Thank you for your column in the Wall Street Journal, “Do Black Students Need White Peers?” There are several issues in your column to which I want to respond.
The direct answer to your question is, “No, But.”
Black students do not need to have white children in their schools and classrooms in order to learn and I will elaborate on this point, below. The “But” part, however, is that all children benefit from being in in schools and classrooms with a diverse population of children. I believe diversity benefits every human being, whatever their age or venue.
The second point to address is the “Choice” movement with its focus on charters schools and vouchers. While I have nothing against charter schools, it is a myth that they always perform at a higher level than public schools. The data shows that while there are many successful charter schools, there are many that underperform when compared to the public schools they were intended to replace.
My biggest problem with the education reform movement focused on “choice” is that it is suggested that this is the solution to improving the quality of education in America; that it will end the performance gap between black and white children; or, that it will improve our nation’s ability to compete in the world marketplace. None of these assertions are true.
Having the best product or service in the world means nothing unless you are able to deliver it to customers. Any solution must be logistically feasible and it is simply not feasible to believe that we can solve the issue of the quality of American education with a handful of charters schools scattered in communities throughout the U.S. It would take us generations to create a sufficient number of charters schools to meet the needs of millions of American children and we cannot wait that long.
Besides, we already have school buildings in every community in the nation, all staffed with qualified teachers, trained in the same colleges and universities in which most charter school teachers were educated. The problem with both private and public education in America is that the education process that is utilized to teach our children has been obsolete for most of our lifetimes.
It is not the school building that makes the difference and it is not the teachers that are the problem. The only thing that makes a difference is what we do in our classrooms–what we ask of our teacher–wherever it is located. The sad but undeniable truth is that the education process in place in American public schools has not changed, materially, for as long as anyone can remember while the world into which our children are born has changed exponentially. The education process does not work for disadvantaged children and I believe the current education process does a disservice to even students on the upper end of the performance continuum.
The failure of the education process is not because teachers are incompetent and not because they do not care. The vast majority of American public school teachers are unsung heroes striving to do a difficult job under nearly impossible circumstances. My only complaint of teachers is that they have been blamed for the problems in our schools for so long that they have grown defensive when they should be banging on the table and yelling that what they are being asked to do does not work.
The real problem in our schools is that education leaders whether principals, superintendents, college professors, or policy makers are not under the same pressure, as their counterparts in a business environment, to relentlessly challenge their assumptions and to question whether they are meeting the needs of their customers.
The longer we delay fixing this obsolete education process the more young Americans will be forced to endure failure. We cannot afford to waste a single child and neither can our nation afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these children represent. Public education is the civil rights issue of our time and is at the root of all of our nation’s social and political problems. That so many people are so poorly educated that they are unable to bear the responsibilities of citizenship is why so many other Americans have grown bitter and resentful. The bitterness and resentment in the hearts of people for whom the American Dream is not real burns every bit as deeply.
The irony is that reinventing the education process to meet the needs of every American child is a relatively easy thing to do if education leaders, advocates, and policy makers would simply open their minds and hearts to the idea that their might be a better way.
As I have written, so often, the education process is no different than a production, assembly, or service-delivery process in the business world. Neither is it different than an application software. It is simply a logical process designed by human beings to produce a desired outcome. Such processes are altered, reinvented, and re-engineered with regularity in the private sector because businesses must respond to the dissatisfaction of their customers and to the dynamic changes in the expectations of those customers. Reinventing a process to produce a better outcome is a routine necessity in the private sector. In public education, and in many other public venues, such reinventions seem to be beyond the imagination of our leaders.
There is an axiom in operations management that if a process continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are then the process is flawed and must be replaced. We must go back to the drawing board. Just as in any other venue, a process must be focused on its purpose to such a degree that every single activity must be judged on the basis of how well it serves that purpose and how well it supports the people on whom one relies to do the job. The same is true for teaching kids.
In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond makes the same point when she wrote:
“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”
In American public education we have not reinvented the education process in generations, and no, just providing new and more sophisticated tools is not sufficient. The education process is not focused on the needs of students and it sets them up for failure and humiliation.
When young children show up for their first day of school the disparity in terms of their academic preparedness is cavernous. Yet teachers are expected to move kids along, from year to year, marching to the beat of a given state’s academic standards—common core or not—at relatively the same pace. As children begin to fall behind because they need more time to learn a given lesson, they are pushed ahead, ready or not. The teacher records a low or failing score in their gradebook and it’s off to the next lesson. In many subject areas, the child’s ability to learn a new lesson requires that he or she be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. As a result, the probability that a child who has fallen behind will fail, yet again, increases.
If you examine state competency scores in any state you will find that by the third grade, only about a third of disadvantaged students can pass both the English Language Arts and mathematics components of those exams. By the time those students reach middle school the percentage of those same kids who are able to pass both ELA and math exams has dropped to 25 percent or less. What we are teaching these kids is how to fail. School districts may boast of high graduation rates but an unacceptable number of those diplomas are worthless pieces of paper.
As it happens, I administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to young men and women who wish to enlist in the military. Most of these young people who take the ASVAB for enlistment purposes are recent high school grads or high school seniors. The minimum score for enlistment eligibility in the Army, for example, is a percentile score of 31, meaning that 30 percent of the candidates are not eligible for enlistment. (Some services have higher eligibility requirements).
ASVAB scores for blacks and other minorities mirrors the performance of middle school students on state competency exams that I referenced above. If one is unable to qualify for even the least desirable jobs in the military, for how many civilian jobs will they be qualified? So much for 80 to 90 percent graduation rates. It’s not the diploma that matters it is how one can apply in the real world that which they learned in school.
The sad but compelling truth is that this has been going on for more than a half century and, as a result, our poor urban and rural communities throughout America are filled with multiple generations of men and women who have always been poor and who all failed in school, diplomas notwithstanding. Many are dependent on their government, to the great resentment of other Americans. Why, because the education process has never been designed with the same rigorous focus on the needs of its students or to support teachers in meeting those needs.
It doesn’t need to be this way but no one wants to listen. We can alter this reality for all time as easily as we can alter a production process at a manufacturing facility or re-engineer the software of a computer application.
I invite you to check out my website where you will find an education model I have developed at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/
I, also, invite you to check out my blog, “Education, Hope, and the American Dream” where I have posted over 150 articles on the subject of public education and the challenge of meeting the needs of disadvantaged students, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other children of color.
For nearly 5 years I have been seeking a public school corporation willing to test my education model in just one of its underperforming elementary schools to demonstrate that we can teach every child to be successful and insure that no child fails. I have had no takers.
Since it takes 13 years to get a new Kindergarten student through high school, every year we delay creates a whole new generation of young Americans with no choices of what to do with their lives to find joy, to support a family, or to participate in their own governance as a well-informed citizen of a democratic society.
How long are we willing to accept an avoidable tragedy that destroys millions of young lives and that jeopardizes the future of our society?