The Coming K-12 Meltdown

by James A. Bacon

Educational achievement in Virginia schools is heading for a melt-down. The racial achievement gap will get worse, not better.  And Virginians will live with the consequences for decades to come.

Part of this looming disaster can be attributed to the COVID-19 epidemic, which compelled the Northam administration to make difficult decisions on the basis of incomplete and evolving information. But much of it will be entirely man-made. I will touch upon broad themes in this post, and follow up with more detailed blogging in the future. Here are the key elements converging to create a perfect storm.

The epidemic. Governor Ralph Northam, like governors across the country, made the decision to close Virginia schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The necessity of this move, made in an environment of media-stoked hysteria, is, to be generous, debatable: School children are far less vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus than adults. However justified the school shutdown may or may not have been from an epidemiological perspective, the educational consequences are undeniable. Children lost two- to three months of schooling as many districts fumbled the switch to online learning. Moreover, kids from poor families, who are disproportionately African-American, were less likely to have access to home computers and broadband, and their parents were less likely to provide the necessary supervision to ensure they were doing their work. The disparity in lost learning likely has been exacerbated.

The new social justice regime The social justice movement had made significant inroads in Virginia schools long before the George Floyd killing and the outbreak of nationwide protests over policy brutality. Virginia schools have had several years now to implement a restorative-justice approach to school discipline, the result of which has been increased disruptions to classrooms and decreased learning. Black students were more likely to be exposed to disordered classrooms, their academic achievement suffered more, and the racial achievement gap grew in the last year that Standards of Learning exams were administered.

The impact of restorative-justice disciplinary policies now is being magnified by the institutionalization of leftist social-justice perspectives across the board. Race consciousness now infuses every aspect of K-12 administration. The underlying premise is that Virginia schools reflect the “systemic racism” of larger society. For the Northam administration the task is expunging racism (as defined by the Left) from schools and promoting equity (equal educational outcomes).

Writing in the EquityVA newsletter, Leah Dozier Walker, director of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the Virginia Department of Education, sums up the new zeitgeist:

The work of equity, justice, and anti-racism begins with introspection within our communities. As educators we have an obligation to leverage our unique proximity to young people to articulate a clear commitment to addressing the racial trauma Black students are experiencing. It is our duty to amplify the voices of racialized communities and provide support to students and families impacted by racism.

When the mission of educators becomes indoctrination rather than education, everyone loses. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that already-marginalized groups, whose parents lack the resources to make up teaching deficits, lose the most.

Whatever value there may be creating awareness of racial injustice (real or imagined), fomenting a sense of victimhood and grievance will do nothing to discourage African-American students from skipping school, encourage them to do more homework, or induce them to pay more attention in class. To the contrary, social-justice consciousness may have the exact opposite effect. If minority students are taught that the issue is structural racism, why should they exert themselves more? A foreseeable consequence is that some black students will wind up learning less, and the racial achievement gap will grow wider.

No accountability. There will be no way to measure the consequences of Northam’s policies, however, because the educational establishment is far down the road of abandoning standardized testing. The Northam administration had already begun diluting Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs), before COVID-19 and the mass protests broke out. Then the epidemic provided the justification to scrap the SOLs altogether in the 2019/20 school year. Meanwhile, many higher-ed institutions are jettisoning SAT and ACT scores as criteria for college admissions. My fear is that educators, rather than do the hard thing of improving black educational achievement, will do the face-saving thing of watering down or even eliminating standardized testing. If there are no more tests, then the racial achievement gap can no longer be measured, and the massive failure of the social justice movement can rumble forward unexposed.

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38 responses to “The Coming K-12 Meltdown

  1. I guess that our consolation will be “Thank God there’s Mississippi.”

  2. What blackface wearing, rural-raised white Governor of a state of the old Confederacy has instituted school policies absolutely guaranteed to disproportionately disadvantage the poor, most prominently African American children? I don’t think he is still a racist, and I am sure he doesn’t want to be seen as one, but I am also sure he is ignorant and poorly advised. Same outcome for poor kids either way.

    • If you take the left’s standard for identifying “systemic racism” the standard is this:

      Disparate Impact = Systemic racism.

      I am not asserting that systemic racism exists, just that the left should be judged by the standard it imposes on society and their more conservative opponents.

      • “Disparate Impact = Systemic Racism”
        It is in the justice system.

        Having been unable to police systemic racism in our justice system, we have instead justified racism in our police.

  3. As I mentioned on another education-related post, the only way that school officials and teachers will read this important information is for we citizens to send it to them.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Mr. Bacon is right on the money! I have been fully retired from Loudoun County Public Schools for 11 days now. Concluded a 27 year career and retired at the earliest possible moment. I feel like the guy who got the last parachute on the plane and bailed just before the crash. I feel like those code breakers back in Washington DC who knew what was going to happen on December 7th but could not get the big shots to listen. At Dawn We Slept…Again.

