Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Public Schools and the Inner City

Controversy swirls around public schools these days. Few, if any, institutions more directly affect the lives of children from low-income families than do our public schools.

Recently, Janet Morrison, Director of Children's Education here at Central Dallas Ministries, sent me the following provocative statement from Reg Weaver, President of the National Education Association, of the "10 Commandments for Public Education." Some of the "commandments" have been adapted by the National Association of Multicultural Educators.

Whatever your opinions as you read, I think you'll find Weaver's ideas stimulating. Our schools here in the city are incredibly important to the future of our children.


Commandment #1: Thou shalt not pretend to reform schools by passing some spurious law where the intent is only to perpetuate the continued marginalization of this nation's children of color, the poor, and the different.

Commandment #2: Thou shalt not say that children are America's top priority when 20 percent of America's children live in poverty, 15 percent have no health insurance, and 13 children are killed by gunfire every single day.

Commandment #3: Thou shalt recognize that only public education has the potential to provide every child in America with a quality education. Therefore, thou shalt not abandon public schools, but redeem and strengthen them.

Commandment #4: Thou shalt not spend more money on prisons than on schools. The more quality schools you have the fewer prisons you'll need.

Commandment #5: Thou shalt not kid thyself that paying starting teachers $20,000 a year is any way to attract and retain the best and the brightest educators for our children. Thou shalt support future teachers--not insult them.

Commandment #6: Thou shalt respect every child as precious and capable of learning--inclusive of all areas of diversity including, race, ethnicity, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, socioeconomic status, language, disability, or immigration status.

Commandment #7: Thou shalt not attack teachers, especially when thou has not been in a classroom thyself for the last 35 years.

Commandment #8: Thou shalt honor not only teachers, but the people who drive the buses, clean the hallways, serve the lunches, counsel the students, take the attendance, nurse the injured, assist in the classrooms, teach the teachers and run our nation's schools with dignity and dedication and grace.

Commandment #9: Thou shalt recognize that quality education requires everybody in the multicultural education community to struggle against all forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, classism, linguicism, ablism, ageism, heterosexism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia.

Commandment #10: Thou shalt remember that public education must always be an immediate priority and a long-term investment. Schools must not be subjected to quick fixes or get-rich-quick schemes.


The same people who can deny others everything are famous for refusing themselves nothing."
--Leigh Hunt


Tim said...

I'm wrapping up my 35th year in DISD, so I've seen firsthand the deterioration of public schools. If I could cull through the mass of problems and decide on the two worst, it would be these:

1. Inept people are being hired as teachers (see salary commandment). Meanwhile, I've yet to cross paths with an administrator with the necessary skills for the job.

2. Sometime between 1966 when I graduated from Woodrow and 1970 when I started teaching, standards in the classroom and citizenship went south. Blame it on the American cultural upheaval of the time or on desegregation (very tricky issue) or on the collapse of the traditional family...it started off as a small snowball and is now the grand-daddy of all avalanches.

The size of the problem overwhelms me. The only thing I know to do is try to influence one student or one class at a time and not dwell on the magnitude of the snow depth.

An Educator said...

This made me want to stand on my chair and applaud. It breaks my heart to watch teachers and public schools being turned into the punch line for late night comics. It is true that today's educators have so much more to deal with. We are asked to be educators but despite our years of service and higher education, NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND tells us we are not highly qualified. We are expected to fill in as a pseudo-parent but are not allowed to hand out any form of consequence or penalty We need to be counselors yet we ae not to share our faith. We fill in as parole officer yet we are given no authority or respect.

They keep telling us how bad our schools are but they don't mention that this country is one of a very, very few countries that educate all thier children. In many places you don't drop out of high school because you were never given the opportunity to finish the 6th grade.

The public schools stand in the gap for kids struggling in South Dallas as well as those struggling in North Dallas. By supporting your schools you truly are supporting the only life line some kids have.

Larry James said...

Tim and Educator, thanks for taking the time to share your heart. Both of you represent the reason why I will never give up on our public schools. Supporting you, your calling (that is really what we are talking about here, isn't it?) and your mission is for me an article of faith and an expression of spirituality every bit as important as prayer or public worship. Please don't quit. The children and the nation need you and your associates so badly.

owldog said...

I applaud the Commandments Reg Weaver wrote and wish there was a way to make sure these commandments do not go to the way side as the "Original Commandments" have

jch said...

So what am I supposed to do? I live in NYC (Brooklyn specifically) where the public schools are notoriously bad. I've got a two year old so I've got a while before I have to decide but seriously, I find myself wondering if it would be responsible to send my child to our neighborhood school which is incredibly underperforming. And it doesn't seem that things are getting any better, just worse.

Larry, would you send your kids - if they were still elementary age - to the neighborhood public schools in downtown Dallas? (Not trying to be fecetious but I'm serious.)

I can hear the call to be an advocate for bettering our public school system and I applaud John Edwards (D, North Carolina) for pulling his kids out of private school to enroll them into public school but for those of us who live in districts where the schools are not good, what are we to do for our own kids?

Larry James said...

