Monday, July 16, 2012

The Solutions Noone Wants to Discuss

Almost everything I read in the area of education reform seems directed at efforts to reform the schools themselves. The “solutions” invariably focus on ways to improve the performance of teachers. I certainly don’t disparage these efforts, as teachers in the inner city are often "cheated" out of having quality administrators or appropriate professional development to improve their performance. Given that empirical data indicate most of our teachers have come from the lowest quartiles of college graduates, and that the best of these graduates seem to gravitate to our better suburban districts, anything that can be done- short of a complete turnover of a school’s faculty and administration- would be a step in the right direction.

The problem, however, is that even though exemplary teachers can provide some appreciable improvement in student performance, they can only do so much. The real solution to student performance has to do with the students themselves; what we need is a complete transformation of the demographics in the inner city with the goal of increasing the diversity- cultural, socioeconomic, and racial- of families in our urban areas.

To me the “beginning of the end” in urban education began in the late 1950’s with the development of our interstate system. A consequence of this massive public project was the flight of middle and upper class families out of the inner city to the safety and tranquility of the suburbs, which at that time was essentially a new addition to our nation’s landscape. This socioeconomic flight, first undertaken by whites but now including minorities, has devastated our cities. When you combine this flight with the appearance in our suburbs of new middle class citizens, what you have left in the city is a preponderance of working poor and poor that are essentially dependents on the State. One important fact about poverty among minorities is that it is highly concentrated, much less diffuse than with whites.

This flight to the suburbs has been compounded by another enormous societal shift, first identified by Senator Daniel Moynihan in the late 1960’s, in the composition of families in America. The stigma attached to single parent families has all but disappeared in the US, and now the percent of “non-traditional” households now outnumbers the so-called traditional nuclear family. There is no doubt in my mind- and I will gather the empirical evidence- that these two shifts have helped decimate the inner city schools.

There are a plethora of ancillary and tangential issues that exist as a result of these shifts, including those dealing with home ownership, the presence of neighborhood role models, and the at-home support given to children living in the inner city. Programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone seem to acknowledge and affirm these problems.

I will touch on these issues in more details in subsequent posts, but there can be no doubt that unless we treat the situation in the inner city as no less than a domestic threat to our national security, we will never be able to make the inroads we need to change the outcomes produced by our schools. I’m not suggesting that we “get rid” of the students attending our schools and the families that rely on these schools, but I am suggesting that we need to add to the population, essentially “flipping” suburban flight on its head. It is only then that we will have the type of change that will best assure that our youngest citizens will have true opportunities to improve their lives.

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