The high human-societal cost of systemic and organized educational neglect…

Since it is clear that over the last few days, the number of “deplorable” (does that also include the “vile” and “despicable”?) people you can fit into a basket, seems to be the primary story in the 2016 presidential contest. I personally believe that the 50% number was extremely generous on the part of Hillary Clinton, and she should be commended for that! Meanwhile, real discussions about real Americans who are suffering, are “off-topic”. And so I am very happy that Mr. Ferner returns our focus to the issues and people who need the attention of our government leaders. The amazing thing about this study is that it harms all Americans, but then it delivers its most severe and devastating “punches” disproportionately on those communities that are forced to serve up their children as the raw material for this criminal-justice system (which perhaps is one explanation as to why so many Americans don’t mind having their tax money wasted in this way.) One can only imagine, what this nation would look like (and could accomplish!), if we invested the time and energy, and one quarter of that trillion dollars in diverting young people of color into positive, productive and quality of life producing professional careers; instead of a community poisoning and destructive prison system?

“The Full Cost Of Incarceration In The U.S. Is Over $1 Trillion, Study Finds
And about half of that falls upon the families, children and communities of the incarcerated.”

Matt Ferner/Huffington Post

A new study examining the economic toll of mass incarceration in the United States concludes that the full cost exceeds $1 trillion ― with about half of that burden falling on the families, children and communities of people who have been locked up.
The United States is the biggest jailer on the planet, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Another 7 million Americans are either on probation or on parole. Operating all those federal and state prisons, plus running local jails, is generally said to cost the U.S. government about $80 billion a year.
But in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that the $80 billion price tag is likely a gross underestimation, because it does not factor in the social costs of incarceration.
“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs,” Carrie Pettus-Davis, director of the university’s Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice and a co-author of the study, said last week.
At $1 trillion, the broader costs of incarceration dwarf the operational costs of the U.S. government. And disturbingly, more than half of that cost, researchers say, is borne by the families, children and communities of incarcerated people.
A growing body of research has established that formerly incarcerated people who get jobs tend to have significantly diminished incomes, even long after they leave prison. Researchers at Washington University found that incarcerated people lose about $70 billion in wages they would have otherwise earned as part of the workforce. And people who do find employment after incarceration miss out on an estimated $230 billion in reduced earnings over the course of their lifetime.
“Formerly incarcerated persons earn lower wages because they face occupational restrictions, encounter discrimination in the hiring process, and have weaker social networks and less human capital due to their incarceration,” the researchers note.
The formerly incarcerated also have a mortality rate 3.5 times higher than that of people who have never been incarcerated. Their shortened life spans collectively add a cost of almost $63 billion.
But the single greatest cost the researchers found has to do with the fact that high levels of incarceration may actually increase crime, not deter it, by “reinforcing behavior and survival strategies that are maladaptive outside the prison environment.”
The researchers note that there may be an additional destabilizing effect on communities where many people have been jailed, imprisoned or otherwise detained, thereby “weakening the social controls that bind neighborhoods together.”
Altogether, researchers put those costs of the criminogenic nature of prison at a whopping $285 billion.
The children of incarcerated people pay enormous costs. They are five times more likely to go to prison than their peers. They’re likely to be stigmatized and suffer long-term emotional and behavioral challenges. They also have a greater chance of living in poverty or general instability at home or becoming homeless themselves.
Ten percent of children of incarcerated parents are unable to finish high school or attend college. Many teenage children of incarcerated parents forego their education and enter the labor force early in order to make up for lost family income. And incarcerated people have triple the divorce rate of people who are convicted of a crime but not placed behind bars. Altogether, costs involving the children of the incarcerated reach over $185 billion.
In the researchers’ estimation, the full economic burden of mass incarceration in the U.S. comes to about 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It’s also over 11 times larger than the operational costs of correctional facilities.
“Recent reports highlighting the costs to incarcerated persons, families, and communities have made it possible to estimate the true cost of incarceration,” Pettus-Davis said. “This is important because it suggests that the true cost has been grossly underestimated, perhaps resulting in a level of incarceration beyond that which is socially optimal.”

In Performing Arts High Schools; more or less concentration on “Academics” is the wrong question, and the wrong answer.

“…More than 7,000 people signed an online petition this week about the fabled Manhattan performing arts school featured in the movie and TV series “Fame.” Critics charge Principal Lisa Mars has pushed test scores and academics at the expense of the school’s core mission of encouraging young artists…”-NY Times/8/192016

“…A parental faction at Professional Performing Arts School in Hell’s Kitchen claim basic learning has been left behind in favor of splashy stage productions…”- NY Post/9/1/2016

Putting aside for the moment, for reasons of communication clarity, the fact that “the arts” are part of the required and necessary core curriculum, and are therefore very much “Academic”. But I understand how laypersons (non-professional educators) are speaking about this topic, and so I will temporarily adopt the public’s definition of “academics”. The problem in public education, is that we too often ask the wrong questions, and wonder why we always arrive in a non-productive place.

First of all, high schools generally have the unique challenge, responsibility and mission of preparing young people for the end of their public school experience, and for the beginning of an adult (career and/or college path), where the rules and expectations are very different from our K-12 world. High school educators must be in the center of the knowledge of that “adult world”; but at the same time not be philosophically, of that world. Our role is to facilitate a smooth, as possible, transition into the requirements of adult life.

