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FROM THE RIGHT SIDE ...

40 years of declining education

There just wasn&

t enough money for the schools in my community to provide us with an adequate education. That was the mantra &

133; and everyone knew it by heart.

As a poor black kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, I hated having to miss playing football with my friends during the summers when I was bussed far across town to a wealthy white school where everything shone like diamonds in the sunlight &

133; and that mantra would play its tune over and over in my head as I stared out of the windows of the tiny yellow bus.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

I was born the second child of five and raised by my mother in the south. the time I was of age to go to school my dad had left my mother, leaving her alone with a lot of mouths to feed. Houston was as hot then as it is today, but the job climate for a young divorced black woman seeking enough income to adequately raise five children was as cold as a Minnesota winter.

My mother was determined that her children would not speak the language of the streets and constantly pushed into our heads that &

people judge you by the way you look, act and speak.&

Her attitude was a minority among minorities and our language had to adapt as we were forced to &

straddle the fence&

due to peer pressures that doled out punishment in the form of ostracizing or violence for those who refused to conform to the dialect of the dumb. In the street and at school we were &

one of them,&

but at home we were our mother&

s children. And this was a mother who would send her children to Catholic schools, and bus her oldest boy across the city each summer to participate in an advanced Math and Science Institute offered to poor minorities who qualified.

Eventually, we all ended up in public schools. But by the end of 10th grade, I had gleaned during two previous summer sessions at Kincaid High, all of the knowledge I would need to coast easily through the curricula required for graduation at Ross Sterling High. In one of my &

advanced&

English classes I slept so much that the teacher offered me the opportunity to only attend class on test days as long as I continued to score above 90. That was an easy &

A.&

I could not understand at that time why the exact same textbooks, curricula and standards were not required in my school as they were in a school across town where all of the graduates were fully prepared for academic success at any university, whether or not they decided to advance their education beyond high school.

To this day, 25 years later, my high school is mired in the very same dogmatic devastation; but I would soon discover that its failure, like so many other public schools, is by design.

UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE

In 1988, after accepting a bonus of $20,000 to re-enlist in the Navy, I also accepted an assignment to recruit in east Texas. It was during that tour of duty that I discovered something that would shift my entire mode of thinking and destroy that educational mantra that had molded my thoughts regarding public education.

I was responsible for 25 high schools and one college campus during my four years in recruiting. And the more success I achieved, the more the Navy demanded, including requests of specific racial demographics. But recruiting blacks proved to be the most awful, yet illuminating task.

They just didn&

t qualify, due to low test scores.

It didn&

t matter if they attended the poorest high schools or the wealthiest; the result was the same. Blacks lagged far behind whites in math and English, which were the only two subjects on our test and the same basic subjects on the SAT.

I recognized how I was also once a part of that sad statistic.

The problem was so bad that military opportunities available for blacks &

even a full scholarship to any one of hundreds of major universities nationwide &

ballooned with even a paltry score of 900 on the SAT, while white students needed to score 1200 to qualify for the same scholarships.

Public schools weren&

t adequately preparing many minorities for college &

133; &

because they aren&

t college material&

as many so-called educators proclaimed. &

School-to-work&

programs soon followed such perceptions in order to prepare low-performing students for the workforce after high school.

After all, someone had to do the low-paying manual labor around town.

As a recruiter, I was able to examine the schools, the test scores, the curricula, the home environment, teachers, counselors, parents and the students themselves.

I had a very special seat in the crowd overseeing the educational process and critiquing it.

I was able to see the student in class, in the lunchroom and during recreation. I was able to go home with him and see what he did after school. I met his parents and heard their attitudes and perspectives. I saw the whole process from start to finish and concluded exactly what those experts who have studied public education for decades have concluded &

133; academic achievement is not directly proportional to the amount of money thrown into the pot.

In fact, as I delved into the problem with public schools, I came to an understanding that given the plethora of mission statements to which each public school subscribed, it became clear that preparing every high school graduate for academic success at our nation&

s universities was not the primary focus of many public schools.

To be fair, there are some public schools that do very well in ensuring that each graduate is academically ready for the rigors of college studies. But far too many schools do not. And far too many public schools in communities where a predominant minority population exists take a dramatically different approach to educating students.

And while top-performing private schools continually churn out graduates regardless of racial demographics that demonstrate academic proficiency in math and English on college entrance exams, public schools have made excuses, for which they believe only one answer exists &

133; more money.

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

Over the past 30 years, with more than $130 billion &

invested&

in educating our nation&

s youth, the numerous math teachers and accountants within the public schools still have yet to determine the answer.

