My Old Neighborhood
Published in Annual Report - 2002
This year I am writing my annual report in Poland where I am on a sabbatical with my family. My wife, Linda, is a Fulbright Fellow teaching at the University of Warsaw Law School and my daughter, Rachel, is attending the American School of Warsaw, where she has two teachers who earned degrees at Teachers College.
I want to thank the Teachers College Board of Trustees, Darlyne Bailey who is serving as Acting President in my absence, Aaron Pallas who is filling in for Dean Bailey in her absence, the TC senior administrators, and the entire college community for making this sabbatical possible. It has been wonderful to have five months to think, to write, and to try to see the forest unimpeded. I find in the course of a typical year, the work of administration moves quickly from viewing whole forests, to seeing trees, and then in rapid succession to concentrating on branches, leaves and finally xylem. Colleges and universities need presidents who always see the forest even when they are working on the xylem. I am grateful for the opportunity that was afforded me to try to do this.
Each year my report takes the form of an essay. I knew when I left New York that my report this year would be about my old neighborhood in the South Bronx and the young people who live there. For the past three years, Laura Scheiber and I have been studying a young man, who lives in the apartment where I grew up, and his friends. In fact, Jesus now lives in the bedroom that I left over thirty years ago. He is the same age as my daughter Rachel.
What I did not suspect is that there would be a second old neighborhood I would talk about as well, in Poland, and that complimentary issues would emerge from both. You see, just prior to departing for Warsaw, I called my aunt to find out exactly where in Russia my fraternal grandparents lived before immigrating to the United States since I was going to be in Eastern Europe. She said a village near Bialystok, which is a city in Poland. It turned out their village was part of the territory the Four Powers ceded to recreate the country of Poland after World War I. So I discovered my Russian legacy had been traded to Poland by the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty. This meant I was now at least technically a mix of Russian, Romanian, British and Polish ancestry.
So this sabbatical has turned into a visit of sorts to the old, old neighborhood. There are no longer any traces of my grandparents. Their shtetl or village is gone. Jewish life in Poland was decimated during the Second World War. At the start of the war, there were three and a half million Jews in Poland. By the end of the war, fewer than 300,000 survived. Today there are about 5,000 Jews.
In the course of my stay here, I have visited the places where the three million lived and died and fought. I have been to Bialystok and Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto.
Bialystok, in eastern Poland, was a casualty of World War II. The Nazis murdered half of the city's populace including nearly all of its Jews, razed much of the city, and physically and economically destroyed its strong textile base. Bialystok's artistic and historical heritage were largely ignored in the utilitarian post-war rebuilding. It is not a place many tourists visit today. It has little evocative power for the person tracing his or her roots and little to see.
The trip to Auschwitz was soul searing, far worse than anything I imagined. I had seen the concentration camps many times before in movies, photos and museums. Even though I was born after the war and both my parents were born in the United States, as a child I had repeated dreams of Nazi storm troopers breaking down my apartment door in the Bronx to take me to the gas chambers.
At Auschwitz, I walked through the gate with the famous and wholly cynical words at the top "Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free)." I stood on the railroad tracks where freight trains unloaded their human cargo. I walked to the spot where selections were made as people were lined up upon being ordered off the trains. Those told to go to the right went immediately to the gas chambers and those to the left went into forced labor. I went to the forced labor camp-countless stables, converted into triple bunked barracks where people slept, five and sometimes eight to a bed with as many as 2,000 in a room. And I stood by the rubble of the gas chambers and the crematoria. Standing in these places, being able to see and touch them, made the concentration camp seem less extraordinary, more commonplace and therefore made the acts committed seem even more monstrous than before. Perhaps it was what Hannah Arendt termed "the banality of evil." One and a half million people were murdered at Auschwitz. What was impossible to imagine is how people could do such things to each other, then or now?
Living in New York City, I have seen people turn others into non-people. The homeless are a prime example. We saw an increase in the number of people living on the streets in the late 1970s and 80s. We were initially appalled, and then we became inured to seeing them. We gave the phenomenon a name "homelessness," which in some way made it more comprehensible or acceptable. We learned to look away when we passed the homeless on the street. Now, we regularly walk by people sleeping on the sidewalks in the bitter cold as if they were not fellow human beings. This has always been horrifying to me. I don't know what it takes to go from here-relegating people to a lower status than our own and ignoring their pain to regarding them as subhuman and systematically taking their lives.
