Young African-American Boys Are In Crisis - And Nation Is Silent
by Jesse Jackson
Dr. James A. Williams is on a mission. “We have a crisis in this country,” he says, “and no one is talking sense about it.” Williams is not a rebel. He is the superintendent of the Buffalo Public School System. But, he says, “We’re all part of the problem.
*Yes, we are all part of the problem but some of us: heads of corporations, office holders, Hedge and Pension Fund managers, bankers, IMF administrators, etc... have a lot more power than others and they need to be identified if we are seriously going to manipulate the levers of power. If we don't then we come to conclusions, implicit in the above statement, that the local janitor is as culpable in the predicament of young black youth as George Bush.
There’s too much business as usual, too much bureaucracy and not enough action.”
*I hear lots about excessive bureaucracy and lack of action, and I spout my share, but to put forward an unpopular idea in both left and right circles I think we need MORE bureaucracy, and the right kind, at this moment. To take the example of the Public School System in which I dwell, the Milwaukee Public Schools, the bureaucracy is not the primary culprit in the crisis of Milwaukee. It actually has served millions with an amazing array of support, at times inconsistent, for the teaching of all subjects enabling teachers and students, if they are willing or able to take advantage of professional development, access to technology, after school activities, breakfast and lunch programs, health care just to name a tiny part of their service to the community. The primary culprit is the de-industrialization of the city which has left entire parts of the city toxic waste dumps void of any economic activity and a corresponding flight of not just whites but also people of all stripes with skills leaving the rest of us holding the chemical soaked bag.
The crisis? Young American men who are African American and born into poor and working class households. These young boys are not making it. According to figures developed by the Schott Foundation, in an economy that requires more and more education, only 42 percent who enter ninth grade graduate from high school. The old blue-collar jobs that used to provide a family income, secure employment, health care and pensions are disappearing.
These are children increasingly raised by a single parent. Too often they are starved from the start — of adequate nutrition, adequate health care, adequate learning stimulants that are vital for young minds. They go to overcrowded schools stocked with inexperienced teachers. In school, they face discrimination in discipline and in being slated for special-ed courses. They are underrepresented in advanced-placement courses that are key for college. Some will overcome these odds and make it out. Most will not. They are headed toward jail, not toward Yale.
*Right on sister!
Williams argues we have to change what we’re doing if we want to offer them any hope. The schools — even the schools that he leads — are failing them. “Their No. 1 problem,” he says, “is that they cannot read. If you can’t read, you cannot succeed.”
*For the last two days I have worked out with my school's tennis team. There are some pretty good players on the team but a significant number of the players are just learning the basic skills of positioning, backhand, slice, forehand, etc... In the neighborhood that I grew up in most kids played lots of sports all of the time. Most excelled at one and by high school played at a pretty high level. When in comes to sports the city schools, on the whole, rarely compete with the suburban schools. They also have a hard time competing with the suburban schools academically. The introduction about sports, and our tennis team, is an apt analogy to the problem with blaming teachers and the school system for low academic achievement. Many of that suburban students are learning constantly with their family and community in parts of the country where economic stability is wanting and where parents have to work two or three jobs to pay the bills "organic" learning is not taking place. So to blame the school system for students not being able to read is like blaming mock chicken soup for not tasting real.
Congress is gearing up for the debate about the No Child Left Behind Act. The debate is virtually irrelevant. The act mandates testing that inadequately measures school performance. But measuring failure doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a reform plan to fix what isn’t working.
*What's the reform plan Jesse?
For Williams, any plan like that requires reforms that simply aren’t on the table. “Look at our school year,” he says. “We’ve got a school year that is still based on an 18th century agrarian model. In 1962, I went to school for 180 days per year, and algebra was the requirement for getting into college. Today, these kids go to school for 180 days per year, but we require calculus to get into school. We add more and more units, but not more and more time.” So schools cut art, music, physical education.