    If this is part of a larger cultural revolution than there will most certainly will be a counterrevolution. Problem is, the counterrevolutions usually fail.

    • Congratulations on your retirement, and thank you for your efforts on behalf of Virginia’s students.

    • Jim makes such sweeping generalizations with no specific facts or research cited. Some of his points may be valid in some schools and some classrooms but not in all cases. My twenty years in public high school classrooms did not resemble what he is describing and I never witnessed anything which could be called “liberal” indoctrination.

      • You didn’t experience the indoctrination because it didn’t happen. The thrust of my post is that it’s coming. Fast.

        I will concede that I made a number of sweeping generalizations in this particular post. But many were backed up in previous posts, and I will back up others in upcoming posts. Consider this post a mood setter.

      • It’s here, and in many places already, including many cities. For example:
        An October article in The Atlantic magazine speaks brilliantly to what is going on here and why.

        “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids” is written by Atlantic staff writer George Packer. He is also the author of “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” and “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

        Mr. Packer’s article is long, detailed, and speaks powerfully to many issues afflicting today’s culture, including our schools. Below are a few loose extracts. Read the whole article linked in below to do it full justice.

        “The gaps in proficiency between that separate whites and Asians from black and Latino students in math and English are immense and growing.”

        “Our zoned elementary school, two blocks from our home, was forever improving from a terrible reputation … students were wandering around the rooms without focus, the air was heavy with listlessness, there seemed to be little learning going on.”

        … an elderly black women who had lived in the neighborhood a long time and understood all about our school dilemma … scoffed at our “zoned” school … “Don’t send him there,” she said. “That is a failure school.” It was as if an eternal curse had been laid on it, beyond anyone’s agency or remedy. The school was mostly poor and black. We assumed it would fail our children because we knew it was failing other children. That year, when my son turned five … we applied to eight or nine public schools. …”

        “Around 2014, a new mood germinated in America – at first in a few places, … but growing rapidly with amazing rapidity and force, as new things tend to do today. It grew upward toward the end of the Obama years, in part out of disillusionment with the early promise of his presidency – out of expectations raised and frustrated, especially among people under 30 … this new mood was progressive but not hopeful … hope was gone. At the heart of the new progressivism was indignation, sometimes rage, about ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity. And incident – a police shooting of unarmed black man, news reports of predatory sexual behavior by a Hollywood mogul; a pro quarterback who took to kneeing during the national anthem – would light a fire that spread overnight … fed by (much older and deeper injustices). Over time, the new mood took on the substance and hard edges of a radical egalitarian ideology …”

        Politics becomes most real not in media but in your own nervous system, where everything matters more … because of guilt or social pressure … In the winter of 2015-16, our son’s third grade year, we began to receive a barrage of emails and flyers from his school about (opting out) of upcoming tests. … One black parent told me … standardized tests are the gatekeepers to keep people out, and I know exactly who’s at the bottom … It is torturous … because they will never catch up, due to institutionalized racism.” Our school became the citywide leader of a new movement …”

        The bathroom crisis hit our school the same year. … Within two years, almost every bathroom in the school, from kinder-garden through fifth grade, became gender neutral. … All that biology entailed – curiosity, fear, shame, aggression, pubescence, the thing between the legs, was erased or wished away.” The school didn’t inform the parents… who learned about it when children started arriving home desperate to get to bathroom after holding it all day. Girls told their parents mortifying stories of having a boy kick open their stall door …”

        The battleground of the new progressivism is identity. That is the historical source of exclusion and injustice that demands redress. … When our son was in third or forth grade, students began to form groups that met to discuss issues based on identity – race, sexuality, disability.

        “… In politics, identity is an appeal to authority – the moral authority of the oppressed. I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it the truth.

        The politics of identity starts out with the universal principals of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself – often a dead end, a trap from which there’s no easy escape and maybe no desire to escape. Instead of equality, it sets up a new hierarchy that inverts the old, discredited one – a new moral cast that ranks people by oppression of their group identity … (that) for all its up to the minuteness carries the whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification … an atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent – these are the qualities of an illiberal politics …”

        I wished that our son’s school would teach him civics. By age 10 he had studied the civilization of ancient China, Africa, the early Dutch of New Amsterdam, and the Mayans. He learned about the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But he was never taught about the founding of the republic. He didn’t learn that conflicting values and practical compromises are the lifeblood of self-government. …

        The fifth grade, our son’s last was different. That year’s curriculum included the Holocaust, Reconstruction, Jim Crow. The focus was on “upstanders”—individuals who had refused to be bystanders to evil and had raised their voices. It was an education in activism, and with no grounding in civics, activism just meant speaking out. At the years end, fifth graders presented dioramas on all the hard issues of the moment – sexual harassment, LGBTQ rights, gun violence… a plastic bag smokestack sprouting endangered animals … Compared with previous years, writing was minimal, and when questioned, the students had little to say… They had not been encouraged to research their topics, make intellectual discoveries, answer potential counter-arguments. The dioramas consisted of cardboard, clay, and slogans.

