Expecting failure is a good way to get it

February 10, 1996|By Harold Jackson

THERE ARE people who think it, but would never say they see the poor performance of big-city schools such as Baltimore's as a ''black'' problem. Some believe the schools are simply confirming their long-held belief that African Americans are not the intellectual equals of whites.

Then there are the ''liberals'' who think the consequences of living in poverty -- as a disproportionate number of black children do -- means any academic success has to be an exception.

In either case, their prejudice blinds them. Their expectations are so low they are willing to accept less than what is achievable. Until such attitudes change, inner-city schools will continue to perform as expected -- poorly.

Politicians who say the schools are doing the best they can under the circumstances have a motive -- additional funding -- but their words can do considerable harm. They correctly point out it takes extra money to overcome the effects of years of inadequate funding. But too often they don't place enough corresponding emphasis on accountability.

It's true, urban principals and teachers face a tremendous challenge. Their classrooms are filled with students who live in environments so bad the children don't see the point of learning. But the teacher can't selectively teach.

Besides, the challenges facing most of the younger inner-city teachers were there when they applied for the job. They thought they were up to the challenge. So did whoever hired them. If they can't cut it, they ought to step aside. We must ask ourselves why administrators hire people who are supposed to be capable of teaching in a school with urban problems, then turn around and blame the teacher's lack of progress on those same problems.

Why didn't they hire someone who could do the job? That may not be easy. Competition is strong for good teachers and Baltimore's lower salaries put it at a disadvantage. But it's not impossible.

There are principals and teachers in the city now who are getting good results teaching children who live in the worst environments. Often the difference is motivation. Teachers who think their students aren't capable of learning will never succeed.

The child as problem

Like too many other people, some teachers think the problem in educating inner-city children is the children themselves. They classify the children according to the type of problem they are supposed to be. Many are labeled slow or retarded or otherwise special because that allows a teacher to make them someone else's problem and get them out of her class.

The real problems affecting a child's ability to learn often have more to do with the other people in that child's life. A teacher can't and shouldn't be expected to correct a child's home life, although the best ones do try to reach out beyond the classroom.

The bottom line is that whatever it takes should be spent to provide teachers with clean, safe, comfortable schools with all the books, equipment and aides they need to do their jobs right.

It would be great, but they can't count on having good parents who get involved in their children's education.

Sadly, they also can't count on a social-services system outside the schools that effectively deals with bad parents, delinquent siblings, poverty, drug abuse or whatever else is interfering with a child's education.

They must teach regardless. The rest of us are counting on them. If they don't like the cards, they should get out of the game. Principals who can't motivate competent teachers shouldn't be principals. Administrators who allow incompetence and nonchalance to become pervasive should be fired. It's as simple as that.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

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