You ask good, honest questions, Joe. And, let me hasten to add, only you and your wife can answer them. Your answer will be respected here. It is a hard issue. But, yes, I would put my girls in the DISD. I have discovered that education is more about home and what happens there to support the process than it is about the schools. Just because a school is ranked under performing doesn't mean all the students are. I have a hunch yours will never be no matter what schools they attend. I also know that your presence there would make those schools better. You would be an activist. You would have a platform for organizing. You would insist on things being in place and addressed that would help your children. But, guess what? Your insistence would help all of the children. I think we give up here too quickly. I have spoken with lots of "inner city workers"--some do what I am suggesting, some don't. I have yet to speak with a family who goes the bublic school route that regrets it.

Randy Brown said...

My kids are in public school this year. We have prayerfully decided to put them in a private school next year. The reason is not that they are receiving a poor education (which they probably are). The main reason I'm pulling my kids out of public school is because they are being taught that God is not the ruler of the universe. Their schools, and public schools in general, are not neutral anymore. They are opposed to the faith of Christ. I'm not an angry parent, but I love my kids. I was fully intending for them to be salt and light in their school, but the environment is much more opposed to God than I had thought it would be. We can teach kids to read and write better, but when we tear down the foundation of their existance, their education is a disservice to them.

I am convinced that the answer to the public school problem is a religious one. I suppose it would be called descrimination, but until we teach people that Jesus is the King of Kings and that the only way to live is by obeying his word, our schools will continue to decline. (I suspect the writer of those 10 commands would be offended by that statement, but I would share it with him personally in love without hesitation.)

This is my biggest struggle in seeking systemic changes to help the poor. It starts with better schools, better government, better people, but the foundation of it all is a right belief about God. I want so badly to help change the system, but it seems so impossible to change the beliefs of an entire nation. That's why I'm working through the church and not around it.

I'm really enjoying your blog. You are teaching us to think differently and that is good.

the_jubinator said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
the_jubinator said...

My wife is a teacher in a decent district, but happens to work at the lowest performing school in that district - so I have an interesting take on some of these. Seems like several of us have problems with #3. I understand the sense of duty there, and it sounds great on paper, but I would think my immediate responsibility is to my own children -- and if I feel like there is something in public schooling that is potentially harmful to them in the short or long run, isn't it my duty to address that situation as soon as possible? Seems like we're talking about a long term fix in commandment #3, whereas my need is deemed to be more immediate in nature. My kids should be able to function in the world, while not being "of" the world right? You should understand that, in my perspective, schools can be an environment of serious negative influences, given that's where your children spend the bulk of their waking hours their during the formative years. These kids are exposed to unbelievable things every day. I definitely understand the conflict from each side of the fence, but at the end of the day I would choose to eliminate any possible negative influence.

It's funny how we draw different distinctions around these issues. For example, you parent your kids according to your beliefs and values, trying to raise them up "right." You choose not to let them watch certain programming on TV/Movies because of obvious content reasons, negative influences, etc., as they are all counter to the impression you are trying to make on your children. --Everybody endorses this decision.--
Along that same line of thinking, you choose to pull them out of the public school environment (if it's a bad one) using this exact same logic, and somehow you are in violation of Commandment #3 and the folks who push this thinking???

And as far as John Edwards pulling his kids out of private school to go the public route...please. Do you really think the schools in his high dollar part of town are anything remotely comparable to some of the beaten down urban areas we're talking about here?

Several folks have pointed out something which I completely agree with...that is the fact that the problems with cruddy schools and terrible performance have more to do with family & society issues than with a particular school's administration. Teachers can be a tremendous influence on these kids, so I'm not under-estimating that component, but they are just ONE influence. They can feel like the trout swimming upstream against the current of all the other competing influences for a particular kid's heart & mind, and that isn't a small challenge to take on.

And as far as teacher's salaries go, a lot of the DFW area schools have gotten fairly competitive in recent years -- relative to the official job description (relative to the actual job EXPECTATIONS is another issue). But you'll always have incompetent teachers & [especially]administrators, just like in any other industry.

happytheman said...

Though I know they might not have much to do with your posting them I thought his last few sentences very poignant.

If there is enough money to bail out the airline industry…

If there is enough money to stage a multi-billion dollar war in Iraq...

...then there's certainly enough money to invest for great public schools!

judy thomas said...

As a retired public school educator and the widow of an excellent administrator, I applaud all the commandments!!!!In America, we are always ready to throw out the baby with the bath water without thinking creatively about solutions. I will never berate, belittle, or excoriate the thousands of "ept" and excellent public school teachers who care about America's children. I have made a copy of the commandments and plan to circulate them. Go Larry! Judy Thomas

Fajita said...

I guess I'll jump in and say that a couple things public schools offer little of are teacher mentoring and incentive. In most districts there is little mentoring for new teachers, little incentive to advance their education and a learning curve that is quite dangerous.

Good teachers amaze me. They pour themselves out day after day, get drained, lose their voices, take on great responsibility, and can't wait to do it again. They don't need any incentive.

