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They Don't Really Care About Us

If you are like me, your head must be reeling this week, as we hear in the same broadcast about the release of new "high standards" for reading and math, and also news of massive layoffs at schools, that will result in larger class sizes and fewer opportunities for our students. How can we make sense of this paradox, where teachers are expected to continually raise student achievement, while the material conditions that would support success are stripped away?

A recent report revealed that single African American women have a median net worth of just $5. You read that right. Half of this group owes so much that it almost completely outweighs what is owned by those with any assets at all. Single white women in the same age group have a median wealth of $42,600.

Cohabiting or married Black women have a median net worth of $31,500, while cohabiting or married white women have a median wealth of $167,500.

In light of all the rhetoric about the importance of education for people's future well-being, this raises some huge questions for me. Is it possible that people are poor not because of a lack of effort or education, but because our economic and social system has structural poverty embedded in it?

That does NOT mean education is worthless. Somebody with a college education has advantages that someone without such an education does not have. But that advantage seems far less accessible than it was just a generation ago.

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I believe our students are keenly aware of the ravages of poverty and the shrinking opportunities available to them. This is not the fault of their schools, because every school I go into has college posters everywhere, and the teachers are like cheerleaders trying to encourage their students to stay motivated. But the students know.

At the March 4 rally two weeks ago in Oakland I stood with a thousand youth from local high schools as they joined in with a speaker who chanted, "They don't really care about us," repeating a phrase from this Michael Jackson song.

The song says:

Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I'm tired of bein' the victim of shame
They're throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can't believe this is the land from which I came
You know I do really hate to say it
The government don't wanna see
But if Roosevelt was livin'
He wouldn't let this be, no, no

This represents the world view of many of our students, especially African Americans and Latinos.

A couple of weeks ago I heard about a special court program being offered to returned combat veterans who have gotten into scrapes with the law. This court was set up with the understanding that the traumas of war can have a damaging effect on the psyche of the veterans, who return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and sometimes engage in destructive behaviors as a result. The veterans are given treatment options focusing on their mental health, and encouraged to rehabilitate, in recognition of the fact that it was their service to our country that caused them to be damaged in this way. Buffalo, New York, has a similar program.

I am glad there is some recognition in these communities that the traumas of war can result in mental scars that are best healed by good counseling and support, rather than incarceration. But guess what? Children in many of our poor neighborhoods suffer from PTSD as well. In this little-noticed study from a few years ago, researchers discovered that


As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.

The researchers found that children with PTSD exhibit many behaviors familiar to urban educators. Experts say it often looks like Attention Deficit Disorder, with students being anxious, unable to concentrate well or sit still, prone to fights, and having trouble learning as a result.

This could be having a major impact on the achievement gap - but we don't see much research in this direction, nor the funding of programs to deal with this.

It also suggests that a huge number of the young men and women in prison today are there because, like the combat veterans, they were damaged by the traumas they endured in their neighborhoods.

Among 25 to 29 year-old African American males, more than one in ten are in prison. More African American men are in prison than are in college. As a society we are willing to pay $40,000 a year to incarcerate somebody, but in California we cannot afford even $7,000 a year to educate a child in the public schools.

Recent reports on the economy indicate that unemployment among African Americans of the age of our students' parents is likely to be over 40%, and child poverty among this group is likely to exceed 50%. As the stock market soars back to high levels, corporate profits climb, and we hear of a "jobless recovery," with even college graduates experiencing a high level of unemployment, more and more of us seem to be joining the expendable underclass.

This is a bit of a ramble, but where I am going is towards the understanding that we cannot satisfy ourselves with the modern version of Horatio Alger tales, the notion that hard work and determination will allow all our children to succeed.

We hear from Duncan and Obama that the schools and teachers are to blame when the children are not succeeding on their tests -- and the implication is that bad schools are in turn the reason they are (or will continue to be) poor. But what about the fact that these students do not see a connection between their education and a bright future?

And as every day goes by we hear of new cuts to our schools, larger class sizes, fewer counselors, nurses, libraries and other essential services. This week every single librarian in the Los Angeles Unified School District received a layoff notice. We see billions going to war, to prisons, to bank bailouts, but the schools face devastating cuts, class sizes swell, and college is priced out of reach. These students must believe their eyes. Their eyes do not deceive them. Our system does not really seem to care about them.

There are certainly many who do care, so I do not wish to seem unappreciative. In Oakland, local voters have repeatedly approved increased taxes to refurbish schools and support teachers. Many of our students have benefited when their teachers received grants for materials and field trips from Donor's Choose and other charitable organizations. But in spite of these efforts, our schools are in crisis, and it does not seem as if society at large is even aware.

Teachers are in the impossible position of being blamed when our students cannot see a path to success, after that path has been destroyed. And as the pink slips rain down in schools, and whole school faculties are fired and forced to reapply for their jobs, it appears they don't really care about us either.


What do you think? Can you reconcile the ever-rising bar for student achievement with the ever-declining resources for our schools?

(photograph by Anthony Cody)

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