Dream Depends On Education, Economic Mobility

This week’s Courier Herald Column:

On August 28th, we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech.  It is, of course, the one where he told that he had “a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  It marked an unbridled hope and optimism for what the civil rights movement could accomplish.

This past Sunday, we marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.  Four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley Morris, and Denise McNair – did not live to see a world where they would be judged as adults on the content of their character.  It was the antithesis of Dr. King’s speech.  It revealed dark truths about the organized resistance to the movement.  It demonstrated irreconcilable realities that existed between the status quo and the American dream.

A half century later, there is measurable and documented progress.  While Denise McNair was denied her dream, an 8 year old friend of hers achieved what would have then been thought impossible.  She became Provost of Stanford University, National Security Adviser, and eventually, Condoleezza Rice became America’s face to the diplomatic world as Secretary of State. 

There is opportunity for people of color that did not exist 50 years ago.  Voting rights are not only available in theory, but according to CNN, African Americans voted in larger percentages during the 2012 election than their white counterparts, 66% to 64.1% respectively.

Where there remains significant room for improvement, however, is recognizing the opportunity that exists in theory needs continued attention to exist in reality.  Economic mobility is now possible for those prepared to embrace the challenges that come along that path.  But too many Americans – including a high concentration of people of color – have languished during fifty years of Great Society programs locked in neighborhoods of poverty.

The common denominator for those who will spend their lives at the bottom of America’s economic scale is no longer skin color but a failing education system in our poorest neighborhoods.  And yet, students in these school systems too often face an education bureaucracy that has given up on those who they are charged with preparing to overcome their surroundings.  One teacher implicated in Atlanta’s recent school testing scandal justified her actions with “I had to give them the answers. Those kids were dumb as hell.”

The problem is not simply one of money.  After all, the City of Atlanta spends more per student than any system in Georgia.  While there are bright spots, the system as a whole continues to produce too many students who are ill prepared to accept the challenge of America’s opportunity.

The children trapped in these failing schools remain there due to those fighting to protect the status quo from the left and indifference from the right.  Too many on the left continue to ask for “more money” without being able to quantify “how much” or couple the requested additional investment with systemic change to bring about a different result.  The battle seems to be to get others to write a bigger check and hope the problem goes away.

Too many on the right look at the problem from their suburban homes in good school districts and see the problem as one of local control – and thus not of their making.  It is a short sighted view that does not account for the long term problems created by perpetuating generations of poverty.

The results of Georgia’s 2012 Charter School Amendment demonstrate that those in the areas with the most troubled public school system understood the need for alternatives.  Charter schools can be an effective solution to combat an entrenched education establishment that has given up and believes giving out test answers is easier than educating.

At the same time, those from traditionally white affluent suburbs who are searching for ways to reach out to minority groups cannot sit on their hands in silence when a Dr. Ben Carson tells them that this is a problem which we co-own.  The reality is that poor areas do not have the same tax base as wealthy ones, and that it will cost more to educate a student who does not come to a public school prepared to learn or with the home situation conducive to educational advancement.  Republicans can no longer be viewed as indifferent to these facts if they are to make electoral progress in these areas.

If we are to improve the dream over the next 50 years, we will have to take a long, honest look at ensuring economic mobility for all.  This must start with ensuring that all Americans, regardless of the economic circumstances which they are born into, have access to a quality education.


    • Jackster says:

      I was more thinking it had something to do with removing influences of violence, drugs, and a legal system which tends to prey on poor people.

      But I do think that families are key – they don’t all have to be two parent.

  1. John Konop says:

    I do think education is the best way out….The biggest issue is the one size fit all mindset…..First not all students should be on a 4 year college track….. Second, we need more options based on aptitude…..Third the test should match the subject focus needed to prepare students for vocational job track or 4 year college track. Four the curriculum should be flexible based on aptitude combined with future jobs in the area …..Five we need to focus school systems on a combination of drop-out rate, students graduating with job skills, and students accepting into 4 year colleges, over ranking schools by a mean test score…..Six we need to coordinate education curriculum and internships with the business community……Finally we need to promote more cross usage of facilities, on line options, faculty , administration…….via high schools and higher education options ie JC, VO/Tech, 4 year colleges…….

    • Lawton Sack says:

      I have seen a lot of success when the business community (and really the community as a whole) gets involved in the educational process. I spoke with a local businessman recently who started an Educational Foundation in a nearby county. He stated that the business people united together in that County to make great strides in the education. He said that the positive results have already begun.

      I am in the construction industry and a large majority of our workers do not have a high school diploma. Many of them are making $35-55,000 a year. A lot of them are missing some basic skills, such as reading, math, and critical thinking. They have awesome mechanical ability, though. It always makes me wonder if someone would have taught them math and reading that tied in somehow to their mechanical ability, that they may have learned these skills. I really still do not understand how they were passed through 8-10 years of school without being able to read, write, and do math.

      My wife and I homeschool our three children. A major benefit is that we can tailor learning towards their learning style. Just being honest, my youngest daughter began reading very late according to most standards, so she may have been lost in the public school system. She is a free-spirit, artistic child, so we had to figure out a way to teach her how to read through her talents and desires. She learns better when she is drawing, painting, etc. while learning. It is hard to do that on a personal level with 15-25 kids in a classroom.

      • John Konop says:

        I agree flexibility is a key component…..I worked with our school board to offer a home school/ public school option……..Students can now take a combination of home school on line classes with and use the classes in the school ie for classes that they may want class room instruction like physics, calculus…………Not only does this flex to the learning style needs per class, it also gives flexibility to students that need to work as well as internship/co-ops…..

