By Ruben Navarrette , Columnist in the San Diego Union Tribune
2 September - President Barack Obama has figured out that, for African-Americans, the next epic civil rights battle will be fought not in the streets but in the classrooms.
In a recent interview with black journalists, Obama identified education as the most important challenge facing the African-American community.
“If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality in this society is diminished,” Obama told them. “Now, how do we do that? Better teachers, greater accountability, and more resources combined with more reform.”
Not bad. Obama got three out of four answers right. Yes, we need better teachers, greater accountability and more reform. But, beyond repairing the crumbling infrastructure of some schools, we don't need more resources.
Lesson No. 1: What ails public schools isn't a lack of money; some of the most well-funded school districts in the United States are also some of the worst, while some charter schools with greater autonomy and flexibility have been able to accomplish more with less funding.
Some people like to think the public education crisis can be eased by simply throwing more dollars at public schools. That mentality makes the issue easier to deal with. It's much more challenging to look beyond the spreadsheet and see the problem for what it is: a shortage of imagination.
Many teachers have a tough time imagining African-American students being among the high achievers. They don't have a sense of possibility for what these students can accomplish.
Times have changed. Today, African-Americans have opportunities that didn't exist 30 years ago. Teachers need to prepare their students to take advantage of them.
Lesson No. 2: The battle lines will be drawn when more African-American parents begin to ask: “Why are public schools shortchanging our kids?”
According to a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics, African-American students score much lower in reading and math than white counterparts — on average, about 28 points lower.
African-Americans also are more likely to wind up in special education classes and less likely to be tracked into college-prep courses. They have a far higher high school dropout rate. And, of course, they also have a lower rate of college enrollment and more difficulty staying in if they do make it onto a university campus.
Right about now, many black parents probably wish they had paid more attention to President George W. Bush, who correctly diagnosed that a lot of what ails public education in America is “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Lesson No. 3: Adding insult to incompetence, too many teachers pass the buck and insist that some of their students don't do as well as others because they come from a culture that doesn't value education and from parents with misplaced priorities.
After a recent column in which I knocked teachers for resisting accountability, a reader in Indiana wrote: “Even the very best teacher cannot make up for bad parenting. Too many minority schools are full of students of single-parent homes ... the children are just a source of welfare income ... the culture in many minority communities other than some Mexican and Asian communities is to devalue education. A community that values thugs, pimps, hos, gangsta rap, drug dealers, gangs, etc. produces children alienated from school and any authority. And the mass media glorifies these things while giving short shift (sic) to education other than to do your type of obnoxious whining about it is all the teachers' fault.”
Sift through the racism in that missive and you start to get a sense of the problem. Many people see students as extensions of their communities. Contempt for one leads to low expectations for the other.
Obama alluded to the importance of parenting in his conversation with the African-American journalists.
“We're not going to transform the urban school system in a year,” he said. “It's going to have to be a sustained effort, including a change of attitudes about education within our own communities.”
Fair enough. But a lot of what Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan support by way of education reform — charter schools, merit pay, greater accountability, etc — suggests that they understand that the educational system is also at fault. They also seem to grasp just how intimidating, unresponsive, arrogant and unfriendly the public school bureaucracy can be to parents, especially African-American parents.
Until that changes, nothing else will.
Navarrette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .