Achievement gap is our fault, not the kids'

Teaching is hard work, and teaching in the public school system in Baltimore City sometimes feels like it is impossible. You spend time juggling classroom management, budget deficits and high teacher turnover while working in environments that are often dark and hot and crowded. It is not for the faint of heart.

I am a former Baltimore City middle school teacher who taught at a persistently dangerous school, and every day I walked into the classroom determined to teach my students that where they started in their lives did not have to be where they finished. I foolishly believed that their lack of educational achievement and success was simply a state of mind that they could change if they worked hard enough. I learned the hard way that I was wrong — that it's everyone else's state of mind holding them back.

On the first day of school I used to share a story with my students about my childhood dream of wanting to fly. I told them how I made myself a cape out of my sheet, jumped off of the fifth step and experienced pure joy for just a moment before I came crashing down. I kept it doing over and over again, until I realized that if I kept doing the same thing, the same way, then I would get the same result. So I had my father stand at the bottom of the step, and the next time I jumped, I flew into his arms. It was simple: I changed my thinking and then I changed my ending. I told that story, year after year, thinking that I was encouraging my students to push themselves to think about new solutions to age-old problems. The very last time I told it, I asked my students to tell me how they could apply this story to their life. Only one student spoke up: "Look around this classroom, around this school — it looks like a prison. We are not supposed to fly here. Ya'll keep telling us to jump down the stairs, with the same dirty capes and the same stupid plans, but you are not trying to catch us."

That was 10 years ago, and every year, after reading about the state of Baltimore City schools, I think about my former students and about what it must feel like to be a part of a larger failed educational experiment that has been starting and stopping in this country for over 250 years. We are in the midst of a crisis in black education that is tied to poverty and a legacy in discrimination, which has been in effect since 1740 when South Carolina implemented the first Slave Code, prohibiting enslaved persons from learning to read and write. By the end of the Civil War, among the nearly 4 million black people in America, less than 10 percent could read or write.

The biggest impediment to black literacy was the recalcitrant attitude of some white people who firmly believed that free or enslaved, black people were not citizens and therefore had no rights — a harsh and cruel reality. Whenever I shared these facts with my students, they complained and said that these were old boring stories that had nothing to do with them. But today's injustices are rooted in yesterday's systemic inequalities, which persist, along with the firm belief by some that black and brown people are still not entitled to have either rights or a voice.

Even though the cultural landscape of the country has changed, negative attitudes toward black children remain and their literacy rates have still not risen to the level of their white and Asian peers. According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 18 percent of black fourth-graders are proficient in reading and 19 percent in math. Here in Baltimore City, which maintains one of the country's highest per-pupil spending levels, there are six schools that do not have any students who are testing proficient in either reading or math.

Black students continue to be disproportionately impacted by the shortcomings in our public education system. It starts as early as pre-K, where black students make up only 17 percent of the student population but account for more than 70 percent of the yearly suspensions. We are at a moment where we spend more time teaching black kids to survive this world rather than teaching them how to thrive in it.

If we want to survive as a city and nation, then we must be willing to admit that this current crisis in black education is our responsibility. We must be willing to admit that the current solutions are not working and that the educational industrial complex must be dismantled so that real change can happen. We must be willing to work together to find new and innovative ways to educate our children. And, if we really want them to learn how to fly — to experience moments of pure joy — than we have to be willing to commit ourselves to doing everything we can to catch them, all of them, before they fall.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the author of "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post Racial America." A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore's NPR station. She can be reached at kewhitehead@loyola.edu or @kayewhitehead.

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