The Greatest War: Empathy vs. Selfishness

Without diminishing the horrific civil war in Syria or the many other violent conflicts around the world, I believe that the greatest war is being fought between those with empathy and those who are selfish. In our own country we see it playing out on many fronts:

  • Health Care: do we empathize with those who cannot afford it or selfishly insist that healthcare is solely a personal responsibility?
  • Homelessness: do we look the ever increasing number of homeless people in the eye and reach out a helping hand, or do we look away and encourage our policymakers to criminalize homelessness so we do not have to see it as we walk down our streets?
  • Education: do we take real steps to improve public education for our most marginalized students to close the achievement gap, or do we siphon public funds to private schools which largely benefit those who can already afford to send their children to such schools?
  • Civil Rights: do we acknowledge and remedy the real discrimination suffered by people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups or do we undo the progress made by over 50 years of civil rights legislation by failing to enforce those laws?
  • Income inequality: do we build an economy that allows everyone to enjoy the basic necessities of life, including food, housing and health care, or do we continue down an accelerating path of haves and have nots?

I have long theorized that most of these problems could be solved if more people empathized with those who struggle with one or more of these challenges. Yet, a recent study showed that an decreasing percentage of college students have empathy for others by dismissing their attachment to others.

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While this presents a challenge for the future in a world that appears increasingly selfish, the good news is that there are methods to increase empathy and many people are working to implement these methods. Roman Krznaric wrote: Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it a few years ago. In it, he suggests the following methods for increasing empathy.

  1. Stop and listen-Research shows that in employee-employer disputes, if both sides agree to simply repeat what the other side just said before they start speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.
  2. Ask a stranger (such as a restaurant worker) how their life is going-Barriers to empathy are stereotypes and prejudices we have about others, often due to unconscious judgements based on appearance or accent.  A good way to increase empathy for those whom you do not know is to have a genuine conversation with a stranger at least once a week. Since most of us interact with restaurant and other retail workers who are strangers to us, this is an easy place to start.
  3. Expand your horizons through books and films-As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While we cannot do this in a literal manner, Krznaric has established an Empathy Library to provide resources to those interested in teaching and expanding empathy.
  4. Bring empathy instruction into our schools-The word’s most effective program, Roots of Empathy, began in Canada and is spreading worldwide: over half a million children have done it.  The teacher is a baby who visits a class group regularly over a year. The children sit around the baby and discuss questions: What’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? It’s a stepping stone to developing their empathic imaginations. It works by increasing empathy levels, boosting cooperation, reducing school yard bullying and even increasing general academic achievement.

Some may consider this naive, as it is also the case that studies demonstrate that those in power, both in the workplace and by income, tend to be more selfish. One way to combat the ingrained selfishness of the rich and powerful is to demonstrate to them that over the long run, empathy for others will improve everyone’s lives, including their own. For example:

  • improving education for all will provide better workers to improve the economy for all;
  • expanding access to health care for everyone reduces the need for hospitals to provide free high cost charity care in their emergency rooms driving the cost of medical care up for everyone as someone has to pay for this care;
  • providing affordable housing and supportive services for the homeless does a better job of removing the visible scourge of homelessness from our streets over the long term than jail terms when we criminalize homelessness;
  • protecting the civil rights of marginalized groups and individuals helps those people feel welcome in our communities and less likely to commit acts of desperation;
  • reducing income inequality decreases the resentment of those in poverty against the wealthy and generates a healthier overall economy for all.

Increasing empathy starts at the individual level, so I encourage my readers to start today. Find a stranger, open a conversation, and increase your empathy. You will feel better for it and one step at a time, empathy can win the war over selfishness.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Close the Achievement Gap: Increase Intensive Support

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education reviews the budget which its administration has prepared for the coming year, it would be wise to take a close look at its continuing problem with the ongoing racial, disability and poverty achievement gap and focus on how appropriate staffing can help to close that gap. While some improvements have been made, persistent gaps remain.

Students simply will not succeed if they are not in school. During the 2014-15 school year 2,477 MMSD students were habitually truant (meaning 5 or more days of unexcused absence from school) representing 9.8% of all MMSD students. But 1,235 of those students (nearly half) were African-American, representing 26.9% of all MMSD African-American students.

