Failing Schools: Not About Poverty, Parents
It boils down to one thing, says educator Steve Perry: teachers' unions.
SP: I think that the president is trying to change the flavor of the pizza by cutting off the crust. He has not taken up the fundamental change that needs to occur in public education. I say this sadly, as someone who wants him to do well. He has taken the traditional Democratic route, which is to focus on the teachers. For instance, just last week he announced that he wants to improve schools by stopping teacher layoffs. One doesn't equal the other. His focus is still on the adults.
In the lion's share, he's not publicly chastising the teachers' unions for what they have done to create a failed school system. He won't acknowledge that they protect teachers who haven't been educating for generations, and blame poor communities for being poor. So his policies fall flat.
TR: One thing that most people will agree on is the importance of parental involvement. Beyond standard tips like communicating with teachers and checking homework at night, is there something else parents should be doing to help their children succeed?
SP: Yeah, they should challenge the system that keeps holding them responsible for the failures of the system. I think they should stop allowing themselves to be the scapegoats for educators who have not done a good job of educating. Very often the argument is, "Well, we get kids who are so far behind." They're freaking 3 years old -- are you serious?
At the latest, we get the kids at 5 years old. You have 6 1/2 hours, five days a week, for at least 187 days to teach them how to write their name and phonetically sound out words. The alphabet's only got 26 characters. It's not going to take an entire year to teach a child that.
They say that black parents don't care. I did the Steve Harvey Morning Show the other day, and I got 100 emails from those same black people that supposedly don't care. I have an email from a parent who said, "I've been made to feel like it's my fault that my kid's failing, but I'm doing everything that I know how to do. I do sit down with my kid and go over homework, but I don't know how to do chemistry any more than he does. So when it's wrong, it's wrong. But you're going to blame both of us for not knowing how to do chemistry?"
Parents need to make sure they communicate their concerns to their teachers when they feel like their child's needs are not being met. From a systemic approach, they need to attack the limitations of the radius-based school placement. This is 2011. There's no reason why a child should be forced to go to the school closest to their house.
TR: Do you feel optimistic that these big systemic changes will happen?
SP: I know it's going to change. Dr. King said it: No lie can live forever. I am so optimistic because once upon a time, there were only a few successful schools. But that's not always the case. We have generations of successful schools now, both that serve the wealthy and the poor. By the way, those schools that traditionally serve the wealthy have taken poor students in, and those same students are no longer poor. The only difference between those poor children and others is where they went to school.
Are we going to say that the imaginary line that separates a suburban school from an urban school is a real line, that it's like the Berlin Wall to education? That if you can't afford to live in this neighborhood, then your kid is damned to poverty? It just can't be. But I promise you, we'll win. In our lifetime we will see this change.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.