Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Broader, Bolder Approach

This piece is by a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. I discovered it on the website for a new organization, A Broader, Bolder Approach for Education @ I trust the perspectives of a number of the original co-signers, so I added my name to the list. Maybe their effort will help bring some common sense back into the picture.

Get bolder in effort to lift all children's education

by Susan B. Neuman
Detroit Free Press
July 31, 2008

Six years after the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law, there is frustratingly little evidence that it will close the achievement gap between low-income, minority children and their middle-class peers. Despite the heroic attempts of many dedicated educators, NCLB-inspired school reforms, like so many others before, have failed and will continue to fail to change the trajectory of our disadvantaged children.

As President George W. Bush's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education during NCLB's passage and initial implementation, I began my journey believing that raising standards would be enough to help low-income children succeed. I have learned that closing the achievement gap requires much more. The failure is not a result of the president's espoused "soft bigotry of low expectations," but because many children grow up in circumstances that make them highly vulnerable.

Schools educate middle-class children well but struggle to function as remedial, clinical institutions. Once a child starts falling behind in school, catching up is mostly a pipe dream.

In their 1995 book "Meaningful Differences," Betty Hart and Todd Risley calculated it would take approximately 41 hours of extra intervention per week to raise language scores of poor children to those of their well-off counterparts by age four -- and that's before starting preschool!

The impetus for change built into NCLB was to effectively "shame" schools into improvement. We now see that the shame game is flawed.

Schools fail not because they lack resources, or quality teachers. School influences are overwhelmed because so many children are molded by highly vulnerable and dysfunctional environments. The rhetoric of leaving no child behind has trumped reality.

A child born poor will likely stay poor, likely live in an unsafe neighborhood, landscaped with little hope, with more security bars than quality day care or after school programs. This highly vulnerable community will have higher proportions of very young children, higher rates of single parenting, and fewer educated adults. The child will likely find dilapidated schools, abandoned playgrounds, and teachers, though earnest, ready to throw in the towel. The child will drop further behind, with increasingly narrow options.

Shaming schools has become the cure to everything but the common cold, distracting attention from the devastating effects of poverty. We need to move beyond touting school reform as the magical elixir. It is important, but we need to mobilize other institutions to help solve this problem.

I've now joined with a group of national experts, from diverse backgrounds, areas of expertise and political beliefs, calling for a "broader, bolder approach" to education. Our proposals (at certainly include improving schools, but tie changes in classrooms to changes in the world outside.

For example, as a researcher and government official, I've seen highly successful early childhood programs where teachers focus relentlessly on prevention, effectively changing the odds for poor children. But such programs are too rare.

A broader, bolder approach must also ensure routine pediatric, dental, hearing and vision care for all infants, toddlers and schoolchildren. Many of the most intractable problems faced by young children and their parents can be traced to maternal health-related behaviors. Programs such as the nurse-family partnership project have shown stunning effects on young mothers' ability to care for their infant's nutritional, health and social needs.*

I've also seen hospital and health center services that show low-income parents and children the pleasures of looking at books together. They demonstrate that pediatricians' literacy-promoting interventions can dramatically improve the language of young children.

A broader, bolder approach also needs high-quality out-of-school support. Disadvantaged students often lose ground after school and during summers.

All this suggests that perhaps schools don't have exclusive rights to education.

If we are to take seriously the prospect of really leaving no child behind, we need to support education whether delivered in K-12 schools, in clinics, child-care centers, community-based organizations, libraries, church basements or storefronts. By using the science of what we know works, we can help millions of children growing up in highly vulnerable circumstances to achieve a more promising future.

