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Charlie Mitchell: Primary purpose of schools should never be secondary


Charlie Mitchell



OXFORD -- Lost among the tsk-tsking when Mississippi's "failing schools" list was released this year was the fact that more schools are scoring better than are scoring worse. 


In many ways, the rankings are hokum, much like the magic fixes -- charter schools, common core -- rolled out every couple of years as one-size-fits-all solutions. 


But the letter grades are what they are. People put a lot of stock in them. 


That fewer are failing doesn't matter. Folks huff and puff, then move on to the next topic. 


If anything is going to change, people -- including the Legislature -- will have to dig deeper. Schools get annual checkups, but society has rooted, systemic deficiencies. 


The problem is not a shortage of teachers, books, chalk or iPads. The problem is endemic poverty coupled with brutal indifference in all -- or almost all -- of the 50 F-rated schools and nine F-rated districts. 


One common denominator is that where schools are failing, the school system is the largest employer or among the largest in the towns or counties they "serve." These are areas of high unemployment, high dependence on aid programs. 


The resulting reality is that "getting hired on" with a school district -- as a teacher, clerk, cook, bus driver or anything else -- is a ticket. Because jobs are so scarce, people who distribute the tickets become politically powerful and, in turn, protect of their turf. Rewarding friends and punishing enemies becomes the primary mission. Teaching little Sally to read, well, not so much. Principals matter; principles don't. 


The short-term fix that has been attempted since the state Department of Education has had the authority to do so has been to go in and muscle out the kingpins, install temporary leadership and try to cajole improvement in what takes place in classrooms. 


A year or two later, state oversight ends. And the same old problems creep back. 


There's another common denominator: Every one of the 15 failing districts has a black majority enrollment of at least 85 percent. Several are 100 percent. 


Some folks, bless their hearts, seize on this. Aha! The problem is race! 


But "black schools can't succeed" is a short-sighted conclusion, not supported by any data. Some of the 18 "A" districts and many of the "B" districts have black majorities, too. 


Race doesn't predict success or failure. The local economy predicts success or failure. 


The long-term fix -- and those who want to stop with finger-pointing, placing blame won't like this -- is to do everything possible to ramp up local economies so that school districts forfeit their status as the fattest cash cows in their communities. Then, and only then, will the proper perspective be restored. 


The Mississippi Legislature seems unable (or unwilling) to see the big picture. It's like they manage a golf course and pay people to chase cows off the fairways every day. They curse the cows, but never consider building a fence. 


Now here's another thing: Many newspapers with front-page reports how local schools were coming up short in academics included sports pages or sections with how the area football teams were doing. 


There's an incongruity here, to use a 50-cent word for "that doesn't make sense." 


Athletics, band, cheerleading, student clubs and other extra-curricular activities are wonderful, character-building. But they're not called "extra-curricular" for nothing. They are secondary, supportive of the schools' mission but not essential. 


How can a superintendent keep a straight face while being back-slapped and congratulated by fans in the stands on how well the football team is doing when he or she knows the district stinks in the arena of teaching and learning? 


Anyway, there is no simple fix. The children of children who abandoned public education in the 1960s and 1970s are lying to themselves if they think desegregation, in and of itself, brought about today's failing public schools. They can afford to be indifferent, but it is they and their children who will pay excessively for coming generations on public assistance, in prison or learning and earning well below their potential. 


Everybody has a stake in the quality of public schools. Ronald Reagan loved to say, "A rising tide floats all boats." He was right. But it's just as accurate to say, "If public education sinks, we all go down with the ship." 


Eventually, we will have to stop tsk-tsking and take time to work on the big picture. That's where solutions are. 




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