National Urban Alliance, November 2, 2007: Off the Reservation

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Eric Cooper, President, National Urban Alliance For Effective Education

While America sits captivated by the presidential debates and nonstop election year campaigning, 3.5 million educators attempt to educate the nation’s schoolchildren and youth. All the while, millions of children and their families struggle with the challenges of poverty, and the potential of diminished lives looms large in a cycle that seems never to be broken. If this election, and a focus on poverty is to symbolize a shift in American values, we must begin where change is often forgotten first and yet where it is needed most–urban education and urban communities. If the promise of America is to be realized, than the hope of those who struggle with poverty must be addressed. The future of American democracy is framed by how as a nation we respond and come to terms with both race and poverty.

America cannot afford to neglect the present opportunity. Now is America’s chance to fulfill its obligation to ensure a quality education and life for all children, for all of its citizens. This country must begin again an honest dialogue about how to improve the quality of education in today’s poor and disadvantaged communities.

In 1994, author Charles Murray made the startling prediction that in thousands of neighborhoods across the United States, “the underclass will become even more concentrated spatially than it is today.” In his book, The Bell Curve, Murray proclaimed that by “custodial state, we have in mind a high-tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business.”

Thirteen years later, Murray’s prediction has become a reality. Too many Americans have turned a blind eye to the consequences of concentrating poverty, crime and despair in disadvantaged communities, while not affording all children a pathway for educational achievement. Instead, indifference has built ramps to the newest “reservation” that breeds crime, community blight, poor health and an education system that prolongs these inequalities.

This alarming revelation suggests that today’s continuing chaos in urban education has diminishing returns for the entire nation. It is an embarrassment that our urban “reservations” grow larger everyday. Rather than isolating a disadvantaged community, we should better leverage existing resources to derive a solution.

Through research, trial and error, we have access to culturally appropriate strategies that recognize the uniqueness of America’s inner city populations While there is no one simple answer to education and social reform, there is indisputable proof that an excited educator, an engaged student and supportive community are critical ingredients to educational achievement, and improved life stories for our young.

Future programs must target teachers, the public school system, its staff and the surrounding community where “reservations” flourish and grow. We must continue to foster the belief that public education should combine policies, programs, practices, data and beliefs that lift and accelerate all student achievement. And we must trust the truism that learning will occur one person at a time, for the learning is within each of us.

Like many of the presidential debates have indicated, this election must reassert our commitment to urban education in America. There is no reason for society to continue to place the less fortunate on “reservations” without the chance of escape, when we have found an effective way, through education and through partnerships, to reach today’s youth and give them hope for leaving these “reservations” forever.

The most important lessons gleaned in an election are often found in the least likely places. The current climate proves that we must continue to listen and learn from them.

Dr. Eric Cooper is president of New York based National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. NUA’s Teaching for Intelligence: Believe to Achieve Conference (a conference which focuses on the elimination of poverty through an “education as a civil right” campaign) has convened in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Birmingham, Alabama. It convenes again in Albany, New York, March 27 – 30, 2008.

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