The Import of Civil Rights Talk in Education

After the RISC summer meeting, Ocean State Policy‘s Brian Bishop elaborated on his specific objection to the commentary of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist with respect to civil rights. The following is the relevant segment of her talk (stream, download, 42 sec):

In particular, our students whose families are poor, who are black, Latino, whose first language is a language other than English, who have special needs, those children in particular are not being served well, and in fact, we have some of the highest achievement gaps in the country. The gap between the students who are poor or children of color and the gap between our white students who are children of needs is so dramatic that they are among the highest in the country, and that is completely unacceptable. And it is a violation of the civil rights of those children. And in addition to that, it’s not good for any of us.

Here’s Brian’s question (stream, download, 4 min, 31 sec, with response):

I certainly support, you’ll forgive the pun, the gist of your remarks, but I did take exception to the characterization of Rhode Island as violating the rights of any of its citizens with regards to education. I mean, with modest exception, this is a white-bred audience, and I certainly appreciate that it’s appropriate to challenge people here to embrace the larger social contract in the state, but I think that the specific characterization is of the sort that has Ms. Sotomayor on the ropes at this moment, over remarks of convenience that were intended, I think, not to speak to a legal specificity. So, I think that’s a very unfair and unwise characterization of the current situation in education.

I took Gist’s invocation of “civil rights” as essentially a broad moral mandate, and I think that’s how she intended it. The context against which Brian meant to caution was the legal implications of that invocation, whereby, in his words, the courts end up “running the schools” as a remedy to invidious discrimination. It’s definitely a reasonable point to make, and Ms. Gist’s flat response of “I disagree” suggests that, like me, she didn’t discern what Brian was saying.
In my view, the introduction of civil rights into the equation by the state education commissioner is a distraction. Our system is failing, and it’s tautological that disadvantaged groups will feel the effects disproportionately, particularly as they require their schools more fundamentally. Minority groups, therefore, are an indicator of our deeper problems, and I’m not persuaded that the new commissioner appreciates what those are.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

This article brings to mind a familiar question, who has the responsibility? The school, or the parents?
I grew up in a town with a large Portugese community. It was not unusal to be in a store where the child (usually a girl, it seems) was transalting for the parents. In those days, there were no ESL programs or anything similar.
I am left with the impression that it was either initiative on the part of the children, or concern by parents who valued education even if they couldn’t speak the language.
I have noticed that the highest scoring children in the Boston schools (for years) have been Cambodians. I have no reason to think this is genetic, nor do I think that the Cambodian children have more initiative. I ascribe it to parental concern and encouragement.
Without going into naming groups that fail, I assume that some ethnic groups are less concerned with education.
Without doubt, the schools must make some effort. But the schools are not the answer. Being bureaucrats, inevitably they will answer the problem by lowering standards and declaring success.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Having singled out the Portugese, honesty requires that I point out that the drop out rate for boys was high. When they reached 16, or the working age, they were encouraged to get a job. This may have been economic necessity.
Most girls graduated.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
11 years ago

Three of my four grandparents never attended school.The fourth I never knew,but I think he did.The three I knew were all literate in a number of languages.I wonder hoow that came to be?Well,I have the answer-they learned from other people in their families who could read.My maternal grandmother’s brother learned to read in the Austro-Hungarian Army and he taught her.
None of these people thought their experience was the least unusual-as children they either worked in or out of the home.
Nobody handed them a damn thing.They never got rich,but they weren’t dependent moochers either.
Ms.Gist undoubtedly has the best intentions but runs a severe risk of initiating an inferiority complex relating to academics among these children.Ever wonder why Asian-American
students do so well academically?They are a non-White minority.(Okay,some Southeast Asians definitely have problems in school,the exception to the rule.)It’s because their families instill a respect for learning and expect them to work hard at it.
It’s NOT racial,but cultural.
I would imagine basic intelligence is pretty well distributed throughout the population.
Ignorance is,ironically enough,LEARNED behavior.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Don’t mean to raise hackles with this one. I know that you need a microscope to find a white kid in Boston public schools (the Catholic parochial system is/or was as large as the public school system). This means that most white parents have self-selected, and opted out.
What is the case in Providence?

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