Being at the forefront of the educational system, teachers, especially the great ones, have immediate access to the realities in the schools they work for. Jonathan Kozol is one such teacher who was aghast at the educational inequalities he has observed in schools with the direst conditions and schools with the best facilities and programs offered to more fortunate students. From the physical environment to the curriculum, Kozol (1991) has documented and given commentaries on the realities he knew existed but seemed to be unseen or unheard of, if not ignored, by people in authority to balance the inequalities.
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Kozol (1991) lyrically presents ironies in the educational system of the land of the free as he laments the provision of sorry states:
“The crowding of children into insufficient, often squalid spaces seems an inexplicable anomaly in the United States. Images of spaciousness and majesty, of endless plains and soaring mountains, fill our folklore and our music and the anthems that our children sing. “This land is your land,” they are told; and, in one of the patriotic songs that children truly love because it summons up so well the goodness and the optimism of the nation at its best, they sing of “good” and “brotherhood” “from sea to shining sea.” It is a betrayal of the best things that we value when poor children are obliged to sing these songs in storerooms and coat closets” (Kozol:160).
Educational inequality is mostly felt by poor African American adolescent students due to the developmental task of “integrating their individual personal identity with their racial identity. This integration process is a necessary and inevitable developmental task of growing up Black in the midst of White mainstream culture (Ward, 1995, Cross et al., 1991)
Living with their predecessors’ legacy of being racially discriminated and historically exploited and abused by the White people may have left generational scars in their psyche, that even up to now, being Black in an urban setting remains to be an issue.
Many social scientists, politicians, and the media tend to paint a bleak picture for youth living in predominantly Black urban settings in this country (Barbarin, 1993). Poverty, academic failure, early death due to poor health care and violence, drug abuse and addiction, high unemployment rates, teenage pregnancy, gangs, and high crime rates are some of the conditions highlighted to describe the state of the urban underclass in which children must develop and attempt to survive (Dryfoos, 1990; Halpern, 1990; Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990; Werner, 1990).
Theoretical conceptualizations of factors that influence urban African American adolescents’ academic achievement have included deficiency models, which focus on factors that may preclude some of these youths from achieving academic success. Fordham & Ogbu (1986) have asserted that in order for these Black American adolescents to succeed academically, they should adopt more Eurocentric values regarding education. This “acting White” hypothesis has largely assumed a positive correlation between endorsing Eurocentric values and high scholastic achievement.
Challenges to this theory have come from a few empirical studies, in which the endorsement of mainstream socialization messages and Eurocentric values were negatively associated with school and general self-esteem (Constantine & Blackmon, 2002; Spencer et al., 2001). Constantine and Blackmon suggested that “acting White” could be detrimental to many urban African American students’ academic self-efficacy within predominantly Black school settings. For some urban African American adolescents who attempt to act “white”, such behaviours may result in bullying, ridicule, social isolation, reduced peer and social self-esteem, and feelings of community and cultural betrayal (Constantine et al., 1998; Steward et al., 1998; Wilson, Cooke, & Arrington, 1997), In fact, adopting Africentric cultural orientations or endorsing attitudes and behaviours that reflect ethnic or racial pride may better promote the academic and psychological well being of many urban African American students. Another factor responsible for the perceived difficulties of such adolescents with academic achievement may be Institutional racism. (Butler, 2003). This may be described as differential access to educational opportunities based on racial or ethnic group membership (Jones & Carter, 1996). As an example, some urban African American high school students may be prohibited from gaining access to quality education and school facilities because of contemporary structural factors (e.g., racism and low socioeconomic status) that perpetuate historical injustices (e.g., slavery) (Jones, 2000). Allen-Meares (1999) reported that the “conditioned failure model” could represent a form of institutional racism against urban African American students in that these students are often brainwashed into believing that they are inferior to their white peers.
Going back in history, the blacks, exploited in the segregation of the races, felt a mounting sense of devastation two generations after slavery’s end. The legality of the segregation of blacks and whites in Clarendon County affected millions of school-aged children in the segregated states. In 1947, a lawsuit was filed by parents of African American students in that rural county against the school district for the board’s refusal to provide buses to ferry black students to school, although it provided buses for white students (Lasner, 2002).
Upon further investigation by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), it was revealed that black children who could get to school endured dire circumstances, using second-hand books and a few supplies. They used broken furniture in cold rooms situated in dilapidated buildings. The ratio of teachers to students was far from ideal, and black teachers earned a much lower salary than white teachers. Such dreadful state of black schools moved NAACP’s chief counsel, Charles Hamilton Houston and his assistant Thurgood Marshall to represent the parents in their constitutional assault on segregated public education (Brown & Valk, 2004). Houston and Marshall documented the inequity between educational opportunities for blacks and whites. Houston’s card was the belief that a broken “separate but equal” policy would eventually dissolve discrimination. He searched for collaborators in his strategy and found a witness in high school student Barbara Johns of Farmville, Virginia. Johns led a student strike against Moton High School, which was scandalous in such a quiet town priding itself on the harmony of its race relations while still adhering to the Jim Crow’s segregated schools policy. Johns was moved by her indignation at the fact that more than 450 black students were crammed into a small eight-room schoolhouse made from tar paper-covered buildings while their white counterparts luxuriated is roomy and modern facilities. Johns’ campaign for her co-students to question the segregated educational system resulted in a yearlong strike that helped change the nation. Her suit, compiled with four similar cases from elsewhere in the country, became part of the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education.
