Falling Behind

My BrotherNot content with trashing welfare by abolishing work requirements laid down by the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, plus centralizing healthcare through his Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative threatens to inflict equal damage upon America’s schools and criminal justice system.

Why do I claim the President’s new initiative will damage America’s schools and criminal justice system, given that it merely creates a task-force charged with ascertaining and publicizing via the Internet which of the programs designed to help young black Americans succeed work best? Surely, some readers will be thinking, such an initiative can do only good, or, at worst, no harm.

To understand why the new initiative is socially pernicious rather than benign or at worst neutral, one must return to the circumstances surrounding the President’s decision to embark upon it, plus the manner he has described it in announcing and earlier alluding to it.

The first time the President gave any intimation of the initiative was in a speech made last July in the immediate aftermath of the murder trial of the man who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin. In hastily prepared words delivered immediately following the not-guilty verdict, President Obama dwelt on what public policy lessons could and should be learnt from it. One such lesson, the President told the American public, was that, as a long-term project: ‘we need to spend some time in thinking about how to bolster and reinforce our African-American boys,’ adding:

There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement… [I]s there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and… and is willing to invest in them? I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program… But… there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy… and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

The next occasion on which the President publicly alluded to the initiative was in his State of the Union speech to Congress in January. There, he declared:

We… have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education… Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids… The problem is we’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time. That has to change.

Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education. Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every four year-old. As a parent as well as a President, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime… So… I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need… And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.

Fast forward a month to a special ceremony at the White House on February 27th, when the President finally unveiled the initiative, flanked by a dozen of the very young black men whom it was designed to help, and in the invited presence of the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, another black Florida teenager shot dead by a white man whose murder trial for the shooting has even yet not been concluded. There, President Obama pledged his allegiance to the American dream for all prepared to make the requisite effort. Declaring of the notion: ‘that’s the idea behind everything that I’ll do this year and for the rest of my presidency,’ the President then went on to introduce his initiative, explaining its rationale thus:

My administration’s policies — from early childhood education to job training, to minimum wages — are designed to give a hand up to everybody, every child, every American willing to work hard and take responsibility for their own success. That’s the larger agenda. But the plain fact is there are some Americans who… have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions… And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges… are boys and young men of color… That’s why, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict… I spoke about the need to bolster and reinforce our young men… and give them the sense that their country cares about them…

In my State of Union address last month, I said I’d pick up the phone and reach out to Americans willing to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential… And that’s what today is all about. After months of conversation… we’ve pulled together private philanthropies and businesses, mayors, state and local leaders, faith leaders, non-profits, all who are committed to creating more pathways to success. And we’re committed to building on what works. And we call it “My Brother’s Keeper”…

So today after my remarks are done, I’m going to pen this presidential memorandum directing the federal government not to spend more money, but to do things smarter, to determine what we can do right now to improve the odds for boys and young men of color, and make sure our agencies are working more effectively with each other, with those businesses, with those philanthropies, and with local communities to implement proven solutions. And part of what makes this initiative so promising is that we actually know what works — and we know when it works.

The President then went on to enumerate the measures he claimed we know work. They comprised: early years education, alternatives to classroom exclusion in the case of disruptive children, and alternatives to the criminal justice system for young offenders of high-school age. Having enumerated these measures, the President concluded his explanation of the initiative by adding:

And that’s what “My Brother’s Keeper” is all about — helping more of our young people stay on track; providing the support they need to think more broadly about their future; building on what works, when it works, in those critical life-changing moments. And when I say, by the way, building on what works, it means looking at the actual evidence of what works. There are a lot of programs out there that sound good, are well-intentioned, well-inspired, but they’re not actually having an impact. We don’t have enough money or time or resources to invest in things that don’t work, so we’ve got to be pretty hard-headed about saying if something is not working, let’s stop doing it. Let’s do things that work.

Some readers might be wondering what can possibly be wrong with any of this, especially so given that, when introducing the initiative, the President told the young black men at whom it is directed that it would not be giving any a free ride. Addressing them directly, he intoned:

‘Part of my message is “no excuses”… you’ve got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge… It may be hard, but… I know you guys can succeed.’

I repeat my question, then: what can possibly be wrong with the initiative, given that it addresses a worthy cause, requires no additional federal spending, and is merely a fact-finding project designed to identify and disseminate best practices? The answer is: plenty.

In the first place, although the initiative may not involve any additional federal expenditure, it will require some federal funding. Under Section 1 (c) of the Presidential Memorandum which gave effect to it, this funding is to come primarily from the budget of the Department of Education. By no means are all black males seriously disadvantaged, however, or are the only Americans who are disadvantaged taken as a group. This raises the question whether such a discriminatory program as this can be constitutional. Roger Clegg, head of the Center for Equal Opprtunity, thinks it is unconstitutional.

