Leading From Behind in Urban Education

A new school year is upon us, so it's time to get right to the point. America's urban K-12 education culture must overcome the following four obstacles, or else:

Schools of Education that keep churning out certified, yet intellectually limited teachers; complacent parents who are too eager to relinquish their parental duties to the very schools that are failing their children; a Special Education industry that continues profit from enabling and producing unmotivated and disrespectful students; and a lack of market-driven supplemental education companies that cater to a back-to-basics approach for teaching core curriculum subjects.

Ultimately, all of these obstructions need to be dealt with in order to make a stronger case for the only thing that can save the American mind: a comprehensive and fully integrated classical liberal arts education that commences during primary school and not college.

The fact of the matter is that K-12 public education in urban America has turned into a giant shipwreck. The government elites, try as they may to obscure their ignorance on the various issues that have created the wreck, don't really know what they're talking about or what to do. Standards and performance-based federal education initiatives, even ones like the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), having sprung from gold nugget ideas cannot save the sunken ship. In most matters concerning the state of our public education, the country is now in a free for all. More specifically, for the masses of children from low-income and working class urban homes, it is just too late.  Many of them will never receive a quality education; and because of this they will be forced to live -- into their adulthood -- as a part of America's permanent broken bootstrap under-class. 

As the various wars for and against CCSS heat up, many of the nation's worst K-12 public schools will continue to produce legions of floundering and unmotivated students. The CCSS, which have been adopted by forty-five states, will end up being just another unrealistic soon-to-be scraped federal education initiative.

The reality is that the new Common Core standards for reading, writing, and arithmetic are just too high for many minority children who have hitherto been reared on lenient and progressive education policies that inherently deride the virtues that cultivate well-trained minds. One cannot expect children who are encouraged to read books like Captain Underpants and the Wimpy Kids Diary well into middle school, and who at worst spend their unsupervised free time playing ultra-violent video games while listening to the lyrics of rappers like A$AP, to comprehend the writings of nineteenth century American authors such as Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, or Booker T. Washington. This is a bit of what the CCSS advocates. However, it is simply delusional.    

A survey of our nation's recent public education history tells us that the performance and content-based education reform movement, of which CCSS is a part, is nothing new. From teacher-led initiatives such as the 1989 publication of Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the last two decades have not produced more educated children. In fact, it seems that many urban American public K-12 schools are helping to produce the exact opposite -- culturally and functionally illiterate students who have built up immunity against rigorous academic work.

The August 7, 2013 release of the CCSS test results (grades 3-8) confirms this. In New York State, only 31% of the students tested met or surpassed their state's ELA and mathematics standards. Of that 31%, only 16.1% of black students and 17.7% of Hispanic students were able to read and write proficiently enough to pass the ELA component.

The publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Education Reform helped to push America's education crisis into the national spotlight. But in the thirty years since its publication, too many our nation's K-12 students are not better off. One of the scathing assessments of the report put it that, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves."  

The comparison proved to be prophetic in that our education turmoil is already evolving into a full blown conflict, with an incoherent patch-work of issues and complaints that have become even too diverse to homogenize into discernable opposing sides.

But instead of focusing on the systemic problems that have produced the derelict education culture, which A Nation At Risk illuminated, our ignorant elites -- who themselves tend to be products of indulgent yet fashionable educations -- use shallow rhetorical devises as a way of organizing, for the general public, their timid ideas on education reform. Their lack of actual experience in K-12 classrooms and lack of real problem-solving skills prohibits them from addressing much less solving the very problems that they develop policies for. Thus, they concoct inspiring yet hollow language that is meant to remedy what they do not understand intuitively.

Take for instance the "college and career readiness" drivel that is being incessantly spouted across the airwaves. It is meaningless talk because many who are even minimally conversant with the myriad problems plaguing our higher education institutions know that one of the biggest challenges that colleges and universities face is the need to lower academic standards for incoming freshmen who have received substandard K-12 educations.

