Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Achievement Gap, Segregation, and One Heck of a Rant

This is a photo of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. THE Central H.S. Fifty years ago, nine brave souls walked into the school with the National Guard as back up. Nine kids who had 18 parents who wanted a better life and a better education for their children.

Fast forward fifty years. It is 2007 and Central High School's student population is about 60% African American, 40% White (with a few other thin-sliced ethnicity wedges thrown into the pie chart). Central High School even made it onto the Newsweek list of the Best American High Schools. But walk into an AP (Advanced Placement) class at Central H.S. and you will see something entirely different. White students will fill the desks, with one, maybe two African American students filling up a seat somewhere on the third row.

Why is this happening?

I watched a documentary, Little Rock Central High: 50 Years Later, on HBO today. I saw my school on the screen. Currently my school is about 50% White, 50% Hispanic (approximately--African Americans, African Refugees, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Polynesians all take up small slices of the graph). And this is what I've noticed in my short stint as a teacher. I teach two AP classes with about four non-caucasion students shared between the two classes. The rest come from primarily affluent neighborhoods and have second or third generation college graduates for parents.

I ask again, why is this happening?

We've heard all the reasons and excuses before: language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty, a lack of positive role models, and on and on and on. I get it, there are barriers. But why are the barriers so prominent for these kids? And why aren't we doing more about these barriers?

As much as we think we understand about why this is happening, the truth is that in spite of these barriers SOME kids fight against the odds and make it to college. They don't only make it to college, they finish college. They go on to graduate school. Hell, some kids even earn their PhD. Some of these kids find cures for diseases and are CEO's of major corporations. Some of these kids are artists and writers and athletes and geniuses. Some of these kids are activists in their community. And some are lawyers and politicians--which at times have been known to do good things.

But these kids are the exception. So what else is happening and how do we solve it because apparently NCLB (No Child Left Behind) isn't working. (Clueless Guy Says: What's that, what's that you say? Taking a CULTURALLY BIASED standardized test administered ONLY IN ENGLISH with the only possible answers being A, B, C, or D doesn't ensure that I am getting a quality education and am prepared for college and a future as a contributing member of society?!?--you're kidding me!)

That's right folks, we're failing our nation's kids. All of us. White People. Brown People. Black People. Short People. Tall People. Skinny People. Fat People. As the ADULTS we are failing the CHILDREN of our nation. And I don't want to hear the whole bit about how some of these kids technically aren't OUR's...because if we want to go there, I will. But this isn't where I am intending to go.

I want to focus more on how in the heck we are going to resolve this. Because right now I don't know how but I do know that I'm pissed off about it. I am angry. I am mad. I am hurt. I am disgusted. Because we might want to ignore this EPIDEMIC, but in 10 years when these kids are adults--then what?

You might be asking "what's it to you?" Well, it happens to be a topic that haunts me. Because these kids are currently my students. While I may teach the golden-child AP kids headed for great futures, I also teach Language Arts 10, Basic (like that title doesn't send the kids a strong enough message about their abilities). These are the kids who failed English last year, typically ALL year last year. My job is to teach them to read deeply and richly, to write well and to form a valid argument. My job is to teach them presentation skills. My job is to get them thinking abstractly and at higher levels. My job is also to help them pass the Utah Basic Skills and Competency Test (and so we return to the four possibilities--A,B,C, and D).

These kids are brilliant at a lot of things. But the school game eludes them. In fact, it is an accomplishment that some show up at all, because many others do not. And, you guessed it, this class is filled with anybody and everybody who is not Caucasian. I have only three white kids amongst the two sections I teach. Even more--the majority of these students are MALE.

What would surprise you about these kids, if you talked to them, is that many hope to go to college one day because they've heard that it means a better life. Some of them worry they've made too many mistakes for that to be an option. Others want to be cosmetologists and construction workers and mechanics and mothers and pro basketball players. Some of these kids love movies, others soccer. Others are fantastic artists and others still are talented graffiti artists. They like to listen to music and wear nice threads. Some love JROTC and others prefer child development. Most of them don't like English much, but they tell me to not take it too personally. They're great kids. And I worry that no matter how hard I work with them, some of them aren't going to make it to college, let alone high school graduation. And as much as I'd like to wish I could, I can't do it all by myself.

