Monday, October 8, 2012

Brooklyn Expression

A recent article in the New York Times, Before a Test, A Poverty of Words, suggested that poor black children in Brooklyn face a 32 million word deficit by the time they are 4 years old.  They have been exposed to, heard, used, read, expressed, 32 million words less than their more middle class counterparts in their first 1,500 days.  That is a deficit of nearly 20,000 words per day.  What does that mean, to have thousands of young people who can't express themselves?

The article went on to offer grim statistics for black students and their academic futures. At Stuyvesant High School, the premier public high school in New York City, only 19 black students were admitted into the freshman class of 967 students this fall.  In New York City, where there are approximately 3.5 million black people, only nineteen black fourteen year olds qualified to get into the city's top school.  The implications of that are staggering. Unfortunately, it is not surprising. Also in New York, only 28 percent of black boys even graduate from high school.  That is not to mention that only 10 percent of all black boys in the entire city are proficient in mathematics in the 8th grade.  I would venture a guess that of the 19 black freshmen admitted to Stuy, twelve or more are female.

But what of these young people's inability to express themselves?  Language is our partner for living.  It is the vehicle by which we give life to our interpretations of the world.  The words we use and the manner in which we use them is an essential part of our identities as individuals. For young people not to have access to the words of their native language is an imprisonment. They are forced to experience life without a critical partner that is a portal to meaning and nuance. Language is necessary for them to be able to build friendships and deep relationships - to ask the questions they really want answers to in class. In the school space, students' inability to express their sense of isolation, their frustration with their circumstances, the humiliation of not being able to fully comprehend the words in transit about them, is an abuse.

The focus of national education has turned to STEM fields - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The country, as most states, has determined that without STEM education, the future of the United States as we know it is doomed.  Perhaps, but if we don't arm these children in Brooklyn and elsewhere with language, the meaning of the United States will be lost anyway.  No one will be able to express it.


The Significance of Chicago Public Schools

A revised version of this recently appeared in Education Week (10/3/12):

The EdWeek Version: The Strike and Minority Students

Others who contributed interesting pieces were:
Stephen Dyer:  The Fast and the Furious
Andrea Kaufman:  Red Shirts, Blue Shirts:  The Strike May be Over, but the Relationship Continues 
Paul Thomas:  Missing the Forest for the Trees 


The Significance

The Chicago Teachers Union strike highlights the disproportionate dependence black and Hispanic children have on public education in the nation’s major urban centers.  It is clear that the trauma to the city and to the more than 400,000 students and several hundred teachers affected, is significant and will require considerable healing.  But, who are these 400,000 young people?  It is no secret that large urban public education systems across the country are made up of predominantly black and Hispanic students, the majority of whom are children of the poor and working poor.  The consequences of public bickering, budget reductions and ever changing political and educational policies are borne by children and families least resilient to these forces.  It is important, in a country that is quietly returning to de facto educational segregation, that we be clear about who is affected by the Chicago Teachers Union strike.

According to the U.S. census, Illinois is 78 percent white, 15 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic – proportions almost identical to those for the United States as a whole.  The Chicago public school system, however, is made up of 9 percent white students and 41 and 44 percent black and Hispanic students respectively.  Additionally, 87 percent of all students in the Chicago Public School system are classified as low income.  Of the approximately 404,000 students in the public education system in Chicago, only slightly more than 36,000 of them are white.  It would not be surprising either to anyone that lives in a major urban center, if those white students are concentrated in predominantly white schools.

So what does the strike say to the students themselves?  One possibility is that their teachers are fighting to ensure that they get the best education possible – that they have defenders in the world that are looking out for their best interests.  Another possibility is that they feel abandoned, that the institution where and the people with whom they spend the majority of their time locked them out.  The nuances of the argument, that teachers’ wages should be tied to students’ performance on standardized exams likely does not resonate with children.  If it does, it is surely a stress that a child ought not bear.  An amended mantra would be, “Do well in school, it is important for your future… and the livelihood of your teacher.

Young black and Hispanic public schoolers in Chicago are not alone.  Atlanta Public Schools was recently ravaged by the largest school system cheating scandal in the United States.  Nearly all of the schools involved were predominantly black schools.  On the heels of the cheating scandal, Atlanta Public School officials conducted a redistricting process that resulted in 7 public schools being closed.  Of the 2,032 students whose schools were closed, 1,978 of them were black students, nearly all of whom were low income.  White children and families were entirely unaffected by this massive shock and trauma to the educational system.

One of the emerging U.S. national interests is the capacity of the 21st century workforce.  Workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are of particular concern.  President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is evidence of that federal concern. Forty four states have adopted the new Common Core Mathematics Standards to increase the rigor of math instruction for primary and secondary school students and the Next Generation Science Standards are soon to come.  A fundamental issue for national leaders in industry, education and policy is that the U.S. workforce will not be sufficiently well educated to compete with their international counterparts.

The reality is that our international counterparts have vastly different social expectations.  The levels of social inequality in China and India are largely incomprehensible to average Americans.  The public social support systems in European and Scandinavian nations are not palatable in the United States.  So, where does that leave the child in Chicago whose teachers and public servants have walked out her?

It leaves her as a representative of a generation of mostly poor black and Hispanic children who are at the center of a critical juncture for the nation.  If we continue down this path of social neglect, she is and will continue to be, as the late Harvard Professor Derrick Bell wrote, a face at the bottom of the well.  Our other option is to be clear about who she is and the challenges she is facing.  Her education is trapped in a thicket of race, income and geography.  The extent to which the nation is willing to address that, is the extent to which the nation is willing to move in the right direction.


Friday, August 3, 2012

I Met this Chinese Kid

Lately I’ve been engaged in STEM education in an all encompassing way.  The broad national challenge outlined by President Obama trickles down to individual states and there is where I plug into this complicated educational social  challenge.  There is nothing novel about the challenge of minority student performance in the STEM space.  Neither is there anything new about the acute difficulties facing black men.  Program after program, initiative after initiative, bleeding heart after bleeding heart are all focused on figuring out how to make black males behave themselves, do better in school generally and in STEM fields in particular.

The question of black family and individual engagement and commitment is always looming darkly in the background.  Some advocates are loath to say in public, what they feel in their hearts, that black families simply don’t value education.  Others point out that many black families do value education, but don’t have enough successful experience in it to know how to “do school well”.  Another argument suggests that the vast majority of black students are trapped in underserved schools with unqualified teachers.  Then there is the basic question of commitment, a question of the gut dedication of the individual black boy – Kamau or Dey’Quan, La’Trey or Quintavious, Cedric or Deante – to do absolutely whatever is necessary to succeed in school.  Do they, do we, have the academic ambition, the fortitude and courage to succeed at all cost?

I met this Chinese kid recently from the mid-west.  He said he goes to Stuyvesant High School in New York.  Stuyvesant is the premiere public high school in the City and the number 5 STEM high school in the United States.  I asked him how he ended up at Stuy if he’s from the mid-west.  He said his parents wanted him to go a good high school for science and math and Stuyvesant was one of the best.  He casually said they moved to New York and stayed with family so he could go there. 

“Your family did what?”

In order to get into Stuyvesant students have to take a test that is arguably one of the most competitive exams in New York that thousands and thousands of 8th graders take.  There is absolutely no guarantee of admittance.  I said, “your parent’s moved you to New York just to go to Stuyvesant? How could they be sure that you’d get in?” 

“They were like, making a big sacrifice and I guess taking a risk, but I was like, I’m gonna do whatever it takes.  I worked really really really hard and I guess it worked out,” he said as he smiled.