Michael K. Frisby
NEW ORLEANS – Declaring that America’s schools “are still in trouble,” NBC News Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis moderated an education session at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing conference last week that discussed the barriers that many vulnerable children face in public schools across the country.
“America’s schools are still in trouble, especially some of our schools that are in communities where the children are mostly children of color,” Ellis said. “It’s a fascinating and complexing and disturbing truth to me, considering that there was an effort to change this and that was even longer ago than the statement written by the Commission on Education some 30 years ago.”
Amy Wilkins, vice president of government affairs and communications at Education Trust, provided data documenting that white children consistently outperform African American and Latino children. “What we see by the end of high school is that African American and Latino twelfth graders have about the same math and reading skills as white eighth graders,” she said. “Our African American and Latino kids who are launching themselves into adulthood are doing academic skills at the same level as white middle-schoolers.”
Wilkins added that by age 29, whites are two to three times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than African Americans. “A poor kid is ten times less likely than the most affluent kids in our country to have a B.A. by the time they’re 24,” she said, citing the differences in education levels for whites and minorities.
Panelist Lisa Delpit, author and executive director with the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida International University, addressed how persistent racism results in such staggering statistics. She said harsh racial stereotypes develop negative messages, which affect both students and teachers. She described two consequences of racism. “The first is that teachers believe that students of color can’t learn and they adjust their instruction accordingly…The second consequence of the racism smog in our country is that the students believe that they can’t learn.”
She maintained that when students believe they can’t learn they have two responses.
“The first is to hide out, and those are the students who have their heads on the desk and the hoods over their heads, trying to look invisible,” she said. “The second is to act out and those are the students who try to keep anything from going on that will prove to them that they are less capable. So they keep lessons from happening. Then, teachers usually misinterpret both of those responses, usually inferring that the students are incapable, unmotivated, uninterested or (suffer from a) behavior disorder.”
Edward Fergus, deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and New York University, also cited a tendency by teachers to racial stereotype. In one survey, teachers felt very confident about their ability to reach students who have the most difficulties learning. However, when asked their expectations for how far academically they expect low-performing children might go, they responded they do not see them going as far as high school.
Teacher preparation was a key discussion point, with panelists recommending student teachers be exposed to more diverse communities to dispel racial stereotypes. Panelists also discussed the need to raise student expectations. Delpit suggested enrolling students in a more rigorous curriculum to combat the “anemic curriculum” currently given to children of color. And it was noted that minority students are often taught by inexperienced teachers, a trend that needs to be addressed with a cultural shift that values teachers who instruct in low-income and minority schools.
While noting that education data is sometimes contentious, the panelists agreed data is critical for progress within schools.
“That data from those [standardized] tests, while not perfect, is the only evidence we have to push back a bit against school systems where they say, no, your kids are doing just fine; they’re doing just fine.” Wilkins said, “We need those tests. We can have a different conversation about tests with stakes for students. But we need to have assessments that have stakes for the adults who are running these systems.”
America Healing is WKKF’s long-term effort to heal racial divisions by supporting dialogue, thoughtful research, and systemic policy change in local communities where inequities in health, education and financial security are limiting opportunities for children. Nearly 500 community-based organizations, civil rights groups, academics and members of the media took part in the four-day long meeting in New Orleans.
For more information about America Healing, visit www.AmericaHealing.org.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create the conditions where vulnerable children can realize their full potential in school, work and life.
The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Mich., and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti.
New Orleans was chosen as the site of this second annual grantee meeting because the foundation considers New Orleans a priority place for investments and has several grantees in the city involved in the conference.