On Saturday, the last day of the National Urban League Conference in New Orleans, what some have called the “civil rights issue of our era” was explored in a plenary session moderated by Dr. Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University.
Some of the topics discussed included improving poor performing schools, what the Obama administration has done to improve education, the attacks on public school teachers, and how people who aren’t parents can do their part to help.
In terms of improving schools, Joe Scantlebury of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talked about his organization’s goal to focus on the classroom here in the US. Most of the foundation’s giving is focused on international issues, but as a domestic priority, the organization’s concern is common course standards. Scantlebury talked about the importance of having an effective teacher and how most successful people who have gone through school and have complete college can point to one person who was pivotal in the classroom.
Another issue that was mentioned was retention and college completion. One panelist said that most African American young people are going to community college and “seeking every opportunity to earn a credential,” meaning some sort of certification or degree. For example, one recent study in California showed that there is a disproportionately large percentage of Black males enrolled in the state’s community colleges, but they often remain stuck at that level. This has to do with preparedness coming from high school and a lack of support services to ensure persistence through graduation.
The Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education for Innovation and Improvement, Jim Shelton, talked about the administration’s goals in improving education for all American students. Shelton talked about how in 2009, there were 3 million more students who had access to Pell grants and that because of this, more African American men enrolled in college than ever before. He addressed the Race to the Top initiative and how the administration has focused on setting standards that matter and improving schools that have historically produced dropouts. He cited his own experience growing up and recognizing that as an adult the same schools that were poor performing when he was a youngster still are that way today.
Shelton also tied in the administration’s goals in terms of passing the Affordable Care Act as having an impact on student performance because “if you are sick, it’s hard to be able to pay attention.” More children will be able to have health coverage and wellness exams under the new law.
And finally, Shelton reminded the audience that these programs don’t have to be labeled for the Black community or say “Black money” for them to be impacting the community.
The recent attacks on public school teachers were also addressed. Dr. Julianna Malveaux discussed the issue of teachers in the context of charter schools. She said, “Only 17 percent of charter schools are more effective than public schools. We have a series of boutique charter schools … The fact is if we treated public schools how we treat charter schools, the public schools might perform better.”
Malveaux also talked about ways in which people can support teachers or advocate for them so that more qualified people are encouraged to enter and advance within the profession. The idea of tenure for public school teachers was offered as an example of how teachers could renew themselves and acquire new skills that they could bring to the classroom.
The session wrapped up with the Urban League President Marc Morial reminding people that they need to be engaged in town halls throughout the country on the education issue. And Dr. Watkins told the audience that they don’t need to be parents to mentor or assist a young person who is navigating the educational system.