The hotel we stayed at when we first arrived in Warsaw was in the former Warsaw Ghetto, where the Nazi's relocated half a million Jews before sending those who had not died of starvation and disease to death camps. Between April and May of 1943, there was a much celebrated Jewish uprising against the Germans. The area is now a residential district with a memorial route of the major events and locations associated with the ghetto and the rebellion. A museum is planned. As soon as I learned the hotel's historic location, I looked out the window to see if I could find anything distinctive. The first thing I saw was a pair of golden arches. It wasn't a memorial, just a restaurant. McDonald's is popular in Warsaw, too.
If loss was the most painful aspect of this trip, change was the most persistent. It was not simply the presence of a McDonald's in a former killing field. It was also the implausibility of my being treated so warmly in a place in which others exactly like me had been killed solely on the basis of being exactly like me. The only reason we were treated so differently was time. Sixty years earlier I would have been murdered; sixty years later they could be eating a Big Mac.
Time also made the stereotypes I brought with me inaccurate, cartoon like, and embarrassing. I imagined Warsaw to be the kind of place other Soviet satellite cities were in the 1980s. I thought store shelves would be empty. There would be long lines for consumer goods. Apartments would be few and antiquated. I could not have been more wrong. The shelves are very well stocked. There are no lines; at least no longer than in New York and people seem to be equally adept at cutting them. The biggest difficulty we ran into in terms of locating an apartment was a multitude of good choices; it was hard to make a decision, though this would have been far less true had our income been that of the average Pole. In maintaining my stereotypes, I managed to miss an economic revolution. I had read about it and I had talked to people who worked in it, but I had been unable to imagine the consequences.
Our apartment building has amenities that are not available in Morningside Heights. It was built more recently, like most of Warsaw. Eighty-four percent of the city was destroyed during World War II. The movie, The Pianist, gives a very good sense of the damage-emotionally and physically. While our apartment building lacks the late nineteenth and early 20th century architectural charm of Morningside Heights, it has leap- frogged older buildings technologically. Realtors talked to us about high-speed Internet access before we could even ask. I am always amazed when I travel abroad that I can communicate with New York by Internet in fractions of a second. I can get money from my bank by using a machine in a small town on the opposite side of the globe in less than a minute. I can shop in stores I frequent at home and find the same merchandise. In Warsaw, we were urged to buy our linens at a popular local store called Ikea. When we asked where to purchase school supplies for my daughter, the answer was Office Max. She and her friends went shopping for clothes at the Gap at the local mall. We watched the news of the Iraq war on CNN. If you looked at the people on the subway, particularly the young people, you often thought this could be New York. They looked the same, though much less racially diverse. We live today in a world, which is growing inextricably interconnected by communications, economics, and fashions, but remains deeply divided by history, traditions, and beliefs.
The differences we have encountered have been large and small and it is those differences, not the commonalities, that encourage us to travel. I could talk about the differences endlessly because they are what have made this sabbatical wonderful though occasionally agonizing, but I want to focus on only one-language. I do not speak Polish. It is a difficult language. I was discouraged from studying it by several language instructors here who suggested I work in other areas in which my talents might be stronger if I was only going to be in Poland for four-and-a-half months. Besides, they said many Poles speak English. This is correct. There is generally someone around who speaks English, particularly young people, especially in the downtown area and in the larger businesses. Often people will apologize for not speaking English or for the quality of their English. I explain that I am the one who should be apologizing. I am in Poland. I should be speaking their language. They should not have to adapt to me. I don't think people in the U.S. apologize for not speaking the language of their visitors.
I have learned some words and phrases in Polish, but I cannot read the newspaper headlines or the signs on the street. I do not understand when people talk to me. I cannot comprehend the conversations around me, or what people are saying on the radio or television. I cannot call information for a phone number; I can't ask for directions when I am lost; and if I get sick while out alone, I cannot ask even for help. Last week, I saw a man talking to his dog. While I had no idea what the man had said, the dog responded, which meant the dog knew more Polish than I do.
