I want to take a moment and act as if we really give a damn about educating our children. I know that’s a far-fetched idea but the time has come to have an honest and frank debate on the manner in which Black children are being tossed aside in our education system. No, this is not an attack on public education because I am a staunch believer in the public school system. I simply want to suggest a wholesale reconsideration of the way we educate and support our children’s academic pursuits.
Recent research that shows little improvement for completion rates of Black students despite untold “reform” efforts suggests that these initiatives were unknowingly deficient from the start or purposefully inadequate. In either case, hundreds of millions, if not billions, have been spent and there is scant evidence that these efforts have been effective in changing educational outcomes. It is a tragedy of epic proportion as the most advanced democracy in the world has allowed generations of its children to languish and consigned them to a lifetime of despair. We cannot wait another decade for a new round of experimental treatments when the patient is flat lining.
For starters, we have to take radical steps to reinvigorate the teaching profession. We should start by paying teachers competitively and throwing tenure out the window. I have no problem with paying teachers a six-figure salary so long as job security is tied to how well students are doing in the classroom. At the same time, teachers should be allowed to teach and not held to the lunacy of standardized testing that squeezes the life out of the classroom experience. Efforts should also be made to make sure that students who are most in need get experienced teachers, even if that means providing incentive pay to get those “master” teachers assigned to certain classrooms. I also support the idea of teachers having a formal role in the management of schools.
While I am on the issue of teachers and administrators, let me throw out a challenge to Blacks in the profession. Wake the hell up! For decades, we have controlled urban school districts, politically and administratively, and have failed miserably in educating our own children. It has been tantamount to educational malpractice. For too long Black teachers have been apologists for teachers unions that have done little to advance the education of Black and Hispanic children. We have consistently supported our brothers and sisters in the classroom, and by effect, the unions, while year after year our children have fallen farther behind. Our community has paid a high price for this blind allegiance.
Speaking of our schools, let us free them. While I support charter schools, their comparison to public schools is unfair because they are not playing by the same rules. We have handcuffed creativity in the public school system and have sapped the creative energy of teachers, administrators, and for that matter, students. Public school bashing has become a sport, particularly in urban communities. Yes, there is no doubt that many have failed and some, dare I say many, should be shut down. However, public education must be protected. Charter schools will never be able to accommodate the total school age population so we must make certain a good, quality public school system exists to educate our children. It need not emulate precisely what currently exists but it should maintain the principle of open eligibility and enrollment for all comers.
We should not just focus on teachers. Parents have a big role to play and for too long many have simply dropped out of the picture. We have all heard the horror stories from teachers of absent parents or belligerent parents who come to the school ready to do battle when their child is disciplined, despite the fact they have been nowhere to be found. No child can succeed if there is not a caring adult in his or her corner. I do not believe parental involvement should be an option. It should be a mandate. The adult or responsible guardian should be compelled to engage with the child’s school. I think every parent who registers a child for school for the first time, no matter income level, should be required to take a 40-hour course on responsible parenting. Yes, it will be a burden, but sessions could be held in the evening or on weekends. Likewise, if a student is having excessive disciplinary problems or struggling academically, the parent or guardian should be required to take a similar course. If they refuse? Impose monetary penalties on the scale of traffic tickets.
A more constructive school calendar should also be devised. While laws vary in the states as to the exact number of required school days, there needs to be a better use of the school day and 12-month calendar to give students a more dynamic experience. In most states the school day and overall calendar works against the education of children. Rather than pretend a school day devised over a century ago works for the 21st century, we need to rethink how the hours of the day are used and what the total experience, in and out of the school building, should look like. This is particularly true in places that still take a traditional summer break when our children are out for two and half months, and many begin to experience some drifting from lessons learned.
What is the responsibility of the larger community? We have a role to play too. In states across the country, educational debates are cast around money, and who gets it and who does not. This has been particularly harmful to children in urban school districts, mostly Black and Hispanic. In my own state, a two-decade court case has revolved around the issue of adequately funding public schools in our cities. The root of the problem is an antiquated school finance system that relies on property taxes, an inherently inequitable way to support public education. We have long past the time when local tax assessments can support a modern education system. States need to pick up a greater share of the burden, perhaps through sales or use taxes, along with a much larger commitment from the federal government. Our community needs to be fully engaged in the school finance debate and speak loudly on the need to develop a more equitable and sensible system of funding.
I have to take a deep breath and return to my senses. I know most of what I have been barking about will likely not happen anytime soon. The real tragedy is that as tough as things have been for our children, they are about to get worse as the current economic downturn is redefining the landscape in ways that our kids are unprepared to travel. Something has to give because all of the progress we have witnessed since the 1954 Brown decision is about to be washed away. We are no longer advancing; we are fighting against the tide and losing ground. Sooner, rather than later, we will pay for this.