Category: education

Will the talking heads please shut up so we can have a real poverty debate?

By Alan Bean

January 8, 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of president Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty and Democrats and Republicans used the occasion to tout their very different descriptions of and proscriptions for the poverty problem.

If this low-key exchange were scored like a fight, the Republicans would win by TKO.

This article in The Hill, a generally non-partisan news source, quoted representatives from both major parties; but the red team dominated the story.

The Democrats were championed by president Obama and Senate majority leader, Harry Reid.  In a speech tailor made for the occasion, the President opined that “If we hadn’t declared ‘unconditional war on poverty in America,’ millions more Americans would be living in poverty today.”  Reid, for his part, thinks the Republicans are “cold-hearted” for refusing to extend unemployment benefits.  That’s it for the Democrats.

Then the Republicans took control of the story.   (more…)

Low student performance is all about poverty

Diane Ravitch

By Alan Bean

The pioneer and perfecter of the current passion for evaluating teachers on the basis of student performance on standardized tests can be laid at the feet of Eric Hanushek, a Stanford professor.  Hanushek believes that bad teachers beget bad students.  Ergo, if you want successful students, fire bad teachers.

No one questions that good teachers are better than bad teachers; but is testing an effective way to tell the difference.  As Diane Ravitch explains below, good teachers who work in poor schools test badly.  Since schools in affluent areas have fewer disciplinary problems and higher rates of student achievement, teachers find them desirable.  Poor schools get teachers with an unusually keen sense of mission or, more often, teachers who were passed over by principals in more affluent schools.

Hanushek is celebrated because he ignores poverty.  You can’t improve public education by throwing money at the problem, he believes.  Students don’t do badly because they come from poor neighborhoods; they perform badly because they have bad teachers.  Fire the worst 10% of any given faculty and the achievement gap between poor and affluent kids disappears. (more…)

Do DREAM Kids Have a Right to an Education?

There has been a lot of press recently about the plight of illegal immigrants, though most of the coverage on Friends of Justice has centered on basic human rights and adult deportation rules. In the article below. Rachel Higgins looks at a dilemma all too common among younger generations of immigrants: access to education and college funding. Rachel writes about issues impacting college students for a site that examines 1,691 accredited online colleges and provides comparison information for those considering an online education.

Colleges and Legislators Continue to Debate the Right to Education

Rachel Higgins

As Democrats and Republicans continue to debate the conditions of a federal DREAM Act, many provincial programs have enabled children of undocumented citizens to receive financial aid, earn a college degree and enter the workforce as trained professionals, something the country so desperately needs.  In recent years, financial aid for illegal immigrants has been a hot-button topic among American lawmakers. Some have stated that a higher number of well-educated, first-generation Americans would be beneficial to the country, while others argue that individuals who have not become legal citizens have no right to education in the United States.

In June 2012, President Obama announced he was enacting a law that deferred deportation of immigrants who met certain requirements of American citizenship, even if their status in the country was currently illegal. In order to pass this step of the so-called “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the president circumvented Congress in order to spearhead the law. This ostensible “abuse of power” drew criticism from House Republicans, wrote NPR contributor Frank James.  “Americans should be outraged that President Obama is planning to usurp the Constitutional authority of the United States Congress and grant amnesty by edict to 1 million illegal aliens,” said Rep. Steve King [R-Iowa]. (more…)

Task Force to Host Historic Restorative Justice Conference at Harvard Law School

By Pierre R. Berastain

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force has prepared to convene a daylong restorative justice summit at Harvard Law School. On November 3rd, 2012, Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are will seek to equip participants with tools to build restorative justice and transformative practices in their communities, schools, youth centers, domestic violence and sexual assault centers, faith communities, and prisons, among other contexts. The conference will be held from 8:30am to 5:00pm in Milstein East in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School at 1585 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, Mass.

The initiative comes at a particularly important time given the alarming statistics that reflect the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, mainstream domestic violence and sexual violence programs, and the inimical zero tolerance policies implemented in school districts nation-wide. Today, for instance, the United States comprises five percent of the world population, but holds 25 percent of world prisoners. According to the NAACP, “Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is in some form of correctional control.” The cost of these correctional programs amount to over seventy billion dollars annually. The system disproportionately impacts people of color — or people of the global majority. For instance, according to the NAACP, “five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites.” And according to The Sentencing Project, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” These issues have special implications in Massachusetts, which spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil — a greater disparity than in any other state. In 2007, Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. The disparities in justice and the surging cost of our punitive criminal justice system demand new paradigms of addressing offenses in our society.


