Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Boston's Education Mayor: None of the Above

Recently, one of my students asked me who I thought was the best mayoral candidate on the issue of education. Was it John Connolly, the candidate who proclaims himself the next "education mayor" with a desire to decentralize the school district and increase charter schools. Was it Marty Walsh, who is focusing his education policy on increasing job-training and has proposed creating vocational programs in every high school? After some thought, I answered "none of the above." It appears that neither candidate will be the "education mayor." The problem I said was that both candidates are advocating large-scale reform in the Boston Public Schools. As the Boston Globe stated today, both candidates for mayor offer plans to "overhaul" the schools. Yet, the Boston Public Schools is one of the top urban districts in the country. Its students have some of the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The district received the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. It has experienced substantial progress in lowering drop out rates. The Boston Public Schools need a mayor committed to sustaining the the progress the system has made and will intentionally focus support and resources on the schools that are struggling the most.

In reality, the mayoral candidates are mimicking a larger national narrative on education, which I have previously argued reflects a common misconception that education reform and education improvement are one in the same. Despite evidence to the contrary, the media and politicians continue to perpetrate a myth that the U.S. education system is in peril and that market-based reforms and privatization are the only answer. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students have shown substantial gains over the past 40 years and, albeit slowly, the achievement gap is closing. The research shows that the sources of America’s educational problems are primarily outside the school and rooted in income inequality and poverty. My BU colleague, Don Gillis recently highlighted the need for the next mayor to focus on poverty. Educational research supports this idea. One of the candidates, John Connolly recently claimed that improving the education system will increase jobs and reduce crime. However, his logic is backward. Increasing jobs (and reducing crime) will ultimately help improve the schools.

Although poverty and inequality are the main sources of the educational problems, there are measures that the next mayor of Boston should take to continue the improvement already made in the Boston Public Schools. The goal of the next mayor should be to focus on what Michael Fullan calls "continual improvement." The future superintendent should guide Boston in learning from (and sharing with) other high-performing urban school districts, including Brockton (MA), Framingham (MA), Union City (NJ), Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), Montgomery County (MD), and Cincinnati (OH). These districts did not enact a laundry list of market-based reforms. They did not increase the number of charter schools, hire private firms to manage under-performing schools, or bring in Teacher for America teachers, and in many cases the teachers unions were partners in implementing change. Based on what these districts have done and what the research literature tells us, I suggest five areas for the next mayor to focus on (which have not been widely discussed in this mayoral race).

1. Improve instruction by providing more time for professional development and collaboration

The next mayor should support the idea of embedding regular professional development time in the school day. Collaboration is at the heart of sustaining education improvement. It has been well documented that one of the major barriers to school improvements is a lack of time for teachers to work together on improving their instruction. This would include opportunities for teachers to observe each other and work in small groups to problem solve curriculum and instructional problems.

2. Leadership that focuses on team approaches to problem solving

The next mayor should choose a superintendent who will listen to the building principals, while being a leader in problem solving. They should be guided by the work of Andy Hargreaves and Alma Harris' on performance beyond expectations, which looks at highly success leadership across fields and use it as a model of leadership. Principals should be encouraged to embed teacher problem solving in their schools. Their goal should be to unite the faculty and foster a collective culture.

3. Decrease class size

Reducing class size improves student performance. You can see my presentation last year to the Framingham Teachers Association that summarizes the major research studies. Urban districts (including Boston) often have larger classes sizes compared to their more affluent suburban peers. This has had almost no mentioned in the mayor's race, yet should be one of the main issues discussed for improving the Boston Public Schools.

4. Enrich the curriculum; Include a focus on multicultural curriculum and culturally relevant teaching

Although literacy, math, and science are important, Boston lacks the diverse curriculum of the suburbs. The narrowing of the curriculum has had negative consequences in many urban districts. In many elementary schools in BPS, students are not being taught history or social studies. Art, music, and physical education should not be reserved for after school programs. The city should create more music- and art-themed schools, two-way bilingual schools and programs, and strengthen the high school athletics programs. The city should invest in Madison Park Vocational High School, making it a state-of-the-art technical facility. Finally, the curriculum should reflect the culture of BPS's students. Students of color should be learning about their histories and cultures and it should be embedded at every level of the system's curriculum. There are strong linkages between culturally relevant teaching and student success. Although many teachers in Boston are culturally relevant teachers, the district should offer more professional development around teaching in multicultural contexts and using culturally relevant pedagogy.

5. Increase racial diversity across schools

There is strong evidence that racial segregation has a negative impact on student success. Although the diversity of the Boston Public Schools will be increased if more White parents choose to send their children to Boston's schools (slightly less than half of the city is White), the next mayor should not only focus on White parents and schools in predominantly White neighborhoods. This would simply increase the White student populations in neighborhoods that are already predominantly White and only exacerbate the current problem of racial segregation. The Boston Public Schools needs an intentional effort to increase diversity across all the neighborhoods' schools. The main level for increasing diversity it to increase the quality of all schools across the system and particularly schools located in Boston's communities of color.

If the next mayor wants to be the "education mayor," instead of offering large-scale market-based reform efforts, he will need to dedicate the resources to sustain the improvements made over the past 20 years. As a former teacher, future Boston Public Schools parent, and current education professor, I hope the candidates are seriously considering these issues.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Worst Supreme Court Decisions

As the new Supreme Court term begins, I would like to focus on the teaching of Supreme Court cases. Traditionally, social studies teachers (especially AP Government teachers) cover a long list of "historic" Supreme Court cases that set or changed precedence. Often this is done by having students give presentations, or worse, a teacher lecturing about them. While some of the Court's decisions have been progressive (for example, Brown v. Board of Education), others have been incredibly regressive. An excellent inquiry-based activity would to have students work in groups to determine an answer to the following: "What were the 5 worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history?" Below is one example of a "Worst Supreme Court Decisions List." I argue that all students (and Americans) should know these cases.

