Its time to achieve for children
For many years, activists and well-intentioned folks informed only by racial perspectives have led the debate about closing the academic achievement gap hampering minority students. But this issue is too critical to be left in the hands of a few activists and the politically correct crowd.
The lingering problem of low academic achievement among minority and poor students is not just a black or brown problem. It also is a white problem. Each school dropout costs us a lot in crime, welfare and health care.
Recent data released by the state Department of Education revealed that minority and low-income students fared poorly in all of the Portland school district's high schools.
At Jefferson High, 84 percent of black sophomores performed below standards in math, and about 78 percent of them performed below standards in reading and literature. The story is the same at Grant and Roosevelt high schools. The figures merely confirm what has become obvious.
What is vexing is that millions of dollars have been spent on these failed schools. There seems to be a cycle to the cries of reform that herald the first few months of every school year.
This year's report seems crafted to satisfy the whims of school board members, appease some skeptics and placate members of the Portland Association of Teachers. The report, released to the public in late September by district administrators, also seems designed to present the flattering image of a district hard at work for students.
But the happy face cannot mask one continuing truth: The Portland school district's poor and minority students generally are being taught by the district's least experienced and lowest-paid teachers. (See Teachers follow the money, by the Tribune's Todd Murphy, published Nov. 9, 2001, and available online at www.portlandtribune.com/archview.cgi?id=7730.)
Let's not convert this fact into a diabolical debate about teaching and experience. I understand the complex paradox involved Ñ the argument that experience is not necessary an indicator of who is a good teacher. Still, I am not sure the district is willing to shake off the yoke of activists, and union leaders who seem more sympathetic to their demands than the academic concerns of minority students.
To truly effect change in academic achievement among minorities and the poor, it might be most effective to begin the reformation outside the school walls. Here are a few thoughts on changes that have no champion:
1. Reverse the emphasis on sports activities that seems to come at the expense of rigorous academic excellence by minority students. And while we're at it, let's try to begin changing a culture that glorifies mediocrity and passes off excellence as 'being white.'
2. Institute vigorous disciplinary measures to check the excesses of recalcitrant students. For instance, start a 'War Against Indiscipline' program that will teach the consequences of bad behavior.
3. Quiz teachers about their level of expectation for their students. We must halt the notion that teachers need to reward students with grades they don't deserve just to nudge them along the same path as their peers.
4. Push parents/guardians to become more involved in their children's academic success. Parental involvement has been largely ignored in the various solutions proposed to close the achievement gap; no one really wants to risk blaming people who are, in many ways, victims. But with the exception of those kids whose parents are absent, there should be some kind of reward or incentive for low-income parents bogged down by other, competing interests.
Let's get real about student achievement and stop the rap about the gap.