During that same year, MMSD suspended 1,713 students. But, 1,069 of them were African-American representing well over half of those suspended students. 402 of MMSD suspended students had disabilities, representing 10.9% of all MMSD students with disabilities, nearly half of all MMSD suspended students. While the data does not reveal how many African-American students with disabilities were suspended, when one adds the African-American suspended students and the suspended students with disabilities, that number almost equals all MMSD suspended students so it is safe to assume that African-American students with disabilities have the highest rate of suspension in the district.

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That MMSD’s discipline data reveals troubling racial and disability disparities is consistent with national data. But that should come as no solace to anyone, as nobody should admire the data. Instead, we need to apply solutions that we know will work to solve the problem.

While MMSD’s Behavior Education Plan has succeeded in significantly reducing the total number of suspensions, it also reveals another glaring gap for children in poverty. While 48% of MMSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a shocking 89% of MMSD suspensions were doled out to low-income students.

Finally, graduation rates also reveal a troubling achievement gap. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, 80.1% of MMSD seniors graduated in 4 years. But only 57.8% of African-American students; 56.8% of students with disabilities; and 62.1% of low-income students graduate in 4 years.

Fortunately, MMSD has a program designed to address the needs of its students with the most intensive needs. The Intensive Support Team (IST) takes requests from MMSD staff to address the needs of students in crisis. As of May 2, 2016, during this school year, there were 455 requests for support to IST. Of these, 411 were served by the team in one of several capacities (consultation, intake/assessment, professional development, short term stabilization), 250 were closed and the rest still active. This means that nearly 10% of referrals were not served and over 1/2 of all referrals are still receiving intensive supports.

Unfortunately, staff cuts were made to this team last year and the administration’s proposed budget does not propose to fill those cuts. The good news is that the budget is still in the discussion stage. School board member Anna Moffit has proposed to increase the IST staff by 3.5 FTE staff to address the unmet need for these students at a cost of approximately $250,000. In an era of tight budgets and state imposed revenue caps, Ms. Moffit recognizes that the money must come from somewhere so she has identified the following reasonable places where this money can be found: reduce spending on Technology Plan; reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers; or utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

The school board and our community must recognize that failing to meet the needs of these students has a significant cost both to these students and to society at large. A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights project from which I extrapolated the high cost of suspensions in Wisconsin, reveals that each suspended student who fails to graduate results in:

  • $19,572 in fiscal costs; and
  • $60,962 in societal costs.

Thus, if the IST is able to help only 5 more students at risk of suspension to graduate, it will have saved our community far more money than the additional cost which Ms. Moffit proposes spending on this worthy program. Thus, her proposal makes senses for educational, equitable, social and economic reasons and should therefore receive the support of the full school board.

Residents of MMSD who support Ms. Moffit’s proposal should e-mail the school board to encourage them to approve her amendment at: board@madison.k12.wi.us.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Madison’s School Discipline Gets National Attention

UCLA’s Civil Rights Project recently released a comprehensive national report, entitled, Are we Closing the School Discipline Gap?  

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As the authors state:

The egregious disparities revealed in the pages that follow transform concerns about educational policy that allows frequent disciplinary removal into a profound matter of civil rights and social justice. This implicates the potentially unlawful denial of educational opportunity and resultant disparate impact on students in numerous districts across the country.

The authors go on to draw the connection between excessive discipline and and poor academic performance.  As they mention:

missing three days of school in the month before taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress translated into fourth graders scoring a full grade level lower in reading on this test. New research shows that higher suspension rates are closely correlated with higher dropout and delinquency rates, and that they have tremendous economic costs for the suspended students…

The authors conclude that:

the large racial/ethnic disparities in suspensions that we document in this report likely will have an adverse and disparate impact on the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children. This supports our assertion that we will close the racial achievement gap only when we also address the school discipline gap.

The report contains an addendum which highlights 20 school districts, including Madison, Wisconsin. It is important to note that the report uses data from 2009-2012, before the inception of Madison’s new Behavior Education Plan at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.  The authors describe the data from the earlier period as “deeply disturbing.”  They highlight the following:

in 2011-12, over 46% of all Black students with disabilities and over 49% of all Black males with disabilities were suspended at least once at the secondary school level. The district’s overall rates are also above the national average at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Equally troubling is that the Madison Metropolitan School District’s suspension rates increased between 2009-10 and 2011-12:

• Overall suspension rates at the elementary level increased, with roughly 595 students suspended at least once in 2011-12, or 4.2%. This represents an increase of 1.7 percentage points from the 2009-10 rate of 2.5%.

