Stay Current, Live Well, (at times go “Nuclear”) and You Will Prosper.

“Dif-tor heh smusma” (Live Long and Prosper) – Vulcan Salutation…Star Trek

“Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam” (Perhaps today is a good day to die) Klingon Saying..Star Trek

“Of all our studies, history is the best qualified to reward our research”…Malcolm X


         As a school superintendent I visited many social studies/history classrooms and always wondered why that wonderful study activity: Current Events had fallen so much out of favor. I recall so well the PBS interview where that the great American historian John Hope Franklin, gave a charge and challenge to the teachers of history; he said: a critical objective in the teaching of history is to create the opportunity for the students to “think like historians”. As a student in middle school I loved the few minutes we spent each day on current events; it is amazing how different a “gifted and talented” educational program was from the education program given to the students who were(incorrectly) perceived and (horribly) labeled as: “less gifted, and less talented”; or worse no gifts, and no talents.  We knew when we walked into school every morning that the bound stack of NY Times newspapers in the lobby was for our class. It was always an honor for one of us guys to be selected to carry those papers up to the classroom. No one ever said it; but everyone knew, that the NY Times newspapers were for the “gifted kids”; the students who could decipher its long and hard words. We did it through our knowledge and use of “context clues”, prefixes and suffixes, and when all else failed, our always near dictionary was the translation weapon of last resort. The feeling of just holding those newspapers was empowering. It gave us a sense of comfort and confidence. Now,  we adolescents held and knew informational secrets that were hidden from most adults we knew. We learnd the different sections of the newspaper, the different voices in a newspaper. We were able to recognize  the difference between “opinion” and “news reporting”. I was taught, and believed  back then that they were separated by some sort of sacred wall titled: “objectivity/subjectivity”.  As a college student I  would grow suspicious and eventually abandon this belief in this “objectivity” rule of news reporting; but  believing in it was fine for middle school. We had to select an article from one of the three areas of: local, national or international news, for a reading, and then engage in a reflective writing exercise.  The key to this activity, is now what I know to be the “learning objectives”. The: who, what, when, where and why of the story. But my favorite part of the assignment was to connect the article to something we studied in history.  We didn’t know it back then, but we were following the “Franklin principles”; we were being taught to think like “historians.” The best written compositions were graded and placed, attached to the now ‘cut-out” of the article on a bulletin board titled: (no surprise here) “Current Events”.  Some “modernist” in the educational field have stopped this practice of posting exemplary student work on a classroom bulletin board; the reason (they claim), is that it “attacks” the self-esteem of the children whose work is not posted. But I think our teachers sought to, and did establish a high standard for academic work, for there was always a friendly completion to get your paper posted with the “very Good” or “Excellent” teacher comments written across the top of the paper. It is odd that over time we have diminished the recognition for academic achievement and competition, while maintaining a very strong and definitive reward system for school varsity sports. Every year there are numerous school /district based athletic competitions, playoffs and championships, and no one ever suggest that the team or player who comes in 2nd , 3rd  or even last, will experience some damage to their self-esteem; in fact “defeat”  in sports is viewed as an opportunity to learn, and become better….. But back to current events: Are we in danger of producing a generation of young people, who literally; don’t know what’s going on, not just in the world, but in their own country?  And would the revival of the study of current events help? Now what got me to thinking about this was the major current news event that just took place in the US senate, initiated by the Speaker Harry Reid. This senatorial “Nuclear” event, so-called because it is an action (weapon?) of last resort, an action avoided because its deployment is so devastating; aka a: “game changer”!  I am wondering;  and I guess a little worried, monitoring social media; (with the exception of  Playthell Benjamin’s: ) do folks fully appreciate what Harry Reid has accomplished here! There has been an unprecedented effort on the part of Republicans to block this president’s judicial appointees since his first election. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), put it as nicely and diplomatically as I guess they could (given the topic of “race” being the “3rd rail of an honest American conversation) , that the destructive and hindering behavior of the Republicans went  far  beyond the “normal” partisanship squabbling ( But most important, the speaker of the senate Harry Reid finally said: Enough with this pretending that these “blocking actions” was nothing more than mere “politics as usual” or as the now I see as a not so objective and honest news media, just a sign of a “broken Washington”. And so Mr. Reid went “Nuclear”; or he removed the unofficial threshold for an honest “up or down” vote on the president’s judicial nominees and others appointments. Why did Mr. Reid take such a drastic action? An action as many commentators have claimed could be used against the Democrats if they were to become the minority in the senate? It was used because when someone takes citizens hostage, and proclaims: “no matter what you do, I’m either going to shoot the hostages, are keep them captive”; then that is the time for a full all out assault to rescue as many hostages as you can; and in any case eliminate the “power” of the hostage takers. It may not be a good, or preferred choice, but in the end, it is the only choice. The words of condemnation and denunciation from the frothing conservative mouths could not come at a faster speed.  Yes they are “mad as hell”, but at least they won’t be able to take anymore hostages. Alas, this has not been a good few years for the Ayn Rand readers circle (look it up so you can understand how the right-wing thinks; and most important how/what they think about you 47%’s!) Sometimes an individual’s great actions get lost in the noise of their own historical time. A lot of people (again where the study of history is important) thought , at the time, that the creation of Social Security was the beginning of the end of the free enterprise system, and that our nation was starting down the road to some type of socialist-communist state; well , what do people think of Social Security now; and it’s very hard these days to find a communist anywhere. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), despite its “growing pains” will someday also enjoy a place in our society when  some American students are studying history in the future, and  look back shaking their heads and say: “what were those people thinking back before the ACA; did they actually have millions of American citizen walking around with no health insurance? Future historians may also see fit to add Speaker Harry Reid’s name to the list of great American statesman; when years after he and Barack Obama have exited from the public political stage; and these very qualified and deserving Judges are making rulings on behalf of the mistreated, the denied and the disenfranchised; a grateful nation may at that point, think to thank him for his service.

We Have Created Young People With the Humanity Knocked-Out of Them

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.” -Ezekiel 17: 22-23


            Writing is a form of therapy for me; a way for me to make sense of what often appears to be a cruel and heartless world.  And so after watching these “Knock-Out” phenomena for a while my natural inclination would be to come to terms with it through writing. Some people go to parties, some shop…I come to peace with a difficult situation by writing about it. Initially, I could not write about it, because I was so angry. An important skill I would urge all young people to master is to “regret” before you commit the act for which you will regret. I was very angry, and probably would say the wrong thing. I also knew I was too angry because my art form won’t let me in when I am angry; I will sit and stew in my anger and no creative words will come. It is only when I pray, calm down and seek my calling which is to educate and not mindlessly excite, will the words flow. And now, as I again watch the video of the teacher who got “knocked-out”; I realize that there is a very different feeling when you can personally identify with a victim. Now, I don’t claim to know this teacher; I don’t know if he was good, great or average.  All that I know is that he had chosen a field (my field) that has a dedicated mission to inspire young people in such a way that “knocking out” random people is not even on their minds; because what we are supposed to do as educators is to occupy their minds with ideas of being smart, knowledgeable, skilled, and the ethical core spirit to put those attributes into service on behalf of the world.  I am not saying I would feel less concern if the victim was a sanitation worker, a store clerk, or maybe even unemployed; but the irony (learned thanks to my high school English teachers) of the story is unmistakable. Something else happen that caused me to reflect and feel a deep sense of connected sorrow with the victim in the video. The teacher appears to be comfortable walking toward the young men; perhaps like most of us educators we feel a little more comfortable in the presence of the innocent horse-play, the awkward and un-adult like movements of teenagers. “They are moving like teenagers”; I always think to myself when walking pass them in the streets or at the mall; “they are just looking, moving and sounding like teenagers; nothing dangerous about that”.   And so it makes sense that an educator would not “profile” them, would not be afraid of them, not be on guard. I say this because perhaps many people who watched the video may have said why  was he not on better guard in that situation? Well, maybe not, because like me he may have felt comfortable and not threatened by the presence of teenagers.  Further, I don’t know the teacher but I also suspect that like me he may have concerns about the reach of: “stop and frisk”, as our definition of: “looking like a criminal” would be more fine-tuned then the average person, and perhaps also the average police officer. This would be another irony of this story, as it will give the proponents of “Stop and Frisk” a good source of ammunition; for there is no better motivator then fear to drive normally thoughtful citizens into a place where they are willing to sacrifice their rights, and/or the rights of their fellow citizens, for something that feels like “safe”.  Those young men who are engaging in these acts have no idea of how they are creating an environment for possible preemptive deadly violence for themselves, and for those teenagers who are innocent, but may look, and move, like them.

