Examining the large disparities between the standardized test results of black and white students across the state, the 100 Black Men of Greater Mobile held a town hall meeting last week centered around one question: Are systems failing black children?
The short answer appeared to be yes, but the reasons behind it and the proposed solutions varied considerably among a six-member panel.
“In Alabama, the gaps between white and black students in reading is about a 25 percentage point difference,” said panelist Dr. Jeremiah Newell, chief operating officer of the Mobile Area Education Foundation. “The work now is about agreeing that those numbers are unacceptable and working collectively as a group of people of all colors … to make addressing [it] the priority.”
Newell cited the results of the ACT Aspire, which in 2014 was used for the first time in place of the Alabama Reading and Math Test to assess the progress of students in grades 3-8.
On the Aspire, racial breakdowns showed elementary and middle school black and Hispanic students were measurably behind their white and Asian counterparts.
In the same results, the percentage of white students meeting proficiency doubled that of their black cohorts in some cases, but whites were behind Asian students at every grade level.
It is important to note that 2014 was the first time the ACT Aspire has been used to measure ability. It’s also the first time Alabama’s new and more rigorous College and Career Ready Standards have been tested.
Panelist Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a Pulitzer Prize winning national education journalist, said those changing standards in Alabama and across the country are aimed at making U.S. students more competitive globally, but could have unintentionally put black students struggling to close gaps between themselves and their white counterparts even further behind.
“What we’ve seen over the past two or three decades is that, on standardized tests, black students have closed the gaps some, but the requirements for education in a global economy are changing faster than black kids are catching up,” Haynes said. “One of the things we have to remember is that we started out behind, and we haven’t been provided enough opportunities to catch up yet.”
Though a number of issues were discussed, school choice and how charter schools might better serve black students dominated several parts of the town hall meeting. One panelist cited a report generated from a statewide survey conducted by JMC Analytics indicating nearly 77 percent of black parents in Alabama favored school choice options.
Panelist Dave Thomas Jr., a former Mobile County school commissioner who is currently an advisor for the Black Alliance for Education Options, identified charter schools as the way to deliver that choice.
“We have working-class and poor families that are imprisoned by schools because their kids have to go to a school based on where they live,” Thomas said. “It’s un-American and unconstitutional for you to be relegated to a poor-performing school only because of where you live.”
Next year will mark the first time charter schools are permitted in Alabama. When questions of black community involvement in the direction of local schools, specialized courses and ethnocentric curriculum were raised, Thomas repeatedly suggested charter schools were the best answer.Others, like State Rep. Napoleon Bracy, disagreed. Though Bracy wasn’t a panelist, he attended the meeting and posted to his Twitter account that charter schools pull money away from an already depleted Education Trust Fund, taking funds away from existing public schools.
Another issue raised was the number of black educators and how more teachers “that look like [black] students” could affect performance.
According to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, current trends suggest African-Americans could only hold 5 percent of U.S. teaching positions by the year 2020, despite the fact 2014 census estimates show 16.3 percent of the U.S. population as African-American.
Locally, public schools are more representative of the population. According to the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS), 46 percent of principals and 32 percent of teachers are minority, which almost directly mirrors countywide census data.
When the program’s moderator, Dr. Andrew Perry, asked panelists how to get more black teachers in the classroom, Haynes insisted the real question was “how to find more teachers of color who are excellent teachers?”
She said better education funding and higher teaching salaries would help attract and retain better educators of all races.
“Usually, the only way to see a significant pay raise in education is to move into administration, but shouldn’t we want to keep our best teachers in the classroom?” Haynes asked. “Nowhere in the corporate world does everybody make the same amount of money, and that’s why I’m a huge advocate for merit pay for teachers.”
Other panelists, such as Alabama School of Math and Science President Dr. Monica Motley, said teachers and parents have to be invested in positive outcomes for students by taking a holistic community approach. That seems to echo a point Perry made throughout, that education reform in the black community has to come from within.
To stay informed and invested, some panelists encouraged parents to get involved and to “demand” the information they need to help their children succeed if it isn’t provided automatically. One resource available currently is the MCPSS “Parent Portal,” an online database that contains information about grades, curriculum, school programs and more.
However, Haynes said local involvement starts with taking interest in those who set policy.
“I’m hoping the community will converge around thinking about the school board because those positions don’t get the attention I think they deserve,” she said. “Those positions are typically thought of as sort of starter political positions, but they’re very important positions in the education of children.”
As for the Mobile County school board, none of the current members were in attendance, nor were any school officials who publicly identified themselves or took part in the discussion.
However, a statement provided by the MCPSS afterward said the system has a “long-standing partnership with the 100 Black Men of Greater Mobile” that includes “several education initiatives.”
MCPSS officials went on to say Superintendent Martha Peek and members of the system’s leadership team would “always be available and accommodate requests to participate in public forums, public panels or to speak to a group regarding actual, up-to-date data on Mobile County Public Schools.”
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