At first, the title of a lecture spelled out on a big screen at the University of Arizona seemed as if it had an embarrassing grammatical error: "Stakes is High: Educating New Century Students." But it was borrowed from hip-hop group De La Soul's album "Stakes Is High" to show how schools are failing to prepare kids for the future. It's a failure on many fronts, said Gloria Ladson-Billings, a University of Wisconsin-Madison urban education professor who spoke at a graduate student colloquy on compassion in education.
We're repeatedly told of an achievement gap with students of color trailing their white classmates. But that casts the blame on minority students, parents and teachers.
Ladson-Billings referred to the gap as "an education debt." She defines it in historical, economic, social, political and moral inequities affecting communities of color. Certainly they're apparent in Kansas City. The debt includes it being illegal to teach slaves followed by 100 years of unequal education for black children.
Even after the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court ruling ending legal segregation, 90 percent of black and brown kids attend hyper-segregated and unequal schools. The debt is economic because of "persistent underfunding of schools" for minority youths. Children of color live in areas where property values don't generate enough revenue to provide the well-funded, quality education available in white communities. That's Kansas City, too.
The social and political debt involves centuries of minorities being denied the vote, though they fought in every U.S. war and provided free labor as slaves. The suffrage problem continues with voter ID laws and the exclusion of voting rights to felons disproportionately affecting minorities.
The number of black teachers has dropped from 10 percent about 30 years ago to 5 percent today in public schools, Ladson-Billings said. This means the majority of kids will never have teachers of color.
That's a social and moral debt when student diversity is up, but minority kids have less access to college, Ladson-Billings said. It's a tragedy because "educating our children is the most important task we face." With each point, Ladson-Billings repeated "the stakes is high." Smartphones and youths' use of them has helped close the digital divide, but schools fail to incorporate kids' use of social media in schools. Kids are tech-savvy and information rich but have little respect for plagiarism, intellectual property and copyright rules. They haven't been properly taught.
"The new digital divide is that which exists between generations," Ladson-Billings said. "Teachers are unable to keep up." She played a video of a student rapping about physics and said young people as new century students don't fit traditional boundaries of race, class, gender or national origin. Hip-hop is their common culture for teaching and learning.
Worldwide, hip-hop is used to describe everything from the injustice involving Trayvon Martin to the Arab Spring.
"This is a new way of thinking about culture and thinking about students," she said. "Young people are not slackers." They are engrossed in learning, innovation, creation and implementation. She said about half of the kids into hip-hop want to be teachers, "but they can't stand teacher education programs." Change has to happen for young people and the country to have a future.
"We have to take some risks," Ladson-Billings said. "We have to be willing to say this isn't right." Ladson-Billings said she has hope in today's youths.
"Kids can turn their lives around because they are finding a way to express themselves through art," she said.
Adults just have to anchor them with history and boundaries to respect so they can soar into a great future.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star's Editorial Board.