According to the House Education Workforce Committee, responsible for publishing a summary of the No Child Left Behind Act:

&

Funding for major elementary and secondary education programs, including special education, increased by 43 percent in just the first three years of NCLB. Not one, but three major increases in federal education funding have been provided since NCLB was signed. Funding for Title I, the primary funding stream in NCLB, has increased to historic levels. In fact, because of NCLB, Title I received a larger increase during the first two years of President George W. Bush's administration alone than it did during the previous eight years combined under President Bill Clinton.&

(emphasis mine)

How much money is being pumped into the education system?

According to the House Education Workforce Committee:

"A report published in the Spring 2004 edition of the policy journal Education Next () by two Massachusetts state officials (state board of education chairman James Peyser and chief economist Robert Costrell) concluded the federal government "overshot the target" in terms of funding the law, providing more money than some states need to make it work.

"Total federal spending for K-12 education grew significantly from 2001 to 2003 as a result of No Child Left Behind, Peyser and Costrell note, resulting in an $8 billion funding increase that is sufficient &

150; if not more than sufficient &

150; to allow states to meet NCLB's current expectations. Additionally, Peyser and Costrell find the $391 million currently appropriated by Congress for states to design and implement annual tests for students in grades 3-8 is adequate at the present time &

150; a conclusion also reached by the independent General Accounting Office (GAO). Five states had already met the NCLB testing requirements before the law even went into effect, they note."

Nevertheless, the National Education Association is because it isn&

t enough they say. &

Funding for key education programs continues to fall far short of the need.&

The NEA and other critics scream that despite the unprecedented massive increases in federal spending on education, it isn&

t enough to cover the expenses of the requirements attached to receiving those funds. They charge that the Bush administration is offering mostly smoke and mirrors with &

unfounded mandates.&

Much to the chagrin of the detractors in the teachers union, the GAO says otherwise.

"After reviewing more than 500 different statutes and regulations enacted in 2001 and 2002, including the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports about NCLB, the this year that NCLB was not an &

unfunded mandate.&

" (emphasis mine)

The problem of public education leaving children behind isn&

t resolved with money.

THE CAUSE OF CATASTROPHE

The problem is the same today as it was when I was in high school. Within the same public school districts in many states there are wildly varying degrees of student achievement, depending upon the school attended. And while administrators experiment with various curricula and methods of teaching, the college entrance exams, which are the doorways into our nation&

s universities, continue to weed out those who cannot demonstrate a proficiency in two subjects, math and English.

If the public schools would get the basics right, the ancillary financial requests, such as funding for sports and the arts could be viewed in a more favorable light. And I realize that for some, the arts is more akin to religion than luxury.

But for millions of dirt poor kids attending public educational institutions of ignorance and tolerance for everything except a disciplined and academic environment, their lives are sacrificed on the alter of political pandering. The &

let&

s fix it&

crowd claims it needs more money, when any unqualified-to-teach homeschooling mom could take any one of those lackluster students that are drowning in a sea of bureaucratic nonsense and educate them to the standards required for entry into college.

MASSIVE FEDERAL SPENDING IS NOT THE ANSWER

I don&

t agree with a massive influx of federal spending into the public school system, even though in totality, it measures a mere 8 percent of the funding of public education in each state. Still, both houses of congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act with relative ease (381-41 in the house and 87-10 in the senate) on.

Therefore, if Congress represents the people, and the people require federal intervention into a system of education that educators have been unwilling and unable to fix for the past 30+ years, why would the educators scream bloody murder when there is far more money in education today than during the years when Democrats ruled both houses of Congress and the White House? Isn&

t the lack of money what educators continue to claim is the problem?

Yet, federal spending increases by 43 percent in one fell swoop and educators continue to claim that lack of funding is the problem! How much is enough?

But the voices of the educators are becoming increasingly difficult to hear through the sound scientific studies that continue to belabor the very same point &

133; federal money is not a panacea for what ails the public schools.

In October 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council () produced its national report on the status of public education, the Report Card on American Education: A State by State Analysis: 1976-2003. The report addressed all of the various arguments I hear from those who have good hearts and good intentions, but wrong-headed ideas.

&

Spending more money on education won&

t improve test scores,&

concludes the report, which studied educational trends over two generations. Moreover, 74 percent of eighth-graders are performing below proficiency levels even as per-pupil spending nationwide has risen more than 22 percent (with inflation adjustments).

&

There is no immediately evident correlation between conventional measures of education inputs, such as expenditures per pupil and teacher salaries, and educational outputs, such as average scores on standardized tests,&

according to the report.

