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Held Back

First, a warning: The story you’re about to read is not news. It‘s not even a new development in an old story, an update in the strict sense of the word. Many people believe, not too privately, that this story doesn’t really have what the news business calls a hook, a prominent element of conflict or urgency that would at least qualify it to hover in the wings waiting for a shot at publication or airtime after the more timely stuff -- war, celebrity divorces, ethnic festivals -- get theirs. This story isn‘t at the back of the line -- it’s not even in line, and hasn‘t been in years. It has its sympathizers in the editorial echelons of newsrooms, but no real ground-level advocates. Yet it’s the biggest single reason why ”disproportionately represented“ has become black people‘s middle name, why too many of them wind up in prison or poverty or the minimum-wage loop, generally on the wrong side of any statistics that measure social well-being. Despite the very dire consequences of ignoring this story, it stopped being a story long ago and simply became Fate, which no reporter or news anchor wants to touch; if there’s no reason for a follow-up announcing that somebody high up got nervous and started doing something differently, the story won‘t get written in the first place. This story doesn’t inspire nervousness. Contempt, disgust, resignation, an urge to flee and seek higher ground, yes -- but nervousness, a feeling of something close about to fall hard on your shoulders, no. This story is grave but distant, like death, or the 8-point earthquake that won‘t, of course, happen in our lifetime.

The story is the miserable state of black education. Actually, the story is why it’s still so miserable after years of desegregation battles, civil rights activism and mounting evidence that without a sturdy education, one can kiss one‘s fortunes in the new millennium goodbye. Before anyone starts vigorously pointing to the groundbreaking prosperity of the black middle class in the last couple of decades, let me say: I know. I’m among the brave new petit bourgeois myself. But the fact is that far more of us are being left behind -- permanently -- than are being moved ahead, and those moving ahead are chiefly advantaged by -- you guessed it -- education. With all due respect to the Rev. Creflo Dollar and his Trinity Broadcasting ilk, black improvement is largely a blessing of degrees, not God. Which leaves us with the conundrum of knowing exactly how to solve the problem (we‘ve always known -- black people more than any other group have clung to the notion of education as the great equalizer), yet not giving the solution the stature it deserves because it seems, well, passe. Or something even less appealing, and less admissible. ”Our fault as a [black] community is that we’ve allowed this to happen,“ says Theodore Alexander, a longtime assistant superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District. ”Sure, we have a middle class that‘s made advances, but when you look at the number of kids who aren’t going anywhere . . . We‘ve sacrificed those kids for the betterment of a few.“ The outrage of the past, in other words, turned out to be for sale. The price of complacency has been steep, and we’re still paying it. ”The problem is, what was once considered a problem is now pretty much regarded as a circumstance,“ says George McKenna III, a veteran educator who is now deputy superintendent in the beleaguered, roughly half-black Compton school district. ”A circumstance is just the way things are. It‘s accepted by everybody -- white, black, brown. And that’s the end of it.“

But the stuff of outrage remains. Here‘s a start: In L.A. Unified, black students as a group are at the bottom of the heap in terms of standardized test scores; they’ve been there for as long as anybody I talked to can remember. (Random examples from the latest stats: White first-graders scored in the 65th percentile in math, blacks in the 35th -- four points below the district average. White ninth-graders scored in the 47th percentile in reading, blacks in the 22nd.) Black students, particularly black males, are increasingly overrepresented in special-education classes (though only 16 percent of the general student population, they make up 20 percent of the special-ed population), in part because they tend to be identified early as having behavioral or emotional problems, which are invariably linked to academic problems -- and once you‘re on the special-ed track, you tend not to get off. Historically black schools that have become substantially Latino in the last decade but with the highest concentrations of black students in the district -- Crenshaw, Dorsey, Washington, Locke, Fremont, Jordan -- have the highest numbers of uncredentialed and absentee teachers (28 percent of all uncredentialed teachers work in District 1, an inner-city district that includes several of these schools). Schools in relatively affluent areas that have imported black populations -- such as Westchester, Hamilton and many San Fernando Valley high school campuses -- have similar problems of black underachievement. (Example: At Westchester, black 10th-graders scored in the 24th percentile in reading, whites in the 52nd.) Location doesn’t seem to be much of a factor.

