If Not Now…When?

November 2, 2011 at 9:25 PM Leave a comment

My mom came home from a PTA meeting and vowed never to go back. My high school principal had addressed the recent proposal that students must read at a 10th grade level in order to graduate from high school. It had never occurred to her that he had assembled the parents to reassure them that he would do whatever was necessary to fight this literacy movement. It was 1971, and urban educators were under siege. I write today, like my mother, in disbelief that in 2011 the same battle cry against baseline intellectual integrity could seem so logical to so many.

Over 40 years ago, I transferred to an inner city school as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan. I had been born during the year of the Brown Decision, and sixteen years later a local judge declared that it was time to do the right thing. A handful of my classmates and teachers went with me as I was bussed to a school that was, ironically, only half the distance of my home from my previous high school. Actually, I walked to school, quite literally crossing the train tracks to see first-hand what the policy of Separate but Equal education had failed to deliver.

Ten years ago, I returned to urban education on the other side of the desk, attending a boot-camp teacher training program for mid-career professionals. Crossing the threshold of a high school in the fall of 2001 felt eerily like entering the halls of that inner city high school to which I had been bussed when I was 16. I was in a different city and decades older, but little had changed in the outward appearance of urban education. The building was an aging classic, materials were scarce, and my classroom furnishings Spartan. There was talk of an achievement gap that seemed based in demographics. Benchmark exams loomed as graduation requirements, creating a crisis for students with poor math and literacy skills. Time had stood still for an underserved population.

Recalling the urban high school experience of my youth, or even the era of the late 60s and early 70s that formed its context, I am struck by the differences that we take for granted today. Many civil rights are secure [although serious evidence to the contrary has been demonstrated since this post was published in 2011].  There is girl power to spare, as long as talk does not turn to titles and salaries. Smoking is bad, recycling is good. And pacifists have learned to hate the war but love the warrior. Still, the double standard in education has persisted, and access to superior schooling remains in the hands of the elite. For minority populations with low incomes, the separateness seems greater than ever.

When No Child Left Behind was enacted, the commitment was made to ensure that children entering kindergarten that year could be guaranteed college readiness by graduation 12 years later in 2014. Short-sightedness distracted us from that goal. Schools quickly became caught up in the race to graduation for the high school students who were not ready to pass any test. Somehow, the legacy of NCLB was not realized as the youngsters in urban elementary schools fell further and further behind their peers elsewhere.

Many of my former classmates have grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, who are being ripped off in their schools, educationally underserved. NCLB was an attempt to say ”This stops here.” We set a date and were supposed to have meant it. Our 2014 goal is no longer in reach, leaving us a painful question. How many more generations must wait before public education is a right, not a privilege, for everyone’s kids?

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Entry filed under: Issues and Ideas, School Transformation.

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