Furthermore, if the colleges themselves are promoting inferior academic standards that instill a mediocre voc-tech mentality into its students, then we find ourselves right back at square one, which is the shipwreck. Voc-tech institutions are producing many of our K-12 public school teachers; urban community and four-year colleges are great advocates for voc-tech and S.T.E.M. education. In time, though, mainstream America will realize that the applause for this type of pedagogy was a mistake. The great thinkers of western civilization, from St. Augustine to Sir Isaac Newton, were not reared on a voc-tech or S.T.E.M. paradigm. They were reared on the classical liberal arts. America does not need any more students who are being educated to become socially acceptable imitators. We need students who are destined to become broad thinking innovators.

A classical liberal arts education is broad-based; and by no means does it exclude the study of mathematics or the sciences. The liberal arts continue to be based in large part on a system of study that began in classical antiquity, was continued by the Judeo- Christians of medieval Europe, and passed down to the Christian humanists and enlightenment thinkers through the eighteenth century. The seven liberal arts are grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. The entire intellectual history of western civilization is rooted in the integrated study of these "freedom arts."  It was the careful consideration of these arts that led our forebears to devise the very charters that protect the rights of those who seek to deny so many down-trodden American children the type of restorative education that has the potential to liberate them from their dismal social and economic situations. 

So, although the current White House administration has reauthorized and redesigned the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), to  "encourage states, schools districts, and other institutions to better align teacher preparation practices and programs to teaching of college and career-ready standards", like its CCSS stepchild it will lead us to nowhere. Anyone who can read between the lines knows that Obama's college and career-readiness pabulum hinges on excessive and early specialization in the fragmented study of agglomerative math and science programs. This produces inferior thinkers who are unable to identify and assimilate information from various fields into a synthesized whole. The culture of vibrant and constant innovation, which America desperately seeks, will never occur if students continue to be taught in this way.      

Free-marketers know that big-government policy initiatives are not the answer to our nation's education problem. The problems must be solved on a grassroots local level. All American communities face different challenges, and this is especially true regarding the education of our nation's children.

Referring back to New York City, a K-12th grader living in Jamaica, Queens is undoubtedly receiving a different style of fragmented progressive education than his counterpart in Forest Hills; but the commuinities are less than ten miles apart. Jamaica, Queens is predominantly black and Hispanic, whereas Forest Hills is predominantly Caucasian. Let's just say that the majority of Jamaica schools are not the best; and, over the years, I have met many parents from the Jamaica school districts who worry constantly about their children's lackluster education. Is the School Choice movement a remedy for this?  Possibly, but not necessarily.  As long as most schools that are in any given town, county, or city proffer the same progressive standards, then what's the point? Forest Hills' schools may have better smartboards, a better student-to-teacher ratio, and newer textbooks, but the curriculum is ultimately based on the same thing. Well-packaged progressive instruction does not make for a better-educated student. It is simply lipstick on a pig.

Competitively priced private tutoring or supplemental education (as opposed to test-prep) companies that provide part or full time homeschooling, enrichment instruction, and after school/weekend classes in the classical core liberal arts for K-12 students can be a big help. They have the ability to remedy many of the problems that plague the schools.

For starters they are not obligated to hire Department of Education certified teachers. They can hire instructors with degrees in specific liberal arts disciplines, which means instructors with a more thorough command of their materials. Secondly, hard-working parents who pay for such services tend to be more involved in their children's education. In- home instructors have the opportunity to have consistent dialogue with parents about their children's academic challenges and progress. In the long run this ends up being more constructive than the twice a year overcrowded parent-teacher conferences where hastened moms and dads are lucky if they get ten minutes with their child's teacher. Lastly, I have witnessed so many elementary and middle school students, who have been mislabeled as "special ed", have their regular student status and their dignity returned to them as a result of such tutoring. I have also seen some of these students go on to compete for high academic honors in later grades with much success.

Low-income does not always mean no-income. If parents are serious about their kids' education, then they will have to make some sacrifices. As long as the pricing is based on free-market principles that are grounded in integrity and virtue, then the decision to hire a reputable private instruction company or not should be clear. 

Yes, with so much, America is now leading from behind. We coast on the cultural capital of those who came before you while contributing next to nothing to the present. This is what the Obama administration is doing by renewing the ESEA that was passed almost fifty years ago as a part of the Johnson administration's "War on Poverty". It didn't work then, and it won't work now. The education of American children should not be held hostage by Obama's delusional doctrine that is getting us nowhere fast.