        … Our daughter wasn’t immune to the heavy mood. She came home from school one day and expressed a wish not to be white so she wouldn’t have slavery on her conscience. It didn’t seem a moral victory for our children to grow up hating their species or themselves …” End of Quote

        And, of course, this is what the Va. Attorney General’s recent intimidating certified letter claiming systemic racism in Loudoun County was all about. A totalitarian commonwealth of Virginia is not far behind, and now its coming fast.

  5. A very fine post by Jim. The unfortunate truth is that this collapse has been going on for at least two decades and this K-12 collapse has fed into, and been fed by, an ongoing collapse of higher education. Both now in combination have done huge damage to America already and will do far more damage to America and all Americans before it gets any better, if it ever does in our lifetimes. We see can this damage growing and spreading everywhere now. The rot and poison has spread out from our k-12 schools our 2 and 4 year colleges, and our universities, into America’s civil society on all its levels, classes, and institutions. I have I warned about this for years here on BR.

    See for example:

    • I know there are public school teachers here and I don’t want to offend any of them individually. However, in the past 10 years, I have been teaching several thousand students who are primarily products of the Virginia public education system. Perhaps I have had a bad sample, but don’t think that is the case. If public education in Virginia is to be judged by its product (students), then I am not impressed.

      Students arrive in my courses with oceans of opinions which they are most often unable to explain or defend. Their academic skills such as reading comprehension, composition, and elementary mathematics (middle school algebra) are minimal. I have had students with AP credits in calculus who were unable to deal with percent to decimal conversions or simple equations. There are some notable exceptions, but those students are the exception and many of those were not products of Virginia public schools.

      Despite the excellent points in Jim’s article, I do disagree with one his central points. The collapse of Virginia’s K-12 system is not coming. It arrived some time ago. The government responses to the COVID 19 event simply exposed it.

      • sbostian says –
        “Despite the excellent points in Jim’s article, I do disagree with one his central points. The collapse of Virginia’s K-12 system is not coming. It arrived some time ago.”

        sbostian comment hits nail square on head.

        But I suggest that:

        1/ the collapse is complete in many, but not all places in America, and,

        2/ now the collapse is coming to a full head of steam, clearly visible to see given our collapsing society and institutions, both urban and rural.

        3/ The full collapse began early in the last decade or likely two, and now its latest victims (students), have passed through high school and also college and passed out into society. These latest victims now include critical jobs holders within American society, and also those among the rest who hold lesser jobs often below their “claimed” education level, or no jobs at all.

        AND, by and large neither group of “graduates” are competent to perform the jobs they hold, and now they realize it and are very angry and insecure about this fact, and the fact that they have been cheated and lied to again and again by their elders.

        4/ So now the damage done and being done to society is growing by leaps and bounds on a vast scale. And likely it has just started.

        For example, read this ” Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020,” by the Virginia Department of Education, found at:

  6. Riddle me this. How is three months of lost school time going to squander the education of Virginia’s children? Once again, you right wingers are dismissing the 100k dead Americans. Numbers are rising in areas that have loosened regs. Do you care?

    • 200,000 still have to go down he mountain.

    • Everybody cares about the 100,000 dead Americans. The question is, do you care about the 10 million (or whatever the number is) of American school children? All we’re saying is that their well being needs to be considered, too.

    • Three months or three years? There will be COVID infections and deaths until there is a vaccine, and even after that it will likely hang around. Zika still out there? HIV? You and Nancy Boy and Larry will be happy as clams to never open up. (Actually, once Trump has lost you watch all these concerns melt away….)

      • That’s right.

        As soon as Trump is gone Joe Biden and his democrat justice league will make all of our covid-19 concerns magically disappear – with a little help from CNN, NBC and the NYT, of course.

      • Leave me out of this. My position has always been open in the fall, 2020 to be specific.
        Actually, with mandatory masks, we’ll just settle into some 50-60k per year and life goes on.
        But we need mandatory for everyone with fines.

  7. Hmm, dire. If only there were something to which we could compare this school closure? Something in the past? Maybe there was an earthquake that … no. Nothing natural comes to mind. It would have to be massive. Man made? Maybe a massive attack of stupidity? Some massive something? Massive Resistance! Of course. Closed schools 1958-1959.

    Now if only there were statistical records to compare…

    Be my guest, I ain’t that much of a wonk.

