The purpose of this paper is to outline specific action steps needed to bring about improvement in the quality of education in this nation's public schools. Particular areas targeted are: a) the improvement of learning as evidenced by higher grades, increased enrollment in core classes, and higher test scores, b) improvement in the preparation of teachers as evidenced by an increase in the number of teachers satisfying credentialing requirements, including the passage of qualifying exams, and c) the redefining of education as a family, community and cultural endeavor.
The fact that public education in the United States is in a state of crisis need not be reiterated. It is well known that American middle school and high school students in private and public schools lag behind Asian and European students in Mathematics, Sciences and Languages. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, along with the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 2002, attempted to address the weaknesses in our system by enacting a blend of new requirements, incentives and resources, designed to improve education by holding State Departments of Education and local School Boards accountable for the achievement of their respective students. Because they were not accompanied by adequate monetary or bureaucratic resources, these regulations posed significant challenges for states, and to date have not been fully implemented (Darling-Hammond, 2007).
For example, the new laws established deadlines for states to expand the scope and frequency of student testing, revamp their accountability systems, and guarantee that every teacher is qualified in their subject area. NCLB required states to make demonstrable annual progress in raising the percentage of students proficient in reading and math, and in narrowing the test-score gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. At the same time, the new laws increased funding in several areas, including K-3 reading programs and before-and after-school programs, and provided states with greater flexibility to use federal funds as they see fit. To date, many of the provisions of NCLB have not been enacted. States and school districts were resistant to some of the provisions. They complained that federal funds needed to implement certain programs were not received. Teachers' unions were powerful forces in the prevention of the purging of incompetent teachers. In 2006 no state had met the requirement of a qualified, credentialed teacher in each classroom (Tate, 2008).
This paper sets forth an agenda which will allow us to move forward in improving the overall status of education.
The Achievement Gap discernible between White and non-white students, socio-economic groups, and urban and suburban schools must be closed and eventually eliminated in the public school system. Research shows that non-White students are not innately less intelligent or less capable of comprehending, learning and demonstrating analytical and/or verbal skills and information learned in the classroom. Rather, other (environmental) factors have been identified that contribute to this gap and should be corrected. Lower achievement by minority students is felt by some to be indicative of the curriculum and instruction that these students receive (C. Johnson, 2005, Lee, 2002). Data collected on instructional practices indicate differences between how minority and White students are taught. The NAEP data suggest that many minority students are not experiencing instructional practices consistent with the recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Ferguson (1998) found that the effects of differences in teacher's expectation and instructional practices are cumulative from Kindergarten through high school. Other researchers have isolated such factors as teacher quality, meaning the possession of pedagogical knowledge as well as knowledge in a particular field of study (L. Hammonds, 2003). Many researchers have linked students' race to teacher quality and teacher expectations (J. Wirt, 2004). Rosalyn Mickelson directs the reader to consider racial discrimination, when evaluating racial disparities in education (Mickelson, 2003). Another area of research points to a connection between Black identity and low mathematics achievement among middle school students. In her recent book, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Masculinity (2000), Ann Ferguson equates the concept of discipline with power in the school system. The disciplinary techniques allow teachers to label students as "good," "bad," "troubled," "underachievers," etc. Students internalize these labels which become self-regulating. The allocation of rewards and punishments are the most powerful instruments of this disciplinary power which allow the system to label, and therefore exclude, penalize, rank and control the destiny of students within the school system (Ferguson, 2000 p. 52). The heart of the book validates the presence of institutional racism and its devastating impact on the lives of young Black males who show up at school day after day expecting to be educated, but are rejected by the system. The author argues that young black males distance themselves from mainstream academic goals because pursuing these goals compromise their sense of Blackness. In a related study Oyserman et al (2001) explore the relationship between racial identity and academic efficacy in young African Americans. Efficacy is defined as the motivational force bolstering persistence, effort, and other active coping strategies that lead to better grades, higher self-esteem, and feelings of competence in young African Americans. Racial identity in this study is associated with in group identification, that is, identification with the African American or Black race and solidarity with other Blacks, awareness of negative out group perceptions and stereotypes, and acceptance of academic achievement as a positive aspect of being Black. The purpose of this article was to explore the relationship between racial identity and academic efficacy in young African Americans. This study showed that racial identity added significantly to the prediction of academic efficacy in girls and boys. Specifically, the study showed that viewing achievement as part of one's Black identity increased academic efficacy for both boys and girls. Awareness of racism also appeared to be a predictor of academic efficacy for boys, but not for girls. Boys and girls who were high in the awareness of racism, but low in the support of the achievement connection to Black identity showed the largest decline in academic efficacy.
