menu search recent posts

Do we need a Stokely Carmichael for school reform? It may help to have an MLK first.

If education is truly the civil rights issue of this time, then African-Americans — whose children are often failed the most by American public education — must be more-engaged in education decision-making than they are now. Even with artists such as John Legend and organizations such as UNCF and 100 Black Men joining hands with the school reform movement, far too many old-school civil rights organizations (especially the NAACP — which will unveil a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded agenda in January that includes a focus on desegregation) maintain alliances with defenders of the status quo that perpetuate the harmful effects of poor instruction, lousy curricula and abysmal standards and practices. The Grad Nation report released earlier this week by America’s Promise, instead of being good news, makes the reality as clear as ever.

Elinor Bowles offers her thoughts in this Voices of the Dropout Nation on what Black America must do to truly achieve the goal of equal opportunity in education sought out by an earlier generation of civil rights activists. Consider her perspective and think about what you think should be done.

Whatever one thinks of Waiting for Superman or its point of view, the movie has made the failure of public education part of the national conversation–a much needed development. American public education has failed to effectively address the needs of its students or the nation. Despite the reality, known since the mid-1980s, that the nation’s schools are grossly inadequate, there has been a deafening silence about their dismal failure, particularly in relation to the needs of students of African-American descent.

The murder rate goes up, the graduation rate goes down and our youth increasingly end up in the wrong institution . Regrettably, African-American adults and community leaders have been seemingly preoccupied with other problems. It seems to take all the energy most parents can mobilize to take care of the needs of their own children. Scattered group efforts at educational improvement have led to extremely few sustained attempts at change, with varying degrees of success. Education is, after all, a complicated and time-consuming affair.

The discussion generated by Waiting for Superman has been promoted and highlighted by Oprah Winfrey, MSNBC, numerous news and special TV programs, and an excellent article in the September 30, 2010, issue of The Root written by R. L’Heureux Lewis, an assistant professor of sociology and black studies at the City College of New York. His piece, “Waiting for School Reform,” provides an overview of the difficulties confronting efforts at educational improvement, including the enormous financial costs and the lack of comprehensive research. However, as noted in a comment by a reader, E. Cederwell, it only superficially touches on “the single most important element explaining the great disparities in any school’s ability to achieve educational success: the world outside the classroom, and in particular, the culture each young person is surrounded by.” Cederwell states that “the perceived value of learning and education . . . is hugely important. . . . Communities need to be ready to take a . . . searching examination, and, where indicated, be willing to commit to adopt certain values. This may be hardest of all.”

Query: What is the general culture and attitude within the African-American community toward the education of its youth, particularly those who are poor and often in great need of love and guidance as well as material things? In using the word “community,” we are not talking about a geographical space, but a cultural configuration of persons who have a shared history, values, and life circumstances. This focus elicits a multitude of complications, given the current lack of cohesion in the African-American “community,” which many believe is becoming irreparably splintered along economic lines.

The discussion generated by Waiting for Superman has focused on the funding of education and the roles of politicians, administrators, principals, parents, and especially teachers and unions. However, it has failed to seriously address the difficult, dominant, and ubiquitous role of the African-American community in school reform. What can African-Americans and their institutions do to send the message to our young people that education is important, that it is cool, that it is vital to the good life, that it is a requirement for an interesting and safe environment, that it can be exciting, and that it makes you a better, more desirable individual, mate and parent? How can we create an environment that convinces our young people that education has more rewards than merely hanging out and, for most people, more concrete rewards than athletics and music and selling drugs?

How can we make education a dominant, outstanding value in the African-American community like it was in the early 20th century? Those of us who were born in the early or mid-20th century remember the dictum that “you’ve got to be twice as good.” And we all know the important role of the family in forming character and promoting educational values. But as African Americans we also know that many of our families today have been so damaged by a variety of forces that they do not have the will or the resources to be what we are saying they must be in terms of an educational support system for their children. And while we must do everything possible to help them overcome their liabilities, if their children are to be rescued we must also do everything within our power as a community to compensate for what parents lack.

Despite the seeming lack of involvement of the black community in the education of its youth, many individuals and groups actually are addressing this question. Individuals and organizations are providing scholarships, from the Ron Brown Scholar Program, which contributes close to $800,000 in scholarships annually, to people who contribute a couple of scholarships of $500 a semester to youth in their church. People are becoming mentors and big sisters and big brothers. They act as tutors for specific subjects. Professionals and business people visit schools and lecture about the work they do and how students can prepare themselves for various careers. Others invite students to visit or work in their offices during summer vacation. Churches provide space and material for after-school programs. It’s not that nothing is being done. It’s that we need much, much more and we need to do it more loudly and, in some instances, in a more organized way. We need to find more ways to publicly recognize and reward those children who work hard to achieve. We need everybody to know how important education is.

Perhaps we need a national organization to do for education what SNCC did for voting in the 1960s. Maybe we can call it something like Community Campaign for Educational Excellence. Perhaps we need to clearly explain what is meant when we say that “education is today what civil rights was in the 1960s.” We need to make it clear that we are talking about a similar urgency and significance and deterrent to equality, not about tactics like marches or content like legislation. The civil rights movement of the 1960s eliminated the state and local laws that restricted the movement and behavior of blacks. The educational movement of the 21st century must create educational institutions that serve the needs of all of the country’s children.

There are multiple ways the African-American community can change its culture in order to create an environment where education is recognized and honored. These ways are limited only by the imagination. There are, however, three basic requirements: First, we must care about all African-American children and have a burning need to save them from the lives of violence and crime and unemployment and meaninglessness that so many of them are living or facing. Second, we must truly believe that all children can be educated. And third, we must be willing to reach out and touch — to contribute our time, our energy, and our material resources, however limited they may be, to the salvation of our youth. African-American youth, given today’s dominant economic and social condition and trends, are in grave danger. What do we intend to do?