Advertisement

School lessons to be learned from Freddie Gray

Baltimore can be proud of its civic response to the rioters and to the criminal charges brought against six police officers. We can be optimistic that police brutality will decrease measurably. But the aftermath of the tragedy of Freddie Gray should be far from over. As a city, state and nation, we must still uproot the dire urban poverty in which countless Freddie Grays live and die.

No root cause is deeper than the deficiencies of public schools. True, there is nothing in the city school system that remotely resembles the magnitude of police brutality and misconduct. Yet, it is not unfair to say that the school system — systemically — practices a kind of brutality of its own. Not physical or lawless, but one that — when it fails to provide an education that enables mainstream economic and social participation — breeds alienation and criminal behavior, from selling drugs to looting corner stores.

Advertisement

There's no question that city schools — and their urban counterparts nationwide — are failing a large majority of low-income students. For a long time, reams of data have correlated dropouts with unemployment and crime. There is also much research showing the very high incidence of diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities among school dropouts and incarcerated youth and adults.

The distressing city schools data is all too familiar. According to the most reliable national tests, over 75 percent of students are below proficient in reading and math. Graduation rates are commendably up, but most graduates are unprepared for post-secondary education or work. Most students in special education — including Freddie Gray — are placed there because they failed to get proper instruction in regular classrooms.

This is not the place for any blueprint for urban school reform. There are no easy answers of course. But we can recognize several evident truths.

One, our schools are severely underfunded. Yes, money is not all that matters, and there are always ways to be more efficient. But consider the inadequacy of resources in city schools compared to the extraordinary deficits in academic readiness and social skills that poor children, beginning in prekindergarten, bring to the schoolhouse. Teachers no less than children and their parents are victims of institutional neglect, particularly in terms of oversized pupil-teacher ratios, and shortages of timely interventions for struggling learners and emotional and behavioral support services.

Two, schools can't do it alone. They can do far better, but correlation between family socio-economic status and student achievement is indisputable and stark. According to a leading researcher, socio-economic factors account for as much as three-quarters of the variations in student performance across the United States. Yet, our nation is shamefully paralyzed on political action to confront poverty and inequality.

Third, the ideological combatants in the education wars need to declare a cease fire. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, "K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield." Many liberals, in their haste to blame external social causes for school failure, are too quick to make excuses for schools, letting them off the hook for do-able internal reforms. At the same time, conservatives continue to oversell privatization and to scapegoat teachers unions.

During the 1968 riots, I was liaison to city schools among my duties as executive assistant to the then mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. The schools were a source of upheaval in those days too. But we had more hope, and some progress has occurred over the years. Still, it's heartbreaking that we still have such a long, long way to go.

Public information about Freddie Gray's school record has been fragmentary. But he entered school with impairment from lead poisoning. He is reported to have been in special education, four years below grade level in reading, frequently suspended and finally a dropout. For students with his inner city background, this fate is virtually foretold.

As a city, state and nation, we must resolve to better the schooling and lives of all the present and future Freddie Grays. And though only a token down payment on the debt owed our poor schoolchildren, Gov. Larry Hogan should replace the departing state troopers with the full funding for schools approved by the General Assembly that he has so far withheld.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

Advertisement
Advertisement