School Inequality Matters

Author: Mary Johnson, President
The 21st Century Multicultural Parent Strategies Handbook

As a parent living in the inner city, the 21st Century seems more like 1954. Our schools are more separate and unequal than ever. When I speak of separate and unequal it not just about divided color lines, but also divided opportunities. In decades past, companies used to draw a red line on maps around non-white neighborhoods where they refused to provide insurance. Today, my zip code has a metaphorical red line drawn around it and the children in my community are not provided with the educational resources they deserve. The 21st Century was supposed to bring more resources; instead we have gone back to Jim Crow.

Many schools districts serving primarily brown and black communities fail to hold high expectations for their students. Districts like LAUSD have refused to raise the graduation requirement from a D to a C average. There are higher standards in the state of California for restaurant. If a restaurant gets a D rating the health department would shut them down. The districts are sending the wrong messages to our students that it is okay to be below average in the 21st Century. Elected official blame budget cuts for this decision, yet they gave unions large raises and hired more of their consultant friends—funding that comes out of the backs of students. The students are the ones who generate the funds but very little money is spent on them. Roughly 85% of the education budget pays for personnel. It seems that elected officials believe that students learning start and stop with teachers.

Our schools need excellent teachers, principals, classroom aides, cafeteria workers, and other staff. The budget should support all of these workers. But we also need more than that.

In reality, learning happens outside of the classrooms too. Students need exposure to a variety of experiences, and that might be field trips that are aligned to classroom instruction. Most of our field trips are to the zoo for elementary students and museums for secondary students. Teachers very seldom take their students outside and conduct learning that is aligned or linked to classroom lessons.

Parents are tired of waiting for change. We feel like there is no real alternative for working parents outside of the public education system when our local public schools fail our children. This frustration has empowered parents to take things in their own hands for social changes. Many parents have turned to parent trigger laws to makes that difference. Parent Trigger laws allow parents to force districts to close down or change leadership in struggling schools. In the past I personally disagreed with this strategy. Now I understand the frustration of those parents and that simply waiting isn’t an option. When elected officials go back on their earlier commitment to raise the graduation requirement because they are afraid that the graduation rate will plummet, they try to hide that from the public. The State of California is now going to suspend the California High School Exit Exam or CASHEE. That test was based on middle school level math and English and high school students have from10th to 12th grade to pass, the test. The CAHSEE is another ways for checks and balances that allow parents to assert bottom up accountability. If, as education officials assert, the CAHSEE can no longer serve this function because it is not aligned to the new Common Core Standards, then parents need something else put in its place.

The failure to raise graduate standards and the proposed suspension of the Exit Exam will lead more students to enter the pipeline to prison. This mean our children of color would be no better off than the U.S. Supreme Court declared unanimously in 1954, that education must be provided to all “on equal terms.” Many of these changes are coming about because of lobbyists from the teachers’ Union. This has forced parents into partnership with billionaires who clearly have their own agenda—they would like to privatize public schools. As a parent, I disagree at first with parents trigger laws and I refused to go to see the Waiting for Superman movie. But I recognize that doing nothing isn’t an option and we have waited long enough. We can’t stand on the sideline any longer and be voiceless. We now understand that any real changes must come from the people. No one is going to ride in on a white horse and save our children. This is something we must do for ourselves; we can’t continue to allow our elected officials to sell out our students.

Parents and community members must take back ownership of our school and our community. When districts face important decisions, they always first seek out input/feedback from the trade unions. After they have made the decision, they inform parents about what they did, but they never seek our input. Many times at school sites we as parents have been told that this or that can’t be done because of the teachers’ union contract. When you are handcuffed by a union’s contract it is hard to do good things for betterment of students. Parents and students should be a part of he negotiation team on the contracts of teachers and others school employees. As a volunteer on several school campuses, I have seen that parents and principals are limited on they can do without checking with teacher union, because no one want to violate the contract and teachers rights. No one group should have that kind of control to stop progress. In the teacher contract there is not one word about children; it only speak about adult issues.

When I speak of teachers, I do not mean to make a blanket statement about all teachers. But too many teachers are too busy fighting NCLB and now the Common Core Standards instead of trying to implement new strategies. It would be awesome to see how it would play out if they used the same energy that they use to fight against these new laws to improve learning for our children. Teachers have become too comfortable and aren’t open for anything outside their comfort zone. We tell our student to be life learners; somewhere along the journey we forgot to remind teachers about being life learners. If we are going to improve and equal the playing field for all students, we must change our mindset about one fixed model of learning that addresses all students learning styles.

NCLB, had its problems but it did some things right. It called for parents to be an equal partner in their children’s education. Yet parents and community members in my community are being pushed out of decision making and not being treated with full regard. When we go to our neighborhood schools, we too rarely encounter a respectful and welcoming climate and a culturally sensitive and friendly staff.

It impossible to teach a child if you don’t see any value in their culture or background. Through my life experience working and volunteering on school campuses for the last 30 years, I have come to believe that inner city schools are designed for failure. The state makes more money available for failing schools than school that are successful in performance. There’re no incentives to improve schools; the more you fail students, the more money you get.

Another source of inequality is that teachers receive tenure after only two years. We all know that research states it take three to five years to develop quality teachers. There is no way that teachers with two years of experience should be labeled as an expert. They would not be seen as such in any professional field. The laws should require fives years of experience prior to tenure. Parents and community members should be a part of the tenure process. Their input, on topics such as how teachers outreach to parents for involvement, should be solicited through survey or interview.

This paper only addresses a small portion of the barriers and challenges of why school quality matters in communities of color. As if those barriers and challenges were not enough, we now have added Common Core Standards into the mix. In our community for the last 10 years we have built many new schools. The majority of our new schools weren’t wired for the internet, plus you have many older schools that still have to be rewired. This means schools in my community will be playing behind the 8 ball. Our schools will be playing catch up from the start. For example this last year our schools had a disastrous experience in their first attempt at computer-based standardized testing for the Common Core. We didn’t have enough computers or WIFI access. Many of our elementary and secondary students didn’t have any knowledge of simply keyboarding skills. The truth is that government should have rolled back the implementation date for another two years 2017 until school districts were equipped to move forward. This proved that our elected officials and researchers don’t know the reality of our communities and school. The real peoples that lived in those communities and the real children that attend those struggling schools are the true experts on what is needed to improve school quality but they are never invited to the table to share the solution. The truth is that we acknowledge that our schools in inner cities are at best dysfunctional.

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