The Supreme Court decision was in favour of the case known as Brown vs Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, which is arguably the most significant ruling made by the United States Supreme Court in the twentieth century (Brown and Valk, 2004). The court claimed that racially segregated public schools were discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
Although the court ruling of desegregation “with all deliberate speed” was pronounced, it triggered massive white resistance across the South. It was an inconvenience to leave their comfort zones, which was well-expected behaviour from those who enjoyed higher positions in the hierarchy. Headstrong white residents established private “academies” still exclusive for white children. Black children, as well as adult African American supporters of civil rights, were attacked by white mobs (Brown & Valk, 2004). Eventually, desegregation eased its way to spread all over America.
Conversely, African American communities embraced the Brown ruling as a sign of the government’s support for the defeat of Jim Crow. It was viewed as a step toward fulfilling America’s liberal democratic creed.
Kozol (1991) agrees that the educational system has a role in such educational inequality still prevalent in many schools today. He believes that local wealth dictates school quality. The richer districts, those in which the property lots and houses are more highly valued, have more revenue derived from taxes to fund their public schools better. Quality schools get to dictate their student’s access to resources that greatly influence their school performance and attainment. In effect, benefits redound to the students, as their performance and attainment may well dictate the future financial rewards that will allow them access to homes in wealthier communities. Thus, the cycle of a rigid caste system is fostered.
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John Dewey (1916) believes that quality education stems from how children are trained to think. This may not have anything to do with the caste system discussed above but more to do with how teachers approach teaching and learning. Dewey advocates learning must be experienced by the learner if it is to be effectively retained. He does not agree with teaching students via lectures about things children have no direct experience with and reliance on mere textbooks. He claims:
“An individual must actually try, in play or work, to do something with the material in carrying out his own impulsive activity and then note the interaction of his energy and that of the material employed. This is what happens when a child at first begins to build with blocks, and it is equally what happens when a scientific man in his laboratory begins to experiment with unfamiliar objects” (Dewey, 1916).
Therefore, Dewey advocates active learning to stimulate a student’s thinking on his own. Teachers cannot expect to be the main dispensers of knowledge to their students but should recognize and respect that children are capable of coming up with their own opinions, and conclusions and ideas.
“Ideas, as we have seen, whether they be humble guesses or dignified theories, are anticipations of possible solutions. They are anticipations of some continuity or connection of activity and a consequence that has not as yet shown itself. They are therefore tested by the operation of acting upon them. They are to guide and organize further observations, recollections, and experiments. They are intermediate in learning, not final. All educational reformers, as we have had occasion to remark, are given to attacking the passivity of traditional education” (Dewey, 1916)
Allowing students to explore their own ideas gives them more power in the acquisition of learning. Using prior knowledge, they are encouraged to invent their own solutions and try out their own ideas and hypotheses with the able support of their teachers. This way, they can indulge in concrete experiences that focus on their interests. The process of searching for information, analysing data and reaching conclusions is considered more important than learning facts.
The educational philosophy and approach schools use may also foster educational inequality in terms of providing the appropriate curriculum and learning strategies for their students. Schools with a more traditional philosophy of feeding students information in the belief that they are “blank slates” to write on have vested power and authority on the teacher as the central figure in the learning process. Students are expected to comply with their teachers’ requirements and learn in the way their teachers expect them to and not given enough opportunity to set their own directions and pace in learning. More progressive schools, also known as constructivist schools, have given teachers more challenging roles as mentors and facilitators of learning.
“Teachers following a “developing” method sometimes tell children to think things out for themselves as if they could spin them out of their own heads. The material of thinking is not thoughts but actions, facts, events, and the relations of things. In other words, to think effectively, one must have had, or now have, experiences which will furnish him resources for coping with the difficulty at hand” (Dewey, 1916).
“Supplying students with answers is not the goal in a constructivist program; in fact, unanswered questions are important in terms of continued interest and continued learning.” (Brewer, 2001, p.59). Teachers are life-long learners themselves and should accept the challenge of furthering their knowledge if not a step ahead of their students, then at least, in step with them.
Educational Inequality may eventually diminish if effective and efficient teachers are allowed to teach in the way they should. Such teachers are able to discern which learning strategy would be most appropriate on a case-to-case basis. Embedded in these teachers are hidden agendas for making students reach their optimum learning potentials and, in effect, the development of healthy self-esteem. They are aware that they are just instruments in assisting the students to gain knowledge and not the source of knowledge themselves.
The bigger concern is the school’s conviction to pursue educational equality for all students regardless of race, socio-economic status, ability, faith, etc. The passion for providing quality education for all must be ignited and continue to burn forevermore.
If this is achieved, then imagine what a better world this would be for our children.
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