 

Some would argue that the real factor here is not ethnic but socioeconomic. The problems of black children are now chiefly the problems of poverty and ineffective school bureaucracies. Latinos tend to occupy the same socioeconomic strata as blacks and also underachieve in droves. But Latinos have specific issues of immigration, culture and language, issues that are institutionally acknowledged by programs such as bilingual education -- which, by the way, has yet to be dismantled. Black students‘ needs have never been acknowledged as such, partly because ”black problems“ are viewed as pathological and stigmatizing, partly because multicultural America, determined to cast off racism like an outgrown sweater, is becoming ever more reluctant to identify any issues as specifically black. So the response to foundering black education has been more emotional than practical -- experts and pundits regularly intimate that blacks need to shore up family values, they lack determination, they’re just not capable after all. This is not to say that poverty isn‘t a big part of the problem, or that problems of African-Americans don’t overlap with those of Latinos or other groups that populate the inner city. But to stop at that is to dismiss a particular (peculiar, as some of our Southern forefathers called it) history that gave rise to particular problems that, as much as we are in denial about their existence, are still very much alive. A paragraph from the National Urban League‘s 1995 almanac, State of Black America, summed it up this way: ”Low educational achievement among African-Americans has resulted not only from poverty and prejudice, but from the structured expectation in our schools that black children will fail.“ a

Assistant Superintendent Ted Alexander says that at the root of the black-education rot is the assumption that has quietly emerged over the last generation that the need for integration is dead. This is odd, considering that the same people who believe that also believe -- quite willingly -- that many schools, especially inner-city schools with heavy black and brown populations, remain essentially segregated. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if schools had roughly equal access to resources and some assurance of academic equity, but they don‘t. The push for school integration was of course a push for this kind of equity -- not just for the right of black students to sit in the same classrooms with white -- but the truth is that once the right to move about freely was secured, attention to such paltry details as viable equity, or even whether students were really moving freely about at all, quickly waned. Not that there wasn’t some follow-up; we had court-ordered busing back in the ‘70s, the federal response to the fact that the 1954 Supreme Court decision to ban segregated schools was a good start, though not enough. But mandatory busing, which involved busing white students to black areas as well as the other way around, wound up being as unpopular and raising as much ire as the Vietnam War, particularly in suburb-cocooned L.A. It was scrapped, and what remained in its place to do the desegregation job for the last 20 years is what’s run out of Alexander‘s Office of Student Integration Services -- chiefly ”Permit With Transportation“ busing, magnet schools and assorted student-improvement programs focused on the urban core, which includes many schools that not very long ago were primarily black.

Magnets and busing are the biggest components of integration services, involving more than 12,000 black students. Yet there is no comprehensive system in place that tracks how well these programs are working, whether or not black students -- the original impetus for all this -- are benefiting educationally or otherwise. What we do know is that last year, a group of black Hamilton High School parents got so inflamed over the ongoing academic failures of black students that they went looking for somebody to blame and wound up pitching the whole campus into a swamp of racial tensions and bitter divisions from which it is still struggling to recover. As poisonous and terribly misguided as that campaign was, the drive to establish some kind of accountability -- right now -- for the institutional malign neglect of black students was understandable, even necessary. Parents were also railing at the fact that black students in Hamilton’s humanities and music magnet schools fare so much better academically than their main-school counterparts. (Example: In 10th-grade language tests, black students in the humanities magnet scored in the 61st percentile; those in the main school scored in the 29th.) If one very charitably assumed the parents were not against magnets, as they claimed, then one would have to agree with their argument for some systematic effort to bring the rest of the school up to magnet code. If the lab experiment worked, the argument goes, why not try replicating it en masse, at least elements of it? Why limit the already limited fruits of integration to a few? The reasons why not are myriad, but Judy Burton, assistant superintendent of the district‘s Office of School Reform, offers this: ”The lowest-achieving kids are black and brown. You can’t ever discount that fact when it comes to wondering why there isn‘t more public interest in closing the achievement gap.“ In other words, race matters.