• Overall suspension rates at the secondary level increased, with roughly 1,620 students suspended at least once in 2011-12, or 12.9%. This represents an increase of over one half a percentage point from the 2009-10 rate of 12.3%.

With this national attention in mind, it is worth examining how Madison’s new Behavior Education Plan has impacted this disturbing situation. Coincidentally, on the exact same day that the Civil Rights Project released its report, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) released its Behavior Education Plan Mid-Year Review.

First, the good news, suspension have dropped significantly from the 2013-14 school year to the current year.  However, the disparities in discipline remain.

  • 35% of all suspensions were of children with disabilities even though they only represent 14% of the total district population (this is somewhat better than the 39% rate in 2013-14);
  • 84% of all suspensions were of children who receive free or reduced lunch due to their low income status, far greater than their 48% of the total student population (and somewhat lower than the 87% rate in 2013-14);
  • 64% of suspensions were of African-American students despite their only being 18% of the total district population (this is worse than the 59% rate in 2013-14); and
  • the best news was that Hispanic student suspensions dropped to 9% from the previous year’s 13%, both of which are lower than their overall 20% of the student population.

The question for Madison is not whether the Behavior Education Plan is having an impact. It clearly is reducing suspensions.  However, given the stark disparities which still remain, as I have repeatedly stated, until MMSD sets measurable goals for the Plan, neither it, nor the public at large will be able to determine whether it is accomplishing what we believe it should, namely more time in school resulting in improved academic performance and closing the achievement gap.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Urban School Districts Demonstrate How to Close the Achievement Gap

Closing the achievement gap in our public schools has proven to be a daunting task for many urban school districts.  However, two large urban school districts, in Gwinnet County, Georgia, and Orange County, Florida, have demonstrated that it can be done.  Recently, both of these districts were co-recipients of the $1 million Broad Prize which recognizes improvements in urban education.  Students in these districts will be eligible for college scholarships from this prize.  While there are some who deride the Broad Foundation  for its efforts, my purpose here is to examine the progress of these districts, and describe how they improved the educational outcomes for their disadvantaged students, so that other school districts can replicate these results.

Both school districts are very large.  Gwinnett County has over 169,000 students and Orange County has over 188,000 students.  Gwinnett County has a history of academic success which is likely influenced by the fact that it has had the same Superintendent, Alan Wilbanks, at its helm for 18 years. Academic qualitative analysis of the reasons for Gwinnett County’s ability to produce academic success for its students despite having 55% of them eligible for free & reduced lunch, resulting in increased graduation rates and narrowing the achievement gap include:

  • mentoring programs;
  • tutoring programs;
  • parental involvement; and
  • constant communication between the school, parents, and the community.

Orange County, Florida’s success is more recent, but as the 10th largest school district in the nation, which has 62% of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch, it is notable that it has:

  • A greater percentage of African-American students who are reaching advanced academic levels in Orange County than elsewhere in Florida;
  • Narrowed the achievement gap for both Hispanic students and low-income students; and
  • Increased both the participation and passage rates for Hispanic students taking  Advanced Placement tests.

Consistent leadership has also helped Orange County, as its current Superintendent Barbara Jenkins worked for 6 years under the prior Superintendent who served for 12 years before Ms. Jenkins took the helm. She attributes Orange County’s progress to:

  • a focus on data that the district uses to drive attention and resources to the weakest areas;
  • support from the community—including taxpayer approval of huge property tax increases to help fund school programs and stave off painful program cuts; and
  • centralizing curriculum, assessment, and professional development.

Closing the achievement gap is hard work, but consistent leadership, focusing resources on the most challenging students, and community and parental support, including financial support, are the keys to success.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Which Children are Left Behind?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently released the annual school report cards for all Wisconsin public school districts and individual schools.  DPI’s press release proclaimed that,

Most schools and school districts meet or exceed expectations on annual report cards.

While that is certainly good news, if we care about our most vulnerable students, it is worth examining whether they are meeting or exceeding expectations.  When these report cards first came out a couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece on the performance of Madison East High School, where my son is now a senior.  I kept it short, because the report cards were new, and those were their first release, but given my penchant for insisting on school district accountability for the education of their students, it is worth examining how well the Madison Metropolitan School District  (MMSD) succeeded in educating its most vulnerable students during the 2013-14 school year.

