Go to Bad Schools, Go to Prison: The Union’s Dirty Secret

Still a "Terrible Thing to Waste": Teachers union leaders assure that public schools still fail our most vulnerable kids.

By R. Claire Friend, M.D.

For those of us old enough to remember its beginnings, the United Negro College Fund’s iconic “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign is still haunting. It began in 1972 with TV images of black students shut out of classrooms, and ended with an almost undeniable appeal: donate to UNCF so that black kids can get an education.

But 45 years later, we’re still wasting minds. In any poor California community, poor kids trapped in teachers-union-dominated classrooms are the least likely Californians to read or perform basic math at grade level. They are also the least likely to graduate from high school, much less go on to college. And now we have learned that beyond “terrible,” a mind is undeniably a dangerous thing to waste.

Derided by teachers unions as an urban myth, experts in education and corrections have observed a correlation between third-grade reading proficiency and incarceration later in life. They do not yet use this data to project the number of additional prison beds that will be needed, but many observers now think they should.

That’s because the failure to achieve reading proficiency by age 8 or 9 is a warning sign, a marker. Third grade is viewed as a pivotal point. Before third grade, students learn to read. After third grade, they read to learn. Reading proficiency is therefore a critical skill. The correlation between reading proficiency by the third grade and school dropout has been proven repeatedly in academic studies.

A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found a six- to eight-fold increase in the high school dropout rate among students who fail to achieve proficiency by third grade. That study is confirmed by Johns Hopkins University research that found 80% to 90% of students who do not achieve literacy by third grade fail to graduate high school on time and face a fourfold risk of jail or prison. Another study featured in the New York Times (and here) noted that 1 in 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or a juvenile detention facility compared to 1 in 35 young males who have graduated from high school. Yet another study found that 70% of the nation’s prison population (males and females) lack a diploma.

Sadly, the importance of literacy at such a comparatively young age has not yet been widely recognized by educators, the media or the public.

Usually well behind the popular culture, some states are acting with surprising speed. The National Governors Association urges governors to take five policy actions to improve reading by the third grade. (See here, too.)

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have strict retention policies on third-grade reading. Florida was the first to mandate that students who fail to meet reading benchmarks are to be held back. Utah requires public schools to improve the percentage of third-graders reading at grade level or lose state funds.

Although it ranks second-to-the-last in National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores, California remains obsessed with raising taxes to pay for six-figure state employee pensions and a high-speed train to nowhere – and has yet to mandate that its youngest citizens achieve basic reading skills. Nationwide, 32% of fourth graders were proficient on the NAEP; 25% of California’s fourth-graders achieved proficiency; in LA Unified, that number was just 15%.

Orange County has many failing schools, particularly those in Anaheim and the primarily Spanish-speaking city of Santa Ana. When Anaheim’s school district failed to reform its curriculum and teaching methods in order to improve student performance in reading and math, parents at Palm Lane School invoked the Parent Trigger Law. The law enables parents to request that a chronically failing institution be turned into a charter school.

The union-backed Anaheim Elementary School District responded by filing a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court. Legal fees for the action cost taxpayers $700,000. (The parents were represented pro bono by Kirkland and Ellis.) The court ruled in favor of the parents, finding that the district had failed to abide by the law when it reviewed the parents’ petitions, and ordered the district to turn Palm Lane into a charter school.

The union-backed school district kept the school as it was, still failing, while it filed an appeal. Legal costs now exceed $1 million.

It has been more than three years since the parents filed the required signatures. While their case languishes in the courts, parents watch their children leave home each day to attend a chronically failing school. How many Palm Lane third-graders will end up in prison? Does the union even care?

The facts at Palm Lane and other chronically failing schools throughout the state, which the teachers’ union does nothing to fix, represent a scandalous failure of public education. In this scandal, we’ll all pay, because a mind is a dangerous thing to waste.

Psychiatrist R. Claire Friend, M.D., recently retired after 35 years in private practice. She was editor of two professional publications and is now editor of the UCI Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior’s Quarterly Psychiatric Journal. She serves on the volunteer faculty as an assistant professor.

The Literacy Crisis

Our illiteracy rate is alarming, but the ed establishment doesn’t seem to be concerned.

