The Perennial Underclass

Like me, if you were at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Aug. 13 to hear Roland Fryer Jr., the youngest Black tenured professor in Harvard University history, speak candidly about public education, you would be incensed that the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is in its current paralytic state.

We in Detroit are creating a permanent underclass, underserved generation of young people — because of our inept public educational system that prioritizes politics over curriculum — who will not be able to fend for themselves or become tomorrow’s city and state drivers.

And if the masses of our children growing up in this city do not know how to read and write because of a dysfunctional educational system that cheats them of their future, they will become the laughing stock of a demanding global education.

Fryer last week cautioned a standing-room-only crowd of some 400 people inside the museum’s multipurpose room, hosted by State Sen. Hansen Clarke, that we must take meaningful steps to address the disparity of our educational system that is currently manifested in a decaying urban crisis.

The 31-year-old Harvard professor, who was raised in the South by his grandmother while his father was in prison and whose mother left him at a young age, called our educational crisis “the civil rights battle of the 21st century.”

“I think this is it. This is the ball game. Everything else is a sideshow,” Fryer said. “I think if you look at the disparities that I care about: Blacks live six years less than Whites in terms of life expectancy; we are 10 percent of the population but 50 percent of the prison population — all things that we care about are correlated with education.”

Because of these mind-boggling statistics that have become the usual introduction to Black America’s problems, Fryer, an economics professor, said he decided to get into the business of reaching children in public schools at their most receptive level.

This is not rocket science and here is why it is important that DPS has strong kindergarten and elementary programs for our children. If Black children at a tender age can be guarded against other vices and be preoccupied with learning tools that help them build their potentials and nurture their skills, we can cut off the prison pipe line.

Because if they are products of a meaningful education they are less likely to be prone to nefarious activities that could lead directly to crime and jail time. A meaningful education that allows Black children to make use of their skills in an environment that enables them to find a sense of achievement and entrepreneurship can help stem the ravaging tide of poverty in our communities. It may not be the final antidote to poverty, but it can be effective because crime, like a former Detroit police chief said to me in a meeting, is tied to quality of life.

“Our children are being underserved,” Fryer said. “The average Black 17 year old reads at the proficiency level of the average White 13 year old. This is it. This is the background.”

So at Harvard Fryer runs the Harvard Ed Labs, which provides incentives to students with good grades. Partnering cities like New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago have varying programs, all of which are geared to motivating
students to do better. Bank accounts are opened for students who perform through the scientifically designed program.

This economic theory will not necessarily work in every city and Fryer recognizes that. In fact, the results of his program are supposed to be out sometime this year when Fryer will measure the success against the grain of the reality on the ground.

Whatever we might think of Fryer and his economic theory to address the state of public education in schools, one thing is clear: he wants to do whatever it takes to get our children
on the path to a meaningful education that secures a better future for them.

“In (Washington) D.C. where I do a lot of my work, 12 percent of kids are doing math at grade level. That’s crazy,” Fryer said. “And frankly, few people have the heart to go to the schools and tell a fourth grader — look at him in the eye and say, ‘Look, you’ve got one in two shots of being in prison in 10 years.’ If we cannot educate our children, then we are in a lot of trouble.”

There are other fights to take on aside from education. That is why there is no straightjacket approach to battling the many problems confronting urban cities.

But Fryer said for now his ministry is education. That is where he is focusing his energy.


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