                  And so, as I write I can feel the anger give way to compassion and thoughtfulness; I can now write……I believe every person should discover their “art interest- inclination-gift”; and then pursue it with a passion. You need not get rich from doing it; and perhaps no one will ever see or hear you do it; but do it you should for it is a critical part of what makes us human (I will come back to this what it means to be human in relationship to your fellow humans later). There will always be the professional dancing Dana Marie Ingraham’s of the world, the painting artist Romare Bearden’s among us; those people who are extremely gifted in an art form, such that they present on a full-time professional level for us, the less gifted at that art form, to admire their work. But that admiration does not mean you can’t push your living room furniture back, put on some music, and in the peace of your own home, practice your Pat Dye or Alvin Ailey moves. There is nothing that says we can’t go to the local art supply store (they are looking at the amount of money you have, not the amount of talent!) and purchase art supplies and paint your vision of a new world on a canvas! I am by interest and training a Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) person. But I always felt that the creative and performance arts were the other part of the equation for making a young person, fully human.  And herein we find the missing component with these misguided and misdirected young men. What is it that diminishes the capacity of a human being to see the humanity in another human being? I read a post from a former student Ana Argudo-Lord; and it made me think about the “Argudo children” (I worked with all three:-). As teenagers they always expressed a deep concern and compassion for the suffering of others. They drove me crazy because, they were always doing food drives, collecting money for some group of people who fell victim to some tragedy caused by either man or nature, and this feeling it seems has carried over into their adult life’s work. One-half of the solution, I am convinced is parents; after 30 years of watching a lot of parents and their children; I think it is safe to say that young people who have parents who themselves express compassion and concern for other people, who have a strong spiritual foundation; have a very strong chance of being compassionate, spiritual and caring people themselves.

              The second half of the equation is education. I am always inspired by the prophets of the old testament who continuously and perhaps annoyingly cry out for Israel to change her ways, and return to God. They cry out so very often with such consistence, persistence and power that they make people angry enough to want to kill them (“Give us a break with this calling us back to God talk!”). But these prophets are incapable, as Dr. King referenced in his letter from a Birmingham jail cell, of keeping quiet. And so I am going to keep saying that: If we don’t translate our blessing of rich resources, both human and financial in this country; into a will and conviction mission about really giving young people a chance to realize their full human worthiness, their talents, their art interest, the ability to read and  appreciate great works of literature, to be inspired by creative artist, to utilize STEM skills to heal and protect the planet, to engage in exercises that teach moral and ethical behavior; then these young people will contrast their living in a nation full with great material resources; and feeling themselves disconnected from all that is wonderful about the U.S.; they will become beings of intense anger. These young people who find themselves in a skilled economy, without marketable skills. They have come to the reality that they don’t have an education; at least have one that will translate into a job and career. They will be lacking in a sense of meaning and hope in the future. This group living on the edge of wealth and power, and looking in, will create their version of power by indiscriminately visiting pain and suffering upon their fellow citizens. They are oddly, with these brutal acts, seeking to create a community of sufferers, who like them, see the world as a very dangerous and painful place. We have wasted their time for 12 years; except for those who realize their time is being wasted and leave early. Those that remain often leave with a counterfeit educational experience, they emerge (now really angry), with their useless diploma in hand.  They now go into the streets to “even the score”, seeking revenge on the entire world that betrayed them. People may be content to designate them as “wild criminals”; and they certainly are breaking the law and should be punished; but if we are to be true as a nation; what we are actually watching is a march of the hopeless, who aren’t even remotely marching in the direction of hope.

            Law enforcement may have its role; but we may find that we can’t incarcerate them fast enough, or keep them incarcerated long enough so that they will not be able to inflict harm on themselves and others. We need to put forth our best resourced efforts early, when they are 6, 7 and 8; not huge incarceration expenditures when they reach 16, 17 and 18. If we don’t commit to creating quality schools where children from every type of home and community can come to appreciate, and fall in love through learning, with their humanity and the humanity of others, then we are committed to creating monsters; who will roam our streets seeking to knock-out all of humanity, in a wasted and tragic search for their own humanity. And this, I will continue to cry out, no matter who is upset by my words.

On: “A Lesson From Cuba on Race”….N.Y. Times-ALEJANDRO DE LA FUENTE

      Interesting article; and for reasons I haven’t completely figured out; the when and why these: “Cuba hasn’t solve the problem of Racism” articles are rolled out periodically. I start out with these presentations asking: “Ok, what does the writer want me to know, and why?” In this particular case I am also not exactly sure how I am supposed to feel about Black folks equally filling both Cuban, and US prisons far in proportional excess of their population numbers; should I feel better as a result of this fact? And since I have no intention of putting in an application for the U.S. Communist Party (has anybody seen them lately?) What am I to do with this information? First, I question if a topic of this complexity can be adequately covered in a limited OP-ED space. I agree with Rep. James Clyburn when speaking of the Democrats shortcomings in defense of the ACA: “One of the things in Washington that I dislike more than anything else is when people say to me, ‘If you’re explaining it, you’re losing it.’ I don’t like that at all,” Clyburn said. “I really believe the American people are deserving of explanations.” We like quick and easy answers no matter how weak and faulty the logic: Racism exist in a country therefore that country’s political system has failed. Maybe that nation’s political system has failed; and Racism is just one of the many symptoms and/or casualties of that failure. And another way of looking at it is that the persistence of racism in Cuba says that there is something much deeper going on here; something that just can’t be fixed by the structure of the political-economic system, any political-economic system. That “deep-psyche” existence of racism in my thinking is a much deeper and more serious problem in need of solving. That means that people can live out their lives and not be aware of their racially influenced ideas and actions; be they progressive or conservative.  All nations regardless of their economic system need to undertake a national effort of spiritual cleaning and healing; there must be 1,000 variations in all parts of the culture and especially in schools of some form of truth telling the likes of a Prof. Gates: African  Americans:-Many Rivers to Cross Segments ( )  For sure Cuba like any country that has been subject to a colonial heritage based in the ideology that Africans were subhuman, equal to animals, or things. To fix that deep and insidious consciousness, they would need to create a society that could actually go in and thoroughly wash the hearts and minds of people, Black and White! I recently watched a PBS-NewsHour interview of John Ridley    ( one of the producers for the film “12 Years a Slave”. One of the interesting points he made was that films like: “Gone with the wind” and “Django” were on some level “entertaining”; but they have also distorted and sanitized the comprehensive brutality of slavery, and, in my words, the extent to which this brutal system so thoroughly invaded the mind and soul of the slave, along with both the slave owning, and non-slave owning White population. And it is here that Karl Marx and his ideological desendents got it wrong; Slavery in the Americas was much more than just one of several inconvenient historical steps toward a utopian society. This system bred a deep and lasting consciousness and life of its own. For we now see, long after the end of the civil war the Republican party making its bread and case by convincing a huge number of White Americans to essentially vote against their own interest. Just think about the millions of people (not Black or Latino) who are without any health care, affordable or not; who are encouraging their representatives in congress (who do have very good and affordable health care), to block, stop and dismantle the ACA. I think this level of “class-confusion” was even beyond Marx’s comprehension. One problem that plagues both Cuba and the U.S. on the “race question” is that both countries avoid the very painful, but necessary authentic conversation about race.  The Cubans  pretend that they have solved it through socialist consciousness; and we pretend to have serious conversations about race, by talking about the absence of a Black female character on Saturday Night Live.

