The newly renamed DeKalb County School District (DCSD) has been in the news a lot lately. Because its leaders apparently avoid talking to the media, the DCSD taps highly paid “communications consultants” to claim that “staff attrition” will correct DeKalb Schools’ dismal financial condition.
Meanwhile, the fifth week of instruction saw classes throughout DeKalb Schools overflowing with students tightly packed into classrooms and lacking permanent, certified teachers. Teachers systemwide got re-acquainted with the mantra about “doing more with less” while enduring mind-numbing, long-winded meetings supplemented by the onset of “research-based coaching cycles” that are supposed to teach teachers how to “engage” students.
DeKalb County Schools, a public service much more vital to the have-nots than to the haves is teetering, possibly collapsing, while a caste system is redefining the cleavages between the haves and have-nots in metro Atlanta. William B. Hartsfield’s city “too busy to hate” overcame the formal barriers of legal, race-based segregation only to witness now the entrenchment of a social order in which color, class, consanguinity and culture determine access to opportunity and the ability to take advantage of opportunity.
The crisis in DeKalb Schools mainly affects lower-income students of color who already confront varying degrees of informal exclusion from the mainstream culture. If they graduate, these students too often leave school as young adults who are unable to understand – not to mention function in – a society whose number of minorities continues, paradoxically, to climb steadily.
Relatively simple steps could be taken to ameliorate the plight of DeKalb’s schools. Unfortunately, fiats and policies tend to undermine the stated mission of DeKalb Schools. The Uniform Code of Military Justice used by another government bureaucracy would qualify such actions as illegal.
First, academically deficient students – who are usually the most disruptive – need to be identified and then given intensive remedial instruction in math and reading. Far too many DeKalb students are completely flummoxed when asked, “what is 25% of 60% divided by negative 3?” or, “what is the relationship between the proper noun ‘Hobbes’ and the [American] adjective ‘Hobbesian’?” It is not that they don’t know the answers, even though most don’t. It’s that they don’t comprehend why the questions are even being asked, let alone how they should go about attacking them.
Second, the school system must, once and for all, exit the make-believe world where the “appearance of teaching” is valued more than the actual “content of teaching.” Lakeside, Dunwoody, Chamblee, and Druid Hills high schools are run somewhat differently, but other schools persist in deploying “instructional boards,” “word walls,” cookie-cutter “lesson plans,” “collaborative learning models” and the like to camouflage students’ fundamental shortcomings when it comes to very basic skills.
Third, competent leaders must be identified and promoted into decision-making positions. The most important leadership positions must be the ones in the school buildings – and they must be the highest paid administrators in DeKalb Schools.
Again, a useful model may be found in the military. Especially in combat units, commanders are people who can do – and have done – what they expect others to do. Principals and assistant principals must be drawn from the ranks of seasoned teachers. The central office administrators and the non-teaching bloat must be slashed, with more attention going to quality. We have observed administrators who regularly misuse the English language – spoken and written. One school we follow closely serves an overwhelmingly immigrant population, and the school lost teachers due to budget cuts. Yet it still boasts four administrators, none of whom can address – or even greet – the students’ parents in their native language(s).
The politically charged rise of “accountability” has led to an almost surreal obsession with “standards-based assessment” in the form of tests that, usually, are quite easy, especially when compared with similar tests in other countries. The three interconnected steps listed above would help birth an improved educational culture. This counterproductive obsession with the myth of accountability and assessment, would then wane and student performance would rise.
Condoleezza Rice, former U. S. secretary of state and a woman of color second in national prominence only to Michelle Obama, spoke at the recent Republican National Convention. Rice castigated the deteriorating public-education system as a threat to national security. She also identified access to good public education as the civil-rights issue in contemporary America.
Contrary to the goal of good public education, the federal and state governments over the last decade or more have made horrible education policy decisions resulting in the lowered performance of students today. While education soars as the most reliable multi-billion dollar business opportunity it is, more money has been tossed to educrats than ever before in history, again, with no improvement in student achievement.
One thing is certain. An extremely heavy, life-determining price is being paid by the successive cohorts of DeKalb students who are ill-prepared to advance in an environment where formal discrimination has given way to the more subtle and therefore more intractable strictures of caste.