We also want to balance several, sometimes competing objectives. (1) Making sure that the student graduates, with the most advantageous (for them) diploma possible. (2) Help the young person to fully realize their personal gifts and talents. (3) Help students to fulfill their hopes, dreams and professional aspirations. (4) create a situation whereas the young person will be able to sustain a financially independent and comfortable style of life as an adult. (5) Last, but in no way least, help young people to discover their “calling” in life; the reason and purpose for their presence on earth. I have always given students the advice I followed myself: “Find something you are passionate about, that you are good at, and love to do more than anything else; and then get paid to do it!”

A truly successful graduation is when you are able to accomplish all of the above 5 objectives. But this is where I get into trouble, particularly when it comes to Black males, and the unfair and dangerous life-lottery game they enter as it pertains to professional sports careers. We know, based on solid irrefutable data, that dealing with the present reality, many of the professions that students wish to enter, voiced at any K-12 grade level won’t be realized. And for many students in this nation the reasons have nothing to do with brains and talent. But even for those students who have access to great informal (out of school) educational experiences; those who do receive a rich, rigorous and high expectations formal educational school experience; this still may not result in their realizing a particular professional goal. It is often a “numbers”, connections, “opportunity” (that place where talent, timing and readiness meet), and talent game. For there are only so many: dramatic plays, Olympic team slots, films, professional sports teams open positions, principalships, judgeships, medical school slots, etc., available; and a large number of very talented people all be vying for the same positions and appointments. We could successfully argue that the present system is warped, but it is what it is. And high school educators (as powerful as we think we are) don’t get a chance to change the society that is external to our schools; only a chance to encourage students to change that society for the better when they take their places as citizen-caretakers of the nation.

Like most things in public education, an “either-or” solution, is almost always an oversimplification. The problem is compounded by the fact that we try to fit every high school into the same general high school mode of: labor agreements-laws, contracts, regulations, budget, and staffing, scheduling and organizational format. This “standard” format hurts all schools; but it creates even greater problems for CTE, STEM, performing arts, or any type of theme specialized high school. These schools are often placed in the position of trying to satisfy two conflicting missions (internal-external); with the clear political power differential favoring the external (State-Local oversight) mission.

How about thinking and doing these schools in a radically different way? A different staffing model and scheduling of that staff; a different day, week, semester and year. Why not design these school from “inside-out”; with structures and organizations that responded to the school’s mission? A way that would allow them to achieve the 5 principles with all students! Don’t make these schools look like other schools, make them look completely like different schools! Start with the type of student we want at graduation, and then work backwards to design a school to produce that student.

Every school regardless of theme should seek to accomplish the five principles I outlined earlier. That means engage and empower the gifts and talents of students; and at the same time provide them with the credentials, tools and skills to have a multiple path of future options. We know that many students “discover” a career they love after leaving high school; and so why not give them “flexible life-negotiation skills and credentials”, that would allow them to make the necessary adjustments they may need to make in a future career choice?

Besides, based on many of the Incoherent interviews, and bad decisions often made by a lot of performing arts and sports “stars”; I think that having a strong knowledge base of: foreign language & cultural literacy, history, Black-Latino-Women’s studies, literature, economics, mathematics, philosophy, sociology, psychology and science, would actually be helpful, and a career enhancer.

The new “no homework” movement is the same old dangerous trap.

“Change the joke and slip the yoke”—Ralph Ellison

“If you start off with the wrong premise; you are going to end up with the wrong solution to the problem, every time!”— Mr. Weingartner; (my high school geometry teacher)

It seems that the community and church elders from my Brooklyn childhood all studied from the same playbook. And that game-plan was summarized in my mother’s warning as I was about to embark on my personal contribution to the nation’s school busing for integration program: “Don’t get confused”; she said. “You can’t do, or not do, what those ‘other folks’ are doing or not doing; you will not be treated the same; follow yourself, and use the brains God gave you!” To be honest, I did not like that warning, or similar ones like: “You must be twice as good, just to get a fair chance to compete!” For they challenged my instinctual sense of basic human, ill-informed and idyllic sense of American fairness. But in those 1950-60’s days you had to listen quietly and respectfully; and debated and protested the issue (out of earshot) in your room. And now in my 60’s I have come to realize that the elders of my youth were correct and wise beyond all of the “book-learning” that gave me a false sense of superiority over their knowledgeable advice. Their education was not gained in the halls of a university; but rather, their understanding of race in America, evolved from their lived experience of a brutal system of social, political, economic and violence of pre-civil rights American apartheid.

And so it is this early warning system of my youth that has served to frame my ideas for our national fascination with public educational “faddism”. Social media has made things worse. The fact that all of these ideas either fail miserably, or “succeed” with an isolated and small cohort of very selected students, is perhaps lost on parents who are desperately grasping for any suggestion, regardless of the source, or the sense it makes for their particular child. We are definitely in permanent “band-wagon” mode. We jump on the wagon when a group of entitled and enfranchised parents want to put an end to “standardized testing” (except for: Gifted and talented programs, the specialized high schools admission exams, ACT, SAT, AP, Praxis, MCAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.!) Or, they push back against the “Common Core Curriculum”. But their opposition makes sense; if your child’s school’s strong instructional program is rich with thoughtful and ongoing assessments of an ongoing high quality of instruction; and it is a place where high expectations is the standard; or the standardized exams that identify the need for additional funding for struggling or poor students is not a factor. And of course, if your child’s school is already following a rigorous core curriculum, why would you need anything else?

As these “refound” & “(deformed)reformed” ideas and initiatives are rolled out every year, I wonder do parents of color, or poor parents of any color ever ask one of the most important question I think a parent should ask: “What does this policy, initiative, fad, trend, internet sensation, etc. mean for my child’s academic success?”