Because of the importance of having a qualified teacher in each classroom, it is recommended that this become a priority for every school district. This goal should also be addressed by colleges of education that train teachers. Colleges should recruit and train creative teachers-teachers who understand the phenomenon of culture, ethnicity, and group identification, and can make the appropriate applications in the classroom(R. Leikin, 2009). Scholarship funds should be made available to teachers willing to take assignments in high-risk school districts where the largest numbers of minority and disadvantaged students reside. Grant funds should be made available for scholarly research that will advise schools in the preparation of these "excellent teachers."Teachers must agree to live in the districts they are assigned to teach. Pilot programs should be initiated which give innovative teachers the opportunity to try new things in the classroom and document outcomes (Lewis, 2006). Programs that organize groups of students around academic and /or social pursuits have been shown to promote racial pride, and foster achievement, and should be supported by school administrations and viewed on the same level as sports or fine arts programs (McIntosh, 1999). Equipment and facilities must be updated to provide access to the same quality of amenities and resources found in affluent school districts.
Standards of Excellence must be adopted and applied on all levels and facets of education. All individuals who are employed by the school district should be well qualified and exemplify the highest academic standards as well as moral and ethical standard as set by the community. Similar to the corporate infusion of quality standards throughout the corporation, school administrators must see themselves as leading a charge toward excellence which requires everyone to act at all times in the pursuit of those goals. One researcher points out that schools circumvent standards of excellence by creating special "watered down" mathematics classes, eliminating certain mathematics classes from graduation requirements, and ability grouping. These strategies are used by schools to avoid making a conscientious effort to educate low achieving minority students. The combination of low teacher expectations and minimum opportunities to learn mathematics create ideal conditions for their underachievement in mathematics (Glevey 2009).
The behaviors, attitudes, and relationships among all personnel with students, parents, and the community are critical to the success of the school (LeCompte, 1999). Partnerships must be developed with other institutions within society where education acts as an equal partner in the development of communities, cities and states. Public Education needs to position itself so that no vital interest functions optimally without its influence and input. Links must be forged with Higher education, Business, Religion, Government, Law Enforcement, and Social and Humanitarian Services creating co dependencies that create support for Public Education programs and improve the status and prestige of education and educators in the community. Carol Livingston, a professor at the University of Alabama theorizes that the difference in the learning success and achievement among groups of students can be understood by examining such concepts as pedagogical and cultural capital. Cultural capital refers to the collective beliefs and values held by a group of people and support for their culture, history, and way of life. Through cultural capital families instill within children pride in who they are, and knowledge of their historical achievements and accomplishments. This results in children having pride in themselves as a member of their group, and faith in their own ability to overcome obstacles and achieve success.
DeMarrais and LeCompte (1999) present an excellent overview of the public education system in America. American ambivalence toward education is exposed, along with the price we as a nation have paid for not caring and not investing as much in our schools as we have in other areas. These authors challenge all Americans to think about the public schools and decide if we are really prepared to abandon them as if they were someone else's problem. Paulo Friero (2000) presents an interesting scenario where the minorities, poor and disadvantaged have unwittingly become the new oppressed or enslaved in American society due to their lack of knowledge. The oppressors use the educational system to rate and label the usefulness of individuals to society. Courses in mathematics, and sciences are reserved for those individuals with high ability or potential. These individuals have access to higher education, technological jobs, and positions of authority in all phases of life. Last, Angela Valenzuela presents the case of Spanish speaking students who migrated primarily from Mexico, but other Latin American countries, also. The author points out that ethnic groups have certain characteristics and values that make lumping them together with all other groups a recipe for disaster. They are not only separated by language, but also by history and culture that calls out for acknowledgment and respect for who they are. Schools must establish a threshold of democracy and equal opportunity, yet also respect and allow for differences in racial and ethnic groups.
As a 29 year old Black male, I am well aware of the problems faced by poor urban school districts. I attended urban elementary and high schools, and every day I had to make decisions--Do I go to class or hang out with my boys? Do I turn in my homework or pretend that I did not do it to be like my peers? Do I sit in the front so I can hear the teacher, or sit in the back and chill with the popular kids? The question of racial identity is an important one and needs to be addressed by the African American community, and the public school system. I agree that more African American teachers are needed as classroom teachers and role models. Although I attended an urban elementary school which was 90% Black and Hispanic, the faculty was 90% White. Most teachers did not live in the community and I felt my teachers had no interest in me as an individual. The turning point came for me in middle school when I began attending the Center for the Arts and Sciences (CAS), a program for gifted students. There I identified with other Black students who were already planning for college, and had other interests such as science fairs, math competitions, and music. My parents were both college graduates and constantly reminded me of the benefits of education versus a life of crime and poverty. These authors certainly give us something to think about. I just wonder, will anything change?