Second, even were the initiative constitutional and not unwarrantably biased in favor of black males, the measures to assist them succeed, which the President claims we know to work, are anything but as demonstrably beneficial as he claimed them, either to their intended beneficiaries or to others. Consider first early-years education. It is no means as indisputably the great black hope as the President portrays it as being. As recently remarked by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and formerly director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education:

[T]he evidence is decidedly mixed on the impact of the type of preschool investments the president has called for… Unfortunately, supporters of Preschool for All… have turned a blind eye to the mixed and conflicting nature of research findings on the impact of pre-k for four-year-olds… Ignored, or explained away, are the results from the National Head Start Impact Study (a large randomised trial), which found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who had vs. had not attended head Start as four-year olds. They also ignore research showing negative impacts on children who receive child care supported through the federal child development block grant program, as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts on later academic achievement…

Based on what we have learned… the most defensible conclusion is that these statewide programs are not working to meaningfully increase the academic achievement of children from low-income families.

While plenty of evidence exists that children excluded from classrooms on account of their disruptive behavior tend to do less well in later life than their peers, and that they are over-represented by those of African-American heritage, there is no evidence that these children are likely to be helped by their not being excluded and subject to special measures. On the other hand, there is plenty of reason to suppose that not excluding them from classrooms cannot but impair the learning and behavior of those of their peers who have to put up with their presence in class. Anyone who has ever taught a class can vouch for the latter fact. As Robert Weissberg, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois, has noted in a piece on the American Thinker website entitled ‘How my “My Brother’s Keeper” Stands to Destroy Already Bad Schools’:

Easing up on discipline and substituting social work-like measures will, almost guaranteed, make already troubled schools even worse. It is bizarre to insist… that keeping miscreants in school will narrow the black/white achievement gap… Teachers will spend even more time struggling to maintain order, well-mannered students will receive minimal instruction, better teachers will flee to safer settings, and whole neighborhoods will deteriorate as schools become centers for delinquent behavior. And closing “bad schools” will only relocate the mayhem elsewhere. In sum, this “help” will be a gigantic step backward, especially for decent, impoverished students trapped in inner-city schools.

As to the President’s suggestion that keeping high-school children out of the criminal justice system at all costs will improve their life-chances, one has to consider that Trayvon Martin might well be alive today in juvenile detention had the incriminating contents found in his school-locker been reported to the police and the matter pursued, rather than being merely suspended on account of a policy of his school district to minimize the numbers of high-school children being put through the criminal justice system.

Of course, he might as equally have been alive had he not been suspended from school, but then how well he would have been doing and likely to do is highly moot, given his apparent waywardness at the time. And there is the welfare of his peers to consider too.

Finally, as many others have noted, there are plenty of very well-attested effective programs to improve the life-chances of at risk-children which receive no mention from the President when he launched his initiative. One such is the National Guard Youth Challenge Program.

Founded by the National Guard in 1993 to give troubled youth the opportunity to turn their lives around, the 17-month program for 16-18 year old high-school drop-outs, which includes a five-month residential phase followed by a 12-month phase, emerged in 2001 with glowing colors from a three-year longitudinal study conducted by MDRC, an independent, non-profit education and social policy research organization dedicated to learning what works to improve programs and policies that affect the poor. According to the MDRC ‘s report of the results of the study:

A comprehensive survey was administered to about 1,200 young people in the program and control groups an average of three years after they entered the study, when they were about 20 years old, on average. Key findings from the survey include:

Members of the program group were much more likely than those in the control group to have obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or a  high school diploma and to have earned college credits.

Members of the program group were more likely to be employed at the time of the survey, and they earned about 20 percent more than their control group counterparts in the year before the survey.

There were few statistically significant differences between groups on measures of crime, delinquency, health, or lifestyle outcomes. Another time-honored ‘program’, universally found to help almost all children of every creed, color, and gender grow up well and to succeed is the marriage of their parents, preferably before their conception and certainly before their birth. It, too, went unmentioned by President Obama in unveiling his program. Albeit he did note in passing that: ‘We know that boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor, more likely to underperform in school.’ Currently, over seventy per cent of all black babies in America are born out of wedlock.

Were the President genuine about wanting young black boys to succeed, surely a social policy focus designed to bring down that figure substantially should receive the highest priority. What John Stuart Mill remarked a hundred and fifty years ago with the English proletariat then in mind holds true today of this American constituency:

It still remains unrecognised that to bring a child into the world without a fair prospect of being able to, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

The President’s task-force would do well to ponder the policy implications of this particular nostrum of Mill’s which, for the reasons given above, is only likely to make matters worse for the African American male.