(And, how in the world did so many very successful people (past and present) in the world, possibly survive doing homework?)

The issue, a child’s academic success, is not primarily about the homework, rather it is about the quality of the daily class work!

For sure, if as a parent you have a sound “informal educational” (out of school time) evening-weekend plan for your child; meaning: independent fun reading time*, news watching, family current events discussions, educational toys, puzzles and games, art and science kits; your child has access to magazines at home: Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discover, Time for Kids, Science Spin, Super Science, Science World, etc.; STEM, art, or computer summer camps, after-school creativity-intellectual enrichment programs, hobbies (i.e. stamp collecting, baking, photography, etc.); music, art, dance, acting, martial arts lessons; non-stereotypical sports programs: i.e. fencing, gymnastics, archery
or swimming; study (as opposed to homework) resources i.e. online tutorial programs; a year-round-long plan of visits to: museums, plays, cultural institutions and events, library visits, trips to historical sites, national parks, just to name a few… then I could see where “bad homework assignments” would actually do your particular child more harm than good.

*Possible (depending on the child’s interest and reading ability) independent daily minimum reading schedule:
• Grades 2-3: 20 minutes a day.
• Grades 4-5: 30-40 minutes a day.
• Grades 6-8: 45-60 minutes a day.
• Grades 9-12: 50-60 minutes a day.

And to be honest, just like there is a great deal of bad instructional practices; there is also a great deal of bad homework assigned (After observing more lessons than I can remember, I have found that the two usually go together!) The “bad” problem is made worse in the pre-high school grades where the homework is often, and wrongly “corrected” by the parent; which renders it useless as a way for the teacher to properly assess and address a student’s conceptual “misunderstands”. There is also the problem of these parent-child homework sessions creating unnecessary tension and stress for both parent and child; and could actually do great harm to the parent as informal-education teacher-student relationship.

Much of the criticism of (bad) homework is accurate; but like standardized testing, we should not just get rid of something because uninformed educational policy makers (or in this case school administrators and teachers) don’t understand it, and therefore misuse it. The key is to place the home work activity into its proper pedagogical and most effective role. The ineffective, and in fact harmful “more homework the better” philosophy should end. A school is failing its students if it is seeking to prove its “rigorous profile” to parents through an overbearing quantity of homework; and not through the quality of work that takes place in the classrooms. Fooling parents is never a sound or useful learning objective.

The homework activity should be structured to close the parent “access to resources, knowledge of the English language, parent education, and awareness of the informal education school system– gap”. The homework assignment (HWA) must be a well thought out part of the lesson plan (at least that’s the way it was taught years ago in my curriculum and instruction courses; oh I forgot, teachers no longer need those courses!); it can explain, extend and “seal” the day’s lesson; or it can be a “set-up” for the next day’s lesson.

The HWA (like tutoring) should not look or feel like the school day’s classroom instruction. It should be different and creative in a way that it allows for students to display their creativity; it can be individualized, allowing the child to display some individual interest, talent or gift; the assignment could pull from: home, community and national/current events; it can be a service or “thought” project. What it should not be is an exercise in frustration producing monotonous drudgery; where the child is asked to do 20 of something that they did not fully learn in school.

And particularly in high schools; it should be substituted for study exercises; after of course we teach students how to study; and how it is qualitatively different from “homework”. I personally would like to see the model of deconstructing 3 problems (give the students the right answers, explain why the right answer is right; and why some wrong answers are wrong); rather than give students 20 problems, that take a lot of time, but yield very little conceptual knowledge, only a lot of frustration.

As a profession we absolutely need to clean-up our “homework”! But let us also be careful to not mislead the majority of public school parents into believing that: Learning = School. Learning does not end at the end of the school day, week or year. Many parents, including (to be honest) professional educators have a comprehensive out of school plan for their own children, that will effectively increase the child’s vocabulary capacity each year, empower their linguistic-speaking skills (that thinking-speaking link that Vygotsky speaks of); continually expanding their knowledge of “the world”, making sure that they are strong readers, working to make sure that their intellectual and creative talents are fully stimulated and developed; in other words giving them all of the attributes of what unconsciously, not on purpose, or on purpose, what the educational world has come to associate with “smartness”; which when formally assessed is most often parental influenced. And, make no mistake about it, “smartness” can be grown through parental awareness of informal educational activities.

A professional ethical code we should practice: Do unto other people’s children as we do unto ours…

And so let us design out of school assignments based on what our particular students need. HWA’s that can open students to those important, and usually parent driven, informal learning activities. I have seen too many “prominent” people who advocate for: “child free time” for other people’s children; but then make sure that their children are fully involved in all types of “structured-informal” inspiring, exciting educational activities for their child’s out of formal school time. The elders of my youth did not go for that “okey-doke” advice, or the joke that was designed to be on them, and their children. They were sensibly suspicious of any advice: “To help their children.” And because of that, they were inclined to ask the question, no matter what “new” idea was trending: “What does this mean for my child?” And, “Which children does this idea, help or hurt?”

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent.

Grading the NAACP an “Incomplete” on their critique of Charter Schools.

First, I am not a fan of the philosophy that schools should be turned into centers of private enterprise and profit; there are very sensible, moral and rational reasons for schools to not follow the “profit over people” business model; mainly because our “end product” is not “widgets”, cars or chairs; but rather the creation of reflective human beings; who through our efforts can act ethically, skillfully and thoughtfully in a world full of other human beings. As public educators we seek to enhance the possibilities for every child to have a positive future; we work for the establishment of spiritual and intellectual wealth building, over the principle of material accumulation (for the obscene sake of accumulation); our work seeks to make real the fulfillment of a personal (and the American) dream; and to give every child, regardless of their status, a chance to become a creative, productive and positive participants in what is the most wealthy of nations. That is, the (so far unfulfilled) promise of public education.

