WASHINGTON, D.C. – If today’s high school seniors aren’t better positioned to pursue a college degree, they won’t be able to fully enjoy the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement.
That was one of the key points made Friday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 41s Annual Legislative Conference during a panel discussion titled “The Class of 2012.”
Hosted by freshman U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the panelists hit on a variety of issues, from what they described as the inordinate emphasis placed on college entrance exams and standardized tests to the antiquated agrarian school calendar.
Contempt for charter schools permeated the discussion, while the applause that followed most, if not all, of the speakers’ comments suggested a certain homogeny of political thought, particularly over the state of public education.
Still, panelists agreed that, as a whole, public schools—under the current system—are not serving minority students well.
Dr. Henry Lewis III, president of Florida Memorial University, said one of the biggest needs in education today is for more students to get educated in the so-called STEM fields.
“I think one of the areas that we’re failing in our education system is in the STEM disciplines,” Lewis said. “I’m a scientist, a pharmacist by training, and I’m keenly aware that science-based training is what we got to have in this information age that we’re in.”
“But we’re using an agrarian model for education,” Lewis continued, referring to the fact that most schools let students out for the summer. “That was good for us in the 18th century,” he said of the time when students had to help their farming families work fields. “But it’s not good for the 21st century.”
Too many students, he said, are not being made to take enough math and science courses in high school.
“We cannot let them get by completing math and science in the 10th grade and expect them to be able to perform in college,” Lewis said.
Tony Miller, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said too many Black and Latino students are being subjected to low expectations.
“We as a society are not telling the truth to them and not demanding enough in terms of academics, educational attainment,” Miller said.
The reality, Miller said, is that post-secondary education is more critical now than it’s ever been to command a decent salary, meaning that those who aren’t positioned to pursue a college degree will be less likely to enjoy the benefits of society.
He also cited the persistent need for remediation among entering college students as evidence of a failed system and lamented America’s continual slippage from its former No. 1 spot in college degree attainment.
“We have to stop lying to kids, particularly Black and Brown kids,” Miller said. “If we don’t fix education,” he continued, students won’t be able to reap the benefits of the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s because they won’t be able to participate in the economy.
While Miller repeatedly mentioned that the U.S. now ranks 16th in the world in degree attainment among young adults, Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said too much emphasis is placed on global competition.
“One of the most dangerous words we use is ‘competition,’” Aronowitz said, “because competition implies that one person is the winner, and everyone else is a loser.”
Aronowitz also said the recent drop in SAT scores must be seen in light of the fact that more students are taking the SAT.
While Miller, the deputy education secretary, said the dip in SAT scores should be “a wake-up call,” former NBA great Isaiah Thomas III, men’s basketball coach at FIU, said more should be done to lessen the emphasis placed on the college entrance exam.
“I reject the SAT test as an indicator of intelligence,” Thomas said. “I think there are definitely some cultural biases in the test.”
At the same time, Thomas said students should recognize that currently SATs will continue to be seen as an indicator of their readiness for college.
“These are the standards,” Thomas said. “While we may not believe in them, while we may not accept them, your generation is forced to do it. Understanding that, your job is to do it.”
Thomas also called for more to be done to focus on the educational plight of Black males, whom he said are often disciplined more frequently due to being misunderstood.
Rep. Wilson, a former elementary school principal, said that more needs to be done to identify and treat the issues of Black male students when they are young, such as anger over negative home situations or shame over an inability to read.
“We have to find a way to take those little boys and put them in an elementary school kindergarten class of intensive care reading,” Wilson said. “If you can get your kindergarten and first-grade students to read on grade level, you’ve won the battle.”