Lousy teachers burn me up. They are there for summers off, don't give a rip about children, humiliate and embarass children as a means of motivation, and bascially are a liability.

There are teachers in the middle, however, who are decent, but could be better, are motivated, but could use a little shot in the arm, are confident, but get discouraged etc. These are the teachers that could go either way. At the end of their career they might look back and see that they foudn a way to overcome the obstacles and be a great teacher. On the hand, they might have settled into a pattern of compalceny. Or, they look back to those days long ago when they gave teaching a try, but the system burned them out. I guess I want to support these teachers, the ones who would be good with a little more support.

May we find a way to get good teachers in the classrooms.

Larry James said...

The key to getting Commandment #3 is really very simple. In a word the issue is "options." Most of the readers of this blog have them for themselves and their children. Most kids in public schools in Dallas don't. The issue that surrounds all of this is poverty.

Anonymous said...

Yep, and what would Jesus do? Funny how we seem to have a clear grip on that when it involves the decisions and "sins" of others or when it don't cost us nothing really; but when it gets up in our crib. . whoa!!!

Charles said...

I completely agree that the home has at least as much to do with an education as the schools. My mom taught high school English to juniors for almost 30 years and says the best predictor of success is how much the student reads on their own. That is a life habit that has to be encouraged at home.

Also, Randy, can you give us some specific examples of how your school is opposed to the faith? I'm not doubting you, I've just heard this a lot, but never exactly how. Thanks!

the_jubinator said...

I understand and sympathize with the disparity of options when it comes to education. However, I'm saying that my duty to the local school and my duty to my own kids are two separate issues. My argument implies that you remove your kids from the school in the short term while you try to affect change in the long term...hoping to eventually make the public school a real option again, and save the expense of private school.
I don't see how the lack of options for some people remove my responsibility over my own kids. Does that make sense?

Maybe I should give some real life examples of the stuff I'm trying to prevent exposure to at the low performing ELEMENTARY school I'm using as a reference. There are kids obviously experiencing a lot of violence at home, since they act out in the same manner to other students at school (kicking, punching, and strangling). There are two kids in Kindergarten that have been sent to alternative school due to aggressive, violent, and repeatedly poor behavior. A couple weeks ago, there were two kids caught giving oral relations...wonder what the home life is like there? And this is all freaking kindergarten people!

I understand the kids are the victims here, and it's really sad. Just seems like there are certain things I shouldn't have to protect my kid from or explain every day.

How is subjecting my kids to this stuff going to make it better? I think the implication in Comm. #3 is that we stay plugged in and involved in trying to overhaul our local schools. I'm just saying I can be an advocate for change, while preventing my kids from being a variable in the experiment.

I don't mean to argue with you. I know you know your stuff.

Larry James said...

No, Jubinator, please never apologize here! This is what the site is all about--honest, personal conversation. The issue is extremely difficult and very, very complex. I certainly respect all that you have said. So many factors are at work here. This is exactly why in an ideal world we would all be totally involved in public education. Behavior as you describe is not acceptable. I have two daughters who are educators. They have had children like your describe in their classrooms. They have had to face and deal with equally unruly parents--in poor neighborhoods and in more affluent ones. I just know what it would be incredibly helpful to all concerned if parents like you and me with kids in these schools camped out there until behaviors like this were stopped. Part of what is missing at public schools across the nation is parental engagement and commitment. I do know that the public schools offer millions of children their only shot at moving beyond poverty and its entrapments that are contributing so much to the existence of the problems you so well describe.

Brandon Scott said...

AWESOME! Thank you for printing this. I love reading your blog.

Randy Brown said...

The foundational worldview of the public schools is unapologetically evolutionist. My kids are being taught that the world just happened. That is being taught as a neutral concept, but everything that flows out of that foundation is agnostic by definition. When my daughter mentions Christ at school she is immediately informed that she is sharing opinion and not fact. This seems subtle, and to some it may seem appropriate, but teachers have a great deal of influence, and most of our kids will believe a teacher's skepticism (even if that's not what she's trying to communicate) over their parents assertion of fact. They teach our kids what is "true", but they are forbidden to acknowledge the basic truth that God is real. I realize that the law doesn't forbid teachers to share their faith, but every teacher I have talked to (including many in my own church) say they would be fired if they shared their faith in Jesus as Lord and Creator.

Charles said...

Thanks Randy! That is an excellent point and shows our society's overdependence on the scientific method as the path to truth. It's a great tool to refine and gather evidence for physical truth which can be observed, but applying it elsewhere is a dangerous path.

Anonymous said...

Randy, science is a "neutral" reality. Evolution does not necessarily exclude God as a prime mover or as cause. The context demanded by a pluralistic society built around a "neutral" constitutional system of laws providing for the inclusion of all points of view necessitates this reality. Public schools should not teach about the causes or forces behind what exists. That is reserved for the church, parents and theologians. No one is stopping your children from telling their friends who it is they believe is back of it all. It is just that their point of view cannot be normative in a democratic, inclusive culture such as ours. Why do we expect to be given an edge in the world of ideas or philosophies? Did the early Christians enjoy such an advantage?