(Mensaje se repite en Español)
On Sunday April 2nd the Committee for Racial Justice in Santa Monica had as their guest speaker Dr. Ben Drati, the relatively new African American superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD). What Dr. Drati discussed in his presentation was SMMUSD's decision to once and for all effectively deal with the unacceptable realities behind why African American and Latino students have continued to do poorly at SMMUSD and what can be done to finally close this achievement gap in a manner where the positive results are independently and empirically verifiable.
While I found that I had some problems with Dr. Drati's approach to achieving minority student parity with their usually more affluent and academically more successful non-minority peers, what I nonetheless found refreshing in his approach was a clear willingness to incorporate any ideas that might help him and SMMUSD to finally allow minority students to achieve their potential.
In the "coherent and cohesive focus" that Dr. Drati seeks to finally implement at SMMUSD in improving minority achievement, for me it is a sine qua non that Dr. Drati not underestimate the entrenched "culture of opposition" that he will surely come up against, when his reforms challenge the vested and very profitable interests of those who are doing just fine financially under the present system.
Dr. Drati believes the "people leading schools have best intentions in mind," when the reality is that we have 2.3 million people presently being incarcerated in our prisons- 1 million of whom are African American. Fixing our schools, so that minority students would now come out of school socialized and highly educated and employable, could not help but cut into these rates of incarceration and the obscene corporate profits that have been generated by them for so long.
There is also a tendency to minimize or not really understand just how profound of a positive effect a good and pragmatically driven public education system has, when it does something more than just mouth platitudes, which most of those presently running the system don't even really believe in. For example, Dr. Drati presented a list of several factors that schools could not control in dealing with minority underachievement, when the reality is that a well functioning school is the actual mechanism that literally eliminates these negative factors.
According to Dr. Drati, schools "don't control the level of poverty and living conditions" of its student population. But in American history, functioning public schools have always been the social integration mechanism that in the past has assured that the students will more often than not do better socio-economically than the parents, because of the education they received in the past. So far this has eluded Black and Latino students- why?
If the "parents education level" continues to function as a continuing negative indicator of their children's achievement, because they are incapable of doing something as mundane as helping their children with homework, something as easy and relatively inexpensive as keeping the schools open after regular school hours and into the evening, so that students can get the supplemental help they need to do their homework, can not only give underachieving students a place to get help with their homework, but it might also serve as a forum for drawing back to school some of the students- and parents- who in the past became frustrated and dropped out. It would actually be a great deal cheaper than incarceration in the juvenile justice system for $78,000 a year.
Most importantly, Dr. Drati needs to know that any K-12 education system cannot assume that students arriving at whatever grade-level are objectively at that grade-level as measured by mastery of all prior grade-level standards. The existing system that presently socially promotes students irrespective of their true grade-level, when measured by grade-level standards mastery, has and continues to be the greatest factor in creating student apathy, classroom disruption, and the lack of self-worth these students continue to unnecessarily have to suffer from. Could this have something to do with explaining the fact that 70% of students who ultimately make it to the community college system in California wind up taking remedial courses that they clearly should have been given while in K-12? And how did their K-12 school award them a high school diploma?
In dealing with the present de facto segregated public education system that is still regrettably in place throughout the vast majority of innercity schools, there are some very difficult truths that cannot be avoided or ignored. Over 400 years of the systematic decimation of a people based on race cannot be overcome without addressing the quantifiable and predictable damage this system has had and would have on any people unwillingly subjugated to it. A belated "equal education" for a people who have had everything done to them to assure they are not equal will not work to once and for all turn this travesty around- for what I believe will be the benefit of all Americans- unless a pragmatic assessment of where each student is subjectively at academically is done to ensure a relevant education that the student can truly benefit from.
One of the hardest issues to address and get the public to accept in finally trying to definitively turn around failed public education for the better is the recognition of the fact that what we as a society have done in the past has not only created immutable damage, but it has clearly limited the future of what once were the unlimited possibilites of the poor and minority students who were subjected to it. It now behooves us in transitioning from this "inherently unequal" low expectation school system to one "with liberty and justice for all" to not ignore the damage we have done, which left unaddressed would continue to preclude these students in the future from attaining any possible remaining relative success.
In lessening the negative impact of this transition period from an inequitable to an equitable public education system, it might be advisable to stop using empty disingenuous feel good rhetoric. More specifically, with a total college and university capacity in this country of 40% of high school graduates, why have public schools all but eliminated industrial arts and career training programs that students might use to be gainfully employed, after they leave school, or which they might use to defray the ever increasing costs of a post secondary education?
Another temptation those like Dr. Drati need to avoid in finally assuring minority students get the timely education they are entitled to is not adapting the education system to the present low negative achievement results of what has been and still remains a racist system. In successfully educating any student, age and grade levels need to be ignored and replaced by where the individual student is subjectively at, while assessing what they remain capable of learning. Such an approach might give those implementing it a rather pleasant surprise, when minority students finally feel safe and respected enough to let down their guard and become a "school boy" without suffering the slings and arrows of their peers.
In his talk, Dr. Drati posed the question: "What is going on in the mind of somebody who thinks it's okay to kill" without understanding that such a person has neither Drati's education nor vocabulary to understand the ramifications of such action. With an average 500 word vocabulary the violence we see on the streets of Los Angeles or Chicago is just the logical and predictable result of failing to educate too many of this country's most important asset- its kids and our future...if we want to have one.
Although a product of the Los Angeles public school system that gave Dr. Drati the atypical ability for a Black man to go on to college and get degrees in both biochemistry and a doctorate in education, I must confess that I was not surprised, when I found out, that Dr. Drati's family had immigrated to the United States, which to me meant that his family hadn't been subjected to the systematic siege that most Black American families have been subjected to for far too long. Imagine what African American and Latinos students might achieve in school, if they were just given a level playing field like Dr. Drati.
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