If we have learned anything from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, it is that given the encouragement, education, and a collection of adults who are thoroughly committed to the well-being and success of a child; amazing and wonderful things can happen. Simone Biles early “family struggles” didn’t keep people from seeing her personal potential; family historical status is not a permanent state, or a future predictor of talent and giftedness. I think Ms. Biles is one of many high archivers, in diverse areas of endeavors that we overlook, and deny a chance to succeed in our nation. And if public educators “coached” like: We can’t do anything about society, economics, housing, employment, or the “quality” of parents; but we can do something powerfully wonderful for this child in front of us; then our outcomes would be vastly different.

The absence of a: “do no harm to children”, “children’s right to learn, over an adult’s right to have a job” position. The presence of: “zip code, race and ethnicity as destiny” approach to public schooling, means that we will always invite “other than professional educators” to claim that they can “save education”. And unless we adopt an uncompromising code of professional ethics; and until we stop making excuses (money, parents education and the neighborhood the child is from) as to why our educational outcomes are so dismal and disappointing; there will always be the next “superman/women” (more than likely not a person of color) waiting to swoop in, even if they don’t possess any super powers or super knowledge as to how to educate children of color.

Charter school parents are voting with their feet, for the same practical and sensible reasons that my mother and a lot of other 1960’s parents, prayerfully put their children on scary school integration buses. Those parents were not knowing political allies of the Brown v. Board of Education attorney Thurgood Marshall (as worthy as his work was); and they had no illusion that having their child sit next to a White child would mean an osmotic expansion of their child’s brain cells; rather they were thinking along the lines of my mother: “When the school system teaches the white children (who they care about), they will also be forced to teach you sitting in the same classroom; (who they could care less about!) These brave and wise Black parents were simply trying to save their children. And that is what charter school parents are trying to do today; desperately trying to rescue and save their children from a public school system that is clearly disinterested in, and hostile to, the hopes and aspirations they have for those children. I would, given my own personal history, be hypocritical in criticizing charter school parents who are simply trying to save disenfranchised children that America might overlook, like I once was.

And to the extent that public education has failed to fulfill the sacred and most fundamental objectives of simply preparing children to be actors and active, and not just acted on in the future, is the extent to which we have open, and will continue to open the door to grossly unprepared, theoretically deficient, “seasonal and drive by educators”; as well as profit-making projects that have turned children of color into commodities. And in the racially discriminatory business environment of America, it is no accident that the overwhelming number of these educational entrepreneurs, don’t look like the children and families they serve.

If organizations like the NAACP want to credibly take on charter schools; then they need to also declare intense oversight over any and all organizations, politicians, groups, institutions (public and privately held) that work to delay or deny Black children the right to an enriched and empowering educational experience. Black parents are too busy trying to save and serve their child’s future; and therefore can’t hear the insincere verbiage of those seeking to serve their own self-interest.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent.

Sitting out a presidential election; I guess it’s good to have options…


What if compassion is measured not by how much we felt our own personal pain and suffering; but by the extent that we felt, or at least understood, the pain and suffering of others? My greatest hope is that I am greatly mistaken concerning how a Trump win could end. That in fact the folks who have it right: The Intellectually lazy equivalence of evil ‘sit this one out’ theorist; The religiously inclined who say that a Trump presidency will usher in an apocalyptic end of times era; or the more politically inclined who say that a Trump presidency will usher in an era of severe fascist repression, that will then lead to a violent revolution, ending with the poor and working class overthrowing and achieving victory over the capitalist ruling class. Maybe they are the people who enjoy swimming with sharks or playing with rattle snakes. Or perhaps just ordinary cowardly folks who are psychologically attracted to bullies, misogynist blowhards, and the excitement of lynch mobs; and who are ultimately waiting for the magic sheriff to arrive so that the bully can be put out of his misery.

I really hope that the “Bernie or Bust”, and the “Hate Hillary at all cost” folks are right. For sure it’s a callous and dangerous gamble (It has always been too easy to gamble with other people’s children!) And this form of ill-informed benign neglect masquerading as political hipness is a much easier decision to make by people like me; people who have homes, health care insurance, and a decent & secure incomes. Those who will essentially be unaffected in their daily lives by who sits on the SCOTUS.

The truth is that for many of us, our standard of living is not really affected by who sits in the White House. And further, to keep it all the way real; if by some chance a Trump presidency does not lead to Armageddon; there are a lot of Americans (including Black, Latino and other people of color) whose material quality of life will be unaffected by a Trump presidency, as long as he specifically targets the: unemployed, the working poor, the undocumented, the disabled, the marginalized, Muslims, the LGBT and the disenfranchised members of our nation for his evil ambitions. Those in our society who have neither the financial resources nor the political strength to defend themselves. But what if none of the above catastrophic ending events take place? What if a Trump presidency does not end with either Revelations or a Revolution; just mass large-scale serious suffering; well some folks will have some explaining to do!

Let’s face it if we are selfish and self-serving in our thinking; the effects of elections can matter more to some in our nation than others (just ask the men and women in Virginia for whom Democrat Gov. McAuliffe is desperately trying to restore their voting rights; or the thousand, Black and White in Alabama, who are without any health care insurance because of the callous nullifying actions of a Republican governor; who by the way made sure his side activity had her health insurance!)