I initially found it charming that I could go into a store and get what I wanted by pointing. The longer I am here the more embarrassed this makes me. It is infantalizing and it is dangerous. In a very tangible way, this has reinforced for me the power of literacy and the centrality of education in our lives. It is not as if I could not have given an earnest speech on the topic before this trip. But never before as an adult have I been illiterate. I have, in the past, traveled to countries where I did not speak the language, but I was always a tourist. I am living in Poland now.
The final theme I want to touch upon is opportunity. In the course of this visit, I have met many Poles who have talked about the difficulty of getting good jobs and getting ahead; how very hard it is to change one's socioeconomic status in this country. I have spoken with professors who lamented the lack of good jobs for even their best students. One of the unusual aspects of life in the United States is the American Dream. This is our belief that with hard work and education every child has the capacity to move up the social and economic ladder. When I have described the American Dream to Poles, they sometimes tell me this why their relatives and friends emigrated to the United States or they look at me doubtfully or questioningly. They often ask whether the reality matches the ideal.
The story of my old neighborhood in the Bronx is also about loss, change, education and opportunity. My family moved to an apartment building one block from the Grand Concourse, the Champs Elysees of the Bronx in 1957, just before I started the fourth grade. I lived in that apartment until I started college in 1966 and visited on vacations until my parents moved in 1970. When I think about home, it is that neighborhood in the Bronx frozen in the year 1960 or so.
If you walk around my old neighborhood today, most of the physical structures I grew up with are still there-my apartment building, my school, the stores, synagogues and churches, the street where I used to play ball, the tiny park down the block, the library, the subway station. Their purposes have sometimes changed. The synagogue is now a church and the Jewish deli has become a bodega. A few of the familiar haunts are gone-the building across the street, the pool hall, the movie theater, the ice cream parlor, and the bagel factory. But there is no mistaking it-physically it's still the old neighborhood, more worn and beaten up, but the old neighborhood just the same.
The people who live in the neighborhood have changed much more than the plant. When I lived there, it was a white working class neighborhood. Ninety-eight percent of the population was caucasian. A little over a third of the residents (36 percent) were foreign born, overwhelmingly European with many from Russia and Poland. The median family income was $6,265 or $38, 279 in current dollars, 74 percent of the national average.
Today, my old neighborhood is no longer white or working class. Its residents are poorer and largely Hispanic and black. Caucasians now make up less than 2 percent of the population. Seven out of ten residents are Hispanic. More than two out of every ten are black. The proportion (45 percent) of people born abroad has increased slightly, but the real change is in their birthplaces-now Latin American rather than Europe. Median family income has decreased from my days in the neighborhood to $25,913 in current dollars, which is 50 percent of the national average for families. A third of all families are living below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is nearly three times higher than when I lived there.
While educational attainment has risen since 1960, it has actually dropped significantly relative to the rest of the nation. When I was in seventh grade in 1960, 40 percent of the adults in the neighborhood had completed high school, which was just one percentage point below the national average. Now half of the adults in the neighborhood report graduating from high school, but this is in comparison with an 80 percent secondary school completion rate for the country. In this sense, my old neighborhood has fallen far behind educationally.
Families have changed as well. The divorce/separation rate in marriages has increased seven fold. In 1960, six percent of all children were living in a family without both parents. Today, 62 percent of all families are headed by a female without a husband. Children describe a world in which they are more independent and have less adult supervision than was true decades ago.
The neighborhood is also a much scarier place. Violent crime and gangs are facts of life. Beatings, shootings, and stabbings are everyday occurrences. Children told us about incidents they witnessed or experienced. Fairly typical was a story by one of Jesus's friends:
I have seen guns; I have seen people crying because they have been stabbed; I have seen death, bodies on the floor killed by a gun shot. One day I was with my friends, like seven of them,?.. It was like 4:30am, so we were walking and in front of Charlie's building we saw like 20 cops. When we got near the building we saw a man dying on the floor, bleeding. We thought the kids were exaggerating until we checked the police blotter. If anything, they underestimated the frequency of bloody encounters.
But the fundamental difference between my neighborhood and its current incarnation is that the American dream died. When I lived there, the American Dream was the neighborhood religion. Jews and Catholics and the handful of Protestants who lived there worshipped it. Parents and children alike knew that with education and hard work, the children could have something better than their parents. Most of our parents had never finished high school, but we knew we were going to college with the certainty that we were having breakfast the next day. There was a highway of youngsters-brothers, sisters, neighbors, relatives, and friends-ahead of us who had made the trek from our neighborhood to the middle class and showed that it worked. There was also a sprinkling of professionals living in the neighborhood. And most of us followed in their footsteps, aware of those who had fallen along the way, the counter-examples not be repeated, the mistakes to be avoided. In the end, Marvin and Eddy became doctors. Jimmy became a school principal. Barry became a teacher. Jay became a lawyer. Debby became a nurse. Steven became a Wall Street analyst. Elliot went to work for a federal government agency. Terry went to Harvard and we never heard from him again.
But today the dream is gone. The highway of successes has disappeared. Any child who moves up and out must create the road for himself much as the first pioneers did going west. The tie between education and social improvement has attenuated. The children we interviewed have a variety of examples of people who graduated from high school and attended college, who are doing exactly the same thing as their parents with less than a high school education-cleaning houses, packing food, or working in a fast food restaurant. The most successful people in the neighborhood are gang leaders and drug dealers for whom there are no educational requirements. The belief that with hard work and education any child in America can improve his or her socioeconomic condition is only applicable to "the other people" -the white people, who live in the suburbs, according to the children we have been studying.
Four years ago, Laura Scheiber, a graduate student, came to me and asked if I had a research project she could work on. My on-going projects were fully staffed, so I told Laura that I long wanted to do a study of my old neighborhood. She began by collecting census data comparing the neighborhood today with the neighborhood when I was growing up. She wrote a history of my apartment building and of the changes in the neighborhood. She interviewed people who had lived in the neighborhood for extended periods of time and people who worked in key positions in the neighborhood-school principals and teachers, landlords, government workers, neighborhood leaders, volunteer organization heads, archivists, store owners, and others.
Then I told her my dream, which was to do a study of the teenage boy who lived in my old apartment. I had no idea whether any children actually lived in the apartment. The one time I tried to visit many years before, I had not been invited in. Laura had the advantage of being fluent in Spanish versus my high school training, which provides the foundation for my Polish skills today. She was young and did not look to be a middle aged inspector sent from some government agency. In a few weeks, Laura reported back that there was a teenaged boy, attending middle school, living in my old bedroom and his family would allow us to conduct a study. Since then, we have spent much time with Jesus and his family, his friends Pablo and Luis and their families.1 There have been visits to their doctor and their schools, to their parties and the courthouse, to their homes and extended families in the Bronx and the Dominican Republic, from where each of the families came. Each of the boys has been keeping a diary for the past two years.
When we began, the boys were in their final year of middle school. Since then, Jesus has gone onto secondary school and will be beginning his fourth year of high school this fall. His friend, Luis, after hitting a high school guard in his first year of high school, is now enrolled in his third high school and is also heading toward graduation. Pablo dropped out, after repeating several grades, during his first semester of high school and is now in the Job Corps, a vocational program for youth-at-risk. Together, we are all planning to write a book about life in the neighborhood when I grew up and when they grew up based largely on my experiences and their diaries as well as the interviews we have conducted with their families, teachers and friends as well as mine.
But this essay is not only about education and the loss of the American dream. This summer and winter, we attempted to bring the old neighborhood and the new neighborhood together. Three of the people with whom I grew up-Barry, Jim and Debby-twice spent a day with Jesus, Pablo, and Luis, and Pablo's older brother, Jose. Barry is a teacher in the Bronx. Jim used to be a principal in the Bronx, but at the time of the meetings worked as principal in a Westchester suburb. Debby is a critical care nurse living in upstate New York. Debby and Barry lived in the same building as Jesus and me. Jim lived in the adjoining building. The goal of the meetings was to get to know each other and to compare our experiences growing up. We met both times in the old neighborhood. The old timers showed the boys the sites that stood out in our lives and the boys did the same for us. We played dominoes and basketball together. That is, Jim played and the rest of us old timers watched him. Most of all we talked. In the first gathering, my friends asked most of the questions. In the second gathering, the current residents asked most of the questions. After the first meeting, the current and past residents met separately to discuss what they had heard and then the reactions were shared, producing another round of separate conversations. Then the second meeting occurred with everyone knowing the other's reactions to the first meeting and the same pattern of debriefings followed. After I return from Poland, I suspect there will be a third meeting.
