America's Troubled Schools Need Reform Now

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Commentator Lester Spence says America's public schools are undersupplied, underachieving, and unprepared for the global economy, citing Baltimore's school system as an example. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

ED GORDON, host:

Yesterday, the Washington, D.C. school superintendent recommended that six schools be closed due to, among a number of things, low academic performance. But this problem isn't limited to the nation's capital. Commentator Lester Spence thinks public school systems across the country need a total makeover if students are to keep up with the global change.

LESTER SPENCE reporting:

A few weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey came to Baltimore to speak at a fundraiser for a private school. While in town, she had some strong words to say about the Baltimore public schools. It was a disgrace, she said, that black males in the Baltimore public school system had a 75 percent dropout rate. It was a crime that the schools were in such disrepair. When asked to donate some of her time and money to the Baltimore public schools, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done, Ms. Winfrey said that she considered contributing money to the failing school system, but decided against it.

For me, I don't think this issue is about money-at least not fully. The real problem is that these schools are dinosaurs designed for a time that no longer exists. We can no longer seek to train children to perform in jobs in automotive plants because those jobs have long since been shipped out to Mexico and to China. Given the types of deep economic shifts we're going through now, even if we were somehow to train the next generation of scientists at schools like Baltimore city, that wouldn't cut it. We'd still find ourselves living in cities racked by disease and poverty, with the exception of pockets of privilege.

How do we get out of this hole? Some would suggest moving away from public schools towards vouchers. Others would suggest home schooling or getting rid of tenure for public school teachers and tying teacher salary much more to the performance of schools. These solutions are stopgaps. They may work for a few families here and there, but don't take us much closer to where we need to be.

I believe in public schools and think that the only way they can succeed is if they're given the resources to do so. Most of our international competitors fund their educational system at the national level, rather than the state level. But to crass about it, it ain't just about loot.

What people like Robert Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, and Grace Boggs, one of the founders of Detroit Summer, recognize, is that we've got to engage our children in the effort to rebuild and remold our cities.

From a very early age, they should not only learn to read, and write, and count; they should learn how to build, how to organize, how to dream. They should learn through active practice, how to be change agents. There are literally dozens of reasons our kids are failing in schools in Baltimore, and all over. But what Oprah and others don't quite understand, is that one of the reasons kids are failing, is because at some level, the kids themselves know that the schools are bankrupt. These kids can't learn a damn thing about rebuilding a city because their teachers, their staff, their schools, aren't designed to do it.

A colleague of mine is putting the finishing touches on a book, examining the untapped political potential of African-American women. She argues that black women have a common sense of purpose, and a vision, that is waiting to be developed--to be molded into a potent force. And, that someone like Oprah is in an excellent position to spearhead such an effort.

I tend to believe that such movements are best conducted from the grassroots up, rather than from the top down. But if she's right, and if Oprah can examine the successes of something like the Algebra Project or Detroit Summer--both built on the model of the freedom schools of the civil rights movement--then perhaps we can move beyond the realm of midday talk shows into something much more substantive: a sustainable movement that will remake our schools for the better.

GORDON: Lester Spence is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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