Dr. James A. Williams is on a mission. "We have a crisis in this country, and no one is talking sense about it," he says.
Williams is not a rebel. He is the superintendent of the Buffalo Public School System. "We're all part of the problem," he says. "There's too much business as usual, too much bureaucracy and not enough action."
The crisis? Young African American men who are born into poor and working class households. These young boys are not making it. According to figures developed by the Schott Foundation, in an economy that requires more and more education, only 42 percent who enter ninth grade graduate from high school. The old blue-collar jobs that used to provide a family income, secure employment, health care and pensions are disappearing.
These are children increasingly raised by a single parent, struggling simply to keep a roof over their heads. Too often, they are starved from the start — of adequate nutrition, adequate health care and adequate learning stimulants that are vital for young minds. They go to overcrowded schools stocked with inexperienced teachers. Television is their babysitter, until they launch themselves into the streets. In school, they face discrimination in discipline and in being slated for special education courses. They are under-represented in advanced-placement courses that are key for college. Some will overcome these odds and make it out. Most will not. They are headed toward jail, not toward Yale.
Williams argues we have to change what we're doing if we want to offer them any hope. The schools — even the schools that he leads — are failing them.
"Their number one problem is that they cannot read," Williams says. "If you can't read, you cannot succeed."
In Washington, Congress is gearing up for the debate about the No Child Left Behind Act. But the debate is virtually irrelevant. The act mandates testing that inadequately measures school performance. But measuring failure doesn't mean anything if you don't have a reform plan to fix what isn't working.
For Williams, any plan like that requires reforms that simply aren't on the table. "Look at our school year," he says. "We've got a school year that is still based on an 18th century agrarian model. We add more and more units, but not more and more time." So schools cut art, music, and physical education — all things vital to engaging young people.
We need longer school years and far better teachers and teacher education. We need less discrimination in spending, in discipline, in advanced placement. Some of this costs money. But, Williams says, we're not good at spending the money we currently have.
Williams is right. This is a national crisis — a tragedy of terrible and costly consequence, in lost hope, lost lives, a lost sense of our own decency. Williams says it is time for an end to the silence. This country desperately needs to heed his call.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder/president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition