended at least once between their seventh and 12th grade years."

The result of school suspensions and expulsions go beyond just the number of days the students are out of school. As the Texas report found, "After being suspended or expelled in school, students were consequently more likely to repeat a grade or drop out than their more less-sanctioned counterparts. They were also more likely to have a run-in with the juvenile justice system."

Compounding the negative impact of these harsh discipline policies is a form of academic intolerance that demands that all students be evaluated by a "no excuses" form of testing and accountability where all students experience a one-size-fits-all curriculum and test-prep is relentless. Writing at her blog "Teacher in a Strange Land," teacher and edu-blogger Nancy Flanagan explains why this form of "regimentation" is troubling from a philosophical point of view in that it leads to a school "culture" that strikes her as "similar to another very distinct culture: incarceration."

And The National Center for Fair and Open Testing delivers a much more empirical condemnation for this approach, writing:

Zero tolerance discipline and high-stakes testing policies have similar philosophical underpinnings and similar destructive results. Both stem from a 1980s movement to impose more punitive policies in both criminal justice and public education. Together, they have helped turn schools into hostile environments for many students. The end result is a “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which large numbers of students are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Too many young people end up in prison, at a cost many times greater than that of a good education. It’s a senseless waste of resources and human potential, damaging to both individuals and society.

The third trend emerging from NOLA schools -- the increased reliance on inexperienced teachers -- is undoubtedly being rolled-out across the nation. With more states targeting senior-level teachers for lay-offs and policy statements that diminish the value of teacher education programs, more schools are bound to be staffed with less-experienced faculty.

Furthermore, alternative programs for teacher preparation that put younger, less experienced teachers into the classroom continue to be the darling of private philanthropists. As Valerie Strauss revealed this week at her Washington Post blog "The Answer Sheet," a new report this week on private foundation largesse documented that from 2000 - 08 60 percent of private education grants, over $213 million, went to Teach For America, the organization that sends new college graduates, with a scant five weeks of summer training, into classrooms of, mostly, disadvantaged students. As Strauss points out, TFA teachers generally have higher attrition rates than the already high attrition rates of traditionally trained teachers. So this hardly seems like a viable solution for rescuing troubled schools.

But perhaps most importantly, the massive 500-pound gorilla in the room that gets less than its fair share of attention is the effect that state budget cuts to education and public services are having on children's academic success. A major report released today by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities declares that most states enacted "unnecessarily deep spending cuts that will harm residents ranging from schoolchildren to seniors and weaken economic growth."

The report examines how most states took a "cuts-only" approach that's going to be especially devastating to education specifically and public sector employment in general, despite the increased need for these services.

While states continue to face rising numbers of children enrolled in public schools, students enrolled in universities, and seniors eligible for health and long-term care services, most states (37 of 44 states for which data are available) plan to spend less on services in 2012 than they spent in 2008, adjusted for inflation — in some cases, much less.

Here's a map that shows that the vast majority of states (37 of 44 states for which data are available) plan to spend less — in some cases, much less — on services in 2012 than they spent in 2008, adjusted for inflation, even as the number of residents eligible for services has grown:


And if this weren't bad enough, in terms of the effect on resources for public schools, another ramification of these state budget cuts, that's not widely know but was reported this week from The National Bureau of Economic Research, is that there is a strong correlation between these widespread job losses and lower academic achievement. In fact, "state experiencing one-year job losses to 2% of its workers (a magnitude observed in seven states) likely sees a 16% increase in the share of its schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB."

So is this the "reform" model for schools we want to see rolling out across the nation? With more indifference to poverty, harsher discipline policies, less emphasis on teacher experience, and reduced investment in education? If so, heaven help us.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...