Last week I had jury duty. Everyone living in D.C. knows the drill. You go down to the Moultrie Courthouse on Indiana Avenue N.W. and enter a large room where you sit and wait to see if your name and number will be called to serve. In order to make the day go by faster, during the frequent 15 minute breaks I would go into the courtroom located next door and watch the proceedings. What I saw was heartbreaking.
I was able to observe a multitude of cases come before the judge. Prisoners were brought in one at a time under armed guard and shackled in chains that restricted the movement of their hands and feet. Each of the names called by the clerk located on the podium at the front of the room was different but the reason for their incarceration was similar.
Before me appeared one African American man after another. I say man but these were really not more than kids; I would guess each was between the ages of 18 and 21. All had been convicted or accused of a crime such as robbery or theft. One person was there because a witness said the defendant had threatened to kill him by firing a gun. From the conversations I learned that many of those being incarcerated were homeless.
As the judge discussed the scenarios that had caused these people’s lives to become deeply intertwined with the legal system there was one common denominator. Each had been found to be using drugs when they were arrested.
As I watched this sad parade of broken human beings I was reminded that we are now in year 20 of education reform in the nation’s capital. Anger started to boil up in me as I recalled that after all of this painstaking effort and money we have reached the staggering point in which only 25 percent of our public school pupils are proficient in reading and math. For those living in poverty, average reading and math proficiency rates were 11 percent, thereby guaranteeing that their futures were passing right in front of my eyes.
In a conversation about this subject yesterday with a member of the DC Public Charter School Board staff the individual pointed out to me that the problem in the black community goes much deeper than education. But on this topic I turn to the words of the past chancellor of New York City Schools Joel Klein in his fine book Lessons of Hope:
From the day I became chancellor, many people told me, “You’ll never fix education in America until you fix poverty.” I’ve always believed that the reverse is true: we’ll never fix poverty until we fix education. Sure, a strong safety net and support programs for poor families are appropriate and necessary. But we’ve recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, and it seems fair to say that we must seek new approaches as our problems increase.
Safety-net and support programs can never do what a good education can; they can never instill in a disadvantaged child the belief that society can and will work for him in the same way that it works for middle- and upper-class children. It is the sense of belonging -the feeling that the game is not rigged from the start- that allows a child to find autonomy, productivity, and ultimately, happiness. That’s what education did for me. And that’s why, whenever I talk about education reform, I like to recall the wise, if haunting, words of Frederick Douglass, himself a slave, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
My question to all of you is simply this: When are our education leaders and public officials going to express outrage at these standardized test score results?