So far Mr. Trump has given me no indication that his presidency would bode well for many of the Americans I have cared dearly, and worked for my entire life. These people aren’t abstractions for me; in fact every time Mr. Trump makes a dismissive and disparaging remark about Latinos I see the faces of my wonderful former Latino students; when he advocates the banning of Muslims, I hear the voices of my many great Muslim students; when he mocks the disabled I think of all of the talented students with disabilities I have been honored to work with over the years; and when he disrespects women I can visualize all of the wonderful young lady students I have been fortunate to see grow into dynamic women; and when he denigrates Black people; I think of all of the outstanding Black students, now powerful productive adults, I have encountered in my professional career. The success of all of these people are the Americans for which Trumpism designates as standing in the way of a return to “greatness”; a time when these people were either property, things, closeted, “knew their place”, or relegated to the back of a bus or a separate water fountain.

The great myth of this world is that the unjust pain visited on another does not affect us. But a careful study of history reveals that paranoid narcissistic leaders who gain power are never satisfied just hurting one group; their ultimate goal is to inflict their personal pain onto the entire society.

Many Americans don’t have access to the many resources for which I have been blessed; and it is these Americans who will serve as Mr. Trump’s primary targets of repression, removal, suffering and death. But I have no doubt that I am next in line. Gambling on the survival of others; or self-destruction, is an option. And so I guess in that twisted sort of way, it’s good to have options.

Black and Latino youth, America’s unopened gift

Thanks Ayodele Harrison, for this video. I think Mr. Whitlock has essentially captured the problem. And I understand that the venue perhaps tamed his comments somewhat. And so let me go there. For me (and I know you have heard this from me a thousand times), this is a lot like the exclusion of huge numbers of our population from: STEM, economics, the creative arts, etc. I even believe that we would be better at Homeland security if the FBI was a more diverse organization. America is not fielding its best athletes, not only in soccer, but in many other sports (i.e. Swimming, Gymnastics, Chess, Archery, Fencing, Baseball, Gulf, etc.) Further, there are “internal” obstacles; I and many others have found ourselves in deep trouble (with Black folks) for trying to push “non-stereotypical” athletic programs; or even trying to make those stereotypical sports programs follow a scholar-athletic model.

But just look what happens when a child of color, who by “chance”, or who is blessed with very aware and supportive parents gets through (Ibtihaj Muhammad, Simone Biles, or the Williams sisters)! This nation has made a Faustian bargain, to purposely suppress and destroy a large percentage of winning members of our national team, in every category of life. And say whatever you want about the: “Make America Great Again Folks”, or the liberal: “Keep America how it is folks”; they are willing to take any national hit necessary, in science innovation, sports or the creative arts; as they see the necessity of empowering and preparing the talents and gifts of their own children.

My life-long struggle has been to convince the disenfranchised and disregarded members of our society that nothing else really matters if your children (your future) are not engaged in the development of their inherent creativity and intelligence. And so to return to a sports analogy, our children lose early and often in the game of life, because they are missing adults who will champion their cause. My “take-away” from the Alexander Hamilton Broadway phenomena is this: How many “Alexander Hamilton” like plays are locked and hidden away in the hearts and minds of America’s children of color? How many Williams sisters are out there who will never pick up a tennis racket?

Part 2: Teen Summer Break: Turning a Vacation into an Advocation.

Part 2 On Summer Learning Loss: Teen Summer Break: Turning a Vacation into an Advocation.

Successful high school students all have something in common: They turn time into an ally. And the smartest of those successful students (and their parents), plan how to take advantage of the long summer break from school; they know that an end to school does not mean an end of learning. Several important goals should be accomplished in the summers of the high school experience:

1) Starting in your freshman year of high school you should be building a personal essay, biography, a resume and portfolio that will strengthen your profile, preparation and presentation for your post high school college, college scholarships, and/or career choice plans. Even if you are working, you must turn the summer into a learning experience. If you have a summer position funded by the government, try to get assigned to a meaningful and responsible position, where you can learn. Many young folks who work for Summer Youth type programs are content to clean up parks or sweep streets; now there is nothing wrong with that type of work; but you should try to get into a position that you can actually place on a resume i.e. an aide in a senior citizen center, parks department, summer feeding program, day camp, an office aide, etc. Next be a model employee, no matter what you’re assigned to do (you never know who is watching you); be professional and polite; offer to do extra, go above and beyond the job description; stand out from other folks, come to work on time and every day, dress appropriately, finish a task, take pride in your work; the impression you make could be critical. You will need letters of recommendation for future employment, and a good referral could turn your next summer job into a summer/after school “staff” position. But most important do something where you are being forced to learn a skill or practice a talent you possess. Having worked many years with summer youth students; it was clear to me that in many cases young folks were having their first ‘formal” work experience; it was also clear that some were “briefed” by some adult prior to arriving to the job site. A good manager recognizes those “stand-out” individuals right away! Ask yourself: “How can I stand out, how can I distinguish myself in a positive way?” Let people remember your name for the best of reasons!

2) Summer jobs are great but paid or unpaid internships are better. An internship is a statement about you, it says that some (very busy) organization or institution; thinks you have so much talent, ability and promise, that they are willing to invest the people they actually pay to do things other than internships, to mentor you. A STEM internship is very highly sought and respected, as many of the people and places where they exist; are extremely busy and not particularly focused on mentoring folks who are not well versed in the theory of the work; but many STEM internships are out there for the asking! To be successful at acquiring a STEM internship I would suggest juniors and rising seniors, those who are very strong and interested in the STEM subject-topic area. It is also important to have a serious attitude as safety is a critical factor.

