Tuesday, November 14, 2006

School realities ignored by political candidates/consultants

Bill Moyers
This I do know: We should be honest about what we mean by “urban education.”
We are talking about the poorest and most vulnerable children in America – kids for
whom “at risk” has come to describe their fate and not simply their circumstances.

Their education should be the centerpiece of a great and diverse America made
stronger by equality and shared prosperity. It has instead become the epitome of public
neglect, perpetuated by a class divide so permeated by race that it mocks the bedrock
principles of the American Promise.

It has been said that the mark of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by
statistics. If so, America’s governing class should be knocked off their feet by the fact
that more than 70% of black children are now attending schools that are overwhelmingly
non-white. In 1980 that figure was 63%. Latino students are even more isolated. Brown
v. Board’s “all deliberate” speed of 1954 has become slow motion in reverse. In Richard
Kahlenberg’s words, “With the law in retreat, geography takes command.”

Not just the kids suffer. A nation that devalues poor children also demeans their
teachers. For the life of me I cannot fathom why we expect so much from teachers and
provide them so little in return. In 1940, the average pay of a male teacher was actually
3.6% more than what other college-educated men earned. Today it is 60% lower.
Women teachers now earn 16% less than other college-educated women. This bewilders
me. Children aren’t born lawyers, corporate executives, engineers, and doctors. Their
achievements bear the imprint of their teachers. There was no Plato without Socrates,
and no John Coltrane without Miles Davis. Is there anyone here whose path was not
marked by the inspiration of some teacher? Mary Sullivan, Bessie Bryant, Miss White,
the Brotze sisters, Inez Hughes – I cannot imagine my life without them. Their
classrooms were my world, and each one of them kept enlarging it.

Yet teachers now are expected to staff the permanent emergency rooms of our
country’s dysfunctional social order. They are expected to compensate for what families,
communities, and culture fail to do. Like our soldiers in Iraq, they are sent into urban
combat zones, on impossible missions, under inhospitable conditions, and then
abandoned by politicians and policy makers who have already cut and run, leaving
teachers on their own.
One morning I opened The New York Times to read that tuition at Manhattan’s
elite private schools had reached $26,000 a year, starting in kindergarten. On that same
page was another story about a school in Mount Vernon, just across the city line from the
Bronx, where 97% of the students are black and 90% of those are so impoverished they
are eligible for free lunches. During Black History month, a six-grader researching
Langston Hughes could not find a single book by Hughes in the library. This wasn’t an
oversight: There were virtually no books relevant to black history in that library. Most of the books on the shelves date back to the l950s and l960s. A child’s primer on work
begins with a youngster learning to be a telegraph delivery boy!

Bill Moyers, president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy,
delivered these remarks in San Diego on October 27, 2006 to the Council of
Great City Schools, an organization of urban public school systems.)

For full remarks see:
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