President Barack Obama's first major speech on education called for linking teachers' pay to student performance ( merit pay), and expanding charter schools. Teachers and teacher unions are generally against both. However, their response to Obama's speech was mixed with some union leaders welcoming it because they feel he is willing to include them in his decisions, George W. Bush never did. "We finally have an education president," proclaimed the head of American Federation of Teacher; the president of the National Education Association chimed in, "…Obama will do it with educators, not to them."
From Obama's speech, "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens, (and) …Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us."
A major concern is that charter schools return no benefit to the schools left behind. Lowest achievers (most often Black) continue to languish at the bottom while tax dollars support an alternative education model, with no evidence that remaining schools are any better for it.
Parents have a right, and arguably, an obligation, to see that their children receive the best possible education. But parents in poor areas are typically less knowledgeable and less sophisticated and are reluctant to hold schools accountable for properly educating their children. (If they did, charter schools and other reform efforts would likely be largely unnecessary.)
As students leave for charters, so do experienced teachers. It also lessens the political will to improve schools that remain. As a result, miseducation continues as a dysfunctional norm for the vast majority of students. Parceling out students whose parents understandably want them to have a better education does not absolve school districts of their fundamental responsibility to provide a quality education for all students.
Successful models exist for improving educational results for Black students but most were, and are, pilot projects, i.e., "experimental" with little or no commitment to sustainable implementation. The archives of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, contain any number of programs purportedly designed for Black students that were not continued; the initiatives and the students were treated as failed commodities impervious to corrective surgery.
LAUSD has had only one policy that focused specifically on the needs of Black students. The African American Learner Initiative (2001) morphed, out of public view, into the related, but substantively different "Action Plan for a Culturally Relevant Education that Benefits African American Students and All Other Students." The metamorphosis does not allow the exclusive focus necessary to remedy institutional harm suffered by Black students.
The fact that Black children remain the lowest achievers is reason enough to focus on their unique needs. Under the No Child Left Behind mandate, Black students along with English language learners and special education students are under-achieving sub-groups and each group must be provided special intervention and additional academic assistance and support. Clearly, Black students qualify for special consideration and are legally able to receive additional funding and resources-until they no longer constitute the preponderance of low achievers. Black parents, leaders, and concerned others should relentlessly make this argument to boards of education, as well as state and federal officials.
LAUSD has an Innovative Division (I Division) in selected schools, including Crenshaw and Westchester High Schools and both have a substantial Black student population. Crenshaw is also part of the Los Angeles Urban League's "Neighborhoods Work" initiative, a 70-block multi-dimensional project, liberally funded by conservative corporations. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership, also in its first year, shows early signs of improvement with cleaner campuses and discernibly improved student conduct.
Other encouraging developments include Education Is a Civil Right, a program headed by Dr. George McKenna, former Inglewood and LAUSD local area superintendent, and the Black Education Task Force, formed after LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer's departure. This group has the potential to be a formidable advocate and political force on behalf of students.
Strategies to reverse the miseducation of Black students should reflect the inter-relatedness of complex factors that shape both their lives and academic performance. The current, much-heralded need for accountability must apply broadly and be uniformly enforced. Actual change requires new thinking, new behavior and new demands-all based on group, not individual oriented values .
Dr. Ron Edmonds put the challenge best: "We can, whenever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether we do it finally depends on how we feel about the fact that we haven't done it so far."
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.