05.27.09

Colin and Cosby Flunk Out

Colin Powell and Bill Cosby have a bold agenda to remake inner-city education, but The Daily Beast’s Mansfield B. Frazier gives their program an F.

May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
—Bob Dylan, “ Forever Young

Two of America’s brightest, most revered, and obviously caring African-American men, Colin Powell and Bill Cosby, are currently touring the country in an attempt to assist schools in raising their abysmally low high-school graduation rates. After listening intently to them, it’s hard to wonder how they can be so right—and so wrong—at the same instance.

America’s Promise Alliance is Colin and Alma Powell’s effort to help failing urban schools, and he’s enlisted Bill Cosby to help him. The Colin & Cosby Show has the support of some of America’s top corporations, and they are making the rightful case that pointing a finger solely at failing schools—without taking a hard, stern look at the parents of these failing students, and examining their role (actually, their failures) in the entire process—is not only unfair, but also counterproductive. Parents have a critical responsibility in terms of preparing their progeny for the education process, and in too many instances they are failing miserably. Too many children are clearly not being given strong foundations at home, foundations on which teachers can build upon. I’m totally with Colin & Cosby on that part.

Some parents just don’t know how to properly bring up their kids. The problem is, Colin and Cosby are both so middle-class they can’t grasp this reality.

The point we differ on is this: How responsible can we hold parents for not teaching their children something they themselves have not been taught? Their parents didn’t teach them, and their parents’ parents didn’t teach their children either… going back generation upon generation, in fact, all the way back to slavery.

As hard as it is to say, some blacks have what we other blacks call, “a slave mentality.” It was against the law in Southern states to teach slaves to read, and while some slaves risked their lives in an attempt to gain knowledge, others obeyed the “laws” and passed that mentality down to subsequent generations. Sadly, some of my race has yet to throw off the mental shackles that make “learning” a dirty word in some urban schools.

But what Colin & Cosby is doing is akin to blaming me for not being able to pilot the space shuttle—something I’ve not been taught to do. There is a skill set involved in both flying a plane and in raising a child, and some parents just don’t know how to properly bring up their kids. Just look around us. The problem is, Colin and Cosby are both so middle-class they can’t grasp this reality.

To my mind, berating and yelling at uneducated parents to “read to their kids, teach them about their history” makes those doing the yelling seem pretty stupid. We’ve now got functionally illiterate 27-year-old grandmothers—yes, grandmothers—roaming our nation’s inner cities (and many poor, white, rural communities as well), and we expect teenage mothers from these kinds of disadvantaged backgrounds to raise a success story. It simply can’t be done. As Martin Luther King once said, telling shoeless people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is not only cruel, it’s also pointless.

Sanity, however, can be found on the Internet under the Harlem Children’s Zone. Geoffrey Canada, the driving force behind the project, has proven by every measurable standard that his program works, and it works because, as he says, “We get in these families’ business from day one, and we never get out.” The results have been nothing short of phenomenal. Go to the site and read for yourself.

Instead of waiting until “Ray-Ray” (my imaginary inner-city 13-year-old who is on the fast track to prison) gets big enough to hurt society with a gun, baseball bat, or dope bag, why don’t we do what Canada is doing—intervene in his life from day one? In fact, Canada has established “Baby College” where expectant mothers begin their education (and receive proper nutrition so they don’t give birth to underweight babies), and his mentors are there every step of the way, teaching, coaching, and assuring that mistakes are not made—but again, from day one. His program is actually raising both the child and the parent at the same time.

I submit that many prisoners in America under the age of 40, who are from a disadvantaged urban background, went to Head Start—and look where they ended up. Part-time help won’t cut it; it has to be 24-7. Neither will “arm’s-length liberalism,” where rich folks—no matter how well-meaning—blow into town, hold a summit where they tell poor folks what they should be doing, and then retreat to their manses in some far-removed gated community.

Could it be petty political jealousy? The feeling of, “Since I didn’t come up with the Canada model I’m not going to support it”? If that’s the case, then shame on both Colin and Cosby. For the life of me, I simply can’t understand why they don’t get behind what already has proven to work.

Their method—trying to close the barn door after the horse has already made its exit (in this case by the third or fourth grade)—has never made much sense. I know that sounds as if I’m giving up on those kids who are about to drop out—if that’s what it takes to refocus our attention on newborns, then so be it. I really think we can save both cohorts, but if we can only do one, then let’s do what the Harlem Children’s Zone does and start at the beginning by saving newborns. Yes, it takes a bit longer, but it works… and it works virtually every time.

For those kids already in the pipeline, what we really need in America is compulsory national service; every 18 year old should be required to give two years of some kind of service to our nation—and not necessarily military service. Apron strings would be cut, young people from differing backgrounds would get to know each other, and multiple social problems could be positively impacted. College and careers can wait for two years.

Only massive efforts will get America back on track, and the sooner we realize that and get cracking the better off we’ll be. We’ve been nibbling around the edges of our festering social malaises for decades now with little or no progress toward real, sustainable solutions. If the new mantra is “change” then let’s do it—and quit posturing, preaching, and spouting empty promises.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.