In the course of our conversations, we talked of the similarities in our lives and the stark differences in what we did for fun, our families, dating, our dreams, and our experiences with sex and alcohol. We spoke of a neighborhood that changed. When I lived there it was almost a village in which kids lived their lives until high school largely on a three by six block rectangular area. On hot nights parents brought folding chairs onto the streets and chatted. If a kid did anything wrong, his or her parents knew before the child got home. Today, it is something far more urban, less circumscribed and more frightening, a place where gangs are highly visible and two of our boys are members. Fights are a way of life for the boys. And parents were unlikely to hear about much of what goes on. But none of this was a surprise and maybe we had even romanticized the past. In any case, the boys thought our world boring and we thought theirs dangerous. Each preferred their own experience over the others'.
But the difference that was sharpest, the most incomprehensible to both groups was education. One incident kept coming up again and again in our conversations and the debriefings. Debby asked the current residents what their parents' reaction was to their report cards? The answer was that the boys, who regularly failed at least one course, didn't show them to their parents or when the parents did see them it was not such a big deal, provoking at worst an angry lecture from one of the parents.
When the boys asked about our parents' reactions, they were astounded to learn that the parents knew exactly the day the report cards were coming home. It would have been impossible to hide a report card from them. More amazing was the story of bringing home a report card with a grade of 98 in physics, only to be asked by a parent where the other two points had gone.
The boys asked if we had hooky parties, gatherings regularly planned starting in middle school, where kids cut school and go to someone's house where the parents are out and drink, dance and have sex. Debby, Barry, and I said we had never been to a party like that and in fact, had never cut school. Jim said he had, not until high school, but always made sure he never missed so much school that he would fail a course or get in trouble. In the debriefing, Luis said he didn't believe us. He could not comprehend the idea of people never cutting because everyone in his world cut at least once, and typically more.
What it all came down to was an attitude about school. The boys talked as if school mattered. In a diary entry, one of the boys wrote that he knew if he graduated from college, he could get a good job, a nice house, a family, the whole nine yards. In the next paragraph, he said he had not been in school in several days, but attended today. He did not go to class, however, but had "fooled around" with his girlfriend in the stairway. The talk and the behavior did not match.
In contrast to the older adults, the current residents said school was boring and homework was something they did irregularly or in one case not at all. They asked my friends if we did homework when we were their age because we wanted to or because we were afraid that our parents would punish us. They didn't understand our response, which was that we never thought there was any alternative. We did the homework because it was assigned and we were told to do it by the teacher. It was our job. Once again Jim was the exception. He skated as close to the line as possible in high school, either borrowing homework or making sure he would pass the test if he did not turn it in.
What we kept skirting around was the fact that education was central to our lives. We believed our entire futures depended upon it and so did our parents.
The current residents of my old neighborhood don't view education this way. They live in a neighborhood that is like inner cities all over America. It has grown increasingly poor and isolated economically. Business and industry have moved away and jobs have been lost. The doctor, lawyer, and businessperson do not live in the neighborhood, nor do the teacher, firefighter or police officer. They did when I was a child. There are few if any role models tying together education and economic success.
Pablo's mother has a degree from an institution of higher education in the Dominican Republic, but does not speak English and performs manual labor. Jesus's brother and sister have had some college in New York City, but continue to perform work not all that different from his father who did not complete high school. So there is little evidence that education has any payoff either.
The most successful people in the boys' lives are gang leaders and drug dealers. These are professions for which there are no educational requirements and limited prospects for longevity, making long term investments in things like education seem not a particularly good use of time.
The parents of the current residents with the exception of Pablo's mom have not had a great deal of education, and she faces the problem I have in Poland. She does not speak English, so that in spite of her education, she does not qualify for the jobs that education might ordinarily lead to. In my old neighborhood, language is a great barrier to job market access as well as the ability to serve one's children in the local schools. In addition, my previous research shows that lower income parents who have had bad experiences with schooling are both less knowledgeable and less strong as advocates in pushing their children through the system. In the case of the current residents of my neighborhood, many of the parents came to the United States to earn enough money to go back to the Dominican Republic and have a good life. Their view is shaped by what they see as the requirements for success there.