SUSAN B. NEUMAN is a professor in educational studies specializing in early literacy development at the University of Michigan. Write to her in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or at

*You can find more information about the Nurse-Family Partnership project @ The California locations do not include Alameda County (only Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties). Primary supporters are the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Google, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Picower Foundation, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Apparently, the Gates Foundation will be getting on board, too. Patty Stonesifer, their outgoing CEO, reported on Gates Keepers ( that they "...recently joined an expand the Nurse Family Partnership."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Poetry: A Daguerreotype of "Renty," a Congo Slave

A March 2006 New York Times article reported the following facts*:

  • 72 percent = the share of young black men without jobs in 2004
  • 50 percent = the share of black men in their 20's who were jobless in 2004, even when high school graduates were included
  • 21 percent = the share of black men in their 20's, who did not attend college and who were incarcerated in 2004

by George Higgins

He owns the leaf in his hand, his owner’s scorn.
The chemicals lop, etch, emulsify;
his gray hair radiates, a nest of thorns.
He stares back brutally, bleared, peppercorn,
some master’s crop, crushed in the glare. His eyes
are silvery, oiled, almost metallic, toilworn.
Today the cell mates clot below, most black.
In bright smocks, yellow and orange, they climb
the steps. How many behind the glass this week?
I pick a folder up from the ordered stack,
a criminal worn thin from serving time.
This one leans forward and begins to speak.

*“Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn” by Erik Eckholm, 3/20/06,

Monday, August 18, 2008

1927 news story

Two years ago my daughter worked as a summer intern at the local newspaper. While there she was permitted to look at files of old articles that had been clipped and saved in the days before computers and the internet. Here’s a story so quirky and entertaining, I wanted to share it with you.

(Title unknown), The Oakland Tribune, April 25, 1927

A girl, who dressed like a man and worked as a truck driver and concrete laborer because it was an “easier” life than being a mother is in the Oakand city jail today, charged with masquerading in man’s clothing.

Since she was nine years old, Grace Boehm, now 23, has hoboed, labored, sailed in the forecastle of a rum ship and otherwise lived a life of the most adventurous male.

Twice she has succumbed to the gentle influence of love, but not for long. Her first marriage to Emil Helwig, rich owner of a truck fleet in Marin and Sonoma counties, was annulled in Oklahoma, she says. Her second husband, Jack Kenney, wartime aviator, is in a government tuberculosis hospital at San Fernando, she says.


The girl “vagabond” has a four-year-old daughter, in care of the father, and her own mother Mrs. Frederick Ruhser, lives at 418 Texas street, San Francisco.

“Grace went through a very terrible operation several years ago,” said Mrs. Ruhser when she learned of her daughter’s arrest. “Since then she has thrown off all restraints of her girlhood and has never been normal.”

Grace, or Jerry, was arrested in an Oakland noodle parlor yesterday by Police Officer James Dolan who had followed her from a poolroom. She was dressed in a pair of blue dungarees, rough shoes and workingmens’ socks, a blue work shirt, with the “makin’s” dangling from a breast pocket, and topped her garb with an old brown coat and a felt hat cocked jauntily on one side of her closely-shorn head.


For the past three days Grace has been working for the Perry Cnostruction [sic] company, as a truck helper on cemment [sic] construction. She earned $6 a day.

“Isn’t labor hard for a girl?” asked Judge Tyrrell.

“No. And there’s lots of it for anybody willing to really work,” said the girl.

“I have begged her to go back to her husband and baby but it is useless,” said the mother.

Grace know [sic] how to talk in terms of the road and hobo camps. She can also speak the language of the sea and has a southern dialect, although she said she was born in San Francisco.

The girl told police she has a completet [sic] wardrobe of women’s wear and changes at random. It takes an industrious worker to keep up both a man’s and a woman’s wardrobe, she said.

No other law-breaking besides masquerading in violation of a city ordinance is charged against the girl.

(The very next day...)

“Girl in Man’s Attire Ordered To Leave City, Court’s Sentence Is That Woman Must Never Come Back to Oakland,” The Oakland Tribune, April 26, 1927

Because she wore men’s clothes and worked as a laborer to escape the responsibilities of motherhood, Grace Boehm, arrested Sunday in an Eighth Street poolroom, must never come to Oakland again. This, today, was the sentence imposed on the 23-year-old girl in the custody of her husband, Jack Kenney, a World War aviator in a government hospital at San Fernando. The girl’s mother, Mrs. Frederick Rhuser, said Grace underwent an operation several days ago that gave her a wanderlust in which she forsook girl dress and assumed the characteristics of a man.

The girl earned $6 a day as a cement mixer, which work she told the judge was easier than housekeeping.

