Equal Education--Equally Inferior?

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Although summer meant school time for many youngsters in Los Angeles, it is traditional to think of fall as the time when education begins with a clean slate. In our school district, this becomes more difficult each year as we struggle with issues that, being rooted in racial factors, become ever more complex. I believe that we all--administrators, teachers, parents--can move closer to real working solutions if we cut through the complexities and dare to address the hard core of the problem: the difference between equal education and excellent education.

In this country, and specifically in California, equality in education has been defined as that which is available to minorities on the same basis as it is available to white students. That concept may not be so desirable today if we consider that in many of our public schools high-quality education is nonexistent--that white students, as well as black and other minority students, are being subjected to a mediocre offering at best.

Aware of this, the public grows less willing to support public education, causing deterioration of resources, which, of course, makes the schools' performance record even worse.

In Los Angeles, there are other divisive factors: The majority of members of the "public" who vote and are directly taxed to support public schools do not have children who attend them. And, while nearly 80 percent of the school district's current student population is nonwhite, nearly 80 percent of the teaching staff is nonminority.

Clearly, enormous changes must be made in two areas if our schools' performance is to improve: Nonminority educators must take a different approach to teaching minority children, and nonwhite parents must exert an influence reflecting their position as the majority of the school-district population.

Historically, public schools were attended by students generally of the same cultural and ethnic background as the teaching staff. This was true even in the segregated school systems of the South. Though the unequal status of those schools was a continuous source of frustration for those of us riding in the back of the education bus, the segregated educational system had a unique quality that in many cases does not exist today: Black teachers had a personal investment in the success of their students, who were destined to break the chains of oppression for their race. It was accepted that education was essential to their survival.

This is not to suggest that segregated education is better for minority students, or that teachers must share their students' racial or ethnic background to be effective. It does indi-cate that teachers must be sensitive to the culture of their students if learning is to take place.

Today, the cultural gap between home and school is greater than the supposed gap in the quality of education between different schools. Culture in this sense is not to be confused with race. The middle-class culture of most teachers is frequently a systemic barrier to the belief that economically deprived, urban, minority children can be truly superior in academic achievement.

Before attempting to teach subject matter, the teacher must succeed in the primary goal: instilling in the student a desire to learn by relating the subject to the world of the student.

Educators must learn to adjust, but not acquiesce, to the culture of the students. For example, it is adjustment for the teachers to understand that the completion of homework assignments may be difficult for a student who does not live in an environment conducive to quiet study time; therefore, the teacher provides an opportunity after school for the student to do necessary out-of-class assignments. But, it is acquiescence to permit students to wear hair curlers or to bring radios to school because it is part of their "culture."

Our public-school system of today does not instill a feeling of confidence among even those who work within its structure. The fact that a large number of public-school teachers do not send their own children to public schools is evidence of the lack of confidence that those working in the system have about its ability to provide an outstanding education. Because the general offering leans toward mediocrity, and no longer even guarantees the graduate preparation for a job, it is quite possible that the quest for equal education on the part of minority students is misplaced. The quest should be for a superior educational system, which can be developed only through drastic change collectively pursued by educators and other adults in the community. A few suggestions:

  • The teaching of reading at the elementary level should be given top priority, even to the exclusion of other skills. If we know that nonreaders cannot survive beyond a custodial level in schools, why do we continue to punish these children by permitting them to retain this most crippling handicap?
  • Student-promotion policies, which provide for automatic advancement based on age, should be eliminated; annual promotion should depend on the demonstration of measurable appropriate skills.
  • School districts should give parents more authority in the recommendation and selection of administrators, particularly principals. Too many former teachers become administrators because they do not want to do what they expect the teachers to do--teach the students, undoubtedly the most difficult job in the country today.
  • The teaching of values should be added to the instructional program, and "diversion programs" to curb crime should be introduced into each school. Drug-abuse and gang counselors, rather than additional enforcement personnel, would be more appropriate for the problem of school violence and vandalism.
  • Teachers' salaries must be raised (as in any other profession, you get what you pay for), with a higher scale for teachers in the critical fields of math, science, and English.
  • Teachers who exhibit proven skills in educating the less capable student should be given incentive pay. Too often the students in greatest need are relegated to teachers with the least capability.
  • Teachers' unions should initiate their own self-regulation systems to weed out incompetent teachers. In this most critical profession, the mediocre worker's right to security should never supersede the right of the student to be taught effectively.
  • Teacher and administrator promotions and rewards should be tied to student achievement and performance.
  • Local churches, community organizations, and business and labor groups should "adopt" schools to assist in setting expectations and developing standards for students, and to serve as role models.
  • Businesses and government agencies should promote working parents' involvement in their children's schools through "released time" for school visitation.

Our public schools are salvageable, but only with a strong commitment from the public. The lead should be taken by our elected representatives, both federal and local, to recognize the absolute necessity of a well-educated population, despite the economic, ethnic, or cultural differences between those who are in power and those who are in need.

Vol. 02, Issue 08, Page 24

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