      • greencracker says:

        “They have awesome mechanical ability”

        Man, I don’t know if the people working for you are country folks, but my family is all country folks, and the men can build/fix/understand any, any machine, any wooden building, many weapons.

        They squeezed many thousands of unexpected miles out of any number of POS cars I’ve had; built my mom’s house … and I mean they built it. Themselves.

        I figured it came from growing up in a time and place when there were not many stores, and no money to buy anything with anyway. Just plenty of gasoline and junk to play with!

  2. RepublicanToo says:

    A very similar perspective was expressed in an article by US Senate candidate Derrick Grayson a couple of months ago (http://www.grayson2014.com/iss_education) . The key is getting the Federal Government out of Education, and placing the responsibility back into the hands of the parents and local communities to choose what’s best for them. Blacks and other minorities don’t need more Government money, they need empowerment and opportunity. That is how you break the dependency on welfare programs.

  3. benevolus says:

    Thumbs up.
    I might also add that we can’t expect school systems to carry this load by themselves. Parents have to help, and for parents to help, we need out leaders to support a system and encourage the rest of us to support it too. We aren’t ever going to make much progress if we make a ninety degree turn in our program direction every few years and half our leaders are saying the system will never work.

    This is not re-inventing the wheel. Education is being done well in many places. The answers are not mysterious. It just takes a little courage and a little will, and maybe a little willingness to put politics aside on this issue.

  4. saltycracker says:

    “This must start with ensuring that all Americans, regardless of the economic circumstances which they are born into, have access to a quality education.”

    Noble words. Now what ? A minority of the parents, educators and administrators work around the obstacles and drive forward while the majority moves in a direction that insures the U.S. drops in relationship to other nations. The politicians will listen to the majority backing the edu-bureaucracy or stay out of the way of the dis-education crowd.

    Additionally, the big employment numbers going forward are in vocational/tech fields and those schools are second choices by the majority above in preference for university degrees with little demand.

    We cannot legislate a cultural mindset change to drive an overhaul of the system.

  5. Jackster says:

    I asked one of my teacher friends to weigh in on Charlie’s article. They are a middle school teacher in a Title 1 school – mostly black and white kids. Their school did not meet AYP, due to low scores by students with disabilities. This teacher currently carries a case load for some of the lower performers in addition to their teaching duties.

    It looks like there is a disconnect here between the pundit and life in the trenches in some aspects.

    It’s all bullsh..t. “change” and “reform” translate on my level as “less planning time because of more training”. I’m testing or training most of my planning time, leaving me fifteen minutes at best to prepare a lesson.
    We are expected to work twelve hour days and get paid for eight, but so are most industries these days. That’s the problem. These are people we are teaching, not industry, but you try changing something.
    I tried my first couple of years out and almost got blackballed. The system is designed to stay the way it is, to keep money moving a certain way, and to keep power where it is. Period.
    If teachers like teaching, they deal with it.

    • saltycracker says:

      It is hard to drain the swamp when you are up to your ass in alligators.
      The challenge is it keeps getting more expensive and complicated as political rains persist.

  6. BJ Van Gundy says:

    Well done Charlie.

    As someone who has been working in the charter school movement for 13 years, I want to thank you for this well thought out and logically structured column.

    My 4 children have been fortunate to have attended very good public schools here in Gwinnett County…. and while Gwinnett County as a whole has great schools, Gwinnett also has schools that are failing its students. We tend to talk about school “systems”, rather than individual schools, so Gwinnett always gets a pass… but I want to point out that there are about 15 schools in Gwinnett that are failing our students as well. My point is that the failure of the education establishment to get things right isn’t just endemic to APS. It is everywhere to some degree.

    The education establishment will point out that it is a parent problem… or throw out that the school in question has a high “free or reduced lunch” number. Which makes me laugh and ask: So if someone eats lunch free it makes them stupid?

    One of the ugliest statistics that I’ve come across in my charter school efforts is a great help to understanding the problem: Nationally, private schools annually fire just under 10% of teachers for performance related reasons…. public schools fire under 1%.

    So the question is either:

    “Do public schools hire higher quality teachers than do private schools?”
    “What are the public schools doing with that ~9% of teachers, ANNUALLY, that SHOULD have been fired?”

    The first question is only asked rhetorically. The second question is the right question… and the answer is ugly.

    THOSE are the teachers that are typically put in schools where the parents are not paying as much attention to their children’s education because they are single parents, are socioeconomically challenged and/or don’t have an education themselves that would allow them to be critical of the education that their children are getting.

    The simple fact is that bad teachers are not fired by our school systems and are then tasked with teaching the most challenged students. THIS is the recipe for disaster that the education establishment has set up.

  7. kathynoble says:

    As a mother of 6, nothing concerns me more than the state of public education. I have dealt with private schools, public schools, both here and elsewhere and even had the pleasure home schooling my children for a few years. My biggest challenge in dealing with the bureaucracy of the public school system is an unwillingness to acknowledge that a problem exists. Until the decision makers are willing to take a long hard look at the reality of our failing school system, nothing will improve. Diversified options for families makes for a more competitive environment and forced improvement across the board.

    • Harry says:

      Those of us who can see what junk mass market public education is doing to this country agree with you; the rest are blind to the problem. My contacts with global options aren’t finding value for money in the US job market anymore due to overall poor quality of applicants. They are “working around the problem,” meaning less investment here, meaning we’re in a vicious cycle.

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