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It’s All About Education: Can Education Drive Social Change?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

 

Lauri Lee

If you are a regular reader of my column, you may know that I was born in Washington, DC and raised in Maryland. I started my teaching career in Columbia, Maryland, a suburban community between DC and Baltimore. I’ve paid close attention to the news out of Baltimore in recent weeks. I’ve also worked with families across the economic spectrum, from those in poverty to those who can afford to send multiple children to private schools. 

The events unfolding in Baltimore are not a local or regional issue; there are many communities across our nation, particularly in cities, which are dealing with similar issues. Inner city neighborhoods and schools are full of individuals who, statistically, have far fewer opportunities to succeed and far greater challenges in life than their suburban counterparts. 

In West Baltimore, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and died, the median household income is $24,735; more than one-third of the residents receive food stamps. From 2009 – 2013, more than 3% of children under age 6 in West Baltimore tested positive for dangerous levels of lead in their blood, double the figure for the rest of the city. An African American baby born in Baltimore is nine times more likely to die before his first birthday than a Caucasian baby. 

Unfortunately, these statistics are similar to those from urban centers around the United States. According to an infographic produced in 2014 by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), 32% of all inner city residents live in poverty, compared with 13% of all Americans. Unemployment rates average 14%, compared with 9% for all Americans. Students in large cities are significantly more likely to drop out, with high school graduation rates ranging from 30% to 50%. 

Many of the residents of these cities have a tumultuous relationship with law enforcement officers. While crime may tend to be higher in economically depressed areas, police officers may also be more likely to overreact to perceived threats. The City of Baltimore has paid $5.7 million since 2011 in settlements or court judgments related to police brutality and civil rights violations. And they are not alone. 

The public outcry over police brutality in the cities of Baltimore, Ferguson, and Staten Island is the latest in a list of incidents around the country. Over the past two years, there have been similar cases in Cleveland, OH; North Charleston, SC; and Albuquerque, NM. It appears that race is as much a factor as socioeconomic status: a report published in 2014 found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts. 

How does all this relate to education? Education is the best tool we have to create social change. Launa Schweizer, a teacher in Brooklyn, NY, was in the process of helping her eighth graders plan a class trip to Baltimore when the protests and riots erupted. Over the past two weeks, her students have researched and discussed numerous issues, not just in Baltimore but also in American history. As Ms. Schweizer points out, “Students develop skills and independence much more readily when they are empowered to engage in meaningful work.”

Last week, I attended a presentation by Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open on the national Mall in Washington, DC in 2016. Senator Jack Reed remarked in his introduction that this museum will be a vital institution for all Americans: “We strive to be a nation united, but we’re discovering that sometimes we lead separate lives.” 

Dr. Bunch stressed that the museum will use African American culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American; it will not be a separate story, but rather a different entry point into American history. It will be a place that allows us to remember, especially all those who are traditionally left out of the narrative. He stated, “We need to grapple with who we once were, who we are today, and who we could become.” 

I’ve written numerous columns about socioeconomic inequity in our schools and the relationship between poverty and academic achievement. These are not issues that affect only low-income people or those who live in cities. These are problems that affect every American, and we should all be concerned with solving them. 

The right to public education for all children in America is one of the tenets upon which our nation rests; we believe that every child has the right to attend school and to pursue his or her goals in life. However, according to a study released last month. racial and economic segregation begins as early as preschool. If we truly want social change, it will have to start with early childhood education and continue through high school. 

As the Brooklyn students planning their field trip to Baltimore discovered, there are often deep roots that run beneath the surface of our society. Schools and educators have the opportunity and the responsibility to illuminate both historical events and the news of today by providing students with resources, research skills, communication tools, and a safe place for respectful discourse. 

We must engage in this discourse, as well. Education can be a force for change, but only if we value that change and commit to it. The quality of a child’s education should not depend upon the community she lives in, the income level of her parents, or the color of her skin. Today, it does. Tomorrow, it doesn’t have to. Let’s take responsibility for the inequities in our society and take the steps necessary to change them. 

Lauri Lee is an independent consultant with over twenty years of experience in both public and private education, with learners from infants through adults. With experience in teaching, marketing, communications, social media, development, admissions, and technology, she is able to synthesize many of the issues facing our educational system today. She lives in Providence, RI with her family, a big dog, and a small cat. She blogs at http://www.AllAboutEducation.net and you can follow her on Twitter at @fridovichlee. 

 

Related Slideshow: RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education

On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.  

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Sasse

"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to  an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.

Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students.  This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."

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Sasse

"Revisit school governance and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the state, school districts , neighborhood schools, and school teachers and school administrators.  Develop and implement a system to hold schools responsible for student outcomes."

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Sasse

"Build a consensus and buy in of all stakeholders around  the education reform initiatives being advanced by the Board of Education."

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Metcalfe

"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."

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Metcalfe

"Expand opportunities and start earlier - we must ensure that all kids have access to a high performing public school of their choice, which includes full-day kindergarten."

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Metcalfe

"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."

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Cano-Morales

"Meet the academic potential of all students but especially with regards to urban schools students -- 3 out of 4 are Latinos in Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket." 

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Cano-Morales

"Connect through specific best practices the academic successes of our students to careers jobs. Investing in schools is economic development as a whole for Rhode Island. " 

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Cano-Morales

"Increase the access to -- and completion of -- higher education and post- secondary opportunities.  Poverty? Struggling families? Education and access to careers and competitive wages is the best antidote."

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Duffy

"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula.  With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not.  Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"

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Duffy

"Implementing the common core standards will provide continuity -- and comparison -- between states now.  With over 40 states involved, we're embarking a new set of standards here."

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Duffy

"Accountability and assessing student performance -- how that it's driven by the common core, we'll be able to compare the best districts in RI against the best districts in say MA.  That's the intent of the Common Core is a standardization of how we hold the system accountable."

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Cylke

"Issue one is quality.  Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code.  And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."

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Cylke

"Issue two is equality.  In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K.  In Pawtucket it's $12.9.  What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding.  A difference of $3000 per pupil?  We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case.  An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."

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Cylke

"Issue three is Infrastructure.  A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction.  If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained.  These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."

 
 

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