10. Kelo v. City of New London (2005)

The City of New London, Connecticut, took private residences by eminent domain with the specific purpose of selling that land to a private developer who would then turn the plot into a Pfizer pharmaceutical company campus. Susette Kelo sued to protect the right to live in her pink New London home. However, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with New London and all of the residents were forced to give up their homes. This was so controversial that one activist attempted to get the town of Weare, NH to take Justice Souter's home by eminent domain (he had voted with the majority) and convert it into a hotel, which would encourage economic development (the same reasoning in Kelo's case). The worst part of this case is that the plot was never developed, Pfizer left New London laying off over a thousand workers, and to this day it remains a vacant lot.

9. Buck v. Bell (1927)

As part of the eugenics movement, Virgina passed a law (consistent with many other state laws of the time) allowing the state to sterilize the mentally ill, feeble-minded, criminally-minded, or promiscuous. Carrie Buck was deemed "feeble-minded" and "promiscuous" and at the age of 18 was ordered to be sterilized. Buck' guardian appealed the decision and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that it was in the state's interest to have Buck (and others) sterilized. Buck was then sterilized and sadly died a few years later of measles. This case had never been overturned and sterilization was practiced in Virgina until 1974.  

8. McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

Otis McDonald was a retired maintenance engineer, Chicago resident, and a victim of crime. McDonald legally owned shotguns, but he wanted to own a hand gun to better protect himself. Since 1984, the city of Chicago had a citywide handgun ban. In an unusual turn of precedence that long held that the 2nd Amendment did not protect an individual's right to own a firearm (United States v. Miller). This ruling has made it incredibly difficult for cities or states to curtain certain types of firearms. The dissenting opinion argued that Court was wrong to interpret the 2nd Amendment as protecting the right to own guns for self-defense. Rather, it was written to protect a "well-regulated militia."

7. Bush v. Gore (2000)

The Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision ruled that the Florida recount during the 2000 Presidential Election could be completed in the remaining time. Essentially, it decided that George Bush would become president. It may be the most politically partisan Court decision. Justice John Paul Stevens described the case as questioning the impartiality of the court and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose to omit "respectfully"in her statement "I dissent." It also may be the only case in history where the Supreme Court writes that this case does not apply to future cases.

6. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)

The state of California taxed fences owned by Southern Pacific Railway Company, but Southern Pacific asserted that the state constitution did not allow the respective tax (they argued the government could tax the land, but not the fences). In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme court ruled that the state did not have jurisdiction to tax fences. Although not explicitly stated, it is the foundation for the legal argument that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also applies to corporations. This gave the same legal protection to corporations that citizens have.

5. Lochner v. New York (1905)

To protect workers, the state of New York limited bakers to a 10-hour work day and 60-hour work week. Some bakers sued, arguing this violated their constitutional rights of free labor. The Supreme Court ruled with the bakers creating the "liberty of contract" and preventing NY from limiting an employees hours. It not only created a legal precedence for limiting progressive-era work laws, but it also established an imbalance in the law favoring employers over employees that persists to this day.

4. Citizens United v. FEC (2010)

A group named Citizens United produced a film titled "Hillary the Movie" to run right before primary elections in the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries. In a case that essentially challenged a specific provision of the McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act), which prevented advertising within 30 days of a federal election. In this ruling, the Supreme Court made a sweeping decision, reversing a century of campaign finance legislation and allowing corporations and labor unions have political free speech rights tantamount to the right of individual citizens, who under Buckley v. Valeo can spend unlimited amounts of their own money on electioneering through independent expenditures. Many have argued that this case went well beyond the purview of the original case and the conservative wing of the Court manufactured the decision for political reasons.

3. Korematsu v. United States (1944)

In 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were unjustly imprisoned in concentration camps. 2/3rd of the internees were American citizens. Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, refused to enter the prison camps. He was arrested and then forced into the camps. He sued on the grounds that his 5th Amendment rights were violated. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the need to protect against espionage (despite any actual instances of espionage) outweighed Korematsu's individual rights and the rights of imprisoned Japanese Americans. This decision created a precedence that an entire ethnic group can be imprisoned during war time. There was strong dissent by Justice Hugo Black, and although the Supreme Court has never overturned the case, it was the foundation for a 1983 federal court ruling in favor of Korematsu's challenge to the original 1944 decision.

2. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Homer Plessy was a civil rights activist who challenged the racial segregation laws related to trains in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was 1/8th Black (labeled "octoroon" at the time) and he decided to sit in the White car. He was subsequently arrested and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy and upheld racial segregation as constitutional. This case created the "separate but equal" doctrine that would be legal grounds for almost all future Jim Crow laws. This case was eventually overturned by Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregating children by race in public schools was "inherently unequal."

1. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri who was taken into Illinois, a free state, by his master. Dred Scott sued on the grounds that he was taken into free territory and should have all the legal protections of that state. However, the Taney Court ruled that Dred Scott has absolutely no legal rights, because he was a slave and slaves were not citizens and consequently have no standing in court. Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence, Chief Justice Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted [the Declaration of Independence]." This decision justified the stance of slaveholders and deeply angered abolitionists, ultimately contributing to a deepening of the rift that would result in the Civil War.