Listening to Broderick’s aunt

patterson outburstBy Alan Bean

Americans of a conservative bent are having a hard time with the Trayvon Martin saga.  The story suggests serious flaws in our system of criminal justice.  The conservative mind has no problem with George Zimmerman stalking a young man he considered suspicious and isn’t troubled by the fact that Zimmerman killed an unarmed man yet wasn’t arrested. 

But there are also narratives that those of the liberal persuasion tend to ignore because they reinforce the punitive consensus.  Take, for instance, the story of  Broderick Patterson, an eighteen year old Black male who was recently sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Eric Forrester, a seventeen year old White male.  The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has been following the story for the past two years.

The Black-on-White nature of the slaying conforms to a familiar pattern, but this case goes deeper than that.  When the sentence was handed down, young Broderick directed a profane tirade (see the article below) at everyone associated with his sad fate.  The jury received the brunt of his venom. (more…)

Police arrest 6-year-old in Georgia

In case you missed it in the news last week, police in Georgia handcuffed and arrested Salecia Johnson, 6, for throwing a tantrum at school.  The girl, a kindergarten student at Creekside Elementary, was taken to a local police station in a squad car.  She was later released and the charges were dropped.  This story is an unfortunate example of how zero-tolerance policies can lead to extreme discipline practices and the criminalization of youth.  Salecia’s case highlights school-to-prison pipeline issues and the need for more positive discipline practices in schools.  Check out the Washington Post article below for more details.  MWN

Just as Fairfax County schools is considering major changes to its much-maligned disciplinary policies, a story about a Georgia 6-year-old suggests that zero-tolerance policies remain entrenched across the country — and can lead to evermore bizarre scenarios.

In this instance, a little girl named Salecia Johnson had what seems to be a torrential tantrum in her elementary school class. She apparently threw books and toys, tore at wall hangings and threw a shelf that hit her principal in the leg, according to the Associated Press.

A school official called the police. Yes, the police.

The police arrived. An officer pulled out a pair of handcuffs. He snapped them on the girl’s pint-sized wrists.

Police later told the AP that policy mandates they handcuff everyone who is arrested, regardless of age.

Those policy-following police then put Salecia in a squad car and drove her to the local police station. There, they gave her a soda and decided against not charging her with a crime.

Oh, the humanity. (more…)

Criminal Justice Reform and Schools

By Sofia Rasmussen

In the wake of the Columbine shootings, the Westside Middle School massacre and other violent incidents within America’s schools in the late 1990s, there has been a heightened awareness of the importance of safety within a school and university setting.  According to the National Institute of Justice, more monitoring and awareness of the issue has, at least by one measure, been successful: by 2005, violent crimes, homicides and thefts within schools had all markedly decreased nationwide.  It is worth noting that cyber crimes such as attacks on a school’s computer network or attempted hacks on internet school initiatives such as online PhD degree programs, are on the rise.

However, this statistical decline is not the only side to the story. Recently, several new studies, which are highlighted within Radley Balko’s article for the Huffington Post, suggest that the methods used for suppressing crime may be overly intrusive. For example: a higher proportion of people under the age of 23 are going to prison than ever before. The statistics are overwhelming: in the United States, one in three youths will be arrested prior to the age of 23. Additionally, the number of law enforcement personnel assigned solely to schools has increased by 37 percent between 1997 and 2007 and it is believed that the number of arrests that have originated in schools has also risen significantly in the past ten to twenty years. The result has been a situation where many schools have abandoned their duty to educate and treat difficult children.