3) Sign up (contact the admissions office) for a scheduled college tour. Try to at least visit one local college a week, the catalogue and other published information is very important. I have even known colleges to give individual tours to a high school student and parent who took the time to contact the admissions office.

4) Start the college going (paying for) process in the 9th grade. Develop your college scholarship resource electronic file a good place to start is: … Stay away from commercial scholarship finding sites (.com’s) a waste of money and time; you can do everything they can do for free by doing the search yourself. Stick to college based, private foundations and governmental scholarship sites. This may not sound important now to a teenager, but huge financial tuition debt can seriously harm and/or delay your future professional plans. If you are either working or have access to a place, that has a license to access the Foundation Center’s website: Use it to research foundation grants, scholarships, internships, and study in the US, and abroad programs.

5) Come up with a summer reading plan (so much time or pages a day); this plan should have many of the books you read for enjoyment; but this list should also include some personal development and study guides/practices titles, a few such books are:

• The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make: A Guide for Teens: Sean Covey
• The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens: Sean Covey
• The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens Personal Workbook: Sean Covey
• How to solve math word problems on standardized test : David S. Wayne
• SAT and ACT Grammar Workbook : George Ehrenhaft
• Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison
• Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry : Mildred Taylor
• The Autobiography of Malcolm X : Malcolm X
• A Choice of Weapons : Gordon Parks
• The Bluest Eye :Toni Morrison
• Dark Child : Camara Laye
• Jesse : Gary Soto
• Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: Frederick Douglass

6) Start studying for the SAT/ACT early: Build and practice your vocabulary skills (mastering so many words a day); make and use index “flash” cards to master the most used (those that show up most frequently) on the ACT or SAT. Helpful source of words: Sesquipedalian SAT Edition: An Interactive Story to Learn Hundreds of SAT and ACT Vocabulary Words in Context: Joshua Gordon.

7) Strengthened your math skills: If you did not receive an A or 100 in your last math class use sites like Khan Academy ( to “restudy” those areas of weakness. Math concepts have a “nasty” way of reappearing (including showing up in other courses like physics or chemistry); also the concepts you don’t nail in a previous math class can come back to haunt you in a higher math class.

8) (I guess the statute of limitations have run out) But as a principal I have accommodated students who wanted to review the textbook for a class they were taking in the fall (they engaged in a sort of pro-active studying-tutoring!) I let them borrow the textbooks for the summer; you can also read text books at a local public library.

9) Come up with a cultural institution (I.e. museums, botanical gardens, etc.) visiting plan for your city. If a parent can go great, if not still go. Check to see if any free passes are being offered to visit cultural institutions in your area. Now many of these institutions will have a “suggested admission fee”; if you have it and want to give fine, if not, don’t worry about the possible side-eye look you will receive if you can’t pay, the fee is “suggested” or “recommended”, not required. Also many of these institutions that do charge, will have a “free day”; and most likely a lower student admission fee. Teenagers arriving alone could for some institutions be a cause for concern (except for the Public Library); fair or not, that is what it is. Always be respectful, don’t ‘horse play’, use low “inside voices”, don’t break any institution rules, have your student I.D., and only take one other teenager (who you know to have good sense) with you; and stay together at all times, including (if appropriate) the bathrooms! Don’t give an institution a reason to ask you to leave!

10) Try to develop at least one good hobby every summer; some will probably stick for a lifetime (for me it is stamp collecting). Find a way to explore and express a talent and creative desire you have (It was in my SYEP Pratt University experience where I developed a love for my photography hobby!)

11) If you are not working, or can afford not to work, or plan to work part-time; seek a volunteer position in a local government agency, hospital, lab, library, museum, art or cultural center, community based organization, an elected official (including working in the campaign of one running for office). If you can volunteer in an area of future career aspirations, all the better. Develop a 1 page letter expressing your desire to volunteer and learn this summer so as to enhance your college and scholarship applications profile (let someone review and edit the letter, like a teacher on vacation, sorry folks!:-) Don’t assume that “powerful” and “influential” people will automatically say no; in fact I know from working with many students on these letters; most people in positions of power admire this type of drive and attitude (if you don’t believe in you, then…), and even if they can’t specifically help you, they could make a referral, the worse that can happen is that they can say “no”…. And, young person, you will need to learn to deal with some “no’s” in your life.

12) Make this a safe, and not sorry summer! Anybody can follow the crowd; be and do something different each summer. Be a good different, and make a good difference (help a senior citizen in your neighborhood). Be and stay positive. Learn some new things. Learn somethings about yourself. But learn! Learn something that will make you a better person and a better student in the next school year. Go back to school better prepared and organized to do well. Use and control time, don’t let it use and control you. Create good and positive habits. Decide to return to school in the fall better organized, focused, disciplined and more determined. Steer clear of unsafe situations, and people who will bring trouble and problems into your life. True friends would never put you in a position to be mentally or physically harmed; or to distract you from your promised greatness. People who do that are not friends, they are obstacles and pitfalls (ACT/SAT words!) avoid them. You only have one life, and you are the #1 person responsible for how that life turns out. “Momma may have, Poppa may have”; but God bless the child that has the sense to live a life, in summer, and all seasons, that will allow them to fulfill their hopes, promise and dreams to the fullest.