The biggest problem in the country today? Some may say that it’s healthcare, while others will insist that it’s the economy. A third group maintains that it’s ISIS. While a good a case can be made for any of the above, I argue that Problem #1 is an education system that is failing so many of its students. According to The Literacy Project, there are currently 45 million Americans who are functionally illiterate, unable to read above a 5th grade level, and half of all adults can’t read a book at an 8th grade level. In California, 25 percent of the state’s 6 million students are unable to perform basic reading skills. Without being able to read on an adult level, Americans will never be able to comprehend our other national problems.

With such poor readers, it’s hardly surprising that 44 percent of students entering Cal State schools need remediation. The situation in Los Angeles is particularly dire. Fifty-three percent of graduating students received at least one D in the A—G required courses. Students traditionally had to get a C or better in all of these core-area classes to graduate. But instead of ramping up the rigor, the school district made D the passing grade a couple of years ago. However, that created a problem: the University of California doesn’t allow students with any D’s in the required classes to enter the system.

With the lower threshold to graduate and the magic of bogus “credit recovery” classes, the Los Angeles Unified School District grad rate zoomed from 54 to 77 percent practically overnight. Referring to the higher grad rates, LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King had the temerity to proclaim that she is proud “of the heroic efforts by our teachers, counselors, parents, administrators and classified staff who rally around our students every day.”

So other than lowering the standards for graduation, what are the educational establishmentarians doing in LA doing to improve things?

As a way to replicate success, Great Public Schools Now (Eli Broad’s philanthropic effort) has awarded $750,000 to Public Service Community School and King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, both located south of downtown L.A. “We believe this strategy of dramatically expanding schools is a smart way of ensuring that all students will have access to the best that schools have to offer,” said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of GPSN.

Sounds good, right? Apparently Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, doesn’t think so. His only on-the-record comment: “This is the same old bait and switch.

At the same time, UTLA is standing firmly behind SB 808, a bill by State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Cerritos) which would limit charter school authorization to school districts only. As things stand now, if a district turns down a charter, the school can appeal to their county board of education and, if necessary, the state board. But if SB 808 becomes law, the local school board – which is frequently in bed with the local teachers union – would become the only charter authorizer. The 160,000 or so kids on charter school wait-lists in the Golden State and their parents are undoubtedly foes of this unnecessarily restrictive bill.

Caputo-Pearl has also been in the news lately for something else. Demanding more rigor for students? No. Coming up with a way to expedite the process of firing incompetent teachers? Hardly. The union leader is calling on LAUSD chief Michelle King to close all the city’s schools on May 1st for a massive protest to join the “broader resistance to the Trump administration’s agenda.” (The good news is that King has decided to ignore Caputo-Pearl’s politicking and keep the schools open.)

On the state level, the California Teachers Association’s way of dealing with the edu-mess is to get behind anti-charter school legislation in Sacramento, despite the fact that of the top 20 schools in LA Unified with the highest UC acceptance rates, more than half were independent charters. (H/T School Data Nerd.) So instead of looking favorably at these public schools of choice, the CTA-backed AB 406 (Kevin McCarty D-Sacramento) would either block or seriously limit the ability of for-profit companies to operate charter schools in California. Should AB 406 fly, it would send many successful charter schools’ operations into disarray.

Merit pay, which has long been discussed as a way to hire and retain great teachers, might help. In fact, “a merit-pay program led to the equivalent of four extra weeks of student learning, according to a new analysis of 44 studies of incentive-pay initiatives in the United States and abroad.” But as believers in the quality-blind, step-and-column method of teacher pay, no CTA-affiliate’s contract will allow for this.

National union leaders have been mum on the literacy issue. But American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten did take some time to weigh in on President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria and trash Neil Gorsuch’s ascendancy to the Supreme Court.

The National Education Association hasn’t addressed the mounting illiteracy rate either, but is prominently promoting the radical gay agenda. The union is in full support of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s annual Day of Silence, which is on April 21st. This year’s theme – no, I am not making this up – is to “make America Gay again.”

The teachers unions’ agenda is mostly political and has little, if anything, to do with making kids literate Americans. It is not part of their mission. Their frequently bought-and-paid-for handmaidens, the local school boards, do little to staunch union power. As such, it would behoove parents – and in fact all citizens – to get more politically involved and demand educational excellence. And the ideal way to do that is to let parents choose the best schools to send their kids to, and have tax dollars follow the child. Without a literate citizenry, the United States, as we have known it, will cease to exist.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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