Thursday, April 13, 2006

Oprah on Schools in Crisis

Oprah Winfrey had a two-day special report on Schools in Crisis this week, in connection with Time magazine. Bill Gates used the word obsolete to describe public schools in the United States, and said he was "terrified" at the implications of the dismal state of the American education system. You should be concerned, too.

Read more...The United States has fallen from #1 in mathematics to #24. So what? Who needs math? You don't need math if you're frying burgers at McDonald's, but you certainly do need math if you want to work with computers or biotechnology or most of the other high-tech "good jobs" of the 21st century. You also need to be able to read, you need to be able to communicate your ideas in both spoken and written language, and you need a solid background in science. You need to have a solid grounding in those subjects in order to study them in college and get a four-year degree, which is ever more pointedly the dividing line between the people who make a good living and the people who eke out a minimum-wage subsistence living. That's not to say that every single person who doesn't graduate college is condemned to a life of poverty and misery, but it certainly does increase the risk dramatically. If you don't have a college degree, and most especially if you don't even have a high-school diploma, you'd better have some real skill at something or you'll be left with menial labor. There aren't nearly enough winning lottery tickets to cover all the high-school dropouts.

Another important point is that the expectations that our society has of our public schools and of our public-school students have dropped precipitously in recent years. We take it as normal that even many high-school graduates can barely read, don't know how to balance a checkbook, can't find the United States on a map of North America, and believe that astrology is a science. We view our public schools as babysitting warehouses in which we house kids until they're old enough to go to prison.

Oprah also had former NBA star Kevin Johnson on the program. K.J. retired from the NBA and returned to his native Sacramento, California, to do something about the schools in his old neighborhood. He formed the Saint Hope Public School System, now encompassing six schools, and has turned around the test scores and the graduation rates and the overall atmosphere of those schools. Here are a few quotes:

I saw the kids of the people I went to school with, who were in jail, on drugs, unemployed, or not living. The cycle was repeating itself. I saw these 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds headed down that same path. I said, I gotta do something. I took a stand for this community and got involved.

There is an educational crisis in America, and we need to start talking about it, and we've got to do something about it. We all have to understand that children's lives are at stake here.

At our school here [Sacramento High School], if a parent does not want their son or daughter to go to college, if they're not willing to do whatever it takes to help their son or daughter get there, this is not the school for you, this is not the choice for you.

If we don't take care of this issue in terms of education in a real way, it will not only impact those kids, it will come to a community near you very quickly. That outrage, that frustration, it boils over. So what happens? We all know the story: your crime rate goes up, your unemployment goes up, your dropout goes up. ... We have a responsibility in our country to make sure our kids not just graduate — that's the first step — we need to prepare our kids for college, for work, and beyond.

We have to have high expectations for every kid. We have to believe that every kid can reach their potential. Is it too much to ask that a kid be reading and doing math at grade level? That's not too much to ask. We've got to raise that bar. There's a direct correlation between parents' involvement and student achievement.

— Kevin Johnson on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 2006-04-12
None of that should be news to anyone, but the issue so often gets swept under the rug. We take it for granted that a huge swath of our young people will never rise above perhaps being the assistant manager at the McDonald's, if they can manage to stay off drugs and out of prison. We don't expect kids to be able to read, write, and think.

The state of Indiana just passed a law that revokes the drivers licenses of students under the age of 18 who drop out, except under specified extenuating circumstances. I agree: there probably aren't three 16-year-old high-school dropouts in America who are capable of earning a living wage to make it on their own. You're just not going to support a decent lifestyle on $5.15/hour. The tradition of letting people drop out at such a young age is an anachronism that we can no longer tolerate.

The issue of immigration ties in, although not in quite the way that Dana Rohrabacher and others believe it does. By allowing our school system to churn out vast numbers of kids who are not equipped for anything but menial labor, we are going to solve the shortage of Americans willing to do the jobs at the bottom of the pyramid. If we want to have anything like full employment for these American kids, we will need to seal our borders with a mile-high electric fence and then embark on massive "public works" projects to move this pile of dirt over into that ditch, and then move it back again. It's basically the kind of thing we might have them do in prison if they were sentenced to hard labor, only it costs less to pay them minimum wage than to lock them up when they're not working.

I am a product of the public schools, but I graduated in an upper-middle-class suburb of Dallas. In fact, my high school alone had more National Merit Semi-finalists than the entire Dallas Independent School District. The headquarters of Texas Instruments was located near our high school, so we had lots of engineers and techie types among the parents, and there was a serious emphasis on college preparation. My senior year, I took advanced placement courses in English, French, European History, Calculus, and Physics, which only left time for one non-A.P. course, Art and Music History. I had friends who were taking courses like Latin, German, Spanish, Chemistry, and Biology, many of them at the A.P. level. More important than the course offerings, though, was the expectation on the part of the parents, the teachers, the staff, and the community as a whole that we were in that school to get an education. 93% of my senior class graduated on schedule, and quite a few others made up in summer school the credits they lacked in the spring. Every school in the United States should have graduation rates rivaling or even surpassing those numbers. Just as we have to believe that every kid can reach their potential, we also have to believe that every school can reach its potential.

[Aside to the language purists: yes, I said, "every kid can reach their potential," which I, too, was taught is incorrect English grammar. However, the usage is ubiquitous to the point that it is empty pedantry to fight it. Besides, there is no acceptable gender-neutral third-person pronoun; just as ye/you expanded from being second-person plural to encompass the second-person singular, so they has expanded to encompass third-person singular of unspecified gender.]