    • A fair comparison, with not even the pathetic substitute of on-line learning to compensate in part….Most of the white kids went to the seg academies, of course. And Jim’s point is made about real disparate impact. My grandkids here have had a major advantage with their superstar teacher grandmother at hand.

      • My cousin taught in south side Chicago 1968 to 1970. He then taught in the federal prison system. He rose to #3 in the FBP. He reported to Janet Reno for her last 5 years. When she was replaced by Ashcroft, my cousin retired after 2 months. In July of 2000 he had made his years and was 55. He said, “I’ve got 2 good years or one bad day, whichever comes first.” Ashcroft was a bad day.

  8. I opted out of the public school system altogether for my children. I felt it was a complete waste of time. Perhaps we need to true back to the purpose of school – to learn,and dump all the other stuff. Time to get back to objective standards and effectively teaching the basics. No amount of money can save this system. I suggest increasing home schooling, charter schools, and fostering private school growth. Only competition can improve the system.

    Northam has no idea of how to fix anything.

    • I wanted to be home schooled. I got wait-listed

    • Northam has no idea of how to fix anything.

      Northam has no idea of how to fix anything.

      Northam has no idea of how to fix anything.

      Northam has no idea of how to fix anything.

      Northam has no idea of how to fix anything.

      Sorry, I just thought your statement was worth repeating…. …and re-repeating.


  9. Just curious as to why you call Nancy “Boy”. This seems to be something new.

  10. Jim bacon, George Floyd was strangled, not shot. If you are going to be so cock sure of your worldview at least get your facts right.

  11. The covid crisis has certainly put the educational crisis in my face, where it has needed to be for some time. My rising 11th grader, who intends to go on to be a history teacher, is showing signs of the indoctrination I have worked so hard to counteract. But I must argue that it is not coming from the school system, but from exposure to social media – in fact, her teachers have made an effort to provide otherwise. This from the red headed stepchild in a county known for its schools.

    My rising 9th grader shows little of the indoctrination at all (you should hear them arguing). This after the year of studying US History, and the 4th quarter (20th century – Holocaust, civil rights) with me over his shoulder at home – stripped down to bare bones for virtual learning, but well presented by his history teacher.

    The difference? Social media. The tipping point is not the school system, that’s the dumbing down of America. The indoctrination is what they see on social media.

    By the way, I was so relieved Northam cancelled SOLs. Finally some 4th quarter educational time. Usually I wish I could just pull my kids out of school after spring break because the rest of the school year is a teaching-to-the-test waste of seat hours.

  12. There are lots of things wrong with public education today. For example, many children can’t read at their grade level. American school kids lag behind their peers in other countries in science and math. Too much money is spent on mid-level bureaucracies that do not add much value. Teachers need to have taken a bunch of “education” courses in colleges and universities that are next to worthless. Many high school graduates cannot read comprehensively or write a comprehensible paragraph. Teachers are required to much more than teach. Teachers teach to the test.

    Instead of focusing on these, you revert to your favorite whipping boy–social justice–and blame all the ills and forthcoming downfall on that. You ignore numerous studies that show that black students, especially black males, are discipline more often and more harshly, for the same offense, than are white students. Instead, you claim, without any documentation, that there have been “increased disruptions to classrooms and decreased learning” as a result of “social justice” initiatives.

    I agree that Leah Dozier Walker’s statement is “over the top”. After all, she has to put out something to justify her new position, which I consider another example of too much bureaucracy in education. I doubt if many, if any, teachers will pay any attention to it, if they see it at all.

    As for the SAT and ACT standardized tests, there is lots of evidence that these tests are biased in favor of wealth and race. You ignore that evidence , as well.

  13. So Virginia schools have had several years to implement a restorative-justice approach to school discipline. Gee, I must have been out sick on those days so what does that even mean in a school setting?

  14. From today’s WSJ;s Notable & Quotable: Success

    “From Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz’s June 4 graduation message: Now, Class of 2024—sorry, I’m a bit emotional—you are not graduating into a world that anyone imagined for you or would wish for you. But boy, is the world fortunate to have you.

    When you came to Harlem 1234 as kindergarteners and first-graders, you were inquisitive, exuberant and incredibly funny. You are still all those things, and we treasure you for them. But now, you are rigorous thinkers and problem-solvers. You know how to analyze and question, to support your ideas with data and facts. You know how to listen and hear other voices. Today, it is so important to be able to hear other voices, divergent opinions. . . .

    You have already overcome so much in and out of school. Not everyone thought you could do it. But your Success family of parents, teachers, leaders, friends and supporters have never wavered in their faith in you, and we never will.”

    See Today’s Wall Street Journal.

    • “Charter Schools’ Enemies Block Black Success

      For decades, there has been widespread anxiety over how, when or whether the educational test score gap between white and non-white youngsters could be closed. But that gap has already been closed by the Success Academy charter school network in New York City.