Summertime and the student learning loss is easy… Part 1

Growing up in Brooklyn NY, I was always suspicious of a saying I often heard: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you!” (And who started that anyway?) I did not believe that saying because I spent too much time at the Brooklyn: Public Library, Museum, Botanical Gardens, Children’s Museum, Prospect park, Zoo; along with my gifted middle school program experience, that exposed us to so many of the cities rich cultural institutions; and not to mention our daily reading of the NY Times in social studies. I truly believed that not knowing was a self-caused fatal deficiency! “Knowing”, seemed to offer an advantage in life; “knowing” causes one to interact with a sense of confidence and power in the world, an attitude not enjoyed by the uninitiated “not knowing” citizenry. This concept of the: Power of Knowing and wanting to know, that I adopted as a young child; and how the knowing, information enriched folks exercised power; while the lacking in knowledge poor folks; those with less of, or not wanting to know attitudes; lived a life of powerlessness at the mercy of the powerful. This idea, has remained one of the cornerstones of my educational philosophy, to this day.

Well summer learning loss, is a situation where: What a parent does not know will definitely hurt their child! Another suspicion I have is how the “achievement gap” is framed and explained. The common working definition wrongly suggest a “running race” model, where there is some fair and equal academic achievement starting line for White affluent-entitled kids, and the Black, Latino and poor kids of any color; and then the “smarter” White affluent-entitled kids academically out-sprint everybody else.

The truth is that the race is rigged; the winners and losers are determined before the race begins; the starting points are not now, or have ever been equal. Meanwhile, during the course of this “academic achievement race”, hurdles are placed in the running lanes of the disenfranchised children. Imagine an Olympic or any sporting event where the outcome was determined before the start of the event? Where one team or athlete had an open unfair advantage. Would fans lose interest, I think so; after all a chief marketing theme of the NFL is: “On any given Sunday, any team can win!” But not in education, the game is fixed, so that on any given school day, only one team always wins!

What we don’t tell parents…

All professions have: hidden, obscure, secrets, rules, information-knowledge; and develops a confusing (to the lay person) vocabulary and language. One reason for these essential qualities is that they allow the professional to ask for compensation (money) for their services. But this idea can at times go terribly wrong; as it often does in the education profession where there are large numbers of parents who don’t know how the real rules of: “Parent Engagement” work. Now much of this not knowing is “professionally contrived and created”, on purpose, as parents are cynically mislead into thinking that “parent power” is doing things like serving on a school budget committee; or, serving on a school personnel committee, and “picking” a teacher or a principal. With all of these “parent involvement” activities, school systems nationally and rationally, have a built in “veto mechanism” that can nullify any parent “decision”! Now, the reason school districts do “parent involvement” in this way is because it makes parents feel good, and it keeps them quiet. Parent “quietness” is a highly sought after goal in public education!

The truth we don’t tell parents (well, some of us don’t tell); is that the most important objective of this entire K-12 exercise, is that your child emerges at the end of the process as an academically-socially-morally- emotionally-empowered, successful human being. And that the real and most effective Parent Engagement activities, those parental involvement activities that are essential to realizing student success; does not involve the parent serving on committees, selling cookies and candy, or “managing” the school; rather it is the parent effectively managing the out of school, and in school behaviors, habits, attitudes and practices toward learning, of their child!

Some parents in this nation have essentially raised this “awareness” to an art-science; and thus the tremendous academic success of their children. For 11 years as an urban high school principal, there were some parents who never ventured to tell me how to run the school. Their only question: “What do you need me to do to make my child successful?” And: “What do you need my child to do to be successful?” (“And I will make sure that they do it!”) All of those students “over-performed”. On the other hand I have had the parents of failing, underachieving, and terribly underperforming students; state nicely, and very often not so nicely, that I did not know what I was doing! Their children, often picking up their “cues” of disrespect from the parent, always under-performed. How many parent-teacher-principal meetings have I held where the parent can’t resist telling either the teacher or me; in front of the child, that we don’t know what we are doing. Why would the child listen to us after hearing that? The second most important parent involvement activity is for the parent to manage the informal educational program experience, such that it compliments and enriches the formal education program.

Divided yet codependent learning activities…

To break down the very complex “child learning” process, into two general categories. There is formal learning, which takes place at school; and then there is informal learning that includes places like public libraries, aquariums, museums, nature walks, stamp collecting, theater, scouting, dance, music, art lessons, STEM camps, creative writing, educational games & toys, chess playing, and reading for fun, etc. Now my Deweyian (John Dewey) instincts causes me to have a problem with the division between these two modes of learning; but that is a discussion for another day. It is enough to say that a child’s learning does not end when they exit the school building. It is also important to note that these two learning systems are inseparable; however they are only formally measured (tested) in the formal school system! In fact, the Pre-K or K-3 “gifted and talented” admissions exams/process, is almost always a test of the level of the parent’s level of education, and their informal education management skills. The AP, ACT & SAT are very much measurements of the culmination of informal education learning (including informal-formal test-taking skills training), plus the amount and quality of formal education learning. And those students who have “chosen” parents who understand these concepts, will most likely excel in the public education system. This is combined with doing other things like being able to effectively, and successfully advocate/navigate their child through the system by finding schools where high expectation and expertise are the organizational standards; and even negotiating the child’s admission to a particular teacher’s class inside of a school! (As a superintendent I have had parents show up at my office, to get their child’s class changed, if the principal did not comply with their wishes! After following up those meetings by first observing the class; and not being happy with what I saw; I often wondered: “Why the heck are the other class parents not staging a similar “sit-in” in my office?)

