The hot topic of today, without question, has been that of Education. Not just any education but the education of (primarily) urban youth and closing the Achievement Gap. It’s interesting to me to note that many of the people who have been invited to speak on a national stage concerning this issue have what seems to be an undisputed amount of influence, be it fame or financial. There is no doubt that the conversation surrounding the education of the nation’s most vulnerable youth is highly politicized and many people should understand that this forum being used to highlight the issue probably won’t lead to large scale improvement in the area of educating our low-income youth. This is not to say that those who have been invited to speak on the issue are not doing justice to these youth; I simply mean that we must be careful when speaking about these issues because of the emotional tone being lent to them.
The U.S. at once boasted a world-class system of education. It was the first nation (at least that I know of) where the commoner was educated. This allowed us to train and produce more technical professionals than countries that largely kept their underclass uneducated. This is not to say that our nation produced scientists and mathematicians at all levels of society; but the idea and intent behind “educating every citizen for the good of the nation” was a novel one. From this, we were ranked first as a nation in literacy because nearly all citizens had the opportunity to at least learn to write, read enough to understand who they were voting for, and do basic math. Again, this idea is a novel one because many countries (especially those of European influence) relied heavily on the feudal system and maintaining the wealth of the crown.
If we continue to examine the history of public education in our nation, we’d see that it was wrought with issues from the beginning, particularly between genders and classes (but that is another discussion for another day). Continuing on, we see that Boston has been credited with providing its citizens with the first public school, meaning that taxpayers paid into a system of education that benefitted all of its constituency. We see that people were educated based on their social group identification due to the racial stratification in our country, and that this practice continued on without much interference until the Chicano Movement and their efforts surrounding education (student walkouts at the high school level and lobbying for culturally sensitive educational practices) and the historical Brown v. Board of Education ruling. It was only then that we saw a shift at the political level in what was determined to be “equal education for all.”
What’s Been Discussed?
After reviewing the historical record and taking note of current educational statistics, we still see that our nation has had much trouble in educating those who are largely identified as people of color and those who live below the poverty lines. We are largely concerned with our international ranking in literacy, math, and science (15, 24, and 21 respectively) and many agree that the fastest way to improve our standings would be to educate our poor students better (and there we go blaming those who have the least).
Of course, many people have said that charters are the answer. Geoffrey Canada, Founder of Harlem Children’s Zone which in fact boasts on the best schools in the nation, has been found saying that charters are the only educational tool that you can research and evaluate due to the autonomy that many of them possess. However, as a trained and budding researcher, many of my professors have told us that we must be careful about statements such as these because they can be misleading. In my opinion, charters are NOT the answer. We can point out as many charters that are failing as we can that are succeeding (but no one wants to do that) and even the research is tough to conduct (this would lead into a discussion about true experiments, control groups, and the such). We must remember that charters are still public schools and that many people don’t want to be transparent about their practices within these buildings. So we should take heed with touting this as the antibiotic that would cure the virus of unequal education.
Longer school terms have also suggested. Many people highlight that students in the United States go to school less often that students in the top-ranking countries. I always find this argument interesting because the underlying argument is that “if kids go to school longer, they can learn more; therefore they would become smarter.” It isn’t so much a problem that our kids don’t know enough, it’s that they aren’t given the necessary time to learn, practice, possibly relearn, and implement the lessons that are currently being taught in our schools. As an advocate of After-School Programming, I can’t tell you how important it is that students are given the extra time to learn certain concepts. I also have a problem with this argument because it suggests that all students have the same resources OR that even those who don’t have the necessary resources would be able to learn these concepts because they had more time to process it. As a student, I went to elementary and middle schools that was largely under-resourced. To this day, I remember my surprise at seeing a real Erlenmeyer flask and thinking to myself, “This looks nothing like the 2-D pictures that we practiced with in middle school.” That’s food for thought.
There have definitely been more ideas discussed surrounding this issue; however, many of them still call to mind that people truly believe you can throw money at the problem and fix it. We must certainly move away from this ideal.
Where Should We Go?
I’m of the opinion that we must examine our commitment to our most forgotten brethren in society. I’m also of the opinion that we must have a critical discussion about our biases and why we feel the way we do concerning the education of our most humble (wo)man. The stinging reality is that education will continue to be unequal so long as we believe in the fundamental tenets of this nation – wealth building which in my opinion, comes at the expense of those we can most easily forget: the poor, single parents (largely mothers) with children, the elderly, the homeless, People of Color, etc.
If you want to improve education (especially for those poor kids), then give them an infrastructure that they can thrive in. Give them shelter that is fit for a human. It is sickening to go to some of our most destitute communities and realize that more money is given to the care and facilities concerning animals than that of humans. Build these communities economically. Invest in a workforce that doesn’t continue to replicate a class system in our nation (after all, we believe that we will only succeed as a country if we invest equally in all of our citizens). No more should we think it’s okay that the only commercials concerning “higher” education in Urban communities are those which tout certification programs to be some assistant to a well-paid professional (think DeVry). Sustain these communities with good food. Have you ever gone grocery shopping in a poor community? Juxtapose that to a shopping experience in the “nice” area and there is a stark difference in quality of food (I promise, I can’t make this up). This sounds simple but it must cause a pain for many entrepreneurs because they’ve yet to do it. I mean, I could really go on and on and on about the simple things that cities can do to say, “Hey, we care about you, we really do,” but I won’t. This is long enough and I won’t go on to beat the proverbial Dead Horse.
At some level, our nation must begin to be honest with the striking similarities between “post-racial” America and the America that was described as “Separate But Equal.” I am of the opinion that it is futile to simply look at largely European countries and say, “Hey, this is what works there; so let’s just do it here!” Also, we can’t continue to take money and dump it on the problem. Targeted interventions that WORK for that community must be implemented that rectify many of the ills our society still faces. We must call on the Intellectual Capital that all communities possess and move from this idea that “experts” who have nothing to do with these communities we want to save KNOW the answer and can actively tell us how to fix our “problems.” Remember, these children that we are trying to save have lives outside of the schoolhouse that often dictate how they perform in school.
Take care of what has been seen as the “Necessary Evils” in our society, and we will no doubt find ourselves boasting of a world class educational system once again.
The thoughts included in this post are the original thought of the author (as presented), except where cited.