Bibas: Prisoners should learn to work

Prison Work for Martha StewartStephanos Bibas has been guest blogging at Doug Berman’s excellent Sentencing Law and Policy Blog in recent days.  What follows is the fifth installment in a series on the machinery of criminal justice.  In earlier posts, Bibas has chronicled the evolution from mercy to punishment.  His fifth offering will be controversial.  Reacting to the growing for-profit prison industry, criminal justice advocates typically decry attempts to profit off the toil of the incarcerated.  Bibas approaches the issue from a different angle.  Let us know what you think.  AGB

From Idle Imprisonment to Work

Stephanos Bibas

In my previous posts about my new book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice, I’ve sketched out a few of the ways in which punishment has changed in recent centuries and how modern punishment has become mechanistic, insulated, and hidden. In my last few posts, I’ll propose a few reforms to make punishment more visibly pro-social, by encouraging work, accountability, reform, and reintegration. Today I’ll focus on prison labor.

When we convict defendants of moderately serious crimes, we usually imprison them. American prisons, however, are deeply flawed. Prison severs inmates from their responsibilities, hides their punishment, and does little to train or reform them. Victims and the public do not see wrongdoers being held accountable, paying their debts to society and victims, and learning disciplined work habits. Instead, they visualize lives of idleness, funded by taxpayers. Thus, wrongdoers are unprepared to reenter society. And victims and the public, believing that wrongdoers have neither suffered enough nor learned their lessons, are loath to welcome them back.

The vast majority of prison inmates spend their days in idleness, with endless television and little labor. The minority of prisoners who do some work in a prison laundry, cafeteria, or license-plate shop rarely cultivate skills that are in demand in the outside world. Even prisoners who are able to work earn far less than the minimum wage, not enough to support a family or repay victims.

Nor is life inside most prisons structured to teach good habits such as self-discipline or productivity. On the contrary, prison encourages listless dependence on institutional routine, setting prisoners up for failure upon release. Healthy habits, such as the orderly work envisioned by prison reformers, broke down long ago.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of imprisonment is its hiddenness. It is out of sight behind high prison walls and thus out of mind. It is too easy for the public to forget about it, to overlook the sporadic prison stabbings and rapes, or simply to discount the terrible soul-destroying, idle monotony. (more…)

A review of Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’: do the poor suffer because they are bad or because they are dumb?

By Alan Bean

Charles Murray took so much flak for controversial The Bell Curve that he decided to write a book about white people rooted in much the same argument. 

Coming Apart, a book about the diverging fortunes of upper and lower class white Americans, begins where The Bell Curve ended.  The big factor driving the growing gap between the educated and the uneducated, Murray suggests, is “cognitive homogamy”, the fact that individuals with similar cognitive ability are having children.

In the old world, Murray says, most people lived and died in rural communities and small towns.  The smartest males might have left home for a few years of college, but they generally returned to marry the prettiest (not necessarily the smartest) girl in town.  The result, kids of normal cognitive ability.  Wealth was distributed largely on the basis of inheritance, not ability and the kids at Harvard weren’t much smarter than the kids at a good state school.

Since the early 1960s, however, smart people have been marrying other smart people and having smart kids.  The sons and daughters of these blessed unions have increasingly clustered in segregated neighborhoods in which “everybody has a bachelor’s or graduate degree and works in high-prestige professions or management or is married to such a person.”  Among this new elite, wealth is distributed on the basis of merit, the elite colleges compete for the brightest and the best and lesser institutions make do with students who will never be ready for prime time. (more…)

Two kinds of white folks: David Brooks reviews “Coming Apart”

By Alan Bean

Like many people on the progressive side of the political continuum, I have a love-hate relationship with David Brooks. The New York Times columnist has a gift for reducing complicated arguments to their essentials. He likes books that swap the left vs. right divide for a fresh analysis that defies conventional categories. Brooks is a political conservative who cares about the common good. When the Republican side of his nature takes over, the results are as predictable and pedestrian as the next talking head; but when he rises above the culture war claptrap, Brooks is worth five minutes of your time.

“The Great Divorce” (a title he stole from C.S Lewis’s book about heaven and hell) is Brooks introduction to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  Murray is the libertarian who reportedly convinced Bill Clinton to end “welfare as we know it.”  He also co-authored the controversial The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class in American Life which argued that the different social and economic outcomes between whites and blacks couldn’t be attributed entirely to structural or cultural factors and must therefore reflect basic differences in intelligence.  Murray thinks public assistance programs, though well-intentioned, have damaged America’s most vulnerable citizens. (more…)