In the last five years, in searching for superb inner-city education, I made a discovery: Almost all excellent schools teaching highly disadvantaged kids look very much alike - and quite different from most regular public schools.
These schools combat what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has called "the greatest problem now facing African Americans." And that is "their isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture." His statement is really the academic version of Bill Cosby's recent remarks in which he talked about black parents who are not parenting and about kids who can't speak standard English and who will be shut out of the world of economic success.
This is how the best inner-city schools I know address that "isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture." In addition to an academically superb program, they demand that their students learn how to speak standard English. They also insist that kids show up on time, properly dressed; that they sit up straight at their desks, chairs pulled in, workbooks organized; that they never waste a minute in which they could be learning and always finish their homework; that they look at people to whom they are talking, listen to teachers with respect, treat classmates with equal civility, and shake hands with visitors to the school.
These are skills as essential as basic math. Without them, disadvantaged children cannot climb the ladder of economic opportunity.
But such schools cannot be created within the normal structure of public education. It is no accident that those I came to admire were all charter schools; their principals needed the authority and autonomy to shape a distinctive education. And such schools cannot function unless teachers and families have chosen to be there - with the understanding that they will be asked to leave if they choose to reject the discipline and dedication that the principals demand.
I suppose one could spend some public money on reform schools, rather than on school reform.
There is a spirited discussion of the Thernstrom essay going on at Joanne Jacobs's place, where I found the article.
Meanwhile, the Silent Generation hand wringers at Northern Illinois University continue to look at the wrong end of the pipeline.
DeKalb’s community presents a difficulty in changing the university’s ethnic trend, said Ivan Legg, executive vice president and provost.
“I came from Memphis, and we had no trouble recruiting African-American faculty because Memphis is almost 50 percent black,” Legg said. “When I came to DeKalb for an interview, I was overwhelmed by how white this area is.”
After arriving in DeKalb three years ago, Legg said, he set his sights on diversifying NIU’s faculty.
“Understanding each others’ backgrounds and cultures is very important to having a successful community experience. Having a diverse faculty adds to that educational mission,” he said.
“One of the most important issues that has an impact on diversifying the faculty is creating an environment in which a diverse faculty feels comfortable,” Legg said.
Creating such an environment requires stronger recruitment of minority faculty, sociology professor George Kourvetaris said.
“Association bulletins should be published and distributed more widely among graduate students across the country,” Kourvetaris said.
Kourvetaris said he agrees that the problem in the past has been that there was little community for black people in DeKalb.
Legg said it would help to try to recruit more professors from farther away.
“The recruiting process has to be proactive,” he said.
Of the new hires among ranked faculty in 2003, 26.4 percent were minorities, and 9.4 percent were black.
Legg emphasized the importance of keeping diversity in mind beyond simply new hiring.
“There are two things you have to deal with: recruitment and retention. One of the most important issues is making sure that once they’re here, they stay,” he said.
While 26.4 percent of the newly hired faculty are minorities, 17.4 percent of all ranked faculty are minorities.
“If they come to NIU, they don’t want to stay,” Kourvetaris said.
“If you create an environment in which a diverse faculty feels comfortable, they’re more likely to stay with you. That has an impact on your recruiting because the word gets around, and it becomes a welcome place of work to a diverse faculty,” Legg said.
Let's walk this cat backwards. Perhaps the deferred maintenance and the crowded classrooms, not to mention the niggardly merit raises, might have some bearing on these figurers. There are other universities still being run by Silent Generation relics that are engaging in similar expense-preference behavior, and some of them might have more money for maintenance, smaller classes, and merit raises. Furthermore, to the extent that the private sector is embarking on similar cosmetic initiatives, it is competing in that same pool of degreed professionals. But that pool has to be stocked with young people. To the extent that the young people who have the ascriptive characteristics the Silent Generation relics wish to hire are young people who place no value on book-learning, the pool will be less well stocked. The solution, long term, is to bring up the young people in the right way, say, starting at econ camp -- the sports camps are also possibilities -- get them thinking about university -- and get some of those to think well of the place as undergraduates AND to interest them in solid doctoral programs AND to entice them to jump on the tenure track here once they've finished their Ph.D.s