Some Reasons for Lack of Physics Achievement in Inner City Schools
Stewart E. Brekke
The environment in inner city schools can be devastating to young physics students, especially those of color; what appears to be bad teaching or lack of achievement is really an indicator of the amount of destruction the inner city environment can work on bright capable children. Very often the low achievement of these children is a direct result of years of intimidation, exposure to violence and the fear that pervades their lives. The cumulative impact of this environmental situation has repeatedly destroyed their sense of safety and security. Many of these children have witnessed killings and other crimes and have been intimidated in ways far beyond what most white people living in the suburbs can imagine.
For example, one day just before physics class, the students were talking to each other about “where they (the gangs) dump the bodies.” Apparently, every so often behind a store dead bodies would be found by the students who lived in the neighborhood. One student described a body of a naked woman who had her nose cut off found there recently. Another student was describing “who he has to know on the bus” every day to get to school in order not to be hurt on his way to the school. In one of my physics classes, a boy was doing B work and therefore, I had noticed him. However, he started to become absent more and more frequently and later dropped out. Apparently, his house was being robbed when everyone left for work and school. He had to stay home to guard the house rather than go to school.
In physics I had a bright young Negro girl who was murdered by random gunfire in the neighborhood after school. The bullet also killed the baby in her womb. Her boyfriend thereby became despondent and committed suicide. One bullet essentially killed three people. Another young black excellent physics student went for a sandwich after school and was shot in the head and died. I had just been able to place him into an upward bound program at a local university. Many physics teachers teach another subject besides physics. I had a boy in general science whom I was planning to get into my physics class and one day after school he was killed by a bullet by someone shooting up the neighborhood. Over the years I had four students murdered from classes I was teaching. One teacher who had been teaching longer than I had sixteen students murdered during his tenure. On two occasions the students came to school in the morning only to find a dead body of someone in the neighborhood on the school track facility. Apparently, that is where gang executions took place. Once I was called out of my physics classroom at the end of the school day to find one of my physics students with her head bleeding. Apparently, she was hit against one of the lockers by a boy in school. I asked a good physics student in my class to build a rocket to use for a Newton’s Law demonstration. I had to drive him home with the kit because he feared someone might take it from him. He came back to school the next day late with the built rocket and it was hidden in a paper bag. I failed a senior football player because he did not do enough work in physics class. When he found out he was failing, he left the room in the middle of class. At the end of the day, when I went to my car, I found the front fender damaged—the police could do nothing because I had not seen the student do the damage.
Another factor affecting school achievement is the constant disruptions of a few students that substantially affect the learning process. In one school at which I taught, we took a survey of about 500 students and almost 40 percent of the students stated that their classes were routinely disrupted. The same survey determined that many of the students felt that their neighborhood was unsafe. Moreover, problem children disrupt the learning environment all through elementary and high school. As a direct result of this situation many minority children get to high school unable to read at grade level and are also very weak in fractions, decimals and long division. Subjects which lead to good jobs such as Chemistry and Physics build on elementary mathematics and good reading skills and are unattainable because of this repeated devastation. It takes just one disruptive student to destroy the learning that is supposed to go on in the classroom.
It is easy to blame the teachers and students for underachieving students in the inner city. However, the environment certainly affects the performance of the physics students. The hope that schools offer young bright inner city students is slowly dashed over the years due to the constant negative effects of the inner city environment out of school and in school. The teachers, the vast majority of whom are very dedicated, are wrongly being blamed for what is a massive social problem.
Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.