If we leave these children behind, the damage ripples outward into the entire community and the entire nation. Not only will unemployment and crime increase, but America's economic competitiveness will suffer, which will bring an end to America's status as a superpower. The United States will not keep its edge in innovation and technology without a well-educated labor pool. The tremendous success of Ireland in the last 25 years is a mirror image of the decline America is poised to take in the next 25: with a well-educated workforce, Ireland has turned its economy around to the point that for the first time in a century and a half there is net migration from Britain and America to Ireland of people seeking a land of opportunity. If we continue to let our schools decay and turn out dead-eyed illiterates who have had so little expected of them that they believe they are incapable of anything better, then maybe in 50 years our grandchildren will be worried about the flow of illegal immigrants from the U.S. into Mexico.

Anderson Cooper visited an innovative school in Washington, D.C., called the KIPP Academy. (KIPP is an acronym for Knowledge Is Power Program.) The commitment of the teachers at KIPP can be summed up in one simple statement: the kids have their teacher's cellphone number. That's a level of involvement you don't often see in the teaching profession, because teaching has dropped markedly in status as a profession, leading to increasing difficulty in attracting and retaining qualified, dedicated teachers. Yes, there are some excellent teachers out there. I still remember some of mine: J.T. Sutcliffe, James Temme, and Pam Moore, just to name three. I'm sure that there are equally outstanding teachers out there today, but I'm also sure that they are too much the exception rather than the rule. KIPP puts a particular emphasis on setting facts and figures to sing-along call and response; their "three R's" are repetition, rhythm, and rap. One example: to a nursery-rhyme tune, "Six, twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, thirty, thirty-six..." The kids spend 10 hours a day at school, plus a minimum of three hours of homework, plus a half day on Saturday, plus mandatory summer school. I'm not sure that leaves enough time for kids to be kids, but there's no question that it produces results. The kids don't forget everything they ever knew over a long summer vacation, and they are steeped in learning all day long, 5½ days a week.

As I say, I don't think that the KIPP model is right for every school, but it does demonstrate that it is possible to engage the children in the process of learning, and to push them to meet the high expectations that are set for them without grinding down their self-esteem. One of KIPP's mottos is, "Work Hard. Be Nice."

Another quick Oprah factoid for you: A high-school dropout is eight times more likely to land in jail or prison than a high-school graduate. Four out of five prisoners are dropouts. Here in California, we spend more than $34,000 per year per prisoner, and yet the state is pushing to build more prisons even while trying to cut spending for education. Which has "more bang for the buck," a prison which trains people to be better criminals, or a school which trains people to be better citizens, better workers, and better taxpayers?

Sure, there are problems with the schools that will not be fixed just by throwing money at them, but those problems are not going to be fixed without throwing some more money to education. Here in California, Prop 13 is directly responsible for the strangulation of the public school system. Since the passage of Prop 13, California's schools have dropped from being the envy of the nation to being down in the gutter with states like Mississippi. We don't need for every school to be a KIPP Academy, but we do need to have school buildings that aren't falling apart, equipment that is relevant and useful in teaching the knowledge and skills today's students will need to enter the workforce, and teachers who are both capable and dedicated to their mission, and all of those elements require money. Our short-sighted insistence on keeping taxes down puts us in danger of losing our economic vitality. If we raise taxes to pay for schools, and make sure that the money is well spent, then companies will flock to California in search of smart workers who can provide innovation and productivity. We might even be able to scale back our plans to build prisons to lock up even more than the 160,000 or so people currently in our state correctional system — up from fewer than 25,000 a quarter century ago. Nationally, our prison population has tripled in those same 25 years.

Oprah also accompanied Bill and Melinda Gates to a couple of exemplary high schools. The unifying theme was what Melinda Gates called her 3 R's: rigor, relationships, and relevance. Rigor is fairly self-explanatory: in order to get students to achieve, you have to give them the tools to succeed, expect them to succeed, help them succeed, and make sure that they actually have succeeded. Relationships means that each student has a meaningful connection with at least one adult in the school, someone who will take an active interest in the student's success. Relevance means that the material being taught must be connected to the children's lives. That doesn't mean that you only teach them about video games and popular music, it means that you show them how trigonometry and literature and biology and history connect with the reality of being a teenager. The Gates stress smaller schools, although I would say that it can be a two-edged sword. For example, in my school with over 900 students per grade level, we only barely managed to have enough to have an A.P. physics class. If you had cut our school in half, we probably would've had to jettison Latin and maybe German completely, along with Art & Music History, World Literature, jazz band, and several other courses. It is more difficult to have a connection between students and teachers in a large school, but it isn't impossible.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Kevin Johnson are part of a new effort called the Stand Up campaign. Oprah also has resources on her web site,
I believe that education is freedom. And if it is freedom, indeed, then we are literally imprisoning America's future. — Oprah Winfrey
Education is freedom, education is power, education is security, and education is wealth. The education of our children is an important measure of the future success of our society. Furthermore, education needs to be unconstrained by political and religious dictates. "Intelligent Design" is not science, and it must not be taught in a science class. Evolution is science, and it must be taught in biology classes. That distinction is critical if we are to stay at the forefront of biotechnology and medicine. The fight to keep the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance is a distraction from the central mission of our schools, which is not to teach the children to pray to the Christian God, but to teach the children the skills they need to go out into the world and make a decent living. We also have to address as a nation the inequity of allowing well-off communities to have good schools while poorer communities have disgracefully dilapidated, overcrowded, understaffed, dangerous schools — perpetuating the economic divide that stands as an enduring counterpoint to America's professed values of equality, fairness, and opportunity for all.

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