Despite the two articles’ inconsistency in the reported timing of the “terrible operation,” don’t we still wonder what kind of operation it was, and what ever happened to Mrs. Boehm?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The struggle

As a veteran Oakland public school parent and public school supporter, the past several months have been tough. This summer I’ve been having a crisis of confidence in my school district, and in my daughter’s school. It was brought on by flare-ups of district and school site dysfunction that resulted in a series of disappointments and setbacks.

I am not at the point where I am thinking about bailing out for the supposed nirvana of the costly privates, but I long to feel hopeful and confident about my child’s school once again. Undoubtedly, the private school parents will probably think, “I told you so.” One public school parent once said that these schools aren't for the feint of heart, and she was absolutely right.

My youngest daughter only has three more years to go. Reminding myself to keep sight of the big picture, I know she is doing well and has enough nice, normal friends at her school who are from nice, normalish families. It’s still sad to hear them commenting on how incredibly screwed up things are at their school. They shouldn't have to struggle so much to feel a sense of school pride.

Take a look at the school’s yearbook for the Class of 2008. The teacher adviser was either sleeping on the job – or is illiterate herself – because she totally neglected to proofread or guide the written content of her students. This embarrassing book is now part of the school’s history for the public to see for decades to come. It is pitiful and is probably the most humiliating document that has ever been produced by an institution of learning. (This reminds me that I need to beg the principal to please reassign the yearbook adviser job to SOMEONE ELSE!)¹

A few weeks ago a new principal was assigned to the school and I hope he will be a good leader and do what needs to be done. I haven’t met him yet but have heard that other parents feel positive about him. The principal he is replacing did a great deal of damage to the school in the past two years of being in charge. It hasn’t been a truly sturdy school for many years and, after her tenure, the integrity of the school is more fragile than ever. Oh yeah, and the school is heading into its fourth year of NCLB Program Improvement, so more fun and games are in store.

As a longtime public school booster who has spent a lot of time and energy doing helpful things for my children’s schools over the years, it is sad to be feeling such low morale this far into it. Sometimes I envy the oblivious parents, the ones who are totally trusting or don’t have any idea about what is going on at their children's schools, and aren’t concerned a bit. If I was a member of that aloof club of parents, I’d be a lot better off – emotionally-speaking.

One of my daughters' favorite teachers (very qualified, skilled, hardworking, with high standards), who recently left the district after nine years, concluded that many of the better teachers just use OUSD as a stepping stone to somewhere else, because the working environment is so miserable here. He concluded that that the good ones get out and the mediocre, and bad ones, stay forever. I know it he isn’t 100% right, because I know good teachers who have stuck with the district, but there is enough truth in what he says that it hurts to hear. This issue is one of our district’s essential problems.

Better progress in the school district is stalled because we have so many difficult to teach students, most of whom have parents who are unable to provide strong support to the goals of the school. One solid African American teacher recently left the district after several years frustrated because he felt like he “couldn’t get any friction with his students”; their attitudes were so screwed up. I always grieve when I see good teachers and administrators leave for greener pastures. I don’t really blame them for moving on, because work here is grueling and their professional needs aren't being adequately met.

Adding to the strain at the schools is the fact that some of the district's non-teaching staff doesn’t seem to know how to provide a higher caliber of service. So, like knowing what good parenting is all about because it has been modeled, they don’t necessarily know what professional, good service looks like or how it is done (for instance, interacting in a professional manner with people who have come into the office, or who have called the school). When navigating these schools, it’s not unusual to get incompetent, or even rude and hostile responses. Likely a result of bad manners or chronic stress, too many people are short-tempered.

Sometimes interactions are charged with underlying racial tensions. I continually try to sort out my own perceptions, but it seems as if people on all sides are on guard. Homogeneity has its comfort benefits and is probably part of the unspoken reason why so many white families avoid Oakland’s public schools.

Ah, these wonderful years of accountability, educational reform, budget deficits, soaring incarceration rates, drive-by shootings, widespread illegal drug use (especially marijuana), city hall disasters, and people struggling along their merry way. Hopefully I'll catch a glimmer of hope from somewhere and snap out of it before too long.

¹Update on August 14, 2008: At the school's registration today, I learned that the teacher has been fired. Hopefully this isn't just a useless rumor. I would love to know the full extent of her incompetence, and who finally decided to do the dirty deed.