Low expectations, indifference remain obstacles

September 24, 2004|By Rodney Collier

I AM NEW TO Baltimore, but I am not new to the effects of low expectations.

I read the paper and see the on-going crisis of a poorly managed school system that seems to be more concerned with politics and power than the product it delivers.

Being new to the city, I became lost and found myself on the upper end of Charles Street, with its impressive old stone and brick mansions with well-trimmed lawns. It smells of old money as well as the new mix of young successful professionals -- products of an excellent education with the skills and ability to live the American dream.

But it is a short drive to the rowhouses and vast, sprawling poor neighborhoods with boarded-up buildings. Youths sitting on the porch going nowhere. Few will ever live just up the street. They have bought into the lie that they do not have the chance to live the American dream. The familiar refrain about "the soft bigotry of low expectations" echoed in my mind. In the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore, looking at the long stretches of rowhouses, it finally sank in.

I was raised poor, and most of these kids have far greater opportunities than I had.

I grew up in a single-parent home with no father figure in my life.

I managed to get an education without a special assistance program, government grant, student loan or outside assistance. It was not a disadvantage to have to work my way through school. It taught me lessons many wealthy children never learn.

The principal reason for success was fundamental: From my earliest days, my mother told me, "You can be anything you want to be." I never thought I didn't have a chance. There was the powerful message, "You can do it," not the destructive words, "You don't have a chance." I studied and worked hard because it was the right thing to do.

My mother raised three children alone and worked six days a week. I never once heard her complain about life being unfair or how she never had a chance. Community leaders should send the message, "Your opportunities have no limits." America's skyline is dotted with construction cranes and job opportunities for all. When the cranes depart, they will leave behind new jobs and opportunities.

Education is the key and educators the locksmiths. I have seen the nation's education system in action. My oldest daughter had 26 hours of college credit when she graduated from high school. My brother's son, equally bright, graduated with a diploma that meant nothing. How could two intelligent children go through our public school system and end up with such vastly different outcomes?

A problem barely behind low expectations is the system's complete indifference -- a system that's self-centered and full of excuses. I have heard, "It's the parents' fault." If the parents are responsible for education, why do we have schools and teachers?

I have heard objections to testing and spending too much time "teaching to the test." The real question is, why did the students fail to learn the material in class?

For years, schools have been happy to pass children with no regard to the education they received. Kids have been moved along without mastering the basic skills, so that at some point they no longer have the ability to understand the subjects being taught.

Proposals to issue different diplomas are not a solution to the problem. A new fad of grading papers in purple is sweeping the country. Red ink apparently is just too frightening for our children. The problem is not the color of the ink on the paper. People who propose such meaningless nonsense are part of the problem.

Charter schools, meant to be part of the solution, are now coming under the microscope and being used by some to say the No Child Left Behind law is a failure. The problems did not start with President Bush being elected and they will not be solved in the next four years, regardless of who is in office. Standardized testing has begun to hold schools accountable.

Charter schools and private schools are parts of the solution, not the problem.

Schools must produce educated young adults with the tools to succeed. If American children are to live the American dream, they will need a first-class education. The future holds no place for low expectations or indifference.

Rodney Collier has designed instruction training programs and curriculum for private industry.

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