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Est. April 5, 2002
October 29, 2015 - Issue 627

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Our New Public School Students
Are We Up to the Challenge?

"Structural changes in the economy and the
continuing vestiges of racial discrimination
are rendering the parents of our new public
school students dysfunctional as caregivers
and superfluous as breadwinners."

Public school districts, many of which are experiencing grave educational challenges in delivering effective education instruction, are under siege.  On the one hand are those who argue that reforms can be made within the current structure, and on the other are those who contend that nothing short of “blowing up the existing system” by bringing in for-profit charter management companies and virtual charter schools, publicly-funding private and religious school vouchers, and subjecting teachers to harsh scrutiny using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their performance can save today’s public school students from educational Armageddon.  Proponents on both sides are well-intentioned and passionate about their positions.  However, it is important that we have a comprehensive understanding of the students that we purport to serve.

Overview of our New Public School Students

An assessment of our contemporary public school students reveals that major demographic changes have occurred since 2000, presenting the nation’s public schools with a stiff instructional challenge.  As of September 2015, more than fifty-one percent of them, inclusive of all fifty states, are African Americans, multi- ethnic Asians and Hispanics, Native Americans, and a decreasing number of Caucasians, most of whom are low-income.  Collectively, they constitute a new group of public school students (urban, rural, and suburban), and they evidence all or several of the following characteristics: (1) personal assertiveness; (2) frequent residential mobility; (3) environmental experience with drugs; (4) escalating rates of violence and neighborhood instability; (5) values and social class status which are substantially different, or in opposition to ,those of school personnel; (6) alienation—even at a young age—from the view that educational effort will lead to societal opportunities; (7) adaptation to the school environment by withdrawing positive effort and substituting negative interference; and (8) manifestation of chronic health issues (lead poisoning, anemia, asthma, vision problems, food insecurity, etc.) which impede the learning process.

Because of these characteristics, our new public school students are generally labeled as being at-risk.  The original purpose of the at-risk designation was to focus attention and resources on children most in need.  But as our new public school students surpass, and exceed by far, those students judged not to be at-risk, the term becomes as irrelevant as does the term minority in a school whose majority is made up of students of color.  Thus, conceptually, there is a need to revise our understanding of the complex of factors impacting today’s public school students.  In addition, the major problem confronting most of them, irrespective of race, gender, and ethnicity, is a deeply held and growing sense of futility—a belief that they cannot and will not succeed at home, at school, and in their neighborhoods (which is reflected in the proliferation of homicides in economically distressed cities, e.g., Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., etc.). 

Structural changes in the economy and the continuing vestiges of racial discrimination are rendering the parents of our new public school students dysfunctional as caregivers and superfluous as breadwinners.  The exponential growth of both a drug use and stressed out single-parent households in concentrated poverty are manifestations of this economic malaise.  The latter group is increasingly populated by teen parents, who because of their youth and oftentimes inter-generational single-parenthood, are frequently unwilling and/or unable to manage, monitor, and regulate their children’s lives.  They also lack the ability to buffer and protect them from the negative effects of the larger social world. 

These parents fall into two groups: traditional parents and non-involved parents.  Traditional parents, single- and two-parent families, and custodial parents are supportive of their children’s education.  They believe in and promote the education ethic and reinforce school practices to the best of their abilities.  However, those with the lowest incomes in this group are frequently faced with difficulties of school accessibility due to a lack of transportation and the school schedules for parent activities.  This is especially true for those parents of students who are bused.  There are two types of non-involved parents: those overwhelmed by their lack of economic resources and those lacking parenting skills and orientation.  The former are consumed with providing day-to-day economic sustenance for their children and, in their life’s priorities, cannot place involvement with their children’s schools high on their agenda.  The latter group is part of the emerging social and economic underclass whose values and resources do not readily lend themselves to good parenting, in general, and parental engagement with the schools, in particular.  In large measure, they reflect a sense of hopelessness about themselves and their children’s future.
Beaten down or excessed by the broader society, these individuals basically function as biological parents.  Their ranks are being swelled by teen mothers, who rarely engage in those parenting behaviors that the broader society endorses as necessary for the proper socialization of children (e.g., the structuring of non-traumatized home environments, the setting of limits on their children’s personal behavior, the teaching of general societal values, the development of their children’s respect for authority, and the facilitation of an academic achievement ethic).  In accord with the characteristics of our new public school students and the family situations in which they are embedded, it is instructive to note the characteristics of current teachers of these students who are under intense pressure and ongoing criticism of their efforts.  They and other education professionals, primarily those at the lower levels, have served and are serving as pawns for the ills of public education.  The so-called education reformers, led by a Cartel of conservative corporations, foundations, wealthy individuals, and Wall Street financial firms have seized upon these new social realities to make the public schools a new profit center.

Accordingly, it is imperative that the aforementioned domains of students and parent(s) be re-conceptualized.  Attending to and understanding the increasing disaffection of these domains from each other must be at the nexus of framing an effective educational strategy to overcome those factors that prevent successful academic learning in today’s public schools. Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and National Public Radio’s The Connection to discuss public school privatization, and he has lectured to parent, teacher, and union groups throughout the nation. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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