     Further, a major question the article raised for me was: Who said communism could solve the problem of racism anyway? Surely it must have been communist, but that is just self-serving and wishful thinking. Most of the best known and most popular religions assert that the proper adherence to their theology puts an end to racism; but should we interpret their failure at this objective as a reason to reject the theology? We don’t because we understand the non-racism tenet they espouse is a goal, not a present state of reality. Perhaps political-economic systems can also claim the: “Don’t count us out if we are not perfect yet”. The Communist (If I could speak for them briefly), would probably say that they are in the historical unfinished process of creating a new man and woman freed from the shackles of racism which exist primarily to turn humans into capital, and to turn them against each other. The theological view could make a similar claim that they too see humanity as an unfinished project; and a spiritual work in progress; religious piety would mean the dropping of petty beliefs like race superiority; the new person free from the sin of racism, an idea created in what Augustine might say in the faithless city of man; would be destroyed through the promise of salvation, and can be born in a new creature, fully realized and unburdened by race, in the faithful city of God. Ultimately I would take the theological side in appreciating that  both systems, one that turns God into a commodity, and the other that denies His existence except as a historical invention of man, are both incapable of eliminating racism; or any other human evil. But I would challenge the writer and the NYT: Ok, Cuba has not been able to get it right; then if we are better, why not do better? Why not set the standard for all of the Americas by a national initiative to finally eliminate the Black mis-education pipeline from elementary school to prison. It is us (U.S.) not Cuba that should be teaching the “lesson on race”.

       Finally, I actually think that time, rather than economic systems may be a more powerful agent of change. And in some ways we may need to wait while we work; knowing we are on the right side of history. I agree with the words of Oprah Winfrey when she suggests that time is the enemy of racism: “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die,”… It sounds cold, but there is some biological sense making to it. Many of the people who grew up with images of superiority for themselves, and the inferiority of others, may not be capable of turning that racial moral corner. The alternative is to live, and work without hope; and hope I believe is the best friend and companion of justice. No nation, political or economic system, no matter how powerful can hide from the inevitability of justice; for justice, “will roll down like a mighty river”, even in Cuba.

“I was a Juvenile Delinquent”…… A Story and Meaning of Being Stopped, Corrected and Redirected.

The “conversation” took place one day in my conference room.  It was one of those rare American moments; when a Black person and a White person have an honest and authentic conversation.  A police officer stopped by my office; as they would from time to time, to relax and eat lunch. Our school (SSCHS) was a near the local police station; and yes they actually came into an urban high school to relax and eat lunch; after all this school was very different from the schools where they were constantly summoned to quell some type of major problem. On this particular day the officer in question, who just happened to be White, confessed without my prompting: “You know Mr. Johnson if you were my principal and I attended this school I would have done much better in life”. I responded: “But Officer__________; you have done well; you have a good civil service job, and unlike my civil service job you can retire in 21 years!”  He further clarified: “No, I love this job but I wanted to go to law school; you see Mr. Johnson, when I was a teenager I was very confused, I didn’t work hard in school, in fact I was a juvenile delinquent”. I pushed back, utilizing my standard belief about teenagers; “No, Officer ________; you were probably like most teenagers, confused, conflicted and probably not thinking through all of your actions or behaviors.” But he was determined to be clear; “No, Mr. Johnson I was a real juvenile delinquent”; and in case I continued to miss the point; he added, “I was a teenager who broke the law, a teenager who committed crimes”. Seeing that he was now clearly understood, and that he had my full attention. He went on to explain his challenged teenage years on Long Island. How when he was finally picked up by the Nassau county police his life was turned around; and thus the beginning of his love for the law. His “crew” had just harassed a store owner, stole snack items and destroyed some property. But then something very interesting happened to these young men. First they were not  taken to the police station; instead they were each taken home in a police car and their parents had to immediately pay financial restitution to the store owner (outside of his knowing at the time the police negotiated this with the store owner, because they were told by the police that they were going to jail). Their next stop was a local church (again unbeknownst to them there was some prior discussion); where the police officers requested that the Priest in charge provide these “confused” young men with a “cleaning ministry”; that  would engage them in hard, dirty and humbling work. They were assigned to clean the bathrooms in the church and also the attached parochial school with a brush and rag; no mop (which forced him to clean on his knees) every evening for three months; he said that he never forgot that experience. The police officers warned them they would monitor their work at the church, and behavior in and out of school. And most important: “At no time Mr. Johnson, was anything put on any official paper, report or document; it was as if it never happened; I can honestly say ‘No’ if any one ask me if I ever got arrested.” And he was correct; because he did not get arrested, he got stopped, corrected and redirected by the positive cooperation of an entire community. This I thought; “is the real meaning of Serve and Protect”. But the final comments he left with me were perhaps the most chilling. In a voice wrapped in honest sadness he said: “You know we (meaning the NYPD) are arresting young Black and Hispanic kids; giving them records, messing them up for jobs;  messing them up for the future, for things we did, and got away with.”

         So when people like Messrs. Bloomberg and Kelly claim they have a plan to keep young Black and Latino young men safe; could it really mean safe form future educational and employment opportunities? I really think that the criminalization of a complete class of people based on how they look, and where they live (realities for which they may have little choice); creates a long term effect of making everyone in a city less-safe, as it breaks down an important communication bridge between the police and the unfair profiling of the innocent. But it also places a tremendous burden on Black and Latino teenagers, (particularly males) who must fight an unbearable “two front war”; the very real chance that you could be stopped and killed by another teenager, or being stopped, frisked and arrested by the agency sworn to protect you from that teenager’s attack. Where is your safe haven, the place you can relax your guard? As a young man growing up in Brooklyn that place for me was the Brooklyn Public Library. First, because no self-respecting “knuckle-head” would be caught dead there; and there was no stopping and frisking there; and definitely no “frisky” behavior on the part of patrons as the no nonsense Mr. Blaze, the man in charge of security kept the library safe and quiet for reading and creative imaginations. I spent hours in that haven, but once I stepped outside to go home the two-front battle began again. If I carried checked-out books (I always had at least 4), I probably won’t be stopped by police, but the carrying of books could lead to a violent confrontation with a group of my peers. The “where do I belong?” is a tremendous grinding weight for young men of color to carry, into so many places, and for so much time in their lives.