      Their predominantly black and Hispanic students already pass tests in mathematics and English at a higher rate than any school district in the entire state. That includes predominantly white and Asian school districts where parental income is some multiple of what it is among Success Academy students.

      For decades, there has been widespread anxiety over how, when or whether the educational test score gap between white and non-white youngsters could be closed. But that gap has already been closed by the Success Academy charter school network in New York City.

      Their predominantly black and Hispanic students already pass tests in mathematics and English at a higher rate than any school district in the entire state. That includes predominantly white and Asian school districts where parental income is some multiple of what it is among Success Academy students. …”

      For more read Thomas Sowell’s Opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal titled: “Charter Schools’ Enemies Block Black Success (Teachers unions are gaining in their fight to stop students and resources from moving toward what works.”

      Go to:

    • Recently, in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Robert Hamilton, author of 7 Secrets of the Newborn, 2018, described the human child’s first year of life as being the first 3 months after the child’s birth “when kids are disoriented and angry at mom ripping them from womb. So during this period the newborn struggles to get its bearings outside in its new and alien place, as it struggles to sleep, feed, stay warm, and safe.”

      Then miraculously around 3 months outside the womb, the child, now oriented, seems transformed as it takes its first purposeful steps into its new world of wonders. Says Dr. Hamilton “These developments make (the doctor’s) three month check up (of an infant) an affair of joy and wonder, the look these babies have in their eyes, the guileless glance that convey hope and destiny, plus a furtive glimmer of self knowledge. Babies this age seem to have a sense of the human potential they’re soon to claim.”

      It is here that Michael Tomasello, in his seminal new book Becoming Human, “a grand synthesis of three decades of collaborative research at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig,” picks up the story of the human child’s cognitive and social development from the 1st year after birth to somewhere around 6th year of the child’s life that typically ends its kindergarten year before the 1st grade. If you understand that story, then you will understand why so many of our public schools as now operated fail our disadvantaged children while at the same time you will deeply appreciate why the methods and reasoning behind a child’s first year in kindergarten in a Success Academy put the child so firmly on the road to success. Those methods and reasoning behind the success of the Success Academies are described in Robert Pondiscio’s book How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice after he spent a year closely observing Success Academy Bronx 1.

      To quote Mr. Pondiscio:

      “At the end of the school day, Syskowski and Matt Carnaghi empty their classrooms of their kindergarten-size chairs and arrange them in three rows in the open area adjacent to Liz Vandlik’s office. The children are held for dismissal, forcing parents to come upstairs and listen to the teachers before picking them up.

      At 3:45 p.m. sharp, Syskowski launches in. “The reason we’re having a meeting together is because there’s a lot of work to be done. We need to come together as a Bronx 1 community and figure out what’s going on and set goals.”

      She scans the thirty adults seated before her in chairs meant for five-year-olds. “As you can see, right now we have a meeting for ninety children and this is the parent turnout. It’s not good.”

      Syskowski walks them through the reading benchmarks for kindergarten. “It’s January. A number of our children are still Level A or pre-A, which means they don’t know how to read.”

      The kindergartnerers will be tested again in February, by which time they’re all expected to be at Level C.

      If the point is lost, Syskowski lays it out plainly. If their children are not at Level C by the end of February, they are unlikely to reach Level D by the end of the school year. “If they do not reach D, they do not go to first grade,” she says, “Do not. Period.”

      She pauses to let the message sink in, then repeats it. “They will not go to first grade if they’re not a Level D. That has been said before, and I’m just restating it.”

      Now that she has the parents’ full attention, Syskowski pivots from reading levels to school culture and expectations—for adults. “A lot of you are brand new to Success Academy. We know it’s a new world,” she tells them. “We want you to ask questions. We know what we teach here is a little different. It’s different than the way you learned and the way we learned. We received a lot of training and we know this is the best way that children learn. If there are things that you need, you need to ask. So, this is us reaching out, having that parent meeting and saying, ‘Here we are. This is our space. And we need to talk because we’re not meeting benchmarks.’”

      The benchmarks Syskowski is referring to are not only the reading-level chart in her classroom but achievement levels of the kindergarteners relative to dozens of other Success Academy schools.

      “Other schools within our network over in Brooklyn, in Manhattan and Queens, their children are reading at benchmarks,” she says pointedly. “All of us in this room are not doing enough for our kids. The children in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan can do it, and our kids can’t, even though we all have the same curriculum, we all have the same training.”

      There are no secrets in a Success Academy school. Classrooms and hallway “data walls” leave little to no doubt which children—by name—are at, above, or below academic standards. This can be off-putting to some parents and has been attacked by critics outside the network. On the other hand, it is the rare student in any school who isn’t aware of who the standouts and strugglers are in class. Success Academy puts it on the wall for all to see.