And, good grief, do I feel guilty about that. And here we come back to the part where I'm angry. And there is one area of American society I am most angry with. Because this section of society has no conscience, responds only to the dollar symbol, and is invited for hours a day into our homes, our cars, and our spare time.
I'm so angry I have something I'd really like to say:
To the Entire Entertainment Industry, The Advertisement Industry, And American Values: Stop worrying about what "sells" and the profit you can make and start worrying about the bigger picture. What in the HELL are you thinking? Women aren't objects. Drugs aren't good for you. Ask any war veteran and they'll tell you that violence distorts and traumatizes the human mind. Happiness cannot be purchased. Work and Sacrifice are not negatives. Oh, and SEX can often lead to unwanted, neglected babies, emotional grief, diseases, and other things if not placed in a healthy, positive context. But I know these things SELL, so I hope you all can sleep peacefully at night sans-Vicodin.

I know that kind of oversimplifies things. Because this is a complex, multi-faceted issue. But the truth is that there is a CRISIS in America and the youth are the victims. When color becomes the divisive line between success and poverty, there is something wrong. I am angry that more kids aren't encouraged by their families to succeed. I am angry that, in spite of the scholarships-prodding-selling-begging of college acceptance boards, on American college campuses co-eds of diverse ethnic backgrounds are few. I'm angry that Hispanic students in Utah have a less than 50% graduation rate--LESS THAN 50%! I am angry that at my very own school, we lose 200 students (most of whom mark anything but "caucasian" in the ethnicity box) by senior year out of a 600-strong 9th grade cohort.

50 years ago nine brave souls said we want better, we want every opportunity that you have even if it means bringing in the National Guard. 50 years ago someone said "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'" People have sacrificed and fought because they wanted more for their children and their children's children. And while we don't have signs that blantantly read "White" and "Colored," our nation is still segregated. And that, no matter how you try and slice it, is wrong.

Okay, so I know that was a little intense. But what about you? Thoughts on this topic? Concerns? Comments? I'd love to hear what you have to say, since, apparently, I didn't shy away from saying what I wanted.


LovingTheChaos said...

I hear and second your rant! I'm not sure what can be done...but I know something must. I have been thinking about this a lot lately...both for school, my children, and just because you blogged it. These are my thoughts....

1. I heard someone say the other day that it is insane to think that you can affect change doing things the same way you always have. I think the system is failing our kids on many levels. Testing the crap out of them, not individualizing education, over burdening teachers and staff, not providing options for families and teachers, etc.

2. Parents are failing their children. I say this as a parent that is SO stressed out that I have a hard time making time to go over letter sounds with my child. Parents and society in general is too damn busy and stressed. There is too much to do and too little time (priorities in check?).

3. Did I tell you my plan (in it's infancy stage!) for the future of schooling for children and adolescents? :)

4. It's depressing as hell and apathy or overwhelmedness gets the better of us!

Ok...those are my thoughts for now. What do you think? I have some ideas about how to change the problem...but I'm afraid to put them out there without researching them more! :)

LovingTheChaos said... for the racial, socio-economic, and other factors...I have NO idea how to help it. I can tell you what my multicultural counseling training book says that we need to realize that society is completely biased against anyone who is not white and that until society and institutions realize they are biased they will not be able to change things. It is going to take a paradigm shift for the entire society....when has that ever happened?

Alice said...

It’s definitely not right, not fair, and something needs to happen...but what? We know we don't have a perfect system and it will be a cold day on the sun before we can all agree on something that works. It's overwhelming and like so many other things, it is easy to be discouraged and do nothing. It’s easy to feel powerless. It’s easy to blame someone else.

The truth of the matter is, the system is what it is and we must work within that system to make the changes we want, and prevent the changes we don’t want. The system can’t be taken on all at once. We have work within that “broken” system to make a difference.

All of us need to do something today. Do something tomorrow. If we forget Wednesday and Thursday, so what! Do something again on Friday. It is only a small gesture to you, but may have a huge impact on someone else. Reach out to those around you. Read to your kids. Take the few extra seconds and encourage someone, preferably a child or adolescent. Encourage another parent. Thank a teacher. Believe in others! We have all had challenges before and because of a personal cheerleader (whomever or whatever it was) we got through it. Be someone’s cheerleader. We all need it!

Race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, social status, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age etc, they are all things that can divide or bring us together. No one should be discriminated against or stereotyped by labels. But it happens. We are all human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Pick a stereotype that you have and work on breaking it down, even a little bit, this week. It’s as simple as challenging thoughts that arise in your head.

Pay attention to policy and think about its consequences. VOTE! I don’t really care if you vote for what I agree or disagree but vote. Don’t just vote for a president or a governor. Vote for local issues and representation. Call them. E-mail them. They need it! They want it! Look into policy and bills for yourself; don’t rely on commercials and politicians to tell you. It only takes a few minutes to learn about issues. Let it be your “something” one day this week. Policy is the only route to change a system, and remember how that system is to blame?

Ok, look what you started! Time to chill, I sound way too intense and this has turned into a freaking long comment! Oopsy!