      Long after that fateful “true confession” day; I have always wondered; how many White “Juvenile Delinquents” were working alongside me, in the Board of Education, and in other parts of the NYC civil service world; and how many were able to enjoy these jobs, that provided “good-things” for their families, because they were Stopped (legitimately, because they were caught, not suspected of, but actually braking the law), Corrected and Redirected.

“Should I answer the “optional” essay on my college applications?”

Question from Tiffany Harrison Bryant……(it just hit he how many of my former students are now teenage parents; I probably need to write an information series on the college application process!:-)

Good Question Tiffany: The answer is; Yes, and No (it can either help, or hurt)…The college admissions/scholarship process is a serious exercise, and students should approach it as such. The student actually has the strategic advantage, but only if he/ she knows the rules of the game! First if the student is properly coached by their high school they need to get organized; the process works best for the best-organized. But if the schools college advisor’s (CA) case load is (very common) too large; or if they are not part of the group that is properly coached by the CA, then the student will need to take a strong “initiative taking” posture. Now this next statement is probably not going to go over well but here it is: It is my experience that many very capable and “transcript/SAT-ACT scores ready” boys will be less enthusiastic, aggressive and attentive about this process; the school and/or, the parent may need to be a little pushy here; I am a proponent of the hate me now, and thank me later school!  In any event the parent should monitor the process for any child, since life-determining decisions are being made!  The first item they should have as part of the College Application process (I will go into each of the items in other post) is a dedicated “College Application Process Jump drive” (with nothing else on it!); that has a back-up folder on a hard drive it should consist of:

1)      List of important dates and deadlines i.e. ACT, SAT, Scholarship programs, FAFSA, etc.

2)      A biographical /“boiler plate” essay

3)      A Resume

4)      Latest Transcripts (constantly update as new classes are taken)

5)      List of constantly used Resource websites. I.e. Foundation Center…

6)      Letters of Recommendations from Teachers, Administrators, and out of school Leaders.

7)      Copies of all communications (topics and dates) with college and scholarship officials.

8)      Copies of all applications sent.

I will tackle the “Biographical Boiler Plate Essay” topic by itself; since that is very often the most confusing element in the process for students; and yet it is the most helpful. But to the immediate question: Initially I said yes and no, because it really boils down to the individual student’s academic profile, “story”, writing skill, the college, the major the student is interested in taking, etc.. By now the students should have identified the “very strong chance of getting in”, “probably will get in”, and “stretch to get in” colleges. They need to treat all three categories with the same intensity; as it will set a standard for the process. I have seen many students mistakenly send a “have-effort” application to the “in” or “probably will get in” school, because: “I don’t really want to go there”; only to be humbled when the “stretch to get in schools” rejection letters start to come in, and now they are worried! In almost every application the students “case” for admission can be made in the regular application without utilizing the Optional Essay (OE). And in fact an unsupervised OE could go bad if it provides unhelpful or TMI.  The reason for taking the OE route (and this is where the professional coaching part is important); is that the student has a “compelling personal story”, for which the telling of that story turns the hearts and minds of the reviewing team toward a favorable view of the applicant. If the OE is not biographical in essence (which means that the student is in control of its content and message) I would probably advise that the student leave the OE alone. A brilliantly written essay on the Voting Rights Act or the Affordable Care Act is wonderful; but it will move the reviewer’s minds to a different place from where you want them to be; and that is to focus on you and your “wonderfulness”; save those essays for AP History!

In the past I have seen some very successful OE moments. Some of the most successful examples I have experienced were what I dubbed: “The how I got over narrative”.  College admissions officers and Americans in general like a story where an individual achieves and succeeds by overcoming tremendous odds and challenges; this also helps with a student’s “college completion profile”, and demonstrates that the student is a good investment for a shrinking scholarships pool.  That essay should be edited (by an English teacher or a good secretary); and again, reviewed by a person thoroughly knowledgeable about the student, and the college application process. Colleges are looking for “life experiences” diversity. They are also under a lot of pressure to “screen out” potential “problematic students”.  And so an unsupervised OE can do more harm than good! The admissions review teams are more than likely made up of individuals who may not have the awareness, familiarity and knowledge of the community, race, religion, ethic and family structure from which that student emerges.  So be careful here. The student may engage in the always dangerous art of: “keeping it real” school of thought.  The student should be made to understand (hopefully having previously been taught); that this is a “code-switching” moment. Even in the successful OE’s some information had to be omitted or “cleaned up”. What many students believe is: “OK, regular, normal, average, universal, etc. may in fact be interpreted in a completely different way by an admissions or scholarship committee who has lived a very different life/cultural experience (that includes people of color who might be on the committee). Remember: This also applies to student interviews. Over the years I have constantly spoken of the:  “Rules of the game of life”; Rule #1: “you don’t have to be told the rules of the game”; Rule # 2: Not knowing the rules does not mean you are not subject to them”; Rule#3: “The rules are definitely and absolutely not fair”. My advice to students has always been to approach this college application process in the same way you would approach the taking of an important exam question: 1) What am I being asked to do? 2) What are the rubrics (rules, grading- scoring system) by which I will be evaluated 3) There is a solution to this problem; and so:  4) What are the correct algorithms (preparations, formulas, strategies, actions, postures, positions) I need to employ to be successful in this process. Finally, the student is part of a senior class, but the college application is a very individual and personalized effort; there is no team or group college application. Each student must play to, and utilized their individual strengths and advantage. The primary problem I see in too many schools across this nation is that many high school students are essentially on their own with this college application process.  We need to work in any way we can on disseminating this information to those students.

For Young Black Folks it Could Be Stop and Risk

“…As friends and family gathered Friday to say goodbye to 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who was reportedly shot while seeking help, the lawyer for the man implicated in the shooting said evidence would show her client’s actions were “justified,”…”



