In this era of education reform, I've often wondered why the voice of urban America has been nearly silent. After all, it's in the nation's central cities that the most serious problems of education are concentrated and that the greatest danger exists of the underclass becoming permanent.
It's a problem that exists in this city and every urban center in the United States and starts with the way we educate and treat our young.
Some of my concerns were recently met with the publication of a report, Results in the Making, a yearlong effort by a task force of educators from 44 of the nation's largest school districts, including the District of Columbia, that make up the the Council of the Great City Schools
According to Richard Green, superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools and president of the council, a deep examination of basic American attitudes will be required before the educational problems of the underclass can be solved.
"One dynamic of our country . . . presents us with one of our stiffest tests: race and racism. We must develop a new national view of the American citizen that separates the history of racism from the hope of the future. We cannot afford to have a permanent group of people believing themselves to be less than human and not of value -- nor can we afford to have them treated that way.
"All of our futures are inextricably linked. Race, gender, language or handicap can no longer be stumbling blocks to opportunity if our hopes as a nation are to stay alive.
"In fact, for this nation to fully flourish, it must celebrate and value its diversity."
Green, whose report was a year in the making and echoes the formerly inaudible voice of big-city educators in the long debate over educational reform, mentioned just some of the things that must happen for this profound change to occur.
"The nation must reform our expectations and our language . . . . I refer here to what it is that we, as school leaders, expect from at-risk youth -- a euphemism for the poor and for people of color and need. We need to be very cautious about the use of labels such as 'at risk' to characterize our children.
"The terms themselves can lead us to a false understanding of our youth, their characteristics, their potential, and the problem of their performance."
In other words, it's a short leap from stereotyped language to stereotyped thinking to stereotyped expectations. For example, there is the now-classic study where a group of children of equal IQs were separated into equal groups at the beginning of the school year.
Despite the fact that their IQs were identical, the groups' respective teachers were told that Group A was below average, Group B was average and Group C was above average.
At the end of the school term, the children were found to have performed exactly as the teachers were told to expect they would: Based on the purported IQs, not on their actual IQs -- Group A, below average; Group B, average; Group C, above average.
In turn, some children come to a low valuation of their self-worth. This can be particularly true among blacks. Many escape the trap, yet too few believe the exortation from James Baldwin to his nephew: "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger."
And society is being deprived of a great deal of potential talent because of this vicious cycle.
Nearly 30 percent of American youths between the ages of 16 and 24 live in the nation's central cities, and a 50-50 chance exists that a given youth will never have a permanent career.
To change those statistics will require a national commitment to untangle the skein of unemployment and underemployment, economic bias, and psychological and cultural attitudes that constitute institutional racism. It must involve the top echelons of government, American industry, citizens and churches. It is a commitment the United States has not made, a living legacy to some unfinished national business crucial to America's survival.