 

Alexander exhibits a clear ambivalence about black education that is typical of the local black educators I talked to: In one breath he exalts the successes of his office, and in another, bigger breath he condemns the system at large for dropping the ball. That system, by the way, includes black communities that have relaxed their vigilance over the years right along with everyone else. That riles Alexander most of all. ”In ’54, that lawyer team [of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund] built a case around the fact that schools were clearly unequal,“ he says. ”But we‘re at the point now where we need to look at educational outcome, not opportunity. That means putting resources into achieving the outcome you want. We’re not doing that.“ We has many meanings here, all applicable: the school system, Alexander himself, the black middle class that has divested itself of the fortunes of the lower, politicians of all stripes. The biggest problem of black education is that an issue that once seemed relatively straightforward has become so cantilevered, requiring so many levels of involvement to address, that a working solution seems more remote now than it did in 1954. And as California politics globalize, Alexander notes, the black struggle inversely grows smaller; the primary struggle now is not education or civil rights or anything comparable, but merely the right for black people politically to remain black. ”When I started the Ten Schools Program, I enlisted the help of the United Negro College Fund, and now they‘re thinking of changing their name to something else,“ says Alexander, looking peeved. ”There’s this falsehood out there that we can‘t wear our blackness anymore, even when it makes sense. [The educational mentoring organization] 100 Black Men wants to broaden its scope to be more inclusive of other ethnic groups, for political reasons. I said that I didn’t want any part of it.“

The Ten Schools Program, another component of Student Integration Services, began in the late ‘80s as a frontal attack on the failure of black schools to ground students in the basics early on. It involves a dozen of the historically lowest-achieving elementary schools (two were added to the original 10 in recent years) in an area stretching from Southwest L.A. to Watts, and focuses on language development. Equally important is teacher role modeling -- for example, male teachers at Ten Schools are required to wear ties in the classroom; women are required to wear hose. ”This is about school gestalt, about total school environment,“ explains Alexander, who fondly remembers such things from his own largely segregated education in post--Central Avenue, pre--Watts Riots Los Angeles. The latest standardized test scores from Ten Schools are both heartening and not: As a group, they outperform other schools in their respective ”clusters,“ which means they score slightly above the 25th percentile (the district average is the 30th percentile). Three of the 12 schools scored at the district average or above; one of those, Bright Elementary, is above the 40th percentile. That means that three schools out of the dozens in the South-Central landscape are average by district standards, which are not very high.

Ten Schools is an elaboration of an earlier program called Triad, run at three low-performing black schools that form a feeder chain: 95th Street School, Bret Harte Prep Junior High (now Middle School) and Washington Prep High School. The idea was to forge a single academic community and sense of purpose among students, parents and school staff at the three campuses. ”We had parents giving orientations to other parents, uniform homework procedures, students signing contracts,“ recalls Charles Palmer, an educational consultant who was principal at Bret Harte during the Triad period. ”It was very hands-on. We had progress reports every week -- we couldn’t afford to wait six weeks to see if our kids were failing. It was very much a village-raising-a-child concept. It was clear that we were all on the same page.“ Overall, there were modest gains in state test scores for the three schools between 1983 and ‘88, particularly at Bret Harte. But Triad, conceived as a model for troubled schools, never became what Palmer and others hoped; when the regional administrators who had originally championed Triad left, it petered out. ”The district didn’t support the effort,“ Palmer sighs. ”There was no follow-up, no implementation.“ As with a few other concentrated efforts to improve black education, Triad never made the jump from being driven by personalities to being driven by policy. Institutionalizing anything other than failure in certain neighborhoods has proved to be little more than a notion.

 

Burton, a veteran of the Ten Schools Program, says that it did grow into a community, forming a tiny ersatz school district with common, well-defined goals. During her five-year tenure as principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, she says, teachers at various schools routinely visited each other and gave each other critical feedback. High expectations were set in kindergarten. Teaching staff included 15 mentor teachers and many very good veterans; staff turnover was low. ”The only way to increase test scores is to improve day-to-day instruction, and that‘s what we did,“ says Burton, noting that 93rd Street School, in spite of being located in South-Central’s heart of darkness, experienced similar success (its latest composite test score puts it at the 30th percentile, the district average). But Burton suggests that the district has been unwilling to extend its support beyond the handful of schools for one overriding reason: money. What with extra school days, professional training and quarterly assessments, the $8 million Ten Schools Program is apparently prohibitively expensive. It hardly needs to be said that such reluctance is costing everybody -- kids, parents, society -- far more than money. ”I think the lowest-achieving schools need specific help and specific efforts,“ says Burton. ”It‘s kind of obvious. Unfortunately, the public sees it as a money or prestige issue. Or,“ she adds, ”a race issue.“ Kind of hard to tell the difference these days.