Now this may very well  turn out to be a very “tragic” situation, totally unrelated to Race. But the situation made me think about how so many young people of color are tragically unaware of the potential for danger that their mere presence produces. People can call it what they want(and I sincerely don’t want to offend anyone), but in certain neighborhoods I am just not going to knock on anyone’s door seeking assistance (remember Dr. Gates was arrested trying to get into his own house!).  I don’t speed , first because it’s the law; but also to reduce the possibility for an encounter with a law enforcement agent; 60 years of history has taught me that these brief encounters can turn out deadly; I need to be around , not just to be around, but to be around to serve.  And long after the last memorial ceremony for Renisha McBride has ended. Long after everyone forgets except the grieving family who will never be able to forget. After the last angry obligatory “never again” words have dissipated  into the commercialized noise of the next new item or gadget that we must give to show love; and receive to prove we are loved. We will be left with all of the young African Americans who are still alive and living among us. What do we tell them?  We need to have a conversation with young people of color about “ survival instincts”.  I get and love, that we are in the very inspirational age of Barack Obama. But young African Americans; for their own safety and wellbeing, should not buy into the “Post-Racial America” mythology.  If  President Obama’s tenure has taught us anything, it is that we are very much still in a very highly toxic racialized environment. The news media can say what it wants; but I think that many in our nation are not fooled by the Tea-Party’s “good and less“  government cover. And just like the wearing of  “white sheets” failed to cover the true intentions of racist in the past; we are not fooled  today by the Tea-Party’s  cover sheets of “civic participation”. I understand that many parents and educators don’t want to “burden” young people with the added pressure of being race ‘sensitive’  and conscious as they move through the world. As a Principal I always wept internally every year that I had to teach young Black and Latino male students survival techniques so that they could survive a “police stop”, without losing their lives, or their chance at a future without a police record. Don’t have an “attitude”; just try to live to see another day; Don’t ask: “Why are you stopping me?”; even if you have absolutely done nothing to justify that stop”(keep your mouth shut and just memorize the badge number). Don’t make any sudden, “jerky” movements; when requested announce  loudly: “I AM REACHING FOR MY WALLET TO GET MY I.D.; keep an I.D. and money in your wallet at all times; …..Don’t, Don’t, Don’t’…Don’t try to be a hero, just try to live another day. I often thought and never shared with those young men that: Being a hero is exactly what a young person should aspire to be! And yet the objective in this situation was to live… another day. What a life for a young person to experience;; hunted by other young men of color; and no government protective  force you feel is truly dedicated to serve and protect you. “Why could they not just be teenagers”; I thought; “and experience normal  teen-age problems?” I felt sorry for them and at the same time felt  sorry for myself , remembering the similar teenage life, experienced by me and my friends. Now as grown men we (all who are left) vividly remember the dual lives we had to painfully live as young people. I was told not to run outside;(Goodness, running is a primary activity of being a kid!) because I would look suspicious. As a group we waited outside of a store while one person went in; too many people in the store looked suspicious. “Michael, when you move around the city, try not to look dangerous or suspicious; huh? “Keep your voice down”; how?; “Don’t draw attention to yourself” (be invisible?); “No play fighting”; “no excitable, sudden movements”; “no hands in pockets”;  “no moving, breathing, talking, singing, acting, being… Black.  And then there were the geographical limitations:

I can remember the day when four of us were on our way to Coney Island to spend our honestly and hard-earned: allowance or odd jobs money. Odd-Job meaning:  collecting and cashing bottles, Newspaper deliveries (I had the feared and dreaded Route 18 which was Eastern Parkway, and the pain of 10,000 steps!); grocery/cleaners deliveries, shoe-shining (I still can’t believe I asked for, and received a shoe-shine  box and kit for Christmas!) We now wanted to do what all good Americans do; spend our money. We looked forward to the excitement, smells and sounds of Coney Island. Our strategic plan, (as well as adolescents can plan) was to spend our money on  a few amusement rides, to eat at Nathan’s; and like young liberated bear cubs, we wanted to see what cute “honeys” would dare venture into our soon to be claimed Brooklyn electric  forest.  Suddenly the train stopped in a “White neighborhood” somewhere, long before Coney Island. We knew this was a “White neighborhood”, because we were well versed on the geo-cultural map of Brooklyn, including the very defined “gang territories”.  Everyone back then, for the sake of survival had to become some type of a “maptician” expert.  The conductor announced and explained that because of some track problems  all passengers would need to get off the train and then take a shuttle bus that would follow the train route, and make all the stops that the train would make, with the last stop ending at Coney Island.  Passengers  offered up the  standard New York City- MTA  grumbles: “high fare, low ride”; “That’s why I’m buying a car”; “I am not wasting another vote on Mayor (just fill in the blank)__________”; “I dare them to ask for another fare increase”; “ D____   NYC  transit system”. But as quickly as the MTA curses and denunciations rain down, so also did the passengers  quickly exit  the now “dead” train. Except, that is, for us four. The MTA employees were shocked and surprised that we four Black Crown heights kids refused to get off the train; and they were not clear as to what to do about it. “No way”, we said; “are we walking, even down those stairs (it was an elevated train) to stand, and wait to catch and ride a bus in this neighborhood.”  Now,  this was not a  Rosa Parks like “sit down” designed  to save America from her sinful racist state of being; rather, this was a “safe-down“  in order to save the living sate of our behinds. We also knew that although we were a group of good young people (out of fear of our parents), who would normally be very receptive and responsive to a directive given by an adult; particularly an adult in an official capacity, but this situation was very different.  This time we somehow knew (or at least believed) that the standards  of adult/child obedience rules would not apply in this situation. We were polite, respectful ,but emphatic about not moving; and we were (at least somewhat), sure our parents would  support our decision in this exceptional case. This was a classic American standoff; a real : “We will, we will not be moved” moment.  The conductor pleaded, and we resisted :  “What do you kids mean you are not getting off the train; no one in the neighborhood is going to hurt you” . Nope, we were not moving off that train, and into that dangerous (for Black kids) neighborhood. The conductor paused in thought for a moment (lesson: pause before anger) and clearly he was seeking  a peaceful way out of this situation (or maybe he was just anxious to get to lunch); In any event he said:  “Well, You kids are not going to be able to go to Coney island on this train; the only thing you can do then is take the ( then waiting) train back in the opposite direction  to Borough Hall, but you won’t be able to get your fare back”. “Not a problem”; we said; immediately sensing a good compromise. Coney Island will be there, the rides will be there, Nathan’s will be there, and the lovely honeys will always be there; but today, we want to live!” Thus the end of our Coney Island trip (who said Black life in America wasn’t complicated!). Even though I was one of the four of those kids heading now away from Coney Island, and back to the faux safety of Crown Heights. I often wondered, and yet can’t seem to remember (and I mean really can’t remember): “What were those four young men feeling, thinking, and saying as they returned from that failed journey? Were they angry? Did they poetically joke about it in a Langston Hughes kind of way? Were they silent and brooding?  Did they stand in the front of the first car, and curse the on rushing scenery for their fate? And why did I bury those “returning home” moments so deeply somewhere that I can’t remember them;  are those memories buried so deep because they are too painful too recall? Yes I often wonder about the thoughts of those four young men; and what it means  to be young, gifted, Black and feeling so unsafe in such a powerful country, in your own country.  And what was so amazing about that day is by that time in our lives none of us had either heard of or read the works of James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois or Malcolm X. We had not read Ellison’s, Invisible Man; or Lammings, In The Castle of My Skin; or McKay’s poem: “If we must die”; or the Brooks Poem: We real Cool  , with that powerful  line: “We Die soon..”  And yet we all knew, and agreed in our non-sophisticated  political way, that there were  people in this world, in our own country, who wanted to harm us for no other reason than the color of our skin. We were not “hoodlums” by any definition of the word; we were in every sense of the words: “good kids”, dare I say even model. We went to school, we played all sports in season, we flew kites in Prospect Park; and the closest  we ever  came to inflicting “violence” was the simulated game of playing  “army” or football in that same Prospect Park. We listened (in those days without talking) to adults speaking with concern about the terrible racial problems in the far away, and in an almost foreign, un-American south; and yet in some  ways we were both obvious and aware of our own dangerous south in NYC.  It seemed that some dangers were so great  that the adults in our lives conspired to keep its awful truth from us. Those boys  who routinely “traveled south” during the summer to visit relatives; would without explanation see that ritual suddenly stop, once the young men became “too big” (I would later come to understand this as the Emmett Till effect); but we in our young and innocent unawareness were just happy that now we would now not lose our best stick-ball and sand lot baseball players to southern relatives. We lived in two places at once; as children doing children “stuff”; and then somehow as a kind of an “adult” who were aware of the danger of our skin; the mature awareness  to turn every slight, disappointment and “not having” into an advantage and an opportunity to be creative. Being forced to repair our bikes utilizing “cannibalized” bike  parts was an economic necessity; but it also was necessary to unite our two “souls”; we were not victims of an economic system; rather we gained victory over the “system”. For our bike fixing was also a lesson in, science, humility, determination, self-reliance and the sense that we were a special and unique type of human being. But who knew that?  And to borrow from the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:  “…These panting people did not know that I myself was once a hungry kid, that the war hit me hard,  making two childhoods and two of me…”  We lived the best we could obvious to harm; that is, until one of those painful Coney Island moments.  We knew, and did not know; how dangerous and tenuous was our very existence. The youthful enterprise of wanting to know everything, and then actively seeking the safety of knowing nothing. “Oh as I was young…….”, mused  the poet Dylan Thomas in a poem staged  very far from Brooklyn, titled Fern Hill.  “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea”.  We lived unknowingly in the inspired words of  W.E.B.  Du Bois we were two-Americans: One young and childlike, and the other fiercely aware of our double consciousness and being; and the danger this being  posed to our survival. And until we truly get into a post-racial phase  in America (whatever that means), young African-Americans will need to be taught to live in a state of double consciousness if they hope to survive to adulthood; and thrive in adulthood.