      Syskowski begins to spin a sobering tale of the trajectory children can find themselves on in the absence of energetic efforts. “First grade is a huuuuge literacy year,” she says. “If we don’t set them up in kindergarten, they will drown.”

      The parents sit silently. “We need to step it up.”

      Carnaghi has been standing alongside Syskowski, nodding stoically. He introduces himself as a “first-year LT,” or lead teacher, then adds almost apologetically, “I’m pretty resourceful and here for you guys.”

      But it’s Syskowski’s intervention, and she’s just getting started. Her tone is unfailingly warm and encouraging—she wants to win the parents over and make common cause, not alienate or antagonize them—but her words are unsparing.

      Standing behind the rows, I cannot see all the parents’ faces, but most appear to be nodding along. If there’s discontent with Syskowski’s brand of tough love, there’s no sign of it. “If your children are late or they’re not here, we can’t teach them,” she says. “We really need you to get your children here by 7:45 if not 7:30.”

      The first moments of each day, kindergarteners have breakfast with their class, and teachers do a “re-teach,” working with individual children on skills in which they’ve fallen behind. “If they are not here on time or not here at all, we can’t do that,” she says. “We have some children in this grade who’ve already been absent eleven times. Anytime I’m sick, I come here. I can’t afford to lose that day with your children. At the same time, your child cannot miss that day with any of us. We’re here, we need to be here, we want to be here, and every second is really . . .”

      A toddler starts crying loudly, drowning her out, and without breaking pace, Syskowski orders the toddler’s sister, Rama B., one of her students with a serious, almost adult face, to take her into a nearby classroom.

      Syskowski is rolling now and doesn’t want to lose her audience, which now fills all the chairs and spills down the hall. “You want your child to go to college. You sent them here to a college-bound school. Our philosophy is that every single child goes to college and it starts when they’re five. I know that you want that for them, because that’s why you brought them to Success Academy. At the same time, it’s a daily grind. You need to put that work in to get them there.”

      Syskowski asks for a show of hands. “Whose child is reading at a Level A right now?” A few hands go up. If the parents are aware of their child’s reading level, many more hands should be in the air. Carnaghi scans the room and jumps in. “There’s one,” he points and calls out. “Two. Anyone else? There are plenty here.”

      It is impossible to tell if the parents don’t know, don’t want to reveal that their child is below benchmarks, or are feeling called out and embarrassed. “We want to get it out there. You’re not alone!” Syskowski implores, trying to encourage more parents to own up and join in.

      “Level B?” More hands go up. “There’s three, four, five,” Carnaghi counts off. By the time she gets to Level D, only one hand is up. “So that means out of everyone here, we have one child who is ready for first grade,” Syskowski says, growing quiet. “We’re a community of parents. Use each other to help each other. I know you guys have daily struggles as parents. I’m not a parent, so I don’t know that struggle. I know that struggle as a classroom teacher when I’m with your scholar and really pushing them, and they’re like, ‘Ms. Syskowski, this is hard,’” she says plaintively. “And yeah, it’s hard.”

      Syskowski’s urgency is not misplaced. By January, the children should be learning to read. Midway through kindergarten, they should recognize and be able to name and write upper- and lowercase letters. They are acquiring those “print concepts,” such as understanding the basic structures of a book and that text moves from left to right, even if they are not fully able to decode the printed word.

      Five-year-olds are also developing phonological awareness, such as recognizing syllables, rhymes, and “phonemes,” the forty-four units of sound that make up every word in the English language. An essential literacy building block at this age is beginning “sound-symbol relationships” and the ability to read consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat” and “dog.”

      Syskowski and her colleagues do not expect parents to be surrogate reading teachers or to have a nuanced understanding of these skills or progressions. But they nonetheless put a heavy lift on parents to read nightly with their children and to monitor and ensure that they are reading at home—something affluent parents tend to do reflexively, often without even knowing why.

      “We’re seeing two really big issues,” Syskowski says. “Your reading logs still have your scholars’ books on them. They can read those books by themselves. Those are not the books that go on the reading logs,” she instructs. The reading logs are for books that parents read aloud. Very young children can understand even sophisticated texts when they are read aloud, which, research indicates, helps them develop as readers by exposing them to new vocabulary and allowing them to hear mature readers’ fluent pronunciation and expression. Kindergarteners should also spend twenty minutes reading independently at home each night. “That doesn’t mean they read on their own, you go do laundry. It. Is. Challenging. I hear you. We need that patience and excitement to tell them, ‘You know what? You are a great reader, and you can do this.”

