I usually write my monthly column solo. This time I picked up a partner - a good one too! Michael Sorrell is President of Dallas' Paul Quinn College. He's a friend and one whom I admire greatly. As the leader of Dallas' only HBCU (Historically Black College/University), his perspective on the current DISD crisis - and it is a crisis - is one which mirrors my own. So we co-authored this months column in the Dallas Morning News...
Michael Sorrell and Gerald Britt: Confront poverty or Dallas schools are stuck in place
For almost 10 months, Dallas has been engaged in a very public local battle in the national war to “fix” urban education.
Nationally, and locally, some combatants on both sides of the war — while sincere — employ logic and tactics that insult and belittle the very communities they purport to save. All parties in this war share the goals of higher-performing students, better-equipped schools and the redevelopment of economically depressed neighborhoods.
Yet in Dallas and across the country, communities that presumably have the most to gain from the efforts of the reformers are rebelling against them. To quote Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs: “What’s the matter here?”
Addressing the educational deficits of under-resourced communities is more complex than merely replacing personnel and implementing new plans. If we are truly sincere about fixing our schools, we must create an environment for our students where real learning can take place. This will only occur by taking aim against the largest barrier to a quality education. This necessitates acknowledging and combating the havoc that extreme and concentrated poverty plays in the learning process in Dallas’ poorest communities.
We all know what it takes to create an ideal environment for a great education: nurturing adults at home and in the community, access to affordable health care and quality food, exposure to great literature, art and music, and safe neighborhoods teeming with adults living productive lives. However, we have become comfortable ignoring the fact that some neighborhoods lack most if not all of what inspires student achievement. Additionally, many of the schools in these neighborhoods do not have the resources to adequately facilitate such achievement. In these environments, how does one design pedagogical techniques that will result in statistically measured success? What numbers accurately reflect academic achievement when returning to school unscathed each day merits an “A”?
This is the danger with becoming overly reliant on test scores as the sole indicators of academic progress. Passing standardized tests should matter, but that cannot be the only way to gauge whether a student is prepared for college and if a school is successful.
The next “Big Thing,” on both sides of the Trinity River, must be to end our internecine squabbles and personality conflicts so that we can work together to provide adequately resourced campuses and safe communities that inspire students to learn. Education does not exist in a vacuum. Our children can learn at high levels. But to do so, they need environments where they are free to excel without fear of life beyond the schoolyard. Every entity and individual that touches the lives of our students has the responsibility to help produce that environment. It’s time we all own up to that charge.
But in owning up to this responsibility, we must learn how to disagree with each other without demonizing the holders of viewpoints that differ from our own. Intelligent people of goodwill should be able to debate in a respectful manner that allows them to work together and create an effective public education system.
The problems facing us today are larger than whether every school should have a strong leader or a great teacher. That is non-negotiable. The real issue is that we must simultaneously address the debilitating poverty in these communities while improving the resources to the schools. Failing to do so renders the personality of the superintendent or the names of the principals and teachers immaterial. Moreover, it guarantees that we will be fighting the same battles in this war 10 years from now.
Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Rev. Gerald Britt Jr., vice president of public policy at CitySquare, may be contacted at email@example.com.