Race and poverty: education, healthcare, and community

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crossposted from Daily Kos

In case you didn't know, I am a teacher. My students are diverse, racially and somewhat economically. We live in a time when overt discrimination because of 'race' supposedly does not exist because we have outlawed it. Yet we still allow discrimination based on socioeconomic status or, if you will, economic class. And because our economic classes are still racially skewed, we perpetuate a discrimination that has an impact that fall disproportionally upon people of color. I see this daily in school, in the lives of those I teach.

Today's Boston Globe has three op eds that address these related issues. The first is by the just-deceased John Hope Franklin, historian and social observer/critic; the second by Evan Dobelle, President of Westfield State College; and the third by two senior pediatric residents at Boston Medical Center and Children's Hospital Boston. I will poke around all three columns, even as I suggest that you read the originals. And I will offer a few thoughts of my own.

Let me start with health care, because a student who is not healthy will have trouble learning, no matter how bright s/he is: excessive absence from school interrupts the continuity of learning. In Defining, funding quality healthcare for the poor, Genevieve Preer and Chén Kenyon
point out that the financial stresses in Massachusetts have led to a budget put forth by Governor Patrick that will result in their hospital being reimbursed $.64/dollar for their "predominantly low-income Medicaid patients." Because "No healthcare provider can remain viable, much less continue to provide excellent care, while being paid 64 cents for every dollar spent" they urge that the stimulus funds usable for medical purposes "should be used as an immediate remedy to restore equal Medicaid reimbursement so that vulnerable patients at hospitals like BMC can continue to receive the services they desperately need."

According to a 2008 report issued by the Boston Public Health Commission, the neighborhoods in which our patients live have some of the highest rates of low birth weight babies, asthma hospitalizations for children under the age of 5, tuberculosis, substance abuse treatment hospitalizations, infant mortality, and overall mortality.

The list of services the hospital provides is staggering, for which you will want to read the column. Whether it is neonatal care for preemies, emergency asthma care for teenagers like those I teach, food from the hospital's food pantry, vaccines and routine care - all factors that can make a difference for those children by the time they reach the high school level at which I teach. They may be fortunate to live in a state which has a more complete insurance program than do many (including MD where I teach), but as the two doctors note

Simply carrying an insurance card does not guarantee good healthcare. BMC requires equitable funding if it is to continue to deliver high quality, comprehensive medical services to our patients.

And the first two sentences of the paragraph from which I have just quoted the end place it all in context:

Our patients, who carry such an unequal burden of disease, desperately need the unique, high-quality medical services that BMC offers. But if BMC does not receive fair Medicaid reimbursement, we cannot continue to provide our complicated and vulnerable patients with the services they deserve.

Evan Dobelle begins by telling us he listens to his 5,400 students and their hopes and anxieties. In A winning battle plan on learning he notes that his students, predominantly from lower and middle income families, are not entitled, they appreciate all the college does for them, and look forward to futures as "lawyers and doctors, firefighters and police, teachers, nurses, and small business owners." Dobelle then is very blunt:

Our focus is on their success and, regardless of underfunding, we do everything possible to put them on the same footing as those who were born on third base.

But they are the lucky ones. The reality is that their generation as a whole is not going to college and many are not graduating from high school.

Reread that last sentence. I listen to the words of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about telling kids in lower elementary grades about getting ready for college and wonder if I can have some of what he is smoking? I am that bitter not because students are not capable of doing the work necessary to prepare them for post-secondary education, but because for all our rhetoric of leaving no child behind, for all the dollars we are putting into some aspects of schooling (far too much on testing to "prove" that we are serving children when all we demonstrate is that we prepare them for meaningless tests) we still do not address the underlying issues. Above I wrote of the impact of lack of health care - to which I should add insufficient nutrition - have on the ability of our children to succeed in school.

Dobelle is blunt, and wants us to look at the facts. He writes

We really don't prioritize education. We do not allocate resources. We avoid the expensive corollaries between lack of education and the criminal justice and social welfare systems. We tend to blame teachers and unions, believing that all we need to do is create more charter schools or privatize public schools and everything will take care of itself. Get real. Bad neighborhood, tough school. Wealthy community, good school. Preschool available? Parents educated and both at home? All predictors. Tell me the answers to those questions and I'll tell you the scores on testing.

His next sentence is the crux of his argument, and let me immediately give it the appropriate emphasis: No stimulus package is going to change America for the children who live in the shadows until we get serious about community. Dobelle wants us to get serious about it, to have a task force that includes representatives of all aspects of society to address the urban landscape that so impoverishes lives.

Perhaps this next, extended, paragraph puts it bluntly enough:

The education challenge is one of economic class, where race is disproportionately represented. Of the students who graduate from high school, less than 50 percent go directly to college. Not just in Houston or Cleveland but in rural Maine and Oklahoma. One-third of American teens aren't graduating from high school and less than half go on to college when they do. That's the teachers' fault? That's a reason to dismantle the public school? Please spare me the rhetoric. We need a concentrated effort with action. The new realities of technology, learning differences, and international understanding are extraordinary. After legislation is implemented and the roads and bridges are built and the ribbons on the new buildings are cut, just what is the promise that dreams can really come true for all our children? It cannot be kept, simple as that.

just what is the promise that dreams can really come true for all our children? ALL of our children, the ones who are not supposed to be left behind. Dobelle offers more, but I am already at the limits of fair use on his column, although I am sure he would not object to my quoting the entire thing. Go read it. And note his final two sentences, that is not the schools, it is us a society that must change if we are not to betray his students, those who are part of what should be our true greatest generation.

