by Ralph Brauer | 11/05/2007 11:41:00 PM
It has been three quarters of a century since Aldous Huxley envisioned a dystopia where a drug called soma kept people under control. It was called Brave New World. Now soma has resurfaced in America’s educational apartheid, where drugs insure students remain docile.
Huxley described soma:
And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that's what soma is.
Before we move on, let's take a personal and cultural Rorschach test. If this article did not have a title and you saw the above picture, what would you think the article was about? The media have conditioned Americans to draw a straight line from African Americans to drugs, from inner city to drugs. And from drugs to crime. Like the drugs in the picture those stereotypes come in a variety of shadings, but they are the prominent image engraved in the American mind of life in the inner city.
While there is no question illicit drugs are a problem not only for the inner city, but also for all America, this story is about a different type of drug problem, one less recognized but in a way more frightening, because it does not stalk its victims on street corners or in dark alleys, nor is it enforced by the sound of Glocks rhythmically spraying death. Instead this drug problem finds fertile ground in the most unlikely of places--the well-lit hallways of our public schools, where teachers and administrators serve as the pushers and pieces of paper become the ammunition for enforcement.
The story of how we reached this sad state of affairs is not a pleasant one. Four score and a bunch of years ago this nation brought forth a system specifically dedicated to preserving racial inequality. It was called suburbia. It set aside enclaves for whites only that were subsidized by the government and chillingly resembled the geographically-based racism of South Africa. America's educational apartheid has created two societies which have served as the main driver of this country's domestic policy for over half a century.
These two worlds are as separate and unequal as the Jim Crow laws that finally lead to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. But even before the ink was dry, America was changing in ways that some--including the present Supreme Court--feel makes Brown obsolete. Like South Africa's apartheid, geographic separation rather than discrimination within the same community has become the problem.
In the Seattle desegregation decision issued last June, Justice Thomas, of all people, essentially supported the geographic separation behind educational apartheid, writing:
Racial imbalance is not segregation, and the mere incantation of terms like resegregation and remediation cannot make up the difference.
Chief Justice Roberts reiterated the same argument in his opinion:
The distinction between segregation by state action and racial imbalance caused by other factors has been central to our jurisprudence in this area for generations.
That decision makes it unlikely that this Court will do anything to remedy the increasing inequality in American public education. In Part One, two schools illustrated this: Plano, Texas high school and Chicago's Morgan Park high school. According to Chicago Public School System (CPS) data, Morgan Park is 91.7 African American and 2.8% white. Of those students, 58.7% are low income. Plano is 65% white, 8% are African American, 11% are Hispanic and 12% are economically disadvantaged. Need we add that the median household income in the Plano zip code is $96,112?
As for student performance...Plano has a mean ACT score of 24.7; Morgan Park 19.2. Seventeen percent of Morgan Park's students score at the three level or above on Advanced Placement exams versus 81% for Plano.
When politicians of either party talk about America's inner city schools they bring with them the same mindset whether they are Democrats or Republicans. The first is that something is wrong with Morgan Park. Although most of them do not say it directly for fear of being labeled racists, they both believe neither the students nor the teachers are "trying" hard enough. For many of these politicians, students don't know how to learn or don't want to "apply" themselves. They don't have good study habits, they live in communities where learning is not a priority, and their family and friends are not supportive. As for teachers, they just are not doing their jobs. Just recall the plot line to movies and TV shows about inner city schools--it usually involves "fighting" against all the above problems.
For Republicans, lurking behind their vouchers solution is a proposal that sounds remarkably like what this country did to Native Americans not that long ago--get the students out of their communities and put them in the equivalent of boarding schools like Haskell and Carlisle designed to obliterate their culture. For make no mistake culture is the enemy here: the low-slung baggy pants, the language, the music, even that certain swagger that is often misread. I sit on a suburban planning commission and still remember one public hearing we had on a townhouse development where a resident stood up and said, "We don't want that rap music here." Democrats may not seem so draconian in their programs, but they also view the students as "learning disabled."
Nothing illustrates this country's agreement with these assumptions than the out-of-control growth of what amounts to a federally-sanctioned program to drug students of color into submission. The buzzwords for educators are ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disordor, CG (Cognitive Disability) and EBD (Emotionally and/or Behaviorally Disabled). No less than the United States Department of Education identified the issue:
Currently, African Americans tend to be significantly overrepresented in the two special education categories of mild mental disabilities and emotional/behavioral disabilities (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, and Singh, 1999). At the same time, African American learners are also underrepresented in gifted education programs nationally (Patton, 1998).
Poor African American children are 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teacher as having mental retardation than their White counterparts (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, and Singh, 1999.
African Americans, especially males, who engage in certain behaviors that represent artifacts of their culture—such as language (ebonics), movement patterns (verve), and a certain “ethnic” appearance—have been found to be overreferred for special education placement (Neal, McCray, and Webb-Johnson, 2001).
The larger the number of minority students in a school district, the greater the representation of minority students in special education (Harry, 1992).
As the Department points out, the professional literature regarding race and EBD OVERWHELMINGLY supports the conclusion that African Americans, particularly inner city African American males are overrepresented in this category. Douglas Cullinan and James Kauffman report:
African American students are disproportionately likely to be identified with the emotional disturbance (ED) education disability. To investigate how teachers' perceptions of students might vary by race, we analyzed Black and White teachers' ratings of 769 students with ED, subdivided by race and grade level, on six emotional and behavior problem variables.
A study of statewide suspension data for Maryland found:
Substantial increases in over-all rates of suspensions from 1995 to 2003, as well as disproportionate rates of suspensions for African American students, American Indian students, and students with disabilities.
Increasingly the method of treating ADHD and EBD has become America's favorite solution to any problem--drugs. In an article in the International Journal of Special Education Kristina M. Hall, Krista A. Bowman, Katie Ley, and William Frankenberger report:
Research indicates that the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders among school-age children with emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD) and concomitant treatment of such disorders with psychotropic medications has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. In 1987 Cullinen, Gadow, and Epstein (1987) reported 9.3% of children in EBD programs received psychiatric medication. In 1996, Runnheim, Frankenberger, and Hazelkorn (1996) reported 40% of children in EBD programs were treated with stimulant medication.
The use of drugs to control the behavior of schoolchildren has been a much-discussed topic in the last decade. You can feed "overmedication of children" into a search engine and spend an evening perusing the results. Several sources report Ritalin use has increased 500% over the last six years in this country. Frontline ran a story on "the Ritalin explosion" that noted this country consumes five times more Ritalin than any other place in the world. Predictably, psychiatrists and drug companies have rushed to defend their rising number of prescriptions. The issue has produced some strange alliances as even the Scientologists and assorted other shady anti-psychiatry/anti-science fringe groups have become involved.
As for black students, the NAACP became so concerned that it issued a Health and Education Resolution in 2003 that stated:
African American Students account for only 16 percent of the U.S. student population, yet they represent nearly a third (32 percent) of all students in programs for mild mental retardation. A New York study had found that minority boys are 11 times more likely to be on mind-altering medications than is the general student body.
Labeling a child with these disorders have led to school personnel coercing parents into accepting psychiatric diagnoses for their child's behavior or learning problems and insisting that parents place their child on psychiatric drugs.
So there you have it, behind the statistics and studies about the indefensible numbers of students of color who are classified as having learning disabilities lies the inescapable conclusion that these students are being told not merely that their problems with school are temporary, but they are part of their very nature, as much as the shape of their mouth, the length of their nose or the size of their hands. The message is clear: Your learning problems are deeply rooted in the depths of your own mind AND they are an illness.
Dr. Thomas Armstrong, who has written and lectured extensively about the abuses of Attention Deficit Disorder and other and other "labels" for school children writes about "the myth of ADD":
Mainly, the ADD/ADHD label is a tragic decoy that takes the focus off of where it’s needed most: the real life of each unique child.
Researcher J. M.Patton has another take:
Since a host of researchers, among them Irvine (1990), Delpit (1995), Ladson-Billings (2001), and Ford and Harris (1992), has documented that many learners find their way into special education by the mere fact of not having been taught, he is suggesting a new category of disability called “ABT,” which translates into “ain’t been taught” (Patton, 2001).
One reason for the rising numbers of inner city students becoming classified with various learning disabilities that is discussed only in whispers in education circles is that special education students are often not included in the test reporting required by No Child Left Behind. In essence classing a student as learning disabled pulls them out of the test scoring and can allow a school to stay off the much-feared "needs improvement" list. In conversations I have had with educators, this topic reminds me of the accusations that schools are giving children the answers to the tests. An administrator will refer to an unnamed school as artificially increasing its special education students to slip by No Child Left Behind. I could find no reference to this in any source, so it remains a rumor, but a potent one that even if untrue provides a sad comment on what NCLB is costing our country. You might say that in order to comply with NCLB, schools are deliberately leaving children behind.
Even without such cheating, teachers, especially those in inner city schools, are coming under increasing pressure from NCLB. Virtually all the measures proposed by politicians and others to "fix" the problems of inner city education focus on "accountability." The hot topic of the moment is something euphemistically termed "merit pay." I use the word euphemistic because inner city teachers are notoriously underpaid so "merit pay" might get them up to the level of a suburban teacher.
Curiously you do not hear much about merit pay in places like Plano, but if you sat in the teachers' lounge in Morgan Park my bet is it would be a major topic of conversation. Most merit pay proposals are designed to "reward" teachers who have the most students passing the tests. Obviously none of the politicians who have proposed this preposterous idea have spent much time in a school. The number one topic in teachers' lounges, especially when school opens, is: What kind of class do you have? Some years you can have a great group of students and some years you can have what teachers refer to as "the class from hell." The one group maxes the test and makes you look like a genius while the other piles up so many detentions that you feel like getting another job.
Coupling merit pay with fill-in-the-blanks tests and you have a recipe for disaster. It does not take a university researcher to figure out that the "winning" strategy becomes teaching to the test. For millions of teachers across the country the classroom becomes the equivalent of one of those crash courses designed to raise SAT scores. Instead of going on a field trip to an orchestra concert or experimenting with caterpillars or writing poems about their dreams, students are taught how to manage their time on the test, how to narrow down the number of possible answers, even how to make the best guess when they don't really know the answer.
Most of all, knowing the type of questions that will probably be on the test, teachers are all but forced to resort to the old "drill and kill." "Drill and kill" is the classroom equivalent to training a dog. You repeat the same routine over and over, with proper reward and punishment until the response is automatic. Behind this lies a belief that turns education upside down--you don't WANT students to think and you don't want teachers to teach. Sports coaches talk about players who "think too much" instead of just executing the play. The aim behind "drill and kill" is to assassinate thinking.
Whenever I think about drill and kill I think of the movie "Cool Hand Luke" and Strother Martin's immortal line, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Paul Newman's Luke is then made to dig holes, then fill them in and then dig them again, over and over. "Cool Hand Luke" is about a chain gang work farm. I fear our schools are becoming like that for students, especially inner city students. They perform the equivalent of digging holes, filling them in and then digging them again. Robots is too dignified a term to apply to the "products" of such a process.
And what about those forced to implement it? One teacher summarized her frustration with her school's test driven agenda by commenting.
The most pathetic thing is that up until two years ago, I counseled young people, "Come into teaching. It is a wonderful profession." Now I counsel them to find something else because this is not the profession I would choose for myself (Wright, 2002, p. 28).
This is not education; it is like training a circus animal to perform tricks. Like an elephant who puts on a show in the center ring, students may pass the test, but have they learned anything? Like that elephant who is kept confined with a chain have we purposely taken away from them that which makes them unique?
When you speak to a young child you encounter a mind filled with wonder, eager to explore this world they have been born into. All is possible in ways the adult mind has learned to reject, for young children still BELIEVE in those things we have rejected whether it be Santa Claus or the idea that it is possible to fly and leap over tall buildings, whether it be elves or rabbits with pocket watches. A mind that open represents all that is possible for the human race. From its imagination will come our future. If we inhibit that imagination we inhibit our future.
The final part of this series will deal with that future.
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