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The Need For Revolutionaries in Education - Anthony G. James - Part I
Submitted by bdunagan on Mon, 09/30/2013 - 3:46pm
Education in America and around the world seems to be the subject of many discussions. In Chicago education is politics and politicians are supposed to champion for the communities they serve. When considering the state of education in America, I couldn’t think of anyone better than my favorite Thug for Change Mr. Anthony James. He was my teacher at Willa Cather Elementary School for two years. Mr. James shares his perspective on the state of education and what we needs to change for it to improve.
How long have you been an educator, and why did you choose this path? Also, from which college, and what was your degree in?
I have been an educator for approximately 22 years. It was interesting… I was at Harold Washington College. I had actually returned to school because after my first few years, I left, went to a trade school and learned information processing.
Then I went back to school, and I was trying to figure out which direction I wanted to go in. I had a discussion with a very good friend, who said, “You know, Anthony, I have always envisioned you as a teacher. I think that you could be of benefit to children.”
Those words got to me. That was really when the flame was lit - I should go into teaching, because I did have experience with things that I could tell students, which could benefit them.
Then it was an issue of whether I would teach high school or elementary school. I knew that there weren’t a large number of African-American males teaching at the elementary level, so I ended up going that route.
Northeastern Illinois, and my degree was in Elementary Education.
Your friend said, “You know, Anthony, I’ve always seen you as a teacher.” Why do you think he said that?
I guess because I was always kind of an out-of-the-box person. I liked to analyze and to think about things. I like to read, in particular, about historical figures and their lives. I like to read about topics of interest to African-Americans, and I guess our conversations on different topics led him to say that.
What made you specifically choose elementary education?
Well, one reason was the fact that there aren’t a lot African-American males who teach in elementary schools. In many schools, there are no African-American male role models.
The other reason was that I know that, for a lot of young people, the most difficult time is those early years. If you don’t really have that strong foundation, by the time you get to high school, and you’re behind, and you struggle, oftentimes you don’t complete high school.
I thought that working at the elementary level might be better to influence students and help some of them get the tools they need to be prepared for high school.
You mentioned that there weren’t many African-American males in elementary education, and that there is a higher high school dropout rate for students who don’t have a successful elementary experience. Why were these things important to you?
Well, issues in the African-American community have always been important to me. My mother was a teacher. My father worked for the railroad and the public school system. But my parents really instilled a lot of pride in me, in terms of who I was. It’s just something I’ve always been concerned about - the community, the direction that we’re taking. It was instilled in me from a very young age.
What’s your perspective on the state of public education in Chicago as it is now, with so many schools closing and charter schools becoming more prevalent?
I think that public education is really under attack. If you look at the correctional institutions, they’re trying to privatize them because it’s an issue of money. And then you see the emergence of charter schools.
I’ve made some adjustments to my viewpoint on this. There’s nothing really wrong with charter schools. But they’re being used as a way to diminish teachers’ unions and teachers’ rights. Everyone should have the opportunity to get a good education, and they’re turning it into a way for people to make money. I think that’s problematic.
It’s problematic any time that we allow social service agencies to be turned into profit engines. I just think that education in general is under attack; educators in universities and colleges are under attack as well. There’s a battle ahead.
Look at what happened last year with the Chicago Public Schools, with thousands of teachers fired and schools being closed - while more charter schools were being opened.
Who is your favorite thug for change and why?
Malcolm X. I admire Malcolm X because he is one of our greatest examples of the human capacity to change. No matter where a person is, they have the capacity to change their life around with the proper guidance and with their own desire and will to change. He was a street “thug,” a hustler. Yet, he became a fierce advocate for the human rights and dignity of African Americans.
How do we find solutions? What sort of things need to happen in order to support public education as it is today, while at the same time improving upon it? I would imagine that there are some challenges that could be addressed.
There’s a lot of literature out there about poverty and its relationship to education.
Our political leaders say, “Well, the schools aren’t doing this. The schools aren’t doing that.” They always point to the schools.
Character issues are something that schools can support. But those things should come from the home - and that’s not happening. Politicians don’t point to families and say, “We need to really focus on building up the family to help them improve these issues.”
It’s much easier to point to schools and not deal with issues like poverty. Poverty is a political issue. There are great inequalities of income and resources in this country. But if politicians take the blame for that, then they can no longer blame the schools.
There is an article called “It’s Poverty, not Stupid” that talks about international testing, and how when you equalize the student scores based upon poverty, we’re at the top. When you equalize our poor students versus poor students in other countries, our middle class versus others, our upper-class versus others, we’re near the top lane.
But when you look at our society, and you take all of our students and analyze them, there are some problems. Oftentimes, those are due to the effects of poverty. The fact that there are no books in many homes. In certain families, the parents aren’t educated, so they can’t instill the right approach about education in their children - because they’re not sure about it. Most parents want the best for their children, but many don’t know what to do, or what steps to take to help them be successful in school.
There are kids who are in homes where they’ve never seen their parents read a book. When we get them, at five or six years old, they often don’t even know the alphabet. They don’t know how to count past a certain number. A lot of those skills are missing, so they come into school already behind.
In the third grade, if you don’t achieve a certain score on the standardized test, then you stand a chance of being retained. And then, if you can’t get a certain score in sixth grade, you stand the chance of being retained again. Statistically, there is a much greater chance of not finishing high school if you’ve been retained earlier.
We know and understand that all of these issues are detrimental to children being successful in school, but we’re not addressing them. What we’re doing is pointing to the schools and saying, “You’re to blame, and this is what you’re not doing.”
I’m not saying that schools are completely without blame, but there is a much larger problem that we’re not addressing.