Cover Story

How to bridge the educational divide: by Herb Lusk

It all begins with motivated, inspired students. Schools in urban America can look to their own past for examples of how to do it right ...

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

Education is the single most important issue facing urban America. Much talk centers on the "digital divide," but we must first deal with the educational divide. The lack of access to quality education for all has helped produce poverty with all its trappings, including crime and drug abuse. The link is undeniable; seven of 10 prison inmates are functionally illiterate, according to a recent National Adult Literacy Survey. Clearly, tough decisions have to be made. The present system of social promotions, based on quantity of age rather than the quality of knowledge, shortchanges our children. For years I have seen full-grown men and women with high-school diplomas who needed someone to help them to fill out simple applications. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, nearly 70 percent of fourth-graders in poor inner-city schools cannot read at grade level. Stephen Sample of the University of Southern California observed that "the United States, the country with the best universities in the world, has among the worst elementary and secondary schools." This is an American tragedy. Earlier this year I spoke with a first-year teacher who was bubbling over with enthusiasm. I spoke with her again some months later; her excitement had been replaced by frustration. She had discovered that half of her fifth-grade class was reading at a second-grade level. She looked at me with helplessness in her eyes. Someone must find the courage to make the tough decisions to stop this madness. If we fail to do so, not only will our children continue to be victimized, but also there will be a great exodus of brilliant teachers from our school systems. Right away, we can take these steps: Reward good teachers. Hold parents accountable for their children's behavior. Hold teachers accountable for the academic performance of their students. Change the way we handle discipline, and institute a uniform code of conduct and consistently enforce it. Another promising young teacher told me of an embarrassing incident that took place between a sixth-grade student and his teacher. The student verbally assaulted the teacher with words so vulgar and caustic that the teacher's only response was tears. The next day the child was right back in school. This kind of behavior not only dishonors and disrespects the teacher; it also disrupts the classroom. And it must not be tolerated. Many people point to the lack of classroom space, too many students in a class, or lack of funding as the biggest problems in education. But history shows otherwise. Many older black Americans can remember when nearly all black schools were incubators for educational excellence-even though their books, facilities, and supplies were hand-me-downs, far inferior to those used by others. I'm talking about schools like Williston High School in Wilmington, N.C., once known as the "greatest school under the sun." I'm talking about schools like Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., an educational gem from 1870 to 1955. During Dunbar's academic peak, when college attendance was the exception rather than the rule for all Americans, three-quarters of Dunbar's graduates went on to college. The difference between then and now is that the students were inspired; they had confidence that they could do anything, in spite of everything. School, home, and church wove a circle of familiarity around these children, and these institutions played a cooperative, organized role in influencing the behavior and achievements of the young. As I see it, this makes an interesting argument for charter schools and some sort of voucher program. Most of us would agree that these are not the final solution to urban school problems. But I believe these at least would give families some viable options. We know that when inner-city children graduate from high school, many of them are functionally illiterate. Is it not cruel to condemn their younger siblings to the same fate? These families want choices; study after study has shown that the majority of African-Americans are in favor of vouchers. Some "experts" predict that vouchers will be the destruction of the public school. I refuse to accept that notion. I have much more faith in our public-school system than that. Vouchers will only stimulate and bring out the best in them through much-needed competition. We must raise the standard. We must no longer be willing to settle for mediocrity in the education of our precious youth. The fault lies squarely at our feet because we are no longer demanding and expecting our children to excel, and they are not disappointing us. Americans must no longer sacrifice the future of the children by shoveling them into the blazing incinerators of poorly performing schools. Years ago I played professional football. Anyone who consistently failed to do his job was soon out of a job. Excuses didn't help. Everyone understood this; it wasn't kind, but neither is the marketplace. When our children reach the marketplace, the ones who merely were shuffled through poorly performing schools will be at a real disadvantage. Society will not treat them kindly when they fail to get the job done, and excuses won't help them, either. That's why I am hopeful about Rod Paige, our new secretary of education. He showed during his tenure with the Houston Independent School District that he's willing to think outside the box. For example, he contacted private schools to help with children who were struggling academically, and he developed a system for holding schools accountable for student performance. It was high praise indeed when former Houston ISD board member Don McAdams said Mr. Paige "started Houston ISD on a path of creating a performance culture." Excellence can only be achieved through the rewarding of good teachers, discipline, testing, and returning to the days of commitment, to accountability for all. We must insist on performance and settle on nothing less than excellence. May God help us.

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