Are American High School Students Doing Poorly Academically, Based on International Comparative Studies?

Well, Yes and No: What International education comparative studies tell us, and don’t tell us about the state of American High School Education.

Mike, First of all thanks for this very thought provoking article; it warms this old educators heart to see a former student tackling a serious intellectual problems. This is a major topic of debate in the education world, with many different thoughts; and so this is my (maybe not so easy for some to) take…..

      As a society we are perhaps overly fixated on either the “silver-bullet”, or the “super-hero” model to solve very difficult and complex problems. The author is correct in that there is much that is in need of “fixing”; in schools of education; in both teacher and school administrator’s education; and in all certification programs.  But his assertion that if we could just  get rid of “teacher education”, and attract teachers with higher SAT scores, all would be well; if only it was that easy! We now know that the “reform movement” brought us a wave of so called “higher ranking” teachers  working on a drive by commitment to help the poor; this has been a disaster. With all of the things that need “fixing” in schools of education; majoring in education is still tremendously valuable in understanding: developmental psychology, curriculum, lesson planning, classroom management, developing and analyzing assessments, how to “break down” and “distribute” content to different students in the class, etc. Majoring in education can’t guarantee that you will be a great teacher; but if there is a great teacher in you, this specialized knowledge and training will go a long way in bringing it out of you. Further, the children who are in the greatest need of expertise in our public schools, should  be exposed to those teachers who are the best experienced practitioners, with the best expertise in content and method. Expertise in any profession is a combination of : A set of professional standards and ethics, knowledge of content, methods, practical experience, good coaching and continuous professional development. He mentions “successful” teachers in other countries; but fails to mention the amount of coaching and professional development they enjoy( i.e. he mentions Japanese teachers without mentioning their extensive and focused prep periods); those nations commitment to recruit and invest in teachers; the fact that these teachers make a lifelong commitment to teaching, and to the study of teaching. And finally, the tremendous “collective” pressure to encourage those ‘not suited” for the profession to exit (and I am not talking about bouncing around a “rubber room” for years eating up much need financial resources).  Now this article  attempts to address several very serious and complex topics, in too short an article; and for sure many of our American high school students are graduating with a diploma, the worth of which is  somewhere either north, or south of the 8th grade standards (I will come back to that thought). The reasons for the “sad state of US education”, are complex; but a simple and quick preliminary answer that might be a little too hard for some, shall I say, with politically sensitive ears to take…. They should probably stop reading now:

        First, the good news. For a large number of  American students who are receiving an education in a US high school, public or private; they are receiving the best, or better educational experience then could ever be hoped for, or even imagined by most of the world’s students. Many of the  things we take for granted in most US schools, don’t exist in many places in the world. Don’t know if you are aware of this but a delegation of school district leaders (regional education commissioners) from The Peaple’s Republic of China (PRC) visited the Science Skills Center High School (SSCHS). When they saw things like your science labs, robotics-engineering lab, Library, computer rooms and distance learning lab, etc.; their comment was that their best schools, concentrated in large cities in the PRC were not so well  equipped; and that the majority of their schools in rural areas were far less resourced then those in the larger cities. One thing that really got their attention, and fueled a lot of questions was our Chinese Foreign Language Classes; as this was the rare, in of all places a “majority-minority” school that matched their own strategic attention to the teaching  of English to their students. The assumption was that everything at SSCHS was part of the schools “official” budget. Translating “grant-writing” and “fund-raising” was a challenge for me.  “Why”, they inquired; “would the State Department fund this Chinese language program in only a few schools; why isn’t it a national policy?” It was very hard for me to explain the additional millions of dollars we raised for: in and out of school projects and activities from private sources and cooperate partners; their schools had no cooperate partners; and as a practice their principals didn’t raise extra, beyond budgeted money. In short I tried to explain that there are, many financial inequities (some vary large) when going from school to school in the US; and even inside of school districts. Now, I have no idea what the State Department officials accompanying the group said to them prior to their arrival at our school; and clearly they could see that the student population at SSCHS was majority students of color. But I had a clue, when I  explained to them (because  they asked), the “political reality” of US high schools. I went on to say, as the State department person winced; that SSCHS was not a typical US high school; and it surely was not the average high school that served children of color in this, any other major US city. I had to be honest since one of the concerns they raised was the challenge they faced in raising the quality of schools that served their “ethnic minorities”. And so here it is, and one of the many problems with the article. What in fact are you comparing when comparing two groups of students, who may have experienced two very different  levels of material and human resource quality in their respective schools? And if it is difficult, without I believe, employing a complex algorithm, to compare two high schools in the same city, or district; having very different admission policies; that is: admitting students at very different levels of readiness to do high school work; offering very different academic programs, and  who are resourced in very different ways. How complex then when comparing the educational systems of two nations? What is the objective “tool” of measure, when most countries, including the US, in reality have 2 or more schools systems? The other side of the “good” SSCHS education story is: The dramatically bad high school “underperformance and dropout” rate numbers story, that exist in too many school buildings in our nation; that to be honest, only masquerade as high schools. And, even more deceptive and misleading are the large number of underperforming and failing, poor and students of color, who may “physically” be in a school considered “good” or  “average”, and yet are very often assigned to low expectations ,less rigorous academic track classes (In Albany N.Y., I saw a “good” example of Black and Latino students: “going into the same school building as their White peers, but  then once inside receiving  an inferior, 2nd class education”) The underperforming low scores on standardized exams; and proportionally high drop-out rates of these students are “hidden” when they are statistically averaged in with the high academically tracked students, who are most likely in more academically rigorous and challenging classes. And so, our author would need to work a little harder to get a true picture of how US students are truly performing. But why the two tracks, two tier educational systems that you see worldwide, that prevents a proper comparative analysis? Going from nation to nation the reasons for “2 school systems”, can vary greatly. For many developing countries it really boils down to money. They believe (incorrectly I think) that: “We can only buy microscopes for a small fraction of our student population; and so we need a system that chooses who gets a microscope and who does not.” Now that decision could be simply based on wealth; ethnic group; political connections; government, party rank or affiliation: ”The children of_______________ get the well-equipped schools”; or as in places like Brazil it can be multiple and perhaps overlapping factors, i.e. race and class that determine a child’s educational destiny. Also, in many of these same nations, designating  a child’s educational future is done by utilizing  an already determined, by virtue of the child’s pre-exam limited learning track, a series of “gate-blocking or opening”, meritocracy- mediocrity determining standardized elimination exams. Although the questions on these exams (like the NYS Regents, SAT, GRE, SAT, LSAT, MCAT, etc.) are standardized, the learning path that has led the different students to those exams is very much not standardized; thus the inventive birth of the “achievement gap.”  For many of these nations, this “elimination exam system” is left over from their former colonial status. The “decision” as to who advances educationally, is done by “sifting” students in a most inefficient, educationally unsound and unethical way. I really think, in doing this, they are doing great harm to their national development efforts; for building an educational system to essentially feed a colonial bureaucracy is very different from building an educational system for independence, self-reliance and national development; but that is a topic for another day. The question that the multi-tiered educational system raises, but is absent from this article is this: Should nations “lose points” for leaving large numbers of their student population essentially behind? Should this ‘’competition” be a race to see how many students can a country get to the top? And in present studies are we comparing high or low achievers with their academic counterparts in other nations?