For instance, when the mother of one of the boys' friends, as loving and as dedicated a parent as I have ever met, was asked what she wanted for her daughter, her answer was, "I want her to be a respectable young lady," an admirable goal for any child. However, formal education is not necessarily the key element in character development of this sort. When the mother went to open school night, she asked the teacher whether her child was well behaved. When the teacher assured her that the daughter never gave him any trouble, the fact that she was failing several courses paled in comparison. In short, the parents of the children in my old neighborhood are at a disadvantage in understanding the essential connection of educational achievement to success in America, where all of the children we interviewed intend to stay. We live in an information economy in which wealth is increasingly determined by knowledge and intellectual activity rather than the physical labor and natural resources of the industrial era. This means mere survival in this economy requires higher levels of knowledge and skills than ever before in history.
This translates into the young residents of my old neighborhood living in a world without successful role models of educated professionals; counter examples of education failing to make a difference in the lives of the people they know; few jobs in their community requiring higher levels of education; the greatest economic successes in their community being people in jobs which do not require formal education; and parents with little knowledge of the educational requirements for success in the 21st century U.S. economy.
They also attend schools that support and encourage this worldview, with low expectations for neighborhood children. When the mother left her daughter's teacher, feeling good about her child's accomplishments, the teacher didn't call her back or stop her and say there was a problem.
I spoke to the principal of Jesus's school, who told me that all the schools around hers were on the state's SURR list, or Schools Under Registration Review, the worst performing schools in the state. Every year the principal told me her school just missed the cut-off. She was so proud.
The theme for the graduation at Jesus's middle school was "No Dream Too Small." What child in America is told no dream he or she has can be too small? When I was kid, we were told you could be anything you wanted to be. Any child could grow up to be President of the United States. No dream was too big. Could any school convey its low expectations for its children any more clearly?
When my friends and I debriefed, we realized we once had an educational experience exactly like that of the young men who now lived in our old neighborhood. It was when we went to religious school. Debby, Jim and I went to the same school. Barry attended a different one. Hebrew school instructors and teaching were poor. The curriculum was weak. No one I know ever learned to speak or comprehend the Hebrew language in Hebrew school. Thirty-one years after I left Hebrew school, my daughter was given exactly the same textbook I had. Expectations for the children were low. The administrators and teachers knew we were there only to prepare for our Bar Mitzvah service, one day of participating in a religious ceremony to signify becoming adult members of the religion. No one really wanted to be there or cared a great deal about what we were being taught. The children misbehaved in class and cut school. They hid report cards and bad conduct letters from their parents. We made fun of the children who did seem interested. Kids commonly dropped out immediately after their Bar Mitzvahs without waiting to complete the school's instructional program. The parents did not really care that much either. Their experiences in religious education were frequently just as bad as ours. But the truth of the matter was that religious education didn't matter. Hebrew school was not connected to anything tangible in our lives or futures. There were certainly no role models in our community of people who had thrived as a consequence of their Hebrew school education. No one wanted to be a rabbi. We didn't take it seriously. It was just something we had to do.
The lesson is no more than one would expect. Education is bound to fail when it is poor in quality, low in expectations for children, untied in reality or perception to anything meaningful or important to children, and is not supported by parents or the significant adults in the lives of children.
Restoring the American Dream for All Our Children
I am very fond of Jesus, Pablo, and Luis. I think they are very bright young men. But I am also a realist and I know young people in America have no future without a quality education. I have come to believe the greatest civil rights issue in America today is offering the residents of my old neighborhood and every other child in this country a quality education. In an information economy, such an education is mandatory for their economic survival.
Our nation is completing 20 years of a school improvement movement. When we began, our suburban schools were strong and our urban and rural schools were weak. Today our suburban schools are stronger and our urban and rural schools remain weak. In two decades, with perhaps a hotly debated exception, the nation has failed to turn even one urban school district around.
