Today’s lesson: Poverty is not a learning disability

Added May 6th, 2014 by Gilda Z. Jacobs | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Gilda Z. Jacobs
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My Brother’s Keeper is a White House initiative aimed at addressing what is truly a crisis in Michigan and across the nation: The lack of opportunity for young males of color.

Attendees at the Opportunity and Equity Convening Monday in Novi, an event sponsored by the Prosperity Coalition and the League, heard directly from Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson, who attended the gathering to preview the initiative – with a report due to President Obama May 28.

“What lies at the core of this initiative is the fundamental American principle that if you work hard and you play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to succeed,” said Johnson who was visiting Detroit on a “listening tour” for the initiative.

A person’s ability to get ahead should be determined by your efforts “and not by the circumstances of your birth,” he said.

My Brother’s Keeper is an effort to address a crisis: African American and Hispanic/Latino boys are far less likely to thrive in adulthood with a disproportionate share growing up in poverty, failing in school, going to prison and dying young.

It was a most fitting appearance as the rest of the day was devoted to discussing the problems and solutions of racial inequities, including the results of the Annie E. Casey Foundation report Race for Results that found the opportunities for Michigan’s African American children far below African American kids nationally.

Keynote speaker Pedro Noguera, a national leader on urban school reform and a New York University professor of education, told the crowd of about 100 that it’s a multifaceted issue that must be addressed through education, health, employment and opportunity.

He likened it to AIDS where the underlying cause is a failing immune system.

Noguera said there’s work to be done “to rebuild a support system, a community-based immune system that allows us to lose fewer children.’’

He said many current “reform” efforts are misguided.

“We’ve adopted pressure as a reform strategy. It takes more than threats to make a school improve,’’ he told the group.

Noguera’s talk was aimed at making education center around kids and what they need.

Earlier in the day Michigan State University Economist Charles Ballard provoked a collective gasp from the crowd when he recalled fielding a question at a recent public engagement where it was suggested African American and Latino kids may not be capable of learning algebra. Noguera said such attitudes are part of the problem.

“We’ve got to challenge expectations, belief systems on the part of educators who’ve gotten too accustomed to failure,’’ Noguera said. “Poverty is not a learning disability. We have ample evidence that under the right conditions poor kids can thrive.’’

Noguera outlined strategies for helping all children, which will also lift up children of color. Among them is “code switching” to expose impoverished children and youth to different possibilities for their futures, helping parents participate as active partners in their children’s learning and focusing on talent development among students in our schools.

Michigan findings in the “Race for Results” report show that the two largest racial/ethnic groups in Michigan, white and African American, are behind their national peers when it comes to opportunity.

As Noguera told our group, this is not an African American male problem. This is an American problem.

And this is a Michigan problem that can and should be addressed.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

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