     In the case of the US, because I want to be fair here; we are also guilty of having a multi-tiered school system, and like other nations in the world the reasons have  “rationales” based on our history, economic system and culture. The reasons for a US multi-tiered school system exist, and how and why it is maintained:

  (1) The educational problem for our present national economic structure is: What  would you do with  a large successfully educated population, who would be competitive, and place a tremendous amount of pressure on the labor market? A large surplus of skilled labor is a condition our present economic system is not prepared to absorb.  In short we need a permanent  “failing” underclass whose condition and plight will  produce jobs for the successfully educated. We have very large national industries and employers, most of them in city, state and federal civil service; that are dependent on the simple act of a young man reaching (or not reaching) high school, and being unable to read a 9th grade textbook (actually there are factors that can identify these students as early as elementary school) and/or a young lady in the same educational condition; only in her case having given birth to that young man’s child; both are more than likely poor, and unprepared for parenthood, thus replenishing the vicious cycle. This uneducated “raw material”  will be consumed by the: service, punishment and/or  rehabilitation industries;  with a single person often “feeding” all three. But the other good news for the present economic structure is that despite their educationally and financially impoverished state; this group will also be consumers of commercial products and services; people who ”disappear” from our schools don’t disappear from the consumer market.

(2)There is also the problem that “student academic failure” and “underachievement”, is a tremendous money making, growth and investment industry, both in, and outside of schools see: .  Large numbers of poor children, performing poorly on standardized exams, is the modern American “California Gold-Rush”.  Further, “Closing The Achievement Gap”; despite it being a misleading and disingenuous concept (the “ability” to learn is “naturally” and equally distributed across the population); produces millions of research papers, articles, books, seminars, conferences, speakers and large consultant “specialist” fees. (Even Marx didn’t envision this unbelievably large group of workers, working in industries solely dependent on the children of their fellow workers failing in, and out of school!)

(3) And as a result of points 1 & 2; putting it simply, it is because the effective education of large segments of our student population, just does not matter.

Conclusion:  So when we are comparing the educational systems of two nations; which of the multiple educational systems in each of those nations are we really, if at all, comparing?

      The  author of this article may in a way be asking a good question; if only “the question”  could be asked in a better way. He is unfortunately about 20-30 paragraphs short of a good analysis; and so here are some additional problems with this type of International education comparative analysis: First of all I am not convinced of the operational usefulness of these comparisons to the frontline educational practitioners; those professionals who actually educate children; as opposed to those who just talk about the education of children. I guess there is some esoteric, and even possibly practical value to these studies; but I am really more interested in studies that explain: how Japanese Mathematics teachers approach the teaching of their subject area; or the structure and methodologies of the British Career Technical Education (CTE) secondary schools; or the workings of the Chinese Sports Schools. There is a great deal of value in identifying a “Best educational practices” wherever they exist in the world; but I am not sure about the value of this focus on “whose educational system is better”; particularly when “better” is determined absent of so many important variables.  As an Engineer you probably know that you, and the rest of the Science, Technology, Mathematics and Medical Science world are more properly focused on inventions, innovations and improved techniques across international lines; as opposed to spending a lot  of time on which nation is better at producing STEM graduates! We need to spend less time on gushing about South Korea’s outstandingly high reading and mathematics scores; and more time on the role of high expectations on the part of Korean: School building administrators, teachers, the “informal” out of school education system, the collective culture, and the role of parents in driving those high sores; but that would  mean looking at what is really a critical factor in American education. This would mean having an honest conversation about American education and the role of race. A study or article about US education and academic achievement, that omits the topic of Race, is intellectually dishonest; and I am not sure how helpful it would be to “front-line” educators; who don’t have a lot of time to waste reading studies not useful and disconnected from their day to day practice.

        Further, there are many culturally unique variables that make the arithmetic of these international comparative studies suspect; or at least open to the need for a deeper analysis. For example: One nation’s schools I visited and studied was In Barbados; I was interested in their amazingly high literacy rate (close to 100%!). When I visited classrooms in Barbados I could not ascertain where the teachers were employing some “secret magic literacy strategy”; in fact the schools, modeled after the British  system of education, looked very much like the schools I visited (with some few exceptions)in other parts of the English speaking Caribbean. I visited libraries in Barbados, and again did not notice anything radically different from Libraries in other countries in the Caribbean; they all  seem to be filled with people, young and old, actively utilizing the libraries services, particularly the internet.  And so what was the difference with literacy education in Barbados? After several, “no light bulb coming on” trips, I just settled on the hypothesis of the factor being a combination of size, and culture. Like the “small schools theory” in the US; students tend to not get lost when there are fewer of them to monitor. In Barbados teachers and school administrators lived, worshiped, shopped and socialized very close to/with each other; less of an opportunity for students to “slide”. Children, dressed in and color/grade designated uniforms helped here, are under very tight scrutiny. It reminded me in a way of my visit to schools in Charlottesville in Tobago, where  a child not moving quickly to school; or who was in the wrong place at the wrong time was easily, and immediately identified and challenged by any “‘deputized” adult. But the most important factor in Barbados was what I called the “cultural belief in literacy”. This belief exist in the “collective consciousness” of the nation, and drives; rather then is driven by a national education policy. It appeared to me that there was a great deal of pressure in the culture for Individuals to obtain literacy skills; whether you are talking about a laborer in Bridgetown, a grounds keeper at Farley Hill Park, or a fisherman in Oistins; being illiterate in Barbados amounted to something like a sin. In fact, illiteracy is considered to be a categorical step below poverty; or as one Barbadian local said to me: “being poor is one thing; but there is no reason to not be able to read and write”  Also, the Barbadian nationals are very aware of their international literacy status, and so that awareness, and desire to maintain that status also becomes part of the national cultural psyche: “We are one of the most literate nations in the world, therefore every citizen has a “patriotic duty” to maintain that status. This constant affirmation-reaffirmation was an example of the cultural cause and effect acting on, and pushing each other. And so all of this to say that there are many; historical, cultural, economics and unique national factors that shape education policy and schools in different parts of the world; and the more reason to be careful when making system to system, school to school or student to student comparisons. We can perhaps import some of a nation’s pedagogical techniques; it is quite another to import its values. 

