Education is the key to the American Dream regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.
I know would know. My father grew up in the “holler” along the Ohio River and only attained a 6th-grade education. My mother had no high school diploma. Through my love of books and my education at a small country school enabled me to move beyond my humble upbringing.
Today, much of the national conversation surrounding schools is focused on inequalities and culture war issues. There is lots of talk about the teaching of critical race theory and systematic racism. But at the end of the day, I hear little attention given to the betterment of education in the inner cities.
Inner-city schools are failing. High school graduation rates range from 67% in the District of Columbia to 88% in Alabama according to the National School Board Association with a national average of 85%. Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, and Alabama are the only four states with graduation rates above the national average.
Johnny Taylor, the CEO of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, stated that even for those who manage to stay in school and graduate many students living in these “fragile communities” graduate without basic literacy. This achievement gap is even more profound with minority students – only 15 out of 100 black students performed at or above NAEP proficient reading rates.
Several years ago after leaving a 25-year education career to enter the art world, I worked for a short time as a substitute teacher in an ethnically diverse area in the San Francisco Bay area. A valid special education credential was enough to place me into a middle school special education classroom for the learning disabled. As a substitute teacher, I always tried to follow the master teacher’s plans for I also expected students to continue their studies. This two-day substitute teaching assignment was no exception. At the end of this teaching job, I was quite startled when, upon their exit from the classroom, two teenage black girls probably thanked me for requiring them to read.
Good instruction in the classroom starts with good instruction in teacher education programs where prospective teachers are taught how to teach reading. One successful example of this is in Tennessee. Dr. Jerri Haynes, Dean of the College of Education at Tennessee State University, led the way in changing the program at her university to give prospective teachers the basic tools to teach reading and to know how to use the tools effectively to meet the needs of their students. Tennessee State received an evaluation of A from the National Council on Teacher Quality after grounding its program in reading basics: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Students in the inner cities can learn and achieve. The ability to learn is not inborn as some Americans seem to believe, an assumption contrary to Chinese culture in which hard work trumps intellectual shortcomings. Dr. Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of the book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too believes that many inner-city teachers – a significant proportion of which are white – come into the classroom with a savior complex which implies that students are inferior. It is not a great attitude for teaching the inner-city kid. Given the right motivation and experiences, inner-city kids can be taught to achieve and learn.
I never saw myself as a savior of students from low to moderate-income minority homes either in my time as an elementary teacher, an educational diagnostician working with deaf students with multiple handicaps or as executive director of a school-to-work program for physically disabled youth from low to moderate-income homes. Being in school was a job for the student; I was the guidance counselor helping to steer them in ways to do the job, not a savior.
When the job is well done, there is “pay.” In the classroom, pay may come in many different ways: social, sensory, games, privilege, and more. Psychologist Heather Craig promotes positive reinforcement as a way of reaching children and youth who have difficulties with learning – including inner-city students who may have fallen behind their age groups.
In my same class for the learning disabled in the San Francisco Bay area, a young black man who towered above me initially put on a tough air and did not want to conform to either behavioral or academic requests. However, in a short time, his behavior changed as he responded to my plan enabling students to earn points for appropriate behavior including completion of academic assignments. As a result of earning so many points, a student would have the opportunity to do Peruvian weaving at the end of my two days in the classroom. This young man followed class rules and did his work earning points for the reward activity. He was quite pleased with earning this right. I was amazed at his desire to weave and his satisfaction with himself for tasks well done.
The curriculum is not the only problem affecting education in the inner cities. There are larger, systemic problems like single-parent households, crime, and poverty. Yes, these problems exist outside of school grounds, but they impact students every day.
School funding is often dependent on property taxes, and in many cities, it varies with the demographics of the school area. On average, it is $11,682 per nonwhite student compared with $13,908 in districts with a concentration of white students. That 2,200 dollar difference is profound when it comes to equipping teachers with the resources they need.
There is no silver bullet for fixing education in our inner cities. We must address each issue at a time. But for me, I think it is time for better educational experiences for students. A better curriculum leads to more engagement, which results in better opportunities.