Dr. Cokethea Hill, BLAQUE KC Credit: from Huami Magazine Kansas City Sept./Oct. 2022 by Terry Watson

Many of us may have heard the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This saying infers that  we should avoid enhancing or improving something because it’s functional. Can something be broken and functional, and if so, does it warrant being fixed?

Allow me briefly to take you on a trip down memory lane. 

My first car out of college was a used Toyota Celica. Even though it had well over 100,000 miles, the engine revved up effortlessly, the AC was cold, and the body paint was shiny. One day I was attempting to drive up a hill, and my car began making a loud screeching noise. The noise suggested the car was giving everything it could muster, but it was still moving at a snail’s pace. 

No matter how hard I pressed the gas pedal, the car refused to pick up speed, and the screeching sound became louder. Based on my car’s performance, it was apparent that something was seriously wrong with a major system in the car. While it may have been functional, in the sense that it was somewhat capable of getting me from one place to another, it was clearly broken. 

I assert that our nation’s education system is a lot like my Toyota Celica; some aspects may be functional, but an overwhelming body of research and data suggests that major infrastructure systems are broken.

According to the 2022 Missouri Assessment Program (MAP), only 41% of all students who took the assessment scored on grade level or above in English Language Arts and Math combined. 

That means more than half (59%) of all students in the State of Missouri scored below grade level in the core courses of reading, writing, and arithmetic. If we disaggregate this data by race/ethnicity, the systems perform even worse for students of color. 

Only 17% of Black students and 31% of Latino students in our schools statewide scored on grade level compared to 54% of their non-Hispanic White peers. While these racial disparities are egregious, our education system is overwhelmingly failing to prepare all students to achieve at high levels. 

This statewide academic data debunks the notion that low academic achievement is exclusively an inner-city dilemma. If schools were held to the same automotive defect regulations, many would have open recalls. Generally, due to the enormous and systemic hurdles educators have to jump through with very little resources to achieve a modicum of success, we are trained to celebrate the good efforts and gains despite the clear failures. 

Unfortunately, far too many perceive low academic outcomes as the cost of educating “urban communities.” Placing the burden of inadequacy on students, their families, and the community — rather than forcing the broken system that promises a quality education, to actually deliver on that promise.

While some would have us believe that if we simply ban books by people of color, limit students’ exposure to queer studies, refrain from saying the words “gay”, “woke”, or “systemic racism” that this cancel-culture strategy will magically repair a broken educational system — this tinkering around the edges is akin to having a vehicle with a busted transmission and electing to rotate the tires, get a paint job, remove seats, and find a more skillful driver in hopes that the vehicle will miraculously zoom up a hill. 

Yes, the car itself will look better on the outside, but for those depending on that car to get them where they need to be, tinkering around the edges will not suffice. 

The sobering truth is that since the landmark 1983 report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” from the United States National Commission on Excellence in Education, we have known that our American educational system is losing its competitive ground.  

Unfortunately, our country has decided to tinker around the edges of educational reform, and rather than doing the hard work of reimagining an educational system that supports the diversity, lived, and historical experiences of all children, we resign to pitting charters against districts, parents against schools, school boards against superintendents, all while our students get shortchanged on the academics. 

The “if it ain’t broke (or even if it is broken), let’s not fix it” mentality will not get our students or our educational system where either need to be to solve challenges the world has yet to see. 

Those of us who see these troubling academic outcomes as emblematic of a broken education system, we have a serious choice to make: 

Do we continue to be distracted by the divisive noise while continuing this destructive pattern of tinkering around the edges of education? 

Or do we lean in collectively and courageously to reimagine a system of education that is poised to meet the demands of a globally competitive environment in which all kids have what they need to achieve their fullest potential. 

Dr. Cokethea Hill is CEO of the education nonprofit BLAQUE (Black Leaders Advancing Quality Urban Education).

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