         I think that if we absolutely had to do one of  these international comparative studies,     I would have more confidence if the study  was a serious analysis that monitored all of the variables:  national “personality”, race, class, economics, history, etc.; rather than the shallow ramblings (as in this article) of a political ideologue who was just looking for a cheap and easy way to put US students, and American education down. An authentic comparative study would mean that we were at least “roughly” comparing two groups of very similar students, the same ages, similar learning environments, and who are exposed to the same amount of content, in essentially the same time-frame. A further and serious omission by the author is the reality that in many US high schools are sitting a large number of students who in most countries in the world would never see the inside of a high school. In most other countries they cannot and/or will not make the level of educational expenditures we are making in the US (I  can hear some of my education folks protesting that we are not spending enough on education; that may be true; But first, we need to restructure our education allocation in a more strategically smart and thoughtful way; we can’t escape from the fact that many of the school districts in our nation with the highest per pupil expenditures, have some of the worst academic performance and highest drop-out rates; clearly money alone is not the solution!) These nations have decided, incorrectly in my view, to employ the before mentioned, and less then thoughtful sorting process. In most nations in the world students take some type of a “qualifying” or “entrance exam” somewhere in elementary- middle grades; and the small number that pass go on to secondary education; the rest of the folks who don’t pass must “grab a rake or a shovel” and get to work.  Comparing the “high school” or secondary students  of those nations, with US high school students is guaranteed to generate inaccurate data. Can a “poor” kid breakthrough in those “exam sifting nations”; yes, but it is by the process of “Luck and Pluck”; The “pluck” favors good test takers, good teachers, the quality of “parent-push”, and good study habits. The “luck” is having the right before mentioned “motivators” to match the student’s skill and willingness to work hard. This arbitrary process, in my view, is not the best way to identify and develop the intellectual and creative talents of a nation’s children; or to put it another way; to invest in a  nation’s future. But at least everyone knows the “rules”: Pass those “gate-keeper” exams or else. But before we pat ourselves on the back, let me be clear: we also have a negative sifting process; and to be honest most US citizens don’t know the rules. And perhaps our system is in many ways a more vicious educational sifting process when compared to the process utilized by other nations; and this is the reason. We proudly pretend that we are educating all folks in high school; when in fact we are really keeping large numbers of those children off the streets, and out of the low-skill job market during their “turbulent” teen years.  Just imagine what a large number of aimless and unemployed young adults in the 14-18 age range would do to the daytime downtown shopping environment in any of our even medium size cities?  Further, in other countries that have an “official exam cut system”; the education of large numbers of students will terminate somewhere in the middle grades. These nations compensate for this by “ramping-up” the rigor in the elementary and middle grades, knowing that many of those students won’t be going  on to secondary school, or to a highly rated and rigorous secondary school; and therefore they will need a strong functional literacy program for participation in adult-society life. On the other hand many US schools are pretending that they are providing a secondary education to large numbers of high school students; when in fact, that is untrue. The students are eventually and permanently harmed as they “graduate” with  skills/content weakened diplomas, that won’t allow them to function effectively in the  competitive workforce environment. This is the cause of the constant complaint of  employers who must then pay (cash=time=cash) for the cost of teaching high school skills to employees; and the reason for explosion of college courses that essentially provided a 13th year of “corrective” non-credited high school courses on a college campus. As a Russian born teacher of H.S. physics once told me: “In Russia there is no ‘remedial’ courses; if you are in high school, it is because you belong there; and if you are sitting in a physics class, it is because you belong there.” Thus, just more “facts on the ground”, that can produce incorrect results in these types of studies when comparing students from different countries.

       Another “comparative study” problem: The US spends in some cases: $20,000, $30,000 to +$50,000 per/student/year on children with disabilities; in many countries, that type of expenditure is just not possible, even if it was desired by those nations. And then there  is the racial homogeneity factor. The author mentions Japan. But teachers and school administrators in Japan are Japanese, and therefore look very much like the students they serve; there is a collective cultural understanding as to “everyone”: schools, community, parents, and government; acting and being “responsible” for the academic success of students; national pride; as we saw in Barbados can be an important factor in achieving learning objectives. If the society sees all of the school children, as “their children”;  there is then an emergence of  a sense of urgency and commitment on the part of all of the adults (professional educators or not) to create educated citizens to build the nation. In the US our societal character says that we would rather “import” STEM professionals from outside the US, rather than commit to “growing” them from student-citizens born in the US. Further, our unique “racial history”; which still remains very much unresolved, has also produced a parallel problematic history in education. And that is why when these “researchers”, who  love to look at Scandinavian nations as the model for “good education”; and yet they conveniently side step the uncomfortable, but critical issue of racial homogeneity.

 This  racial homogeneity, found in many nations’ school leadership and teaching ranks, also produces an environment of high expectations; just like in Barbados where adults may: believe, say or think when encouraging a child: “Well Barbadians before you, who live like you, who look like you, achieved this high literacy rate; and therefore there is no reason why you can’t also”. This factor of “expected success” based on a collective cultural history, has I believe, a tremendous influence on student performance. But here in the US our nation’s racial history is very complex  such that even the presence of a mayor, school board, chancellor, superintendent, school building administrator or teacher, who shares a cultural or racial identity link with the students they serve, does not necessarily mean that those individuals will have high expectations for those students; or that they will work hard to bring the gifts and talents of those students into realization. See Carter G. Woodson’s: The Mis-Education of the Negro.

        But despite the “ educational success” of nations that operate  with a racial homogeneity factor. There may in fact be some downsides, as the future points to a greater, and not lesser need for cultural literacy competency. The lack of diversity in their schools may in fact hurt those students in the long run; but that again is a topic for another posting.  Meanwhile in the US, a place that is blessed with diversity, makes every effort to waste that gift. What If the US ever got serious about effectively educating: a  diverse racially, linguistically, culturally, economically and both men and women society? This action would in fact be powerful investment strength for the US, and would propel us into world leadership in STEM, economic, education, creative arts, environmental solutions, innovative and genius solutions to problems far into the future. “Developing” nations will at some point in their development have the capacity to “grow” and absorb their college, graduate school, post-grad and professional school, STEM graduates; we on the other hand will be left with a huge population of under/poorly educated class of citizens who will not be able to participate in the productive economic life of the nation; except as a “client” and consumer class. No disrespect to your hard work and intellectual skills; but US schools could, and should produce twice the number of Mike Williams.  I dare anyone to take robotic or science kits (I’ve done it) into the poorest school, in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest part of  the nation, and watch kids get excited and want to learn; and so what happens to those young people that they don’t pursue a STEM career? Clearly it is not about a lack of interest in STEM. 

        Finally, before we romanticize about the great education occurring in places like Finland, Denmark and Norway. We may want to compare other factors that greatly influence the quality of the education in those nations; things like access to quality healthcare (their version of the ACA!). Many Republican controlled US statehouses go to every extreme length to restrict women from receiving even the smallest amount of pre-natal education and reproductive healthcare information. They seem to be fixated on “managing” the reproductive systems of women, and yet by resisting, and undermining the Affordable Care Act(ACA); they demonstrate that they have no real interest in the wellbeing of the rest of a woman’s anatomy. And for sure they are hostile to a good healthy quality of life start for the children these women may have, and who eventually will go to school. Meanwhile,  their conservative  ideological cousins in in Washington; who claim to love the sound of “birthin’ babies”; do everything possible to make sure that those babies, once born, are ill prepared to do well in school, by limiting (cynically termed: “entitlement reform”) their access to brain-nourishing food, decent housing, early comprehensive healthcare, and a quality preschool education. If we are going to compare internationally, then let’s make a thorough, fair, honest, from the cradle comparison.


Article: A Key Reason Why American Students Do Poorly; George Leef;;Forbes: