The metastasizing failure at schools 

When APS doesn't challenge all kids to do their best, low achievement spreads

Amazier Ouya is a small kid with big ambitions. He was sitting in a classroom working hard on math and science earlier this month. He didn't have to be there. Amazier passionately desired to be in school. "It's the energy from all of the teachers," he said. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

A friend, Matthew Jones, chimed in: "I've never had teachers challenge me before."

Amazier and Matthew are lucky kids. Clearly bright, they are nonetheless at risk. Or, as the euphemisms go, they're "underserved" or "disadvantaged." I ran into them at a private academy’s enrichment program run for promising but economically challenged students.. Since 1996, the enrichment program has given 7th- and 8th-grade kids like Amazier and Matt a shot at beating the odds. Many of the program’s grads return as teachers/mentors while they're in college. It's a rugged curriculum that doesn't tolerate slackers.

I met many of the hundred or so of the program’s kids that day – most were African-Americans or other minorities; few if any came from affluent homes. Among the other things you could say about them: Most will never end up sitting in the back of a police cruiser on the way to jail, court, prison or, maybe, an early grave.

The lesson, although not on the program's final exam, is that environment counts. Take a kid, put him in a hellhole such as a housing project. Add to that indifferent or nonexistent parenting. Season that with schools that don't challenge. Voila! You'll get a kid on his way to a lifetime of failure, poverty and crime.

Take the same kid, put him in a school or a program that demands excellence, and maybe we'll see in a few years a man or woman who achieves greatness. At the very least, maybe the kid will have a normal life.

The problem is that we know the problem – and we do little. In 1968, the Atlanta Commission on Crime and Juvenile Delinquency issued its defining document, titled "Opportunity for Urban Excellence." That tome, collecting dust for 40 years, bluntly stated truth: "There is a significant relationship between delinquency and educational achievement. ... The low educational attainment in the high delinquency areas is all the more significant because of the large numbers of children from those areas who drop out of school."

Those revelations aren't unique to Atlanta. Otis Dudley Duncan, one of America's most influential sociologists, penned a biting essay in 1968, "Inheritance of Poverty or Inheritance of Race?" Among his conclusions: "Inferior quality at any one level of the school system is likely to result in impaired chances of proceeding to the next level."

Truth is we've ignored such sensible thinking for decades and decades. Part of the reason is a Southern thing. The aristocratic elite always provided good private schools for their children, and public education struggled along as something akin to a charity ward at a hospital. Today, much of Georgia's Republican Party is dedicated to the destruction of "government schools," with the obfuscating buzzwords being "choice" and "vouchers." The extremists on the right envision a class-stratified society where the wealthy are educated and the rest learn how to push the picture keys on McDonald's cash registers.

Put another way, Georgia's schools are always in a race for the bottom. Gov. Sonny "Fishing Tourney" Perdue has slashed more than $1.5 billion from education funding (the "increases" he touts are only those mandated by a burgeoning student population). We're horrible at K-12, and we hardly even admit the importance of pre-K (although the rest of the world caught on years ago that if you don't get the kids learning when they're 3, you've likely already lost the battle). The bottom line: Estimates are that about 54 percent of Georgians function at a literacy level well below what is required in the workplace. We have a 58 percent graduation rate, one of the lowest among all the states.

So where does that leave today's kids from poorer neighborhoods in Atlanta? In the enrichment program I visited, the single defining statement by students, their college mentors and teachers is "challenge." Most of the students come from Atlanta public schools. Aren't the students being challenged?

Ask Superintendent Beverly Hall, and she'll assert that schools are demanding achievement. Just last week she told the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor: "APS has demonstrated significant improvement in all grades and subjects tested since 2003. In writing, our schools have made gains that are seven times the national rate."

That's true. It's also true, as Hall told the congressional committee, that the baseline success APS has achieved is because "a powerful coalition of business and community leaders and parents came together. They understood that comprehensive reform was critical to Atlanta's revitalization and economic health."

That's the "Atlanta way." A crisis festers and festers and festers, as the schools did (and more recently Grady), and finally the business leaders implement a business solution. Hall's mission, more than anything else, was to stop the bad national press on Atlanta's schools. Bad for bidness, you know. It's ironic that the Metro Chamber of Commerce is arguably the most progressive institution in the city – that says something commendable about the chamber but also underscores our void of civic leadership.

There's an ongoing debate on "social promotions" in schools – the endgame of not challenging students. I took a look at the test scores of several APS middle schools, and their feeder elementary schools. Parks Middle scores well above average on tests – so do its feeders, Capitol View, Gideon and Dunbar. On the other hand, Price Middle is barely above average and often below on tests. So are its feeders. The message? That feeder schools, where the kids aren't challenged, pull down an entire middle school – the lack of challenge metastasizes. It's the "one bad apple" thing.

It's dangerous to suggest any one thing can fix education. But if Superintendent Hall wants a legacy – and she has worked hard to earn one – she has to demand that every teacher in every school challenges every student. That will be APS's breakthrough.

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