President Obama today unveiled an initiative named "My Brothers Keeper" which he says will help young underprivileged Black men succeed in breaking the cycle of poverty. While some said that his outreach to these people was long overdue after a period of neglect dating from even before Reagan, others said that his emphasis on preaching at people about personal responsibility grated on them. I submit that while teaching personal responsibility is important, it does not cover the complete picture. Therefore, this initiative will not lift Black men out of the cycle of poverty unless Obama accompanies it by getting rid of the structural barriers that prevent them from succeeding.
One blogger said that it was a step that was long overdue.
“It is a step in the right direction simply because there’s been not much done — there’s hasn’t been much that’s been done going back to before the Reagan administration,” said Dawud Walid, a black activist and political blogger in Michigan. “We’ve been deprived of these discussions and talks, this appears to be a big step. It is something.”Another person liked how Obama was not trying to be "post-racial."
“It’s incremental progress, it’s a little step but one that I admire and commend,” said Leola Johnson, associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at MacAlester College. “At least he’s not trying to be post-racial anymore.”But they also came down on Obama as well.
“That puts forward the false notion that black people in and of themselves have not had the desire to work hard and the current conditions of inequality of black America is due to our not working hard,” Walid said. “As much as black America supported Obama and wants him to address black issues, we don’t want to be talked down to by our president.”The problem with Obama's initiative is that while it preaches to young Black men about the importance of taking responsibility, it doesn't show them how. On Sunday, I wrote about how Teach for America's purpose was to bust unions, not make better schools. In it, I wrote about how our schools needed to change to reflect realities. Specifically, from personal experience, I wanted to see:
Johnson noted that there was also a futility in simply working harder and being more "respectable" for young black men trying to get ahead: “No matter how many young black men pull their pants up, that’s not going to increase the number of jobs available.”
1. Know how to start a business;
2. Be prepared to enter college;
3. Be ready to join the workforce (and how to organize a union);
4. Know how to create a budget (and stick to it).
5. Know how to take care of their health.
In other words, how to take responsibility.
One poster, zenbasoon, pointed out that students needed to be able to think critically as well. His ideas:
1. Know how to learn
2. Be able to research.
3. Understand and Appreciate arts and culture
4. Become independent thinkers.
These concepts are not mutually exclusive. While Obama, to his credit, got rid of No Child Left Behind by making it easy for states to opt out of it, the problem is that our schools still have too much of an emphasis on standardized testing. I have talked to school administrators and they tell me that while there are certain things our kids are expected to learn, those things are not communicated to the schools and they are on their own as far as trying to figure out what our children are supposed to know and when.
The problem with standardized testing is that it places a value on human life. Tests suffer from cultural bias; for instance, if I were to go to Botswana and attend school at a Pygmy tribe and they were to test me on how to survive in the jungle there, I would not do very well. But if they were to come over here and live and work, they would not do any better on our standardized tests. And there is something morally repugnant about assigning a value to human lives after our men fought and died to liberate the world from Hitler.
The other problem with standardized testing is that class time is all about teaching to the test and filling up kids with head knowledge instead of how to take responsibility and how to think critically. If all you do is saturate a kid with head knowledge, they will forget most of it and not see how it is relevant. But teach a kid how to think for themselves, and they will learn for themselves the importance of learning and how to go about learning, for instance, the origins of our country.
Instead of standardized testing, I submit that control of schools should be decentralized and returned to local school boards and communities, with appropriate direction from state and federal authorities. This is because inner city Kansas City and St. Louis, for instance, have different economic needs that rural Missouri. School improvement should be based on local school boards coming up with comprehensive school improvement plans that are updated every few years that take into account local and state needs as well as each of the nine educational categories that I listed above. Other measures of accountability should include such things as finances, graduation, attendance, discipline, and how well their students succeed after leaving school.