Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School was created after the Watts riots to provide the families of South Los Angeles with a safe, secure, and intellectually rigorous educational institution. Born from a violent past, Locke was intended to create a more peaceful and more prosperous future, “to transform students into critical thinkers, decision makers, effective leaders, academic achieves and responsible citizens.”
By the 2000s, all that remained of Locke’s aspirations were a broken shell of a school and generations of drop-outs. The students it received had already suffered through a staggering failure of the educational system. Of the 1200 students who enrolled in the school as ninth-graders, the vast majority demonstrated reading skills at a first-, second- or third-grade level, and only 400 would return for the tenth grade. Located at the center of rival gang territories, Locke had among the lowest test scores and the highest dropout rates in the nation. In 2008, a brawl broke out that involved 600 students. The deterioration of the neighborhood hastened the deterioration of the school, and the failure of the school over the course of forty years returned to the neighborhood 40,000 teenagers (out of the 60,000 who came to the school) without diplomas, job prospects, or a vision of life beyond gangs, crime and imprisonment.
While Locke was amongst the worst, across the country there are over 2000 “dropout factories” where over forty percent of the students do not graduate. In 2008, the graduation rate in Detroit was under 25 percent, 30 percent in Indianapolis and 34 percent in Cleveland. Seven of the nation’s fifty largest cities have high school graduation rates under 50 percent. As Geoffrey Canada says, “Millions of kids are walking the streets with no vested interest in living.”
Even the students who do graduate are under-educated and under-prepared for the global marketplace. According to the Third International Mathematics and Social Science study (TIMSS), compared to other industrialized nations in Europe and Asia, American fourth-graders in the 1990s were in the middle of the pack in math, eighth-graders were 28th out of 41, and twelfth graders were third from the bottom, only besting Cyprus and South Africa. Our scores on science were similar, starting off well in fourth grade and descending rapidly to the bottom of the pack for high school seniors. Even America’s top students, when compared with other nations’ top students, came in second-to-last in advanced mathematics and dead last in advanced science. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown similarly poor results throughout the 2000s for American 15-year-olds in science, mathematics and reading literacy.
I’ve seen the consequences personally. After three years in prison chaplaincy, the Zip Code Lottery was painfully clear. Born into the right zip code, your chances of obtaining a decent education, going to college, beginning a career, and having children within wedlock are high. Born into the wrong zip code, the odds against you are overwhelming. Beautiful children — boys and girls like yours and mine, with gentle hearts and curious minds and souls filled with dreams — are born into broken families, crime-ridden and gang-infested neighborhoods, and schools that are more like prison yards than academies of learning.
“It’s like there’s a train that starts in Newark,” said my supervisor, Rev. Sam Atchison, “and it picks up a bunch of young men and ships them here to Trenton State Prison. If you’re born in Newark, chances are you’ll be boarding that train as soon as you become an adult.”
The rot underneath the architecture of the American public education system is the legacy of economic failure, social and cultural failure, and family breakdown. It’s the legacy of a massive education bureaucracy that has, at least in many districts, failed spectacularly — and it’s also the legacy of a coalition of political co-belligerents who have defended that bureaucracy tooth and nail.
Try firing an ineffective teacher. Roughly 1 in 50 doctors lose their medical license. Only 1 in 2500 teachers ever lose their teaching credentials. Process that for a moment. It’s much easier to become a teacher than a doctor, yet teachers are fifty times less likely than doctors to be removed from the profession. One of the statistics cited in Waiting for Superman, an extraordinary documentary on the crisis of American public education, is that only 61 out of Illinois’ 876 school districts have attempted to fire even one teacher, and only 38 of those districts were successful. The tenure system — designed to give the most accomplished university professors the freedom to advance new ideas in their teaching and writing without fear of reprisal from their employers, and gained only after many years and rigorous examination — has become an iron shield protecting ineffective teachers who earned their tenure after two years. Good teachers are a national treasure. Bad teachers who refuse to change their ways are leeches on the system who cannot be removed and who miseducate our children into truancy and joblessness.
This is not about teachers but the unions that defend their entrenched interests. While there are cases of parents and teachers working together with local teachers unions to move schools in the right direction, on the state and national level the teachers unions are immense obstacles to effective reform. They oppose longer school days, the elimination of the tenure system, meaningful teacher accountability, and increasing competition and choice through charter and voucher systems. Last week’s election day was telling. It took four tries and millions of dollars from Bill Gates and Alice Walton (of the family behind Walmart) to finally push through a charter school measure in Washington, which will establish forty charter schools and give the “parent trigger” right so that parents at any public school can band together, seize control of the school and turn it into a charter. But California continued its own political suicide by rejecting an effort to break the unions’ political stranglehold on that state, and the unions spent millions to defeat measures in Idaho and South Dakota that would have phased out tenure and offered bonuses to teachers who improved their students’ test scores. The idea that teachers should be held accountable for the effectiveness of their teaching is, apparently, “insulting.”
Another part of the coalition in defense of educational failure is the entertainment establishment. When Won’t Back Down reached theaters, it was roundly denounced by media liberals for presenting the teachers unions in a less-than-positive light. Released by Walden Media (whose co-founder Mike Flaherty is a former education reformer from Boston and a widely admired evangelical businessman), the film presents a nuanced, enjoyable, inspiring story of a distraught parent (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a jaded teacher (Viola Davis) banding together to take over a failing school. The performances and production values were top-notch, and the pro-union side was given fair time. It was an excellent film. While the white elites were making fools of themselves in their sputtering rage at the “noxious” politics of a movie that actually questions the motives and methods of the teachers unions, the largely African American audience that attended the screening with me roared with applause and loved the film. Yet the film was effectively hushed up after it evoked a negative reaction in screenings at the Democratic National Convention, and passed from most theaters in two weeks.
I recommend watching Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down together as soon as the latter is released on DVD in December/January. They present a jaw-dropping portrait of America’s economic crisis, and a stirring story of what can happen when parents and teachers join forces for the sake of the children they both love. They present, in fact, the path eventually taken by Locke High School. After parents and teachers petitioned the district, a charter school organized reopened the school in 2008 as a family of smaller, college-prep academies. In 2011, 256 students, out of 379 students in that class, graduated on schedule.
This is only a partisan issue because the teachers unions own a huge share in the Democratic Party — but we, our nation and our children cannot afford to lose the issue of education reform in the partisan meat-grinder. Perhaps education reform should be one of the great objectives for American Christians in the twenty-first century, and perhaps here white evangelicals can find common cause with minority Democrats. We need to break the stranglehold and we need to begin making meaningful reform, one community at a time.