I never had a “free” summer…

As a young child I was on a summer “learning program” of so many hours of reading, academic workbooks my mother purchased, the YMCA’s culture-sports-arts day camp, my merit badge activities, the library, museums, my model train system in the basement, my stamp collection, my magazines: “Life & National Geographic”, my world war 2: model planes and ships, my science work: Ant farm, microscope/science kit during the day, and my telescope on the roof after dark, Police Athletic League, church activities and programs, summer academic enrichment program at P.S. 9, which included educational/cultural institutions trips and art activities, in middle school I had my summer saxophone lessons, a photography class, Overnight Boy Scout camping, trips to an upstate summer camp, a scholarship to a summer drama class, etc. In short I did not have a summer experience where I was just in the street playing, or in the house watching TV. At the same time, I don’t ever remember not enjoying my summer vacations.

Parents must organize their child’s summer learning experiences; and that includes pushing back against the protest of your child (they will thank you later!), and other adults, who neither understand anything about learning in general, nor about the power of informal education. Parents should also know that the effective “pushy parents”; may not feel obligated to share either the need for informal educational activities for your child, or where those activities exist. And so parents need to do their own local search for low cost or free summer learning experience activities. And even if they cost something, the investment is well worth it! I am amazed at the huge number of these programs for which many parents are unaware even exist. Every one with a phone has access to a search engine. Google or call your local-state government, universities, elected officials, cultural institutions, newspapers, school district, local library, private and community based organization for information on summer informal learning programs.

Your child’s school should provide a summer (informal education) resource learning guide for you, and/or a summer work/study packet for your child.
But if your child’s school does not distribute a summer study/learning package, contact the central district superintendent’s office, and request a grade appropriate packet from another school in the district that does provide these packets (This will also let you know what children in your child’s grade are learning at other schools!) Meanwhile a daily quiet reading for fun schedule, along with some time with the free mathematics learning tutorial programs ( or learning games online; can do a great deal to stop the summer loss syndrome. Over a K-8 time period the child can lose up to two years of cumulative learning; placing them at a terrible disadvantage when entering high school. I will from time to time post some resources for summer learning programs, but a good start is:

National Summer Learning Association…

In part 2 I want to specifically focus on high school students; and how they can use the summer, (due to their “independent” movement ability), as a period of promise for present and future empowerment.

Increasing the number of NYC Black and Latino students attending Specialized High schools: The new NYCDOE initiative* is a good step in the right direction, but we have a long, long way to go…

This is a good start in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. I say a good start in the right direction because this is the beginning of an acknowledgment that the solution (to the problem) is to at least make some changes in the child’s entire middle school experience. It has been misleading to tell parents and the public that professional educators can just wave a magic wand over the head of an 8th grader, and make them specialized (or any) high school test ready; this is a terribly dishonest claim.

To create real and permanent change; there must be equity in the quality of the K-8 formal and informal learning experiences of Black and Latino children. Sadly, there is no citywide plan to help the most capable (on and above grade level) Black and Latino students to be prepared to perform well at any high school. And if they move to a high school that mirrors their inadequate K-8 learning experience; their possibility to excel intellectually is further diminished.

The central problem is that the K-8 academic preparation is essentially unfair; thus the predictable “achievement gap” outcomes on the exam. Black and Latino high performers don’t have a fair chance to compete with their academic peers, who may have spent a great deal of time being exposed to a rigorous K-8 academic program. Further, many of the “entitled” students also enjoy the benefits of the parental resource, education and information gap; which is the driving force behind receiving a quality informal education experience (music-dance-art lessons, tutorials, cultural museum, library visits, etc.)

Also, attending “stable” schools, with productive and efficient learning environments; going from grade to grade, and being repeatedly exposed to certified, experienced, highly efficacious, and highly effective teachers, is of critical importance.

We don’t really know if the SHSAT is an “unfair” exam, if large numbers of students of color are unfairly eliminated early (before the 8th grade) from the competition. To make this present effort work, first (thinking about how much I spent as superintendent on a similar successful effort in CSD 29) much, much more money is needed. There is a need to expand the access to art, music, and dance and STEM activities in the child’s K-8 learning world (schools). Resources will be needed to hire additional middle school guidance counselors who can specifically focus on assisting students and their families in the best high school decision. These counselor could also help students and parents to access the rich informal educational resources of the city. More certified math and science teachers will be needed. Having students involved in activities like the Lego robotics program, chess and summer and after-school: STEM, Art, creative writing, etc. camps. More quality instructional time is needed, and a greater quality of instruction, mixed with high expectations, and highly thoughtful behaviors by principals and teachers are the keys to high student academic achievement.

I am not sure that a choice of attending a specialized high school is the best choice for every child; but better K-8 preparation will help every child who is exposed to it, no matter their high school choice. Further, schools will need to step-up, and close the parent resource-information gap. Don’t wait for the parent to provide that informal learning experience!

How to get away with freedom, just build an empire in your own neighborhood!

And so the school system, must build a powerful pipeline of well prepared for high school Black and Latino students. But that is a political problem that will require affirmative civil actions on the part of the parents and communities, whose primary responsibility is to protect those children. The level and quality of service a community receives for their tax dollars is based on their willingness to fight for that quality.


Finally, communities of color need to take their children’s educational futures into their own hands; nothing is stopping Blacks and Latinos from: Making their children study hard and read; from forming community based after-school-weekends academic prep schools; STEM, art, museum, learning centers, reading and computer clubs; making education and learning a priority, and not sneakers, clothes, the mathematically insane pro-sports “lottery”, and other silly distractions, the priorities in our children’s lives!

*New York City Announces New Initiatives to Increase Diversity at Specialized High Schools:

Michael A. Johnson is a former NYC Teacher, Principal and Superintendent.