Dr. James A. Williams is on a mission. "We have a crisis in this country," he says, "and no one is talking sense about it." Williams is not a rebel. He is the superintendent of the Buffalo Public School System. But, he says, "We're all part of the problem. There's too much business as usual, too much bureaucracy and not enough action." The crisis? Young American men who are African American and born into poor and working class households. These young boys are not making it. According to figures developed by the Schott Foundation, in an economy that requires more and more education, only 42 percent who enter ninth grade graduate from high school. The old blue-collar jobs that used to provide a family income, secure employment, health care and pensions are disappearing.
These are children increasingly raised by a single parent. Too often they are starved from the start -- of adequate nutrition, adequate health care, adequate learning stimulants that are vital for young minds. They go to overcrowded schools stocked with inexperienced teachers. In school, they face discrimination in discipline and in being slated for special-ed courses. They are underrepresented in advanced-placement courses that are key for college. Some will overcome these odds and make it out. Most will not. They are headed toward jail, not toward Yale.
Williams argues we have to change what we're doing if we want to offer them any hope. The schools -- even the schools that he leads -- are failing them. "Their No. 1 problem," he says, "is that they cannot read. If you can't read, you cannot succeed."
Congress is gearing up for the debate about the No Child Left Behind Act. The debate is virtually irrelevant. The act mandates testing that inadequately measures school performance. But measuring failure doesn't mean anything if you don't have a reform plan to fix what isn't working.
For Williams, any plan like that requires reforms that simply aren't on the table. "Look at our school year," he says. "We've got a school year that is still based on an 18th century agrarian model. In 1962, I went to school for 180 days per year, and algebra was the requirement for getting into college. Today, these kids go to school for 180 days per year, but we require calculus to get into school. We add more and more units, but not more and more time." So schools cut art, music, physical education.
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Worse, Williams says, we've got a school day that doesn't make much sense. Between lunch and breaks between classes, we have one of the shortest school days of effective learning in the industrial world.
We need longer school years and far better teachers, and teacher education. We need less discrimination in spending, in discipline, in advanced placement. Some of this costs money. But, Williams says, we're not spending the money we currently have well. For example, our broken health-care system is killing school budgets. Health-care costs are going up 10 to 15 percent a year, far outstripping normal increases in public funding.
My own sense is that we can't simply load the blame on the schools. These kids face long odds from day one. In the crucial early years -- from the time of conception to age 3 -- when the mind is largely forged, they are shackled. One in five children is raised in poverty in this rich country, with no systematic program to ensure prenatal care, health care, day care, parental education. We've got too many babies raising babies who don't have the resources or the knowledge of how to take care of their children. We should be mobilizing intervention on the front side of these lives. Instead, we spend more on police, crime and prisons on the back end.
This is a national crisis -- a tragedy of terrible and costly consequence, in lost hope, lost lives, a lost sense of our own decency. And yet virtually no one is talking about it. To his credit, John Edwards has used his presidential campaign to call attention to the working poor in America. But generally, candidates are told to focus on the middle class that votes, not the plight of poor young boys who don't. We hear a lot more about rescuing middle class homeowners in bad mortgages than we will about giving poor inner-city children a fair start. Congress is more concerned about retaining the tax breaks for the middle class than about extending the child tax credit to the children of working poor people. Williams says it is time for an end to the silence. This country desperately needs to heed his call.
© Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group