Not even the combustible personality of George McKenna could kindle the fires of reform, not for long. Between 1978 and 1988, McKenna garnered national attention as the hard-nosed rookie principal a of Washington Prep High School who in the span of a few years made atmospheric changes at a ground-zero campus. McKenna was in fact the original impetus for both Triad and the Ten Schools Program. He doesn’t express much faith in either, or in the fortunes of Washington (”Too many conversations never become agendas“). Yet he fiercely believes in the notion of academic autonomy at black and minority schools. ”At Washington, we were trying to prove that you didn‘t have to get on a bus to achieve in school,“ he says with typical brusqueness. ”I came from segregation and excellence, and I know that it can work. We had no white children at Washington. Equity is colorblind, and so is excellence.“ But there were deep racial rifts at Washington during McKenna’s reign: He purged the school of much of its majority-white teaching staff, not because of any presumed racial insensitivity, he says, ”but because they were not effective. Effectiveness is measured by student achievement. Too many teachers present material but don‘t teach.“ In his 10 ballyhooed years at Washington, McKenna admits, standardized test scores did not rise sharply -- a 10-percentile-point increase, at best. But many other quality-of-campus-life issues improved dramatically: Student attendance soared, as did college admissions and the number of students taking the SAT; incidents of violence dropped steeply. In short, the social and cultural problems that concentrically ringed the core problem of academics were dealt with first; education was something that had to be approached from the outside in. ”Test scores didn’t significantly reflect all the good that was happening,“ says McKenna. ”And it took about three years of us working at it to see any change. Nothing really changed at Washington until about ‘82.“

McKenna would certainly call himself a proponent of integration, but he wrestles with the term as it’s been historically understood. From a purely philosophical standpoint, integration as a salve for black education raises uneasy questions of validation and self-esteem. Politically, it is much more a practical matter, and always has been. ”The issue is not so much that the presence of white kids ensures a quality education, but the resources that integration efforts bring to bear on real problems of achievement,“ says one seasoned urban-education consultant. ”The fact is, the system is responsible for educating the children.“ Holding the system to the legal allowances of integration has traditionally been the method blacks have used to track accountability. ”But real accountability,“ says the consultant, ”is us applying the kind of political pressure that we have yet to see.“ And as blacks assimilate and get further away from identifying their culture as one of difference, that pressure will be tougher and tougher to come by. ”We‘ve internalized over the years that ’black difference‘ is bad, so educators don’t want to bring it up,“ says Owen Knox, a consultant and member of a national nonprofit called Educating Black Children. ”With ebonics, everyone leapt to the conclusion that black students‘ speech was a reflection of how poorly they thought, or how dumb they were, when in fact speech is merely a system of symbols representing ideas. The schools all say, ’You must adapt to me,‘ rather than looking at how they might adapt to students and their needs. It’s assumed all needs are the same. They aren‘t.“

 

Remember ebonics? That was the last black-education issue to penetrate public awareness, and it didn’t exactly make a good impression. At the bottom of all the ridicule over black children being ”taught“ street English as self-affirmation -- a popular misreading of the issue -- was the very real problem of black students in Oakland‘s school system failing to acquire adequate language skills. Oakland may have bungled the solution, but at least school officials there recognized a problem that no one else wanted to because doing so highlighted a dreaded ”black difference.“ Everybody with an opinion on the matter declared that black kids can certainly learn like everyone else, then they went home. Forget about black people applying political pressure to substantively address a learning issue; they were too busy trying to put the whole embarrassing episode behind them. (LAUSD, by the way, has a Language Development Program in place to address just such problems of language transition, though according to the nonprofit Achievement Council, Latino males in the program whose primary language is not English score higher than black males whose primary language is.)