What has been accomplished is this. Affluent families never had to send their children to urban public schools and they still don't. The school reform movement gave the middle class more choices-selective, charter, magnet, and small public schools. There are also some strong elementary schools in most cities and with good consumer skills the middle class have done well in identifying them. There are also lower cost private schools-usually Catholic and other religious schools. And finally if none of these options is appealing, there was always the possibility of the suburbs.
The result is that the primary attenders of failing inner city public schools are now low income and minority populations. They attend schools that are funded at lower rates than suburban schools; in which teachers are paid lower salaries than suburban teachers; in which fewer teachers are certified to teach in their subject areas and turnover is far higher than at suburban schools; in which curriculum materials are older, inadequate in number, and in poorer condition than at suburban schools; in which their plants and facilities are in far poorer shape than in suburban schools. There is a gap in achievement between Hispanic/black and white/Asian students; between students attending urban and suburban schools. As a nation we are making no progress in closing it.
America has two school systems. One for our affluent children and another for our poor. We have one set of schools for the majority of our minorities, black and Hispanic, and another for the majority of our white population. Once again, our nation has created, not by design, but by happenstance in this instance, a system of separate but unequal education. This must not stand.
But sadly, we are unlikely to do much about it. The economy is weak; we are at war; and most states are running budget deficits. Cuts are being made in domestic programs and the largest item in most state budgets is education. So this has been a target for reductions. Additionally, tax cuts seem more popular than investments in urban schools and low income children anyway. Plus, the parents of the children attending failing urban schools vote at lower rates than their suburban peers and they are yet to take to the streets and say "I am mad as hell and I am not going to send my child to a terrible school."
For the sake of America's future, our country needs to be shaken from its complacency. Providing a quality education for every child needs to be seen as a national obligation, not a future hope or unrealized utopian ideal. It needs to be seen as the right of every child, not as an unevenly distributed gift. More than this it needs to be seen as a civil right. No child in America can succeed without a quality education. When it is denied to children solely on the basis of their skin color or their parent's income, it is not merely bad public policy, it is a sin.
If we are to bring about this change, what will be necessary is a new civil rights movement in which the goal is to clearly establish a quality education as the right of every child. This movement must produce quality schools for those who do not have them now. It must educate young people like Jesus, Pablo and Luis to realize their futures depend upon having a quality education and their parents to know their children cannot succeed without a quality education. Having such an education is their right. It is owed to them. No child should ever be forced to attend the kind of middle school Jesus and his classmates attended. It robbed them of their birthright. The tragedy is that they don't even know how bad their school was or how badly they were treated. Luis keeps telling us what a good school it was.
Accomplishing this will necessitate litigation aimed at getting the courts to require not equal funding for urban and suburban schools, but adequacy of funding for urban and rural schools to the job that needs to be done. For instance, salaries and working conditions for suburban teachers are better than those in urban schools. Because working conditions will always be more difficult in urban schools, it will be necessary for inner city schools to pay higher salaries to compete successfully for the best teachers in the country. So in the case of teacher salaries, adequacy would mean higher funding for urban and rural teacher salaries, not equal funding.
It will necessitate state level campaigns for legislation and referenda creating an educational bill of rights for children guaranteeing each the essentials of a quality education-a well prepared teacher, up-to-date curriculum materials, a safe physical plant, a track record of successful academic progress for students attending a particular school. If the state cannot do this, it would be required to pay the costs of the student attending a school that does have these characteristics. This would take the existing federal "No Child Left Behind" legislation to a higher level and make it a matter of state law.
It would require voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. The election of 2000 showed the large impact minorities had in electing senators and governors and the 2002 election showed the opposite happened when they did not show up at the polls. It would be possible for minority urban communities to organize and say their votes were up for grabs. They will vote for whichever political party has the strongest platform on improving urban education. If that group does not deliver, they will show up in even larger numbers next time to turn them out. This could be a very potent force.
It would also be valuable to organize local communities to take to the streets peacefully as the civil rights protestors did to demand better schools. Hand in hand with demonstrations needs to come parent education regarding the value of education and consumer skills in choosing schools, advocating for one's children, asking questions about education, and understanding their family's rights and options under the law.