      Carnaghi has been largely silent, but now it’s his turn to take the lead. Reading logs must be completed 100 percent of the time. “If we look cross grade right now? Ninety percent. Ninety-two percent. Eighty-six percent,” he says, indicating the compliance rate in each of the kindergarten classrooms. “It’s not getting done.”

      If any other elementary schools in the neighborhood asked parents to maintain reading logs, 90 percent compliance would be a cause for celebration. Here it’s a crisis. “The reason we’re so on you about these reading logs is because it sets up routines, right?” he continues. “These routines help build up memory skills, problem-solving skills. These are all cognitive skills. If you’re not at home constantly building those, your child will not be successful.”

      There is a long pause as Carnaghi and the parents stare at one another. “Really cold, hard fact. You really need to listen. You need to hear it. Like hear it.”

      This is one of the first times I’ve seen Carnaghi “on.” While few restrictions have been placed on my observations, Vandlik asked early in the school year that I “give Mr. Carnaghi some room.” As a new teacher who expected to be an associate, not lead, teacher, it seemed an undue burden to be under an outsider’s microscope, unhelpful to him and a distraction to his students. As a result, I’ve barely set foot in his classroom. Like so many of his colleagues, he radiates earnestness, even as he tries to play bad cop to Syskowski’s good. “One in six children in our community who are not proficient readers by third grade—forget about college. They’re going to have a really hard time passing high school,” he says.

      It’s suddenly hard to hear over the delighted squeals of kindergarteners playing in the classroom behind me, unaware of the high-stakes conversation we are having about them. But the grim urgency Carnaghi is trying to communicate is not misplaced. Failure starts early in communities like Mott Haven. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. first graders who struggle in reading are still struggling in fourth grade; three out of four third-grade readers who are below grade level are still below grade level in ninth grade; and one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time—a failure rate four times greater than among proficient readers.

      If the ninety-odd kindergarteners of Bronx 1 steer clear of this grim vortex of failure that has been all but inevitable for children in this community for generations, it will be in no small part due to what Syskowski, Carnaghi, and the rest of the kindergarten teachers are doing this year—aided and abetted by fully engaged parents.

      “I assume right now that every single parent in this room knows exactly how to teach that kid because nobody comes up to me and asks me, ‘What can I do? How can I help my child? Is there anything else I can do?’” Carnaghi is making demands, almost hectoring, but his tone is plaintive, nearly pleading. “We’re here for your kids. But you’re not showing us that you’re here for your kids right now, because these routines are not getting set up. If you need to know what to do, raise your hand now.”

      Syskowski takes up the call. “Any question at all!”

      Now there are lots of hands. Parents ask about how to handle behavior problems at home. One says she has a hard time getting her child to focus. Another mother expresses frustration at how poorly her child is performing on sight-word quizzes. “When he’s in the house, he does the work perfectly fine. But when he comes here, I guess he gets a little bit scared. Whenever we do words in the house—‘they,’ ‘were,’ ‘was’—he does it perfect. When he gets here, he usually gets one right or two right. Sometimes he gets all three right. So, I’m a little bit . . .” She trails off.

      “Think about environment, right?” Carnaghi replies. “At home, your child is in such a relaxed environment. Do you time him?” Mom says no. “Start timing him. Get him used to timing in both environments. When he’s at home, he gets all the time in the world, he’s relaxed. That’s not a problem. But if you really want to see something different, put on a timer.”

      In other school settings, the suggestion that parents time their children, conduct weekly tests of sight words at home, or be forced to sit and listen to their child’s teacher lecturing them that they’re not living up to their parental responsibilities would cause an insurrection. But none of the parents raise an eyebrow, whether out of deference, intimidation, a shared sense of urgency, a reluctance to make waves, or some combination of these factors.

      Carnaghi adds, “Being timed makes anybody anxious, right?” He turns to the crowd. “Silent thumbs-up if that’s what makes it anxious for you?” and many turn their thumbs up while several chuckle audibly. “It’s not easy!”

      “We have an open-door policy here,” Syskowski reminds them, returning to her main theme. “Tell us the time you’re scheduled to be off from work. Tell us the time you want to come in. Schedule some time. Please!”

      Syskowski calls on a mother who is having trouble keeping her child’s frustrations in check. “Nyelle has that same problem. If she doesn’t know a word like ‘what,’ she actually gets angry. She cries and then we have to end it,” she explains. “I feel like she’s a little behind. I know she’s got a C, but I feel like she should already be at D. But the last, maybe, two weeks, we had to shut down early because she gets so emotional.”

      Syskowski senses a teachable moment. “You said something really awesome I wanted to get out in the open. Nyelle is very much a high-flier in my class. It’s very hard for me to challenge her, because she gets it in a snap,” she explains, pointing at the mother, but directing her comments to the whole group. “Right now, Nyelle’s mom is saying she’s really not doing her best. Yes, a C is past where we need to be right now, but knowing your child and saying, ‘That’s not good enough,’ keeps that bar high. Yes, it is going to be frustrating, and we will give you strategies to handle that frustration. They totally get frustrated here.”