Not quite everyone shies away from ethnic-specific orientations. Middle College High School, a small alternative school on the campus of L.A. Southwest College, is all black and Latino; its curriculum includes ”The Psychology of Racism,“ and a required ”American Social History Project“ taught by a black college professor that covers the historical and other contributions of blacks, Latinos and women. The latest test scores at Middle College are at least as high as district averages, and in several categories higher. (Random examples: Ninth-grade math scores are in the 40th percentile, compared to the district average of 38th. Reading scores for the same grade are at the 28th percentile, while the district average is 22nd.) Seniors go on to college at a rate astonishing for a nonmagnet, minority public high school -- at last count 93 percent, says principal Natalie Battersbee -- and while the typical Middle College student certainly has potential, many are not career high achievers, and others have in fact had academic and behavioral problems at other, bigger schools. Middle College’s magic is, first and foremost, a population of 350, not the 3,000 typical of most inner-city schools. Battersbee, who is black, says she knows every student personally. So well, in fact, that she recently advised her top two seniors, who got accepted by UCLA, to go elsewhere. ”The admissions people at UCLA asked me why, and I said, ‘Because you don’t care about a student with a black face,‘“ says Battersbee, alluding to the anti-affirmative-action sentiment and alarming black attrition rate at the Westwood campus. ”I do everything I can to get kids into schools like Fisk and other black colleges where they’re nurtured, where they can flourish and grow.“ Part of the mammoth Los Angeles school district but not quite of it, Middle College can afford its proclivities. But it does seem to prove what McKenna calls an absolute truth of public education: Reform, or chaos or status quo, begins with the principal.

Would that reform started with school boards -- not L.A.‘s hapless gang of five, which oversees a student population of some 710,000, but Compton’s and Inglewood‘s, with far more manageable populations of 37,000 and 17,000 or so, respectively. Both cities are historically black, but have undergone swift demographic transitions; Latinos now make up roughly half of each. Both have predominantly black local governments and school boards -- and, alas, both are slouching toward Armageddon. The Compton school district’s free fall is into its sixth year, and Inglewood, despite its greater affluence and more solid middle class, seems poised to follow. While the failure of black leadership to effectively address education is distressing in both cases, Inglewood‘s failure is particularly so -- it has the very dubious distinction of being Southern California’s only sizable middle-class burg with a poverty-class school district. Parents with means tend to send their kids out of the district, or to private schools. Standardized test scores are dismal. (Despite some encouraging numbers in the early grades, especially at a few beating-the-odds campuses like Bennett Kew and Kelso elementary schools, achievement drops precipitously in the upper grades. Example: In ninth-grade reading, Inglewood‘s district average percentile rank is 19; for 10th grade, it’s 14; and for 11th grade, 20.) A group of Inglewood High students and the ACLU are suing the district and the state education department for not providing them with enough Advanced Placement courses to give them a fighting chance for admission to top colleges. The school board, as a group, has publicly expressed far more interest in running for higher offices than in any of these issues. ”It‘s a twofold problem -- black folks can’t agree on anything, and there are too many agendas on every count,“ says a veteran black educator who passionately requested anonymity. ”Black school districts usually are a mess. Individual powwows take priority, because everyone in charge is concerned with appearing powerful. There‘s no holistic sense at all. And important issues get pushed to the background.“ McKenna agrees that political types of all colors resolutely pay no attention to the failings of students of color. ”Compton was the first district in the state to be placed in academic receivership, but it was the fiscal problems that finally got people’s attention,“ he says. ”Academically, we had been languishing for years. But our education deficiencies didn‘t raise anybody’s temperature.“

 

