First Person

Fact-Checking the Educational Equality Project Fact Sheet

In honor of the Educational Equality Project conference this week—you remember the Educational Equality Project, don’t you?  The unholy alliance between Rev. Al Sharpton and Chancellor Joel Klein, funded by a $500,000 tax-deductible gift from former Chancellor Harold Levy’s Connecticut-based hedge fund to Sharpton’s National Action Network that was laundered through Education Reform Now, a non-profit linked to Education Reform Now Advocacy Inc. (a lobbying group), and Democrats for Education Reform (a political action committee)?  Throw in how the gift helped to offset Sharpton’s personal and organizational IRS tax woes—a $1 million settlement last July—and Levy’s lobbying City Hall on a range of horseracing initiatives worth hundreds of millions to his company and its partners, and you have the making of a John Grisham novel.  All that’s missing is a few hookers.  

The Educational Equality Project, which has garnered signatories from a large number of prominent politicians and education leaders, recently launched its website.  At the top of the page is a rotating list of “facts,” backed by a list of “all the facts,” with links to references that presumably document or support the facts.  skoolboy decided to fact-check some of the facts.  Are they fact or fiction?

Barely half of African-American and Latino students graduate from high school, while nearly 80% of white students do.

Toss-Up:  These figures are accurate if we limit consideration to on-time graduation rates.  Chris Swanson of Editorial Projects in Education reports a Cumulative Promotion Index, an estimate of the four-year graduation rate, of 58% for Hispanics and 55% for African-Americans in the class of 2005.  These rates would likely increase if we extended the possible time to completion to five or six years.

A black male is more likely to be in prison than to have a post-graduate degree; one in nine black men between 20-34 are incarcerated.

Fact:  According to the 2006 American Community Survey, 492,000 Black men aged 25 or older held a graduate degree.  This is fewer than the 634,000 Black men aged 25 or older who are incarcerated.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that about 11% of non-Hispanic Black male U.S. residents were in state or federal prisons or local jails in mid-year 2006.

Four years in a row with a top-quartile teacher is enough to close the Black-white test score gap.

Fiction:  No study has ever shown this.  The obvious citation is the Gordon, Kane and Staiger Brookings report, which suggests that this would be the case if results cumulate.  But the statement here is what happens when people get sloppy.  What Gordon, Kane and Staiger actually said was that four years in a row with a top-quartile teacher versus four years in a row with a bottom-quartile teacher could close the Black-white test score gap.  That second part is pretty important, because the odds of any student having a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row are pretty slender.  But, as eduwonkette and I have argued elsewhere, Brian Jacob has shown that the effects of exposure to an effective teacher decline sharply over time, so there is no evidence that this claim could be true.

White students in the 12th grade are, on average, four years ahead of their African American peers.

Fiction:  The original sourcing of this claim appears to be the Thernstrom and Thernstrom book No Excuses, which compared the scores of eighth-graders and 12th-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Elizabeth Green quoted an NCES official on why such comparisons are inappropriate.  Even though NAEP uses a common proficiency scale for fourth, eighth, and 12th grade reading and mathematics, the underlying skills being assessed in eighth grade and 12th grade are sufficiently different that a given score does not represent the same competencies in both grades.

Third grade reading scores are used by Arizona, California, and New Mexico as a factor to estimate the future need of prison beds.

Fiction:  The source provided for this is an op-ed piece written by an advocate that appeared in the New Mexico Sun News in 2007.  “We should also know that children—our children are being targeted—third grade reading scores are one of the components tallied in the projected need for prison beds,” wrote Tilda Sosaya.   But I have found no evidence of the use of third-grade test scores in projections for prison populations in any of the models currently in use, and it’s really hard to imagine how third-grade test scores could possibly be useful for this purpose.

The reading skills gap between white 17 year-olds and 17 year-olds of color is wider now than it was in 1990.

Fiction:  Data from both the long-term trend National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the main NAEP show that the reading gap between white and racial/ethnic minority youth is not wider today than it was in 1990.

2004 graduation rates for Black boys:  21% in Indianapolis, 31% in Detroit, and 35% in Atlanta. 

Toss-Up: I can’t verify the 2004 data, which come from the Schott Foundation.  The state of Michigan reported an on-time graduation rate of 48% for Black males for the 2007 cohort of graduates.  Georgia reported a 67% graduation rate for Black students (male and female combined) in Atlanta in 2007.   

So what’s the point?  The achievement gap is no joke:  racial and ethnic differences in educational outcomes have real consequences for individuals’ lives.  But there’s little to be gained by misrepresenting the facts about the achievement gap.  Signing on to a half-baked set of claims about the facts undermines the seriousness of purpose that I am sure characterizes most of the Educational Equality Project’s board, staff and signatories.  This part of the act shouldn’t be hard to clean up.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.