      “We had a visitor in our class today, and he was like, ‘That’s the first time I saw tears’ today,’” Syskowski adds, and I realize she’s talking about me. She tells the parents what happened with the little boy who won’t be going to blocks tomorrow. “That was really tough for him to hear. At the same time, did I say, ‘It’s OK if you don’t finish your book review?’”

      Now it’s Syskowski who starts to tear up. “No. It’s not OK. Because why would I let him fail when other kids are surpassing it and they’ll go to first grade? You would not want me as your child’s classroom teacher. You would not want Mr. Carnaghi or Ms. Skinner to be your child’s teacher if we were like, ‘You know what? You’re right. It is really hard. Let’s just let them be a B.’” How about if they get two out of the four sight words correct? ‘That’s good enough.’ Where are they going to be in thirteen years? Then we won’t talk about college. And that’s something that . . .” Syskowski lowers her gaze to the floor. “I get chills. That’s something that’s really hard for me to . . .”

      Syskowski doesn’t finish the thought. She can’t. She’s crying. “I do get emotional. Because your children are amazing. They are absolutely amazing. I try to . . .” She quickly gathers herself. “We will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.” She hammers every word—“Other. Paths. To get to the destination.” She adds, “We will not lower it.”

      Syskowski is spent. The meeting breaks up with a smattering of applause from the parents, who pull on their coats, collect their kids, and begin to melt away down the hallway. Vandlik emerges from her office and shoots me a smile as she heads down the hall toward the main office. It’s the biggest tell of the afternoon. In most schools, this kind of whole-grade, all-hands-on-deck meeting would be a major event. At Bronx 1, the principal didn’t even participate.” End Quote.

      For more of this fine book on how a serious and highly successful school for mostly all disadvantaged kids in the Bronx teaches kids extraordinary learning and success, please read How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, And The Battle Over School Choice (Avery, 2019, $27, 384 pages), by Robert Pondiscio.

      Note that at end of 2018-2019 school year, the students at Success Academy Bronx 1, 100% percent black or Hispanic and 84% economically disadvantaged, and all chosen by lottery, earned proficiency rates of 89.9% in English Language Arts and 98% in Math. Of these, 41% scored at the highest level in English Language Arts , as did 83% in Math. Thus these kids exceeded the performance of two of New York State’s highest preforming schools, Scarsdale and Bronxville where no students are disadvantaged and most are from highly affluent families.

      Also see 2015 article “What Explains Success at Success Academy” wherein, among many things, one finds:

      “Elementary students complete two “project-based learning” units in each grade, where students read and write about a particular subject for six weeks. In 4th grade, for example, children learn about the American Revolution. This year, Success is piloting two additional two-week “mini Core Knowledge” project-based learning units. “We love [Core Knowledge founder] E. D. Hirsch,” says Michele Caracappa, Success’s director of literacy.

      In middle school, Success adds independent reading time and includes a literature class. Students receive iPads loaded with books. Middle-school students must read seven key texts, typically comprising four novels, two nonfiction books, and one of poetry. (I saw middle-school students in Harlem reading The Block, which combines poetry of Langston Hughes with paintings of Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden.)

      Writing skills are emphasized in daily workshops from kindergarten through 8th grade. In later grades, students produce longer pieces across several genres, going through the entire writing process. Much focus is on revision; teachers are trained to give targeted feedback.

      Success’s children’s literature expert, Sara Yu, fills the schools with rich, engaging books at all levels. Yu worked for many years at the highly regarded bookstore affiliated with the Bank Street College of Education. She notes that books aren’t selected only to produce competent readers, but also to expose children to “relevant, important, beautiful material … diverse cultures, economic backgrounds, settings, and characters.”

      This devotion to content pays off. At the Success Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant (one block the public housing complex where Jay Z grew up—still a tough neighborhood), 81 percent of 3rd graders were proficient in ELA last year (98 percent in math!). A 4th-grade English class dissects How My Parents Learned to Eat, the story of an American sailor learning to use chopsticks to impress his Japanese girlfriend. …” End Quote.


  15. Jim Bacon. Full disclosure. Regarding how George Floyd, i was covering the press conference this week when the Richmond police chief was fired for Style Weekly. In my haste to file, I made exactly the same one you did.

  16. From Success Academy Charter Schools CEO: today, it is so important to be able to hear other voices, divergent opinions. Agreeing with what Kerry recently told me which was; I am not a pastor, a social worker, or a community organizer. I aim to wake people up not put them to sleep.

  17. Pingback: “Equity” and the Performance of Virginia’s Black and White Students – CrankysBlog

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