While overall DPI considered that MMSD “meets expectations,” a closer examination of vulnerable student populations suggests that many MMSD students are not receiving an education which will prepare them adequately for adulthood.

READING

  • Statewide advanced or proficient=37.6%
  • MMSD district-wide advanced or proficient=37.8%
  • MMSD Black students: only 12.9% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 58.2% minimal performance
  • MMSD Hispanic students: only 15.6% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 52.2% minimal performance
  • MMSD students with disabilities: only 14.5% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 65.4% minimal performance
  • MMSD economically disadvantaged students: only 13.5% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 55.9% minimal performance
  • MMSD limited English proficiency students: only 12.9% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 54.7% minimal performance

MATH

  • Statewide advanced or proficient=50.2%
  • MMSD district-wide advanced or proficient=45.5%
  • MMSD Black students: only 16.8% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 47.6% minimal performance
  • MMSD Hispanic students: only 23% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 32.4% minimal performance
  • MMSD students with disabilities: only 19% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 55.6% minimal performance
  • MMSD economically disadvantaged students: only 19.9% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 39.8% minimal performance
  • MMSD limited English proficiency students: only 23.5% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 32.3% minimal performance

4 YEAR GRADUATION RATES

  • MMSD’s district-wide graduation rate=77.3% (up 2.7% from prior year)
  • MMSD black student graduation rate=59% (up 4% from prior year)
  • MMSD Hispanic student graduation rate=68.8% (up 5.6% from prior year)
  • MMSD students with disabilities graduation rate=44.9% (down 1.3% from prior year)
  • MMSD economically disadvantaged students graduation rate=56.2% (up .8% from prior year)
  • MMSD limited English proficiency students graduation rate=59% (down 3% from prior year)

In sum, while some MMSD students are showing improvements in their reading and math, as well as graduation, too many vulnerable students are either falling ever further behind.  Both the school district and the citizenry must demand more than incremental improvement and certainly no further slippage in performance from our school district.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Madison School Improvement Plan: Insufficient Accountability

Earlier this week, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham held a press conference touting the progress which the district has made after one year under her leadership.  The basis for her claim was the progress made by many schools as set forth under her First Annual Report.  To make sure that MMSD parents were aware of how each school is doing under what she has dubbed the Strategic Frameworkshe e-mailed MMSD parents with links to the Annual Report, and encouraged them to examine the results of the children’s schools.

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To that end, I have examined the results at Madison East High School, and despite the fact that my son gets a good education there, the results reveal significant academic problems, huge racial disparities, and simply no information about school discipline issues.

First, it is worth examining the demographics of East High, which interestingly are found in the accountability link.  In the 2013-14 school year, East High had:

  • 55.4% low-income students;
  • 24.7% English Language Learners;
  • 21.5% Special education students; and
  • a minority white student, with 59.3% of its students being non-white.

Next, the academic achievement results as shown in the School Improvement Plan which provides no data for any minority groups other than African-Americans and students in special education reveals that:

  • While there was some improvement with 33% of 9th graders having 2 or more course failures compared to 38% the prior year, this is still a very high rate of failure and is magnified by significant racial and disability disparities with 49% of African-American 9th graders having 2 or more course failures, and 45% of students in special education having 2 or more course failures;
  • Once again, there was some improvement with 36% of 11th graders having a 3.0 grade point average or higher (compared to 31% the prior year), these rates plummet to 11% for African-American students, and 10% for students in special education;
  • Reading and math scores show similar improvement, but once again striking racial and disability disparities with 45% of students at a college ready reading level, but only 22% of African-American students and 18% of students in special education reading at that level; and 40% of students at college ready math level, but only 12% of both African-American and students in special education reading at that level;
  • Finally, the 4 year graduation rate has improved overall to 83%, but it is only 70% for African-American students and a mere 49% for students in special education, which unfortunately suggests that many students are graduating without college ready reading or math abilities.

Sadly, given all the attention paid to the school district’s significant modification of its Behavior Education Plan earlier this year, there is no school discipline data provided to parents or the public, which means there are no goals, nor any accountability for this area which is so critical to improving student achievement and shutting down the school to prison pipeline.

In sum, while some improvement is worth bragging about, the high level of racial and disability disparities which remain, and complete lack of data and goals around improved behavior mean that MMSD has a long way to go if it School Improvement Plan will result in a quality education for all of its students, preparing them to be productive adults upon graduation.

