Friday, August 12, 2011

Effective Education for Diverse Student Populations

By Don Thomas,
Past President of the HML and Executive Director of the Public Education Support Group

Presentation at 
The Michigan Italian Heritage Society on Sept. 30.
in Detroit, MI.

It is with a great deal of personal pleasure that I have been given this opportunity to discuss the education of our children.  For the past 60 years I have had the significant honor of serving in public education and to assist three governors to improve education for all children, but more specifically for disadvantaged children.
         There is no more important public service that supports democracy and our ability to live a free and productive life than educating our children.  Thomas Jefferson stated it well when he said:  “The most important achievement of my life was the introduction of a bill in the Virginia legislature to establish the common school.”
         Coming to America in 1932, my brother and I aspired to the American Dream.  My parents were never wealthy, but by the support of teachers and scholarships all three brothers obtained doctorates and found success in serving public education.  As my father always said:  “To be successful in this nation, one must first be well educated.”
         Today, however, there are powerful forces, with plenty of money, attempting to weaken our public schools.  There are many in our midst who profess to value children, but who deny them an effective education.  This is particularly true with children of immigrants, children of minorities and children of the poor.
         Many of you are familiar with Grover Norquist, the Koch Brothers, the DeVos family, Dick Army, Patrick Byrne, the Walton family, Teri Adams, the Obendorf family and Rupert Murdock.  Recently Murdock employed Joel Klein, former New York City school chancellor.  As a result Murdock’s company, Wireless Generation, received a $27 million no-bid contract from the New York State Education Department to privatize assessment of student progress.  We already have more than a dozen ways to assess student progress, why is another needed?  The purpose is clear, call it what you will:  vouchers, tuition-tax credits, parent choice, performance evaluation or anything else, critis are intent on starving our schools and privatizing public education.
         The efforts of these wealthy corporate leaders, unless they are confronted and defeated, will certainly weaken our public schools for all children, but more for the children who are most in need. As stated by Pedro A. Noguera in his article:  “Confronting the Challenge of Privatization in Public Education:”
“Under the rubric of a variety of privatization proposals, several advocates for reform have stated as their goal nothing less than the complete dismantling of public education.  The proposals for reform vary in form and content and in the extent to which they alter or transform the existing system.  However, regardless of how the ideas are packaged the current crop of proposals for change are unified by a common belief in the market as the preeminent regulator and guarantor of educational quality.” 

The most onerous act is the no-tax pledge required by Norquist who gives money to candidates who run for Congress.  How can one protect the U.S. Constitution “without reservations”(as required in the oath) if one is controlled by a no-tax pledge?
         What we need to understand is how children learn and the resources needed to educate well all children.  The ability to learn in school begins in utero.  The conditions under which a child is in the womb influences the child’s future ability to learn.  Particularly important is the development of the nervous system.  Lack of proper diet, stress, alcohol (or any toxic material entering the body of the mother) all have a negative influence on that development.  Many children born to minority parents and to poor parents are disadvantaged from the start by lack of health servicdes, inadequate protein, and insufficient social stimulation.  When entering school these children are behind in language development, cognition ability and social skills.  The meager support provided by federal funds are simply insufficient to provide adequate educational services to disadvantaged children.  Rather than attacking the core antecedents of ability to learn, those who criticize our schools wish to save money by privatizing our schools.
         Currently our educational system works fairly well for white children, but it does not give the children most in need an equal chance at the American Dream.
         Here are some educational disparities:

Roughly one-half of African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians graduate from high school compared to three-fourths of non-Hispanic Whites.  Poor and minority children are more likely to attend under resourced schools located in poverty areas.
The educational gap appears to occur even before formal education begins.  Black and Hispanic children living in poverty lag behind Whites on standard measures of achievement.  This preschool gap is largely explained by poverty and differences in home environments.  Currently, among schools with more than 75% minority students, 43% of their students are failing to make the yearly progress necessary to be promoted to the next grade compared with only 16% of students failing to make progress among schools with less than 25% minority students.

