The more diverse a population the more important it is that people learn, play, work, and live in an integrated environment. Racism is a horrible and complicated aspect of American society and it threatens the very principles of democracy. One of the great certainties of the 21st Century is that our population will become increasingly more diverse. If we are going to preserve our liberty, we must find a way to set aside our prejudices and work together. Diversity is our nation’s greatest strength. The danger occurs when we do not embrace it as such. The best way to promote diversity and end racism is through public education.
The differences in skin color are there for all to see and when all of the white kids live over here and all of the black kids live over there, it is we versus them. Rarely do the two worlds come together. Simply by changing their physical proximity between us, we create opportunities to get to know one another, up close and personal. The differences still exist and are every bit as problematic, but when we are close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes (a characteristic that is shared by human beings everywhere) we also begin to see the similarities. This is the great value of integrated public schools.
As important as it is, however, integration in our schools, public or private, is not a magic elixir that will eradicate the performance gap between white students and minority students and bring an end to racism.
Fort Wayne Community Schools provides a perfect example. This school corporation is the largest in the state of Indiana, has a highly respected black superintendent, and three of the other seven senior leadership positions are filled by black men and women. The district’s student population is 53 percent non-white and there are many minority teachers and principals throughout the district. Just as importantly, most of the schools, particularly at the middle school or high school level, have a diverse population of students. They are integrated but in spite of all of the good things this district and its professional educators do, performance gap issues remain one of its great challenges.
If academic parity is our objective, then we must do more than strive for integrated schools and classrooms. We must make accommodations for students with an “academic-preparedness disadvantage” much like we do for those who have physical, visual, hearing or emotional impairments.
We do not, for example, bring students with physical, visual, or hearing impairments into a school and expect them to find their way around like their unimpaired classmates. We find ways to make accommodations so that these children can take full advantage of their opportunity to strive for a quality education.
Why is it, then, that we bring academically disadvantaged children into our schools along with children who have no such disadvantages and hold the former to the same standards of academic performance as the latter?
It is one thing to establish academic standards that outline all of the things we want our students to learn before they graduate from high school. If we want all of our students to learn the same things and we want them all to be successful we must recognize that they are not all beginning at the same point on the academic preparedness continuum.
What we can reasonably hope to accomplish and what our objective must be is that every student arrives at the best possible destination with respect to his or her unique talents and capabilities. This is a realistic goal if we treat all children as unique individuals and place them on an academic path that is right for them and is tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses. In every other learning environment with which I am familiar, the speed with which learning takes place is the least important factor. What is important is that children do learn.
If given sufficient time and attention, most children who start off from behind will begin to catch up. If, however, we push them along a common path with no accommodation for their “academic preparedness disadvantage,” they will begin to experience failure. Over time, the failures will begin to accumulate and each failure gnaws at a child’s self-esteem. This, we cannot allow.
The biggest problems with current educational reforms and their focus on standardized testing, charter schools, and vouchers is that they are creating more separation between various demographic groups. This may or may not be the intent of the proponents of such reforms but it is clearly the outcomes that flow from such reforms and it can only increase disparity. It is the disparity in opportunities to live the American dream that keeps us separate and apart and that keeps racism alive.
Preserving public schools that bring all components of society together is critical to the future of our democratic way of life but racism will not yield to our will, easily. We must challenge our conventional wisdom at every opportunity, every step along the way. We must also rid ourselves of our obsession with the idea that poverty is the problem. Every time we blame poverty there is a part of our mind that shuts down and we tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about poverty.
We have spent fifty years blaming poverty and declaring war on it and what has it gotten us? No one disputes that poverty creates tremendous disadvantages for men, women, and children but being poor does not keep human beings from pursuing a dream. What keeps people (parents and their children) from pursuing a dream is the hopelessness and powerlessness that so often accompanies poverty; it is when they have given up and no longer dream of a better life for themselves or for their children.
Individuals may not be able to do anything about poverty but we can attack hopelessness and powerlessness one child, one family, one teacher, one classroom, and one school at a time. To do so we must shake ourselves out of our lethargy and latch onto that which is in our power to do.
One last word about segregated schools. Many of our nation’s most challenged public schools are segregated on the basis of race and each year they perform poorly on state competency exams. We tend to look at these schools and brand both the schools and their teachers as subpar, as failures. This is a gross misjudgement. Many of the teachers at these unfortunate schools are remarkable men and women who are committed to doing the absolute best for the students in their classrooms.
Unlike many of their former colleagues, who ran out of these schools screaming and hollering, these public school teachers return every fall and arrive for work every day to make a difference in the lives of as many of their students as possible, even if it only a handful. These men and women deserve our thanks and appreciation as they are true American heroes. Even more than our thanks and appreciation, these teachers need our help. They need us to stop blaming them for the problems in their classrooms, in their schools, and in the neighborhoods they serve. They need us to support them in what they do rather attacking them and stripping away the limited resources with which they strive to do their important work.