_________________________________________________________________________________________ For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Replicate this: The Kalamazoo Promise Works

The sound and fury of school reform proponents is deafening as they decry public school failures and urge privatization, charters and high stakes testing.  Equally furious public school supporters seek to cast blame for public school failures on the twin devils of inadequate school funding and student poverty.  Remarkably, neither camp spends a lot of time focusing on innovative programs with proven success and encouraging successful replication.

While successful systems change requires genuine root cause analysis of the problems which require change, real change is far easier and more likely to succeed when a successful model exists which is worthy of replication.  When it comes to increasing high school graduation rates, improving grades, and lowering behavior problems, the Kalamazoo Promise is a program which succeeds in all these measures, and clearly deserves emulation nationwide.

The Kalamazoo Promise started 8 years ago, and has nearly 4000 eligible students. Through sufficient donations, it promises to provide public college scholarships to Kalamazoo High School graduates, with at least a 2.0 grade point average, so unlike many other scholarship programs, it is not designed to serve only academically oriented students.  Of course, students must perform well enough in high school to gain entry into a Michigan college or university, which encourages students who want to obtain the Promise scholarships to work harder.  However, scholarships are available to every Michigan public post-secondary institution from local community colleges to flagship institutions such as the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, thereby fitting the needs of any student who seeks a post-secondary education.

The scholarships provide 65% of public college tuition and mandatory fees for Kalamazoo students who enrolled in high school in 9th grade, sliding up to 100% for those who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) from Kindergarten through 12th grade.  This feature has actually served to increase public school enrollment in Kalamazoo, stemming what had been an 18 year trend of declining enrollment and white flight.  Between 80-90% of KPS graduates have been eligible for college scholarships and between 82-85% have received scholarships ranging from $5,000-55,000.

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This chart also reveals that KPS is a mid-size urban school district with significant poverty (13.6% in the 2000 census), and a racially diverse make-up, which makes it all the more appropriate for replication in the myriad of other similar districts throughout the country. This enrollment rise reflects both new students coming into KPS because of the Promise as well as fewer students leaving (through drop out or moving) than prior to the Promise.

In addition to the clear benefit from enrollment rising in KPS, a recent study shows important academic and behavioral results from the Promise:

  • Increased credits obtained by KPS high school students;
  • Increased grades earned by all KPS students with a more dramatic increase for African-American students; and a
  • Decrease in days of suspension for all students, with a more dramatic decrease for African-American students.

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The researchers appropriately deem these results striking and further find that:

The decrease in the number of days spent in suspension might have shifted past some “tipping point” beyond which more presence in the classroom leads to higher grades, while leaving the white students less affected.

With results like these, school advocates of all stripes should push private foundations as well as state and federal governments to put their energy and funding into replicating the Kalamazoo Promise nationwide.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

The Synergy of Individual Advocacy & Systems Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, the synergy of individual advocacy & systems change.  For nearly 20 years, I have been combating the schools to prison pipeline, as I wrote about over a year ago.  In January, I started writing a series of blogs and submitted them to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) school board as its administrators developed a series of 4 drafts of what started out as a proposed revision of its discipline plan, but on my advice, became the new Behavior Education Plan, which will go into effect on September 1, 2014, and you can review here.  That plan had been sailing under the radar with relatively minimal public input, until my clients and I recently went public with an expulsion case which was a classic  example of zero tolerance run amok.  Fortunately, in one night, the school board ended my client’s expulsion, and then proceeded to approve the new Behavior Education Plan, in front of a packed auditorium, putting 2 nails in the coffin of zero tolerance.

As I testified to the school board that night, MMSD’s new, improved plan is not perfect, as it fails to set specific goals for reducing out of school discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, and accordingly fails to set specific goals for reducing the racial and disability disparities in both discipline and academic achievement which the district has long struggled to overcome.  In addition, I encouraged the school board to place advocates in each school to assist students and their parents through the discipline process as well as other challenges, including academic, which students may encounter.

Unfortunately, after I made that suggestion, the President of the MMSD School Board, publicly criticized my suggestion, as he does not view the discipline process as “adversarial,” which is fairly remarkable given his work as an attorney, but even more remarkable given that he truly does not understand the role that advocates actively play not only to improve outcomes for the children for whom they advocate, but to help change flawed systems for the better.

