If we are serious about celebrating Black History Month, we will understand that the second stage of the civil-rights movement will unfold through an overhaul of K-12 education. Almost no one is articulating well what must be done to wage this revolution, but it is imperative in Minnesota and across America if we are to realize a full-fledged democracy.
No one in either of the two major political parties is even close to formulating the basic precepts that must undergird the revolution. Republicans are mainly emphasizing parental choice through charter schools and private-school vouchers, and strengthening local control. But this approach is deeply flawed.
Most charter schools are worse than the regular public schools. There are not enough good private schools to accommodate the masses of K-12 students, and there is not enough surety of success in the voucher approach to justify the use of public money for students to attend private institutions. And local control is an illusion.
School boards and education bureaucracies function similarly from one school district to another. Those boards and bureaucracies are themselves largely responsible for our wretched public schools. The administrator and teacher candidates who come to them are produced by very similar preparation programs, which constitute the greatest single culprit in putting inadequate teachers in the classrooms of our precious children.
My fellow Democrats tend to be even worse than Republicans on education issues. They are beholden to the teachers unions, which do what good unions do — lobby for better wages and benefits for their members.
In no way, though, are teachers unions advocates for the best educational interests of our young people. They cling to a system in which excellent teachers and terrible teachers are treated largely the same, keeping their jobs year after year and gaining increases in pay only through a “step and lane” system that rewards years of service and continuing education of questionable quality.
Virtually every word that comes out of the mouths of Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius relating to education is rubbish. The value of universal pre-K education is vastly oversold to direct attention away from the disaster in our public schools. Thirty years after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” we should not allow ourselves to be fooled yet again by the education establishment and politicians who serve as its lackeys.
The importance of a child’s brain development during the years from birth to age 5 is critical. But that development will languish if we inflict the present K-12 system upon that potentially bountiful brain.
We are forever creating diversions from waging the necessary revolution in K-12 education. That is because the requisite overhaul will require courage and persistence that has been lacking in every quarter. Here’s what we need to do:
• Completely disassemble education departments, colleges and schools of education in their current form, replacing them with teacher-preparation programs that train teachers as professionals in the mode of doctors and lawyers.
• Implement a rich liberal-arts curriculum, specified in year-by-year sequence, in schools replete with teachers possessing broad and deep content-area knowledge.
• Redirect dollars currently being spent to maintain central school district bureaucracies toward positions that directly affect student learning — many more and better-qualified teacher’s aides, and outreach workers who know the families of students from challenged circumstances.
The next time the public-education establishment tells you that teaching to the test is the problem, consider that the real problem is not teaching much of anything.
When they tell you that too much emphasis on math and reading narrows the curriculum, tell them that those skills are the vital portal through which all knowledge flows, and in any case there is not much of a curriculum (especially at the K-5 level) to narrow.
When they try to tell you that critical thinking supersedes content-area knowledge, tell them that no critical thinking occurs in the absence of a solid knowledge base.
And when they tell you that public investment in early childhood education is the key to closing the achievement gap, tell them that readiness for the K-12 experience will mean nothing if that experience is as empty and frequently damaging as it is now.
I have been educating inner-city youths for more than 40 years. For over 20 years, I have been working with the youths of north Minneapolis. For eight years, I have done what I do now: provide transportation, teach academic sessions, and interact with the families of students right where they live.
I have seen the enormous potential of these students. They deserve a public school system that really provides something that can properly be called education.
Gary Marvin Davison is the author of eight books; he was writer and researcher for “The State of African Americans in Minnesota” (Minneapolis Urban League, 2004 and 2008 editions). For eight years he has served as teacher and administrator for the New Salem Educational Initiative.