Raze DeKalb’s education ghetto

At the south DeKalb high school where I teach, the stock phrase “this is not the ghetto” functions as much as a plaintive exhortation as it does a credible assertion of fact. Students refer to certain behaviors and actions as “ghetto,” a word whose etymology goes back to European Jewry’s experience of isolation and separation from the surrounding community.

Disassimilation and disintegration are having a big impact on the high-school population of hyper-segregated south DeKalb county. Many young people from this area will have difficulty acclimating themselves into the mainstream. Many will find it hard to develop and maintain a sense of cohesive belonging within the larger cultural whole. A critical factor in this disturbing sociological dynamic is the public school system itself.

My school employs five assistant principals who make high salaries that, in the private sector, would be inconceivable for comparably educated individuals. Yet, they neither teach classes nor interact significantly with students. They also embody a cumbersome and inconsequential discipline system whose hallmark is the repeated failure to respond effectively to transgressions that, elsewhere, would beget serious action.

The bloated assistant-principal caste characterizes a system that employs more non-teaching personnel than it does teachers. This dysfunctional jobs-creation program is complicit in the invidious perpetuation of the hugely disenfranchising notion that black students are to be taught in a special way.

A teacher is supposed to appeal to “multiple intelligences” in a manner that will produce a “differentiated” classroom. I have been told to do “raps” with students and to appeal to their “kinesthetic intelligence.” Collaborative “group work” is proffered as a means of classroom management and instruction.

Game-like activities feature prominently in jury-rigged, “research-based” pedagogical approaches. Not only should the teacher minimize interaction with the students during such activities, but more emphasis should be placed on “effort” than on whether the material is mastered. “Instructional change coaches” and other emissaries from the massive central bureaucracy offer up these putative insights and vet the classroom for the presence of such utterly meaningless items as “word walls” and “instructional boards.”

Instead of dwelling on basics such as epistemology, rhetoric and heuristics, DeKalb administrators talk around the conspicuous numbers of high-school students who suffer from varying degrees of illiteracy and innumeracy. These students remain alienated from the fundamental function of any solid education — the inculcation of critical thinking via reflective interaction with a competent authority figure able and willing to guide them through various tasks in a sensible manner.

The nostrum that it is necessary to focus on “doing social studies” as opposed to explicating the subject reduces teaching to a form of crowd control that is hopelessly over tasked when confronted with the need to explain such concepts as the social contract, selective incorporation, equal protection, federalism and limited government.

When a majority of south DeKalb students fail to succeed in college and, indeed, would be hard pressed to pass the military’s basic-skills examination, it is surprising that the military’s successful model of using serious remediation coupled with consequential discipline goes unmentioned while dubious educational “theories” are touted over and over.

Meanwhile, the pressing need for intensive, remedial, small-group instruction in reading and math on a massive scale makes the continued employment of so many overpaid non-teaching personnel seem appalling.

I regularly run or bike to school from my home in the city of Decatur. When experienced from the street level, passing over Memorial Drive while headed south can feel like crossing an invisible line and moving into a different world.

Notwithstanding the long police-response times, the understaffed police precincts, the unkempt medians and the deteriorating roads, the disparities in the quality of infrastructure and public services are nowhere near as drastic as in Johannesburg. But the abrupt transition to an almost totally black area does mirror the segregation in the South African city. A growing gap separates south DeKalb from the parts of metro Atlanta that belong to a modern city plugged into the global economy.

Far too many graduates of this system face a steep, uphill struggle in an economy buffeted by transnational competition that presupposes a high level of basic education. The failure to acquire such an education today has a clear consequence: long-term unemployment that, in turn, breeds social ills, which then affect the schools, whose apparent decline depresses property values even more, thereby further reducing education funding.

President Barack Obama’s inauguration two years ago stands as a powerful testimony to the significance of education. South DeKalb once stood out as a symbol of black middle-class prosperity.

Now, far too many African-American students there are being denied the chance to use education as a way to access opportunity. It will prove to be a cruel irony of history if the election of the country’s first black president coincided with the rise of a disconnected and undereducated population consigned to a far-flung area on the easily ignored edges of a major metropolitan area.

William Blackwood received a B.A. from Georgetown and a Ph.D. from Yale. He has been teaching social studies at Southwest DeKalb High School since 2007.