         While the need for more resources is greater than ever, the Congress is currently debating a bill that allows Federal Title One funds to be used for any purpose.  Public education crtics in Congress believe that the federal government should not be in the business of ensuring that the most vulnerable children be served.  Sensible men and women should resist this.
         At this point let me suggest what I believe should be done to better educate all children and in particular children who are most in need.
1.   We must concentrate adequate resources in early childhood development.  Ever since 1966 when a government study – the “Coleman Report” connected family characteristics to student achievement, we have known that disadvantaged children need extensive services prior to entering school.  Recently, Richard Rothstein in his study, “Class and School” again showed that family characteristics influence the learning potential of children. The same has been established by many other studies.
From these data basis it seems reasonable that we invest more in very early  child development.  As in South Carolina child development centers can be established throughout the state to provide educational services to young mothers and to assist them in learning effective child rearing practices.  Centers could also assist families to obtain health and dental services, establish cognitive development practices and provide family guidance as needed.
Child development centers would have a greater return in achievement than anything else that we have done or c  do.  In addition, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that $1.00 spent on this effort would produce $7.00 in economic activity.
2.   Empower teachers to become true professionals.  In most school districts teachers are rigidly controlled and their areas of freedom are far too restricted.  To have teachers behave as professionals the following policies should be established:
a.   Teachers should have complete control of curriculum.  If they are to be held accountable for learning certain items, it is only reasonable that choice of instructional materials should be their responsibility.  There should never be a restriction on the use of any source of knowledge.
b.   Teachers should have complete control over teaching methods and strategies to be used in the teaching/learning process.  Each teacher should be free to use whatever method produces the best results or achieves the objectives required by the school.
c.    Teachers should have complete control on the utilization of time, the length of learning periods, and the use of supplemental time for children in need of special help. When teachers are treated professionally without a culture of  control and intimidation, children will learn more in nurturing schools.
3.   Empower parents to participate in the governance of the school.  Quality education for all children requires meaningful participation of the school community in the affairs of the school.  This does not mean advisory relationships, but rather equal participation in decision-making that affect parents:  family conditions, violence, bullying, and other factors that hinder the possibilities of learning.  Councils should be established in school made up of parents and teachers which establish discipline rules, time for teacher- parent conferences, home work assignments and school visitations.
Rather than empowering parents through the use of vouchers as consumers of education, parents should be empowered as decision makers through efforts aimed at democratizing school governance.  The movement for community control of public schools launched in Salt Lake City, Utah, during mid 1970s provides a model worth considering.  That experiment in the application of grassroots democracy in the governance of public schools, showed that poor parents can and will become actively involved in supporting the education of their children when conditions allow for this to occur.  When this happens public schools are more likely to become accountable and responsive to those whom they serve.
4.   Establish a clear separation of church and state in our education system.  Public education differs from private education.  No one objects to religious practices or the “free exercise thereof.”  Children can read the Bible, wear crosses, have black dots on their forehead, or wear religious clothing in school.  What causes disruption, however, are religious practices promoted by the government:  public prayer at board meetings, infusion of intelligent design in the curriculum, the banning of books, opposition to sex education and the insistence that we teach that our founding fathers were all devout Christians.  The inclusion of religion in government affairs creates extensive conflicts and deflects the real need to improve education, particularly for disadvantaged children.Instead of trying to influence “No Child Left Behind,” churches should promote a program of “No Sinner Left Behind.”  The schools have enough to do without becoming embroiled in the affairs of churches.

Let me conclude with this final statement:
In this fight over public education, the stakes are high.  Our nation is becoming more and more unequal.  Education has always been and continues to be the principal economic equalizer.  In societies where the disparity between rich and poor is not extreme, people live longer, have less crime,have higher levels of education  and confront fewer social problems.  We have a choice:  privatize education and reduce our commitment to the American Dream or enhance our support to public education and expand our services to all children in need.  In doing so, we protect our democratic way of life and we create a more just society.

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