Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Learning knows no color - my Times-Union commentary
Four decades after strife and struggle marked race relations in our nation, Florida appears to be taking a step backwards in our work with minority children in the classroom.
In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed Howard University on this very issue, telling Howard University of the perils of freedom when Americans have been playing a catch up game with regard to all Americans having a fair chance to succeed.
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
While I understand the reasons behind the state Board of Education’s directive to set student progress goals by race, I respectfully disagree on the grounds that this new policy directly contradicts the goals that we have planned for real accountability in schools.
All along, teacher and parent organizations chafed at the punitive approach that our state’s leaders have taken with what was supposed to be standardized testing to diagnose the ills that are harming our students. All along, teacher and parent organizations pleaded with the state to take into account the factors that negatively affect our public schools.
Our problem is not racial, our problem is poverty. We miss the point when we believe that an African-American student in a relatively prosperous ZIP code needs to be given a pass in meeting the standards. I would point out that students, regardless of race or ethnic group are struggling because they happen to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Look at the neighborhood schools with high percentages of students who are on free and reduced lunches. The data will point out that failure knows no color. Socioeconomic status is what really dictates how students will perform on standardized tests.
While it is easy for us to change the rubric for student success to yield better numbers, the real work at hand is for us to change the circumstances that hobble our young people.
Regardless of our ideology, we all continue to fight a losing war on poverty that can only be addressed in ensuring that all citizens prosper with better jobs, better wages and better quality of life.
This, of course, is not going to be easy because we have been fighting a recession that seems to be as endless as the number of students who are dropping out of school and being lost to the criminal justice system or the welfare state.
The beginning of the real solutions is for our state’s leadership to finally listen to the people and to finally set aside petty partisan grievances and games to afford all Floridians a chance to work together for better schools that work for all.
The obvious answer, say many, it to divert more public funds to charter, private and parochial schools. This neglects the fact that we still have to operate public schools as our state constitution mandates in accordance with a paramount duty to do right by our students.
We are right to decry efforts to water down standards for minorities for the sake of moving children of color along. We are right to question Affirmative Action programs that ask more from white and Asian children simply because of the color of their skin.
What frustrates me about this issue is that this is a bed that we have made and now we are being forced to sleep in. What frustrates me is that we are tacking the same problems that we were warned about when FCAT turned from a helpful tool to a cudgel with which to assault educators who toil daily to meet the needs of all children.
The right thing for us to do now is to stop and repair this dysfunctional system that begins not in the classroom but in the pocketbooks that deprive many of our young people of an equal chance to succeed and in the economic policy that can put more people to work.
John Louis Meeks, Jr. currently resides in Jacksonville, Florida where he teaches social studies at Mayport Middle School. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of North Florida and a veteran of the United States Air Force.