Health, within the construct of community. And the words of someone who had seen so much. John Hope Franklin lived through the race riots in Tulsa. When he took over the history department at Brooklyn he became the first Black head of a history department anywhere outside of Black colleges and universities. With a doctorate from Harvard, he also taught at Chicago, helped with the preparation for Brown v Board, and served this nation on so many boards and commissions that the mind boggles. I heard him speak once, at a conference called "The Second American Revolution" put on my freshman year at Haverford by a group of students from Haverford and Bryn Mawr. That conference drew something like 1,000 students from colleges and universities up and down the East Coast. As a side note the Bryn Mawr co-chair was Kathy Boudin, whose later activities were far more radical (and thus counterproductive)than anything Franklin advocated.

Derrick Jackson, a superb writer for the Globe, today offers Heeding John Hope Franklin's education warning. He begins the piece as follows:

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN left us with a warning. The most important was on education. In a 2000 telephone interview, I felt his then-85 years seethe over the line from his home in Durham, N.C. To him, the use of standardized tests in our public schools to measure academic ability had gone way too far. He said it reminded him of 1935, when he walked from his historically African-American Fisk University, to white Vanderbilt University to take a test for a graduate studies program at Harvard.

Franklin told Jackson that the white professor "literally through the SAT" at him/ As he walked out of that building he was told by a janitor that he was the first black ever allowed to sit in that building.

Franklin helped with the preparation for Brown, which led to the end of de jure segregation in schools. But class has been used to accomplish a similar sorting and separation, and the mechanism is "to throw tests at the children":

"Yes, you want to know if a student can add or subtract or read in a certain way," Franklin said. ". . . What is much more important to know than a test score is a student's family life, personal life, their socialization, and so forth to help you determine what their abilities are and might be. I think the tests are stacked against any group that has disadvantages. The tests come out of laboratories where people have had certain kinds of experiences, say at prep schools and elite colleges, and have had various kinds of activities and social groups that are not part of an underprivileged student's experience."

As I read those remarks about the kinds of experiences of the testmakers I was reminded about the development of much of our testing experience. I immediately remembered a book by Robert Guthrie entitled Even the Rat was White.

Franklin was a generous soul. Jackson displays some of that generosity in words he quotes from our President in which Obama talks about tests being insufficient. In remarks made the day after Franklin passed Obama noted that the tests under NCLB do not even measure progress. Jackson's penultimate paragraph reads as follows:

On curriculum, Obama added, "Instead of it being designed around sparking people's creativity and their interest in science, it ends up just being, 'Here's the test, here's what you have to learn,' which, you know the average kid is already squirming enough in their seat. Now they're thinking, 'Well, this is completely dull. This is completely uninteresting.' And they get turned off from science or math or all these wonderful subjects that potentially they could be passionate about. So what we want to do is not completely eliminate standardized tests. . . . We just don't want it to be the only thing."

Here I have to pause, because despite all the rhetoric I have heard on the campaign from Obama as candidate, which seems to touch on issues like fairness, he still leaves open the use of standardized tests in a way that is destructive, that ignores what Franklin learned and expounded, or that we have already seen in the words of Evan Dobelle. The methods we are using to evaluate are too blunt, too crude, and do not take into account the inequities that are part of what we are measuring. Students of lower economic class get poorer nutrition, often beginning when they are infants. Too many live in houses that still have lead paint, the chips of which when ingested can do permanent damage to their brains. They lack access to appropriate health care, and as noted by the two doctors even the health care they are currently receiving is in jeopardy. As an educator and one who follows educational policy, I note that the schools in which we purport to educate them their curriculum is reduced in order to demonstrate "success" on the tests we use to measure "progress" or "success." We have not yet addressed the underlying conditions of poverty, even as we are less than five years away from Lyndon Johnson attempting to address our econoic inequity. We still have no meaningful comprehensive plan to restructure the communities of poverty. Our failure occurs within a context in which we may no longer officially discriminate by race, but the impact does fall disproportionally upon people of color: Black, Hispanic, some Asian groups, and certainly Native Americans. It falls disproportionally not only upon the inner cities which are heavily of color, but also on rural areas that may be almost exclusively white (but include pockets of Native Americans) which lack the political clout to influence either national or state policies that fail to reach their needs.

Jackson ends his piece with a statement that cuts both ways, the hope and sense of achievement and the recognition that our policies fail to address important things. It reads:

Somewhere, Franklin is smiling. He went from being the first black person to sit in a Vanderbilt office to seeing the first black person run the Oval Office. There is no standardized test to measure how the nation went from there to that.

Reread that last sentence: There is no standardized test to measure how the nation went from there to that. IF we believe that accomplishment - ours as a nation as much as it is Obama's as an individual and transformation figure - perhaps that will help us put into context the concerns many of us have about how we measure "progress" (and not just in our schools and classroom).

We have in some ways advanced over the segregated society in which John Hope Franklin grew up and in which he spent much of his life. Yet we are still seemingly unwilling to address inequities. Our failure to do so, our willingness to tolerate the disparities with which so many are still forced to live - in health care and community as well as in public education - should serve to challenge us if not shame us. Some will use our current economic crises (plural) to argue that we cannot afford another New Deal or Great Society. Think how much worse off many would be if, despite some failures of those two sweeping programs, we had not devoted the resources we did. I would argue that we cannot afford to do less now, or we will lose another generation of young people, and the problems we see now will pale in comparison to those we will encounter within a decade or less.

Education. Healthcare. Community. We the people are supposed to promote the general welfare. Perhaps it is time to recognize that unless we do so, we cannot truly establish justice?