Parent education is critical. In 1996, Jana Nidiffer and I wrote a book entitled, Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College, which examined the anomalous poor youngsters who somehow make it to higher education in defiance of demographics. It asked how did they beat the odds? The common ingredient in each story was a mentor- a parent or significant adult in young person's life who was bilingual in the sense of knowing about both poverty and the middle class and recognizing that education was the ladder between the two. These people, true believers, told their children they were going to school, drove youngsters past the potholes that typically derail poor kids from education, and connected children with resources such as teachers and experts knowledgable about educational opportunities. Frequently, these adults had very little education themselves, but more than made up for it with their determination. Our study showed these skills can be taught and colleges, schools and community agencies have the capacity to teach them. We need an army of such adults, each capable of putting one arm around one child. The ideal is to create a critical mass of such people in a community to establish high school graduation and college attendance as a clear choice followed by significant numbers of young people.
Charter schools also need to be used as a weapon against failing schools. Most states now have laws which allow for the creation of new public schools with greater curricular and staffing flexibility. Parents whose children are consigned to bad schools need to be able to establish or be able to threaten to establish such schools to move recalcitrant school bureaucracies.
Finally, it will require young people, who are not getting a quality education now, to want one. This will necessitate a major media campaign. Jesus, Pablo, Luis and their peers need to see people they trust and people they believe talking about the value of education. They need to see real live examples of people like them whose lives are better as a consequence of education. They need to see the numbers that show what it's worth to go to school, why it pays to give up all those good years for an education. This needs to appear in the music they listen to, in the commercials they see, in the plots of the movies and television shows they watch. If we can sell fashion in this way, surely the media can be used to make education fashionable. This would be an important project for the advertising and media communities to undertake together.
A Role For Teachers College
Teachers College has worked hard at improving schools for urban and disadvantaged populations. This is the reason TC was created and it remains our enduring commitment. We have prepared teachers and administrators to work in schools serving the disadvantaged populations in our cities. We have created programs to increase retention and the skills of first year teachers and administrators in inner city schools. We have established innovative professional development programs for experienced teachers and administrators and are in the midst of attempting to design an entirely new approach to professional development. We have engaged in developing curricular programs for schools in areas from science and reading to the arts and writing. We have worked on the improvement of whole schools. We have created a public lab high school in Harlem. We created a mechanism to scale up successful innovations in needed areas from single schools and districts to schools all over the country. We have served as advisors to urban policy makers in government, the press, and business. And we have engaged in research on aspects of urban schooling from privatization to teacher certification policy to how students learn math to the most effective ways to teach reading. We are now making a commitment under the leadership of our Dean, Darlyne Bailey, to moblize our energies and resources for the public schools of Harlem.
Our work has produced significant gains in urban schools, in their teachers, in their administrators, and in student performance. But our work has been largely ameliorative. We have been unable to turn around whole urban schools systems. Current conditions in urban education make this impossible. It is time to move beyond improvement as the only strategy and triage as the only public policy alternative.
What I am suggesting is a new approach designed not to improve schools in the context of the existing playing field, but changing the playing field. My proposal is that Teachers College continue in its traditional approach of improving schools which saves the lives of children daily, but it also move to adopt a change the playing field strategy. Toward this end, I am proposing Teachers College engage in research on the most effective ways of leveling the playing field for children attending urban schools. The College would employ strategies designed to level the playing field for low income children in our cities including litigation, lobbying, voter registration and election drives, parent education, community organizing, and the creation of charter schools as alternatives to failing public schools. The College would also report to the nation annually on the condition of education for low income children in our cities. Additionally, it would provide policy recommendations and briefings for the press, government officers, and the public.
There are several ways in which we can accomplish this. We could undertake this assignment through one of TC's existing research and development centers such as the Institute on Urban and Minority Education or we could create a new center. We could establish an affiliated organization in cooperation with the larger Columbia University community involving not only Teachers College, but schools ranging from Arts and Sciences, Journalism, and Law to International and Public Affairs, Public Health, and Social Work. We could make this a project of a consortium of universities across the country. We need to think through the best and most effective way to proceed, but we need to proceed. We should do this because our children deserve every effort we can make on their behalf and the traditional approaches have not brought them the quality education that is their right. We should do this because every child deserves to attend a school in which they are taught the skills, knowledge, and beliefs required to make no dream too large.previous page