*So, the problem is that we are not teaching kids because of the bureacracy and failing schools and teachers? So, the solution is to have students stay in the school for a longer time peiod so they can not learn more?
Worse, Williams says, we’ve got a school day that doesn’t make much sense. Between lunch and breaks between classes, we have one of the shortest school days of effective learning in the industrial world.
We need longer school years and far better teachers, and teacher education. We need less discrimination in spending, in discipline, in advanced placement. Some of this costs money. But, Williams says, we’re not spending the money we currently have well. For example, our broken health-care system is killing school budgets. Health-care costs are going up 10 to 15 percent a year, far outstripping normal increases in public funding.
*More teacher education? If you mean more classes on how to teach I would say this would be a tremendous waste of time. Most teaching classes do very little for the realities of the everyday classroom, particularly in an urban setting. If he means more apprenticeship and mentoring programs for teachers I say full steam ahead. But most of the plans that adminstrators and education "reformers" advocate are putting student teachers in the classroom for no pay or relaxing standards for teachers which actually lowers the quality of the teachers that enter the field. The Charter, privatization and voucher crowds all see teachers' unions and their allies as the problem within the educational system and as a way to cut costs they see weakening the NEA and AFT as the way out.
On the AP front, I teach in a school that has more students take AP exams than any other school in a very white state, Wisconsin, and our school is overwhelmingly African-American, Latino and Hmong. Our philosphy is to have as many students as possible take the AP classes and even though they may not pass the test take the exam. This approach causes many a suburban teacher and elitist teacher snear but it does give many students an opportunity to get an insight into how a a college like class might function and how they compare to their counterparts across the country in a high stakes way. If anything many schools, like ours, are begging students to take higher level classes and trying to get them to take AP tests not the opposite. I know that this is anecdotal but I have been to many AP conferences and having graded the AP exam for a number of years I can attest to Herculian efforts to get more and more young black males and other under-represented groups into the program. To claim that discrimination in the school system is at the heart of why young black males are not represented in AP or other upper level classes is wrong headed.
My own sense is that we can’t simply load the blame on the schools. These kids face long odds from day one. In the crucial early years — from the time of conception to age 3 — when the mind is largely forged, they are shackled. One in five children is raised in poverty in this rich country, with no systematic program to ensure prenatal care, health care, day care, parental education. We’ve got too many babies raising babies who don’t have the resources or the knowledge of how to take care of their children. We should be mobilizing intervention on the front side of these lives. Instead, we spend more on police, crime and prisons on the back end.
This is a national crisis — a tragedy of terrible and costly consequence, in lost hope, lost lives, a lost sense of our own decency. And yet virtually no one is talking about it. To his credit, John Edwards has used his presidential campaign to call attention to the working poor in America. But generally, candidates are told to focus on the middle class that votes, not the plight of poor young boys who don’t. We hear a lot more about rescuing middle class homeowners in bad mortgages than we will about giving poor inner-city children a fair start. Congress is more concerned about retaining the tax breaks for the middle class than about extending the child tax credit to the children of working poor people. Williams says it is time for an end to the silence. This country desperately needs to heed his call.
*A child tax credit is the answer? I think not. Over $400 billion has now been spent on the war in Iraq. Congress, including a significant section of the Democratic Party, John Edwards included, thought this a perfectly reasonable adventure while the crisis of the young black male was omnipresent. Edwards and company are not the answer and Jesse Jackson knows better. Sure we applaud Edward's glance to the working poor and staright talk when it comes to the costs of such an undertaking but if Edwards and his liberal ilk are so easily buffaloed by arguments like "weapons of mass destruction" when many knew this to be a smoke screen then we have to question his sincerity in an elction cycle where he needs to position himself within a primary where his right flank (Hillary) and moderate flank (Barack) are in question.
How about questioning the "industrial policy" of this country where finance capital seems to run the show allowing capital to flow where it will without questioning the human costs of such policies.