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Tom English

Guest blogger Tom English is husband of a teacher, father of two, sacristan, and freelance writer. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

In a September 5, 2012, issue of the Portland [Oregon] Tribune an article titled “Schools beat the drum for equity” is nominally about equity in education but could just as easily be a story about the racial inequities of peanut-butter sandwiches and noontime drum classes for black and Latino boys.

Peanut-butter sandwiches are racist, the story explains, because not all cultures have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their food pyramid; specifically, the Somali and Hispanic cultures. The noontime drum classes are racist because they are targeted to black and Latino boys even though the principal says no one has been turned away, irate parents’ comments to the contrary.

The principal of Harvey Scott K-8 School in Portland is the real focus of the article. Verenice Guiterrez is working hard to make sure that there is equity in education in her school and to improve education for students of color. She is doing so by following the guidelines of the Portland Public Schools, specifically of a program designed by consultant Glenn Singleton to eliminate racial educational disparity in schools.

How is this change going to happen? Teachers are spending a great deal of time attending training and meetings to become proficient in Courageous Conversations and Educational Equity. These sessions are designed to make teachers aware of racial inequities and the pervasive whiteness in the schools. This training will be transferred to the classroom as teachers work with students to boost the performance of minority students.

I wonder when the teachers will actually have time to teach.

I wonder when the teachers will actually have time to teach. The school district is already short of funds: Why is it putting scarce dollars into this training and not into paying for a few more teachers? Guiterrez says that they are down five full-time positions this year. That means more work for the remaining staff. And they won’t be teaching, they will be “conversing courageously” and making sure that students of color feel good about themselves. But with some restrictions—there will be no more noontime drum classes and peanut-butter sandwiches, of course..

How this good feeling will bring up the academic performance of Gutierrez’s students is beyond me. In the nearby Beaverton Public Schools, the catch phrase is, “Are you culturally competent?” In either case, teachers in the public schools don’t teach any more: they facilitate and strive to make children feel good. Reading, writing, and arithmetic have fallen by the wayside.

Principal Gutierrez is correct when she says it’s unacceptable for eighth-graders to go into high school with third-grade educations. Why were those children moved on to the next grade in the first place? Shouldn’t they have been held back when they were not meeting the academic expectations for that grade level? This process of advancing students even though they are not at grade level has disastrous results. When local students graduate from high school and want to attend college their lackluster elementary and secondary education hits the brick wall of Portland Community College. A new student at PCC has to take a placement exam. Approximately one third of the graduates from the PPS will have to attend remedial math and English language arts classes to learn what they should have learned in fifth grade.

The Portland Community College website advises prospective students:

PCC uses Placement Testing to determine students’ academic skill level for appropriate course placement. Most new PCC students are required to take the Placement Test to determine their skills in reading, writing and mathematics.

There is no mention of having courageous conversations, being culturally competent, or feeling good about oneself. As PCC might have said, “Can you read? Can you write? Can you do mathematics? If not, we will teach you what you should have learned years ago and get you ready for a four year college.”

Teachers in the Portland Public Schools now teach Courageous Conversations. Before that, they taught Conflict Resolution. Before that, they taught.

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