We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

The argument of the coaches runs as follows: You can't expect inner-city high schools to provide a good education. The only hope for the minority student is to reach college on athletic prowess and get a catch-up education there. Setting real academic standards creates a barrier to this process that discriminates against minorities. An interesting line of reasoning. The truth is, it has more to do with the shortage of good college point guards than a passionate commitment to educating minority youth.

Put in the crudest terms, the sporting attitude seems to be that the only minority youngsters going anywhere are the athletes, so we might as well structure the system to save those few. It would be a cynical system if it worked, but it doesn't, even for the athletic elite it presumably favors. For the vast majority of scholarship athletes--those who don't land one of a couple thousand jobs in professional sports--the news is bad. In spite of the pious protestations from the coaching profession, only about 40 percent of all NCAA I scholarship athletes actually graduate from college. (The number is even lower for minority athletes.) Many of the athletes who do manage to graduate end up as semi-literates with worthless, tailored-for-the-purpose degrees like "Sports Administration."

Moreover, it is no longer just the colleges aggressively chasing high-school athletes. Many NBA teams now actively scout high-school basketball games. The Timberwolves' most recent number-one draft pick, Kevin Garnett, was plucked directly from high school, and he entered the draft in part because he couldn't meet the minimal requirements for college admission.

Talented minority athletes are courted and pampered and catered to as 14- and 15-year-olds. They receive the benefit not only of big-time high-school programs, but of an extensive and organized network of coaches' clinics and summer training camps and Amateur Athletic Union leagues--even specialized high schools whose sole purpose is helping troubled youngsters with unique athletic talent. There is no comparable organized effort to help minority children who are struggling academically. If there were, Kevin Garnett might have graduated high school ready to go to college rather than ready to play in the NBA. And so might hundreds of thousands of other inner-city youths who don't have his athletic options.

For the great majority of black, Hispanic, and Native American students--the ones who aren't scholarship-caliber athletes--the power of the sports lobby represents one more brick in the wall that stands between them and a good education. Proportionately, minority college enrollments have actually fallen about 2 percentage points in the past decade, and the dropout rate has increased. They begin behind and fall further behind.

Even in purely financial terms, the costs of this obsession with sports are staggering. To be fair about it, the inner-city districts of Minneapolis and St. Paul spend only about 1 percent of their operating budget on extra-curricular activities, but that doesn't begin to cover the real monetary costs, particularly capital costs. Administrators at St. Paul's new Arlington High, which is scheduled to open next fall, are vaguely apologetic that the school has only 28 acres of prime urban real estate for athletic facilities--instead of the 50 acres commonly found at suburban schools of similar size. But in its defense they point out that the new school will have a 2,000-seat gymnasium with an elevated indoor running track.

What ends up on the front pages in the school reform debate--whether it's choice or vouchers or busing--has very little to do with what goes on in the classroom and what's really wrong with public schools. But there's no mystery about the nature of the problems. Our schools waste enormous amounts of energy enforcing minimal levels of order, and they aren't focused on the academic mission.

But it isn't as though somebody just forgot to press a button somewhere: Schools aren't bad because teachers are lazy or government bureaucracies can't get the job done. Schools are bad for profound cultural and economic reasons. And once they get that way, powerful interests are served by maintaining the status quo. Schools have difficulty maintaining order because Americans, when they aren't ignoring their own children, are tremendously protective of kids' rights. To put the old joke in educational terms, the definition of a liberal is a conservative whose own kid gets into academic or disciplinary trouble. When that happens, it's no longer time for the school to clamp down on those damn kids. In fact, it's probably the school's fault, and we want it to fix the problem without involving us, thank you.

If schools devote excessive amounts of time to essentially frivolous activities, that too is because powerful interests are being served. Especially in the inner city or isolated rural areas, enormous amounts of civic pride--not to mention the community's entire social calendar--revolve around Friday night's basketball or football game. It's not just a cinematic cliché that interfering with these rituals is setting yourself up for trouble. I once flunked the star senior on the football team a week before the game with our arch-rival. Rather than confront me on the one hand or angry parents and rooters on the other, the principal took matters into his own hands. For the rest of the week he made the boy come to the office at lunch hour and write 10 sentences. In English, I presume, since he got a passing grade in my course for this effort. (As I remember, we lost the game anyhow.)

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