How Can Teachers Confront the Challenges of Baltimore, Ferguson and Urban America?

05/06/2015 07:23 am ET | Updated May 03, 2016

Now that Baltimore has captured our attention, we must all ask what should be done When Work Disappears. Our urban crisis did not begin with deindustrialization; racism, Jim Crow and de facto segregation were the fundamental causes. With the energy crisis of the 1970s, however, the decline of economic opportunity was so rapid that too many families and too much of the social fabric of the inner cities were broken. With the self-segregation of "the Big Sort" and globalization, the bonds that tied schools and communities were further frayed.

These musings are intended only as a first draft of the ideas we need to discuss in order to tackle our urban crisis. First, we must stop making unforced errors and adopting policies that benefit the elites, but create hardships for working class and poor people.

The eventual death of our old blue collar industrial economy may have been unavoidable. But, we did not need to artificially accelerate the loss of jobs by subsidizing it. Under President Ronald Reagan, "Supply Side Economics" created tax breaks that encouraged the closing of still-profitable factories. Had Reaganism not sped up the destruction of blue collar jobs, working families would have had more time to adjust for the challenges of the 21st century global economy.

Similarly, families still would have faced many stresses during deindustrialization, but the Reagan administration created even more havoc through the War on Drugs. The data-driven nature of the War on Drugs made it inevitable that poor families of color would be its prime victims. As David Simon, a Baltimore journalist and an author of The Wire explains, Baltimore was one of the worst examples of the "juking" of stats and the corrupting nature of the drug war. As was also explained in The Wire, data-driven school reform undermined the integrity of test scores, and followed the same path in further undermining educational and civic values.

Second, we must unite, not divide. Deindustrialization of the Rust Belt was accelerated by the subsidies that were offered by Sun Belt states. Moreover, White Flight to the suburbs undermined the transition from old-fashioned de jure segregation. Then, during the 1990s, gentrification went hand-and-hand with charters that creamed the most motivated poor students of color and encouraged revitalization of favored parts of our urban centers. Charter schools and the extreme proliferation of choice eventually created self-segregation that has been dubbed "neo-Plessyism."

It is bad enough that society was too quick to abandon promising efforts to achieve socio-economic school integration, but competition-driven reform took bad urban schools and made them worse. Market-driven reform created neighborhood schools that served ever more extreme concentrations of children from generational poverty who have endured terrible trauma. Even worse, test-driven reform undermined efforts to provide aligned and coordinated socio-emotional student supports.

Third, we should remember Jesse Jackson's observation that you must back out of a blind alley the way you drove in. Whether we were forced to or not, Americans followed the corporate road map of "creative destruction," where the government was on the side of the profit-makers who bull-dozed our blue collar economy with no thought to the damage it would do to workers' families.

Then, we went along with the corporate school reform mantra which consciously sought to destroy the education "status quo" in the faith that "disruptive innovation" would rush to the rescue. In destroying the old industrial workplace, however, much of the social fabric which is necessary for good schools was also undermined.

To take just one old school example, workers used to initiate teenagers into the working world. On the first day on the job, for instance, a young worker might be sent out to find the "iron bar stretcher." The mentorship often was rough, but the kids understood that it was loving. As they were socialized into adult society, teens were taught to "learn how to learn" and how to become responsible citizens. Now, too few children are being raised by too few adults with, especially, a shortage of male mentors.

To safely back out of this blind alley, we need full-service community schools where teaching becomes a team effort. We must fight the legacy of self-segregation by bringing a full array of social services into our schools and bringing students out of their buildings into the full diversity of our communities.

Fourth, we teachers can't fix this entire complex catastrophe, but we can do our part. Our unions can continue to fight for economic justice. We can push for Restorative Justice programs and battle against our part of the "school to prison pipeline." We and our students also need to come to grips with the "Greek Tragedy" known as The Wire and to read and discuss William Julius Wilson's When Work Disappears.