McKenna and his brethren -- Owen Knox and Charles Palmer and pretty much everyone else who would attach themselves to black-education issues -- are of the old-guard, black-advocacy generation that doesn‘t see a like-minded generation a following it into the future. That doesn’t exactly exonerate the elders; in the ‘70s, it was they who, in the movement’s postmortem gloom, first began turning away from causes and turning more to material comforts. Organizations allegedly set up to oversee education interests -- the Council of Black Administrators, the Black Education Commission -- proved to be more creatures of the L.A. school district, more about sharper image and professional networking than about effective watchdogging. (The same could be said, by the way, of many old-line black groups, from the NAACP on down.) The great mobility and diffusion of the black populace in L.A. in the last generation or so has also contributed to the problem of continuity. ”It‘s getting harder to advocate for a population that’s decreasing in proportion,“ says the urban-education consultant. ”I mean, it‘s harder to get people to pay attention to 5 percent of the problem, when it used to be 30 percent.“ And such diminishment seems more palatable in Los Angeles than anywhere else, because the city has so few activist traditions to uphold. ”L.A. tends to be very cut off from education issues,“ she says. ”No one here is really looking for black-education models that work. For change to happen, there has to be public will. Parents and voters aren’t willing to vote in legislators and school-board members who will set a standard and keep it there. There are issues that burn in other places in the country -- there‘s a battle over standardized testing raging in Massachusetts, and in Texas they passed a law that says teachers must inform students of their credential status.“ That, of course, was one provision of an education-accountability bill that Governor Gray Davis recently failed to support. ”Here in California, people have no idea,“ says the consultant. ”But there are a whole series of questions in this state that we’re all dealing with -- class issues, post--Prop. 209 issues. All of this is so desensitizing when people who are trying to make something happen keep trying and trying and don‘t get anywhere.“ Also, she points out, ”a certain level of advocacy across the board has simply moved on. The white parents who used to be up in arms over public education have moved their kids out of harm’s way and into charter and private schools.“ Blacks have experienced more than a trickle-down effect of this kind of civic ennui -- it hasn‘t rained, it’s poured.

Reform efforts face an uphill battle and a dubious history. Triad fell by the wayside; Educating Black Children submitted a comprehensive blueprint for improving black-student performance to LAUSD, which it officially accepted two years ago but has yet to implement in any meaningful way. The Hamilton High School parent group has joined forces with similarly concerned groups across town, including the yeomanly Parents and Students Organized based in Watts, to form Equity Network; whether another, saner brand of education activism will prevail remains to be seen. Owen Knox is helping to grow Watts Learning Center, a tiny South L.A. elementary charter school -- just kindergarten and first grade so far -- that is predominantly black and has less than half the population of Middle College High. The focus on making students and parents equal stakeholders, of custom-tailoring teaching to student needs, is very much Triad‘s, Ten Schools’, Middle College‘s -- ”building a community of learners,“ says Knox. All students enter second grade knowing how to read efficiently. ”What we’re demonstrating is that with greater participation, we have greater success. The school becomes part of the community, not a distant entity that‘s a wholly different environment from home.“

 

Black-education reform is also going to have to happen alongside the Latino-ization of Los Angeles Unified, which proceeds apace. ”It’s going to take extremely sophisticated leadership to navigate this, to sidestep an explosion,“ says George McKenna, understandably not sounding very optimistic. ”If we as blacks don‘t keep focused on a black agenda, how can we expect anybody else to?“ Whether having a black woman as board president -- namely Genethia Hayes -- will make a marked difference in the fortunes of black children is any psychic’s guess. Fellow board member David Tokofsky says the district is at least now more willing to disaggregate data at troubled schools, which will allow it to more thoroughly assess instruction and track moneys spent -- in other words, to actually practice accountability. Parsing information is certainly a good thing, but it‘s only a precursor to remedy and action; in the meantime, problems that are already generations old continue to fester. ”What we’re lacking overall is the social architects, engineers and politicians who want to build those bridges over troubled racial waters,“ says Tokofsky. ”Frankly, I don‘t think anyone’s sat down and thought about black education since 1966.“ At millennium‘s edge, prevailing black philosophy has made an odd portent out of that ’70s theatrical confection The Wiz, which touted black liberation through a fairy-tale belief in self-creation, and admonished: Don‘t nobody bring me no bad news. Genethia Hayes remarked at a recent gathering of concerned black citizens that the reason black students are getting such short shrift is due to the very fact that nobody’s watching, or nobody wants to. The new century will shortly determine whether those words prophesy a different and difficult course, or if our newest school-board member will be reduced to singing the same old song.

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