This report goes on to obliterate the notion that higher teacher salaries, smaller classrooms and higher per-pupil spending are solutions to the crisis in the public schools. It does this by providing the actual data from the states that show public schools in states with low per-pupil spending, low teacher salaries and higher class sizes consistently have outperformed states that are big spenders.

According to a Nov. 1, 2004 article entitled, U.S. Education Gets Low Grade on ALEC Report Card, by Krista Kafer that appeared on the web site of the Heartland Institute:

"The stagnation in student achievement over the past two decades took place during a period that also saw massive increases in spending, a rise in teacher salaries, and a reduction of the student-teacher ratio. From 1981-82 to 2001-02, per-pupil expenditures grew 53 percent in constant dollars, from $4,924 to $7,557. During the same period, the pupil-teacher ratio dropped from 19-1 to 16-1.

"The top 10 states in terms of increased per-pupil spending in the past two decades were Georgia (+109 percent), Maine, South Carolina, Indiana, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Vermont, West Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire (+83 percent). Only two of those states, Vermont and New Hampshire, ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement.

"Similarly, of the 10 states that reduced student-teacher ratios the most since 1981--New York (-29 percent), Virginia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Vermont, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Alabama, Ohio, and Arkansas (-23 percent) &

only Vermont is one of the top 10 in terms of achievement.

"We simply cannot spend our way to better grades," notes ALEC Executive Director Duane A. Parde in the report's foreword, "but must make sure that we are making the right kinds of investments in our schools to promote high student achievement." (emphasis mine)

WHAT TO DO

I believe it is just common sense to look around us and see what is happening, determine the cause and develop an approach to a solution with which we all can agree. In poor communities I see kids attending run-down schools and trying to learn in less-than-adequate conditions. And I see folks who are concerned about changing those conditions.

But the focus, while commendable, is wrong-headed. The primary need of a student sitting in a crowded classroom under a leaky ceiling in a building with no air conditioning in the heat of summer isn&

t a new facility.

America has taught children to read and write under worse conditions.

A new building is needed for sure. But it is not the primary focus, nor should it be. The primary and immediate focus is to ensure that each student is receiving the very best curricula available, equitable educational standards and textbooks to those of the wealthiest regions, and competent teachers who ensure the environment in which students are required to learn is conducive to learning without constant disruption.

RESOLVE THE WORST SITUATIONS FIRST

I look at education through the prism of how it impacts blacks, because historically the ills of America as a whole are exaggerated greatly in black communities, where poverty, addiction, violent crime, sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock births, abortion and abandonment are significantly higher statistics when viewed as a percentage of population. The problem of education, or lack thereof, is as much an epidemic as any of the aforementioned crisis that have devastated many black communities and served to overshadow much of the successes of &

black America&

over the past several decades.

I believe if we find a way to treat the worst of what ails us as a nation, we can apply that formula uniformly to the whole of the problem and see positive results. In black communities, the greatest need isn&

t school lunch programs, better facilities, computers or even better teachers.

The greatest need is for someone to care enough to ensure that each and every student is provided an education equal to the education provided in the best schools.

That concern will automatically ensure that someone who is hired to teach is qualified to teach. That concern will automatically ensure that the classroom environment is an academic one, rather than a social climate. That concern will ensure that the exact same standards and textbooks are used in the ghetto schools as are used in the elite areas. That concern will ensure students who need help academically receive that assistance, rather than being placed in a program that pushes them out the front door of the high school and into the workforce destined to earn a poverty-level income.

I welcome the wonderful advantages of better facilities, greater access to resource materials through computers, the arts, expanded curricula, and numerous extracurricular activities. I just believe all of that must be built upon a foundation of understanding that if a student can have only one thing, it should not be good intentions, but a good solid education. And if that has to occur in a barn, then so be it. When he scores 1480 on the SAT and has numerous scholarship opportunities ahead of him, the lack of money for a computer library seems less important.

EVIDENCE IN SOCIETY

When one takes an informal survey of some of this country&

s most successful minorities in virtually any field, the understanding one comes away with is that most of these individuals were educated in far less than ideal circumstances. But the common thread was that each had access to the , many of the same textbooks as their wealthy counterparts and concerned teachers. In addition, they each demonstrated a personal determination to learn and overcome adversities.

If public education will consistently provide those three things as a foundation, then it can work on building for the future, while ensuring those students sitting in classrooms who strongly desire to overcome adversity in the present day aren&

t left behind.

This approach doesn&

t require a lot of money. It requires a lot of commitment.

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