The best known statement in the US. Declaration of Independence is “that all men are created equal.” While figuratively accurate, if taken literally and applied to all children entering the first grade across Alabama in a few weeks, nothing could be farther from the truth.
There will be vast differences. Some come from homes where books are plentiful and parents read bedtime stories. Others from homes where books are non-existent and a television set is the primary caregiver. Some come from situations where chaos and violence are the norm and trips to the dentist unknown. Others have been nurtured from birth by doting mamas and daddies and grandparents. If the first grade was a 100-yard dash, some would be at the starting line while many would line up 50 yards behind them.
While every educator knows poverty is the greatest indicator of a child’s school performance, those intent on driving education policy in Alabama are either oblivious to the fact, or just too hard-headed to acknowledge it. We acknowledge differences in high school sports. This is why there are seven different classifications of schools. Small schools are not asked to compete with large schools because they are not comparable. But the common sense used in sports is thrown aside when non-educators dictate school policy.
A great example is the Alabama Accountability Act. What perhaps looked workable on paper was totally unworkable when transferred to the real world.
Why didn’t those who voted in favor of the AAA know this? Because we had legislators making rules for a world they don’t understand.
There are 60 schools on the state’s list of “failing schools.” These include schools in 19 county systems and 11 city systems. It is not a surprise that 13 of these systems are in the Black Belt. Collectively these 60 schools are 91.3 percent poverty and 87.3 percent black.
But when you look at demographic data of the 22 districts of senators who voted for the accountability act in 2013, you get a totally different picture. Collectively these districts were only 14.4 percent black in 2013. (Reappointment changed all legislative seats for the 2014 election. However, the data used for this example is from pre-2014.) Eleven of the 22 votes came from districts with 10 percent or less black population. Not a single black legislator voted for the accountability act.
Supporters of the law said it would aid students in failing schools by helping them move to better schools. Apparently they know little about places such as Louisville, Eutaw, Dixons Mill, Greensboro, Panola, York, Hayneville, Camden, McIntosh and Notasulga where lack of optional schools and transportation make the accountability act just words on a piece of paper. A fairy tale like The Wizard of Oz or Jack and the Beanstalk.
Of course, some will quickly say that I am injecting race and economic status where it does not need to be. That is nonsense and only shows the depth of their lack of understanding reality and how badly they have been brainwashed by “experts” who don’t live in Alabama.
Dr. Caleb Rossiter is a university professor in Washington, DC. He is white and middle class. Wondering why he seldom saw students at his university from inner city Washington, he taught math in high poverty high schools in the district for nearly four years. He details his journey in his book Ain’t Nobody Be Learning’ Nothin.’ It is a fascinating, eye-opening and jolting read and peels back the layers of a culture that legislators representing largely white constituents do not relate to.
Here are points he makes:
When sharp, well-prepared, highly-motivated, well-behaved students walk in your door it’s easy to look like a genius as you engage their attention and help them score at and above grade level; when damaged, weak, alienated, unmotivated and poorly-behaved students come in, Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles couldn’t move them to grade level with a bulldozer.
(It is) a pretense that the challenges facing high-poverty segregated schools are the same as those facing middle-class schools.
The black poor live in a separate culture with its own rituals and standard ways, one that stands quite apart from the middle class mainstream.
School reformers insist that everyone can succeed with a college prep curriculum, and then go to and succeed in college, “regardless of zip code.” But it just ain’t true, and pretending that the culture and reality of black poverty is irrelevant to success is a guarantee for failure.
When we pretend that our high-poverty and our middle class schools are essentially the same and can be successful with the same curriculum and expectations, we are setting our poor kids up for failure.
Poor families have been the focus on a 30-year experiment of repairing the bridge to the middle class with a package of “reforms” in public and charter schools, including teaching to grade level tests regardless of students’ skill levels, insistence on a packaged college prep curriculum for all students, and most of all test-based “accountability,” in which teachers, and administrators are punished for the well-documented fact that being poor, black, or Hispanic correlates strongly on average with weaker performance in class and on standardized tests. These reforms came with the best intention to produce better teaching and, as a result, better learning, but the experiment has failed spectacularly.
I have been in countless high-poverty schools from one end of Alabama to the other. I spent the day as a classroom aide in one of them. Principals have quietly shared stories about students and their challenges. I raised money for one school to install a shower because the principal told me that many of her kids come from homes where the water has been turned off
I have no reason to doubt any of Dr. Rossiter’s observations. Nor do I doubt that we can’t make steady improvements in high-poverty situations. I’ve seen this too. But we never will so long as politicians are more intent on proving they have power than making progress. Refusing to negotiate with fellow legislators and turning your back on Alabama educators is not leadership. The attitude of “I have the votes and I’ll do what I damn well please” is not public service.
Five of the 22 Republican senators who voted for the accountability act in 2013 did not vote for the amendment to it in 2015. I salute them. They give us all hope.