Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Educating Minorities (and Others)

Yesterday I outlined what I think every student in this country should learn. That included things like the ability to care for themselves, how to vote wisely and otherwise participate in their government, how to function in an increasingly scientific and technical society, and how to communicate effectively.

“But wait,” you say.” “How in the world are you going to teach all that to inner city kids? Don't they have a hard time learning?” My answer is that we should teach the same way in the inner cities as we do in the suburbs. Let me correct that, we should teach the same way in the inner cities that we should teach in the suburbs. Sadly very few school districts anywhere really concentrate on getting students to learn the important things. They spend effort on self-esteem, sports, finding excuses why some students cannot learn etc. They do not emphasize needed skills nearly enough. I've worked with high school graduates who could not divide 5 by 7, even with the aid of a calculator – and those employees were the product of supposedly good schools.

So what should we do? Again it starts with attention to the goals, avoiding confusion of means and ends. As parents and citizens we must insist that schools concentrate on teaching the important things. Further we must insist that they actually teach – and that they expect students to learn.

So how do we improve education, not only among minorities but everywhere? I think Thomas Sowell has it right in his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The fifth chapter, “Black Education, Achievements, Myths and Tragedies” explodes many myths surrounding inner city education and points the way to better results. Though the book concentrates on minorities and the poor, the concepts apply to all students.

As Sowell shows, successful Black and inner city schools do not all follow the same formula. However they all have some things in common: discipline, high expectations, and a no excuses attitude. Students are expected to behave themselves and to learn. In one successful school students are greeted each day with a list of logic, math, and word problems to work on during odd moments. They are expected to learn, not spend their time comparing clothes or planning parties. Successful schools have the belief that school is a place for learning, not a social gathering.

Discipline, high expectations, and a no excuses attitude. Those things work – though the education establishment has largely rejected them.

I should also point out that successful schools are often not particularly well funded. Clearly a minimum of funding is needed, but the standard political “solution” of throwing money at the problem tends to create more levels of administration to interfere with real learning. Often those administrators spend their time chasing grants for various forms of “disadvantaged” students and helping those students make excuses.

And of course schools should concentrate on what works, not unsupported theory. As Sowell points out, there is often a disconnect between theory and empirical fact. For example one mostly Black and poor school in California had a high success rate, beyond that achieved by more affluent schools. What was the result? The principal was nearly fired. Her crime was the use of phonics instead of the state-preferred whole language program. Only a parental revolt saved her job. The state authorities and the school board wanted to force their way on that school, regardless of outcome. That could have happened with any school, Black, White or mixed. The political emphasis was on the means, not the ends.

The other important change needed in education is one of attitude. Schools must teach students to function in our society. That means they must learn things like correct English, not “Ebonics” or some other substitute. If those students are to succeed they must be able to communicate in the standard language of the country. Too often, as Sowell says, “Today the culture that is celebrated in much of the media and in the schools is not the culture that has succeeded, but the culture that has failed.”

That must change. Students must understand that a solid education is not “acting white.” Many slaves took great risks to get an education, and some white teachers took risks to teach them. Their descendants face no such obstacles and should make learning a priority. We should emphasize the stories of those who risked so much to get an education. I can't help but think that that would inspire many young Blacks today to take advantage of their opportunities.

Of course we should also learn from the most effective teachers. You might think of one of the best teachers you ever had. How did he make a difference in your life? Almost certainly it was not his teaching methods. Teaching techniques are often useful but insufficient by themselves. Probably what you remember about that teacher is enthusiasm for the subject and love of the students. Such enthusiasm can fire a class with excitement and turn learning from drudgery to an enjoyable challenge.

Sadly most of our education system refuses to reward the best teachers. The drudge who just puts in time will be paid the same as the superteacher who fires a class with desire to learn and who helps them learn well. Worse, even a great teacher or principal may be disciplined for failure to follow “approved” methods even if the teacher’s method works better. In such an atmosphere even the best teachers tend to burn out.

Children can and should be educated in all the areas I've outlined. Unfortunately we cannot leave this to the “education” establishment. School administrators are often more concerned with new buildings, political correctness and their next promotion than with what students learn. Improvement will not happen unless parents and voters insist on goal-oriented learning, with teaching based on sound, empirically proven methods. Excuses must not be tolerated. Discipline must be enforced. Students must be expected to learn. That is true in the inner cities, it is true in the suburbs, and it is true everywhere else.

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