For nearly 30 years, my career as a civil rights attorney has involved taking individual cases and evolving them, when appropriate, into positive systems change.  This includes the struggle to finally pass a new law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, which only occurred after representing many students harmed by this horrific practice and shedding the bright media light on it.

Any system that desires continuous improvement should recognize the value of advocacy as both an individual corrective tool, as well as a vehicle for identifying systemic problems. Dane County, Wisconsin, has recognized the value of having an internal ombudsman in its human services department to “ensure that people are getting appropriate services.”

While it is unclear whether MMSD can afford to place ombudsmen or advocates in each of its schools, it should certainly examine its budget to pilot such a program in schools with the highest discipline and academic problems.  Moreover, it could partner with outside agencies, which have existing advocacy services, such as Wisconsin Family Ties, which uses non-lawyer professional advocates, Wisconsin FACETS, which uses non-lawyer paid and volunteer advocates, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which uses non-lawyer advocates with legal back-up and occasional direct lawyer involvement.  However, all of these agencies only work with children with disabilities, and I know of no agency providing school advocacy services to non-disabled students.

If the MMSD truly wants to ensure that its new Behavior Education Plan succeeds, it should actively engage with existing advocacy organizations, and work to obtain foundation support to fund advocates for non-disabled students.  Working together with the school district, on behalf of students, these advocates can correct natural human errors in the new system, and provide useful data to the MMSD administration so it can take corrective measures when repeated problems inevitably crop up.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Moving from Worst to First: Creating the Madison Model

This past fall, the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families released its Race to Equity report on the state of racial disparities in Dane County, Wisconsin.  The data was alarming, including:

  • A Black unemployment rate of 25%–5 times higher than the 5% unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites: worse than the Wisconsin ratio of 23:7%; and far worse than the national ratio of 18:8%;
  • An even more shocking poverty disparity with 75% of Dane County Black children living in poverty compared to 5% of Non-Hispanic White children: once again far worse than the Wisconsin disparity of 49:12%; and the national disparity of 39:14%.

Academically, the disproportional disparities persist in Dane County:

  • 70% of Black students did not take the ACT in 2011, compared to 36% of non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with the state wide non-participation rate of 50:41%;
  • 50% of Black students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) did not graduate in 4 years in 2011, compared to 16% of Non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with a 36:9% ratio statewide.

Arrest rates are also alarming:

  • Juvenile arrest rates in 2010 were a shocking 46.9% of Black juveniles arrested in Dane County, while only 7.7% of White juveniles were arrested, compared to a 32.9:9.8% statewide ratio, and a 7.1:3.3% national ratio;
  • Adult arrest rates in 2012 show a similarly shocking 29.5% of Blacks arrested in Dane County, while only 3.6% of whites were arrested, compared to a 23:5.3% statewide ratio, and a 8.2:3.3% national ratio.

Much has been written about these shocking numbers and their human toll, with great leadership being demonstrated in the African-American community, particularly by Rev. Alex Gee, whom I wrote about previously.

However, 6 months after this compelling report which basically describes Madison and Dane County as perhaps the worst place for African-Americans to live in the nation, none of the institutions responsible for this ongoing tragedy: our schools systems; our system of justice; or our economic policy makers; have made specific commitments to stem the tide of this tragedy.

When I last met with Rev. Gee a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that his leadership had presented a unique opportunity to move Madison and Dane County from the Worst to the First in the nation on addressing racial disparities.  While many may be skeptical and remain satisfied with tinkering around the edges to seek and hopefully obtain minor, incremental improvements, I believe that with:

  • clearly identified, measurable goals,
  • community-wide support to achieve those goals,
  • policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals; and
  • clear accountability for community leaders to take credit for achieving those goals and blame for failure to do so,

we can create The Madison Model for ending racial disparities, and more importantly, achieving racial justice as an example for the nation.

Skeptics will argue that my suggestions are naive and such dramatic improvement simply cannot be achieved.  Indeed, without clear measurable goals, community-wide support to achieve those goals, policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals, and clear accountability for community leaders to achieve those goals, Madison and Dane County will likely stay mired in its misery of racial injustice.  Fortunately, Rev. Gee’s coalition has galvanized many and will be convening organizing meetings on March 29th & April 5th to move this process forward.  I look forward to participating in both sessions to continue our work in moving Madison from Worst to First.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.