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Three Suggestions for 'My Brother's Keeper' Initiative

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Conversations about education reform have been hijacked by school privatization and longstanding suggestions that have not significantly moved the achievement needle for "school-dependent" children, those students whose family circumstances force them to rely on the schools for learning and improved lifelong success. On this page I aim to engage readers in discussions that range from the highly specific, narrowly focused learning and teaching approaches to broad ones; from strategies that emphasize community leadership to those that individuals can achieve.

This week, as many of us continue to explore the implications and potential of President Obama's recently announced "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, researcher and author Michael Holzman returns as a guest blogger to suggest three recommendations to improve learning for African-American young boys and young men. - Eric J. Cooper

By Michael Holzman

First, let's stop talking about boys and young men "of color."

Japanese-American boys and young men do not have problems finding good schools. They are not disproportionately stopped, questioned and frisked. They are not pulled over for "driving while Asian." They are not disproportionately incarcerated. Neither are boys and young men who are Indian, Korean American, Cuban American, or Iberian and Argentine American.

The issue is about boys and young men who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Second, stop talking as if the behaviors of young black men and their parents are behind the problem. Does anyone really think that if young black men and boys pull up their pants and do their homework that incarceration rates will decline? Do we think this would suddenly inspire vast improvements in our inner-city schools? Do we imagine this would help more young black men get jobs?

As Eric Cooper has rightfully emphasized time and again in this blog, the problem is with the great institutions of American society, beginning with public schools and the lack of excellence in classroom instruction. The schools black children attend are, by and large, simply not good enough. The problem is not that they are segregated, although they are. It's that the education is inadequate, primarily because the funding that these schools so sorely need lags behind the funding for suburban schools, which are attended, for the most part, by white children.

I live in Westchester County, N.Y., where schools spend as much as $30,000 per year on each student. That is supplemented by the discretionary spending of parents on tutors, computers, language, arts classes and world travel that enriches and builds background knowledge for their children. The high schools, with their indoor swimming pools, tennis courts and professional-standard tracks and fields, could easily double as resorts. How many schools in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, on the South Side of Chicago or in the Bronx have indoor swimming pools? How many have modern science labs? How many of their students have private tutors, weekend foreign language classes and summer trips to faraway places such as Europe, Africa or South America?

In the interest of equity, schools need to be funded by statewide revenue sources rather than local property taxes. In addition, school-by-school, needs-based funding should be implemented to provide needed resources, including the types of out-of-school educational activities that more prosperous families provide for their children.

Then we can stop discussing the racist pitting of black versus white under the guise of the "achievement gap," and focus on how best to transform education for ALL children.

Third, end discrimination in our criminal justice system.

By now everyone knows that young black men are incarcerated at rates so disparate that the only reasonable explanation is racist practices in the system.

The U.S. Attorney General is discussing corrective measures for those who are serving long prison terms for behaviors that are more prevalent in black neighborhoods. The mayor of New York virtually ended disparate stop-and-frisk policing merely by announcing - before he was elected - that he would do so after taking office. These actions have not been followed by massive increases in crime across New York City.

What can we do to lower incarceration rates among young black men to something in the vicinity of those of young white men? We can end discriminating policing practices and selective prosecutions. We can stop blatantly discriminatory sentencing and pardon those incarcerated as a result of discriminatory policing, prosecution and sentencing practices. We can exonerate those who are in prison for drug offenses that are no longer illegal in Colorado.

When young black men and boys attend well-resourced, high-standards schools, and when they can walk to those schools without being stopped and thrown against a wall by police, and when their fathers are at work and not in jail, then we can talk about their personal responsibilities.

And that will be a good thing.

Michael Holzman is a researcher and author. He has served as consultant to numerous foundations and is the author of the Schott Foundation's series "Public Education and Black Male Students: A State Report Card."

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets @ECooper4556.