The Director’s Corner

Fall 2013

image of Janice Hale

Janice E. Hale, Ph.D.

Professor of Early Childhood Education

Founding Director of ISAAC

Wayne State University

Detroit, Michigan

For this issue of the Director’s Corner, I am sharing with you a review of the literature that traces the African American struggle for quality education throughout our sojourn in America. From there, I identify the key initiatives of the Mission of ISAAC to document the need for a research institute devoted to the liberation of African American children. I am sharing this excerpt with you to deepen your understanding of how the Mission of ISAAC fits within the freedom struggle for quality, equitable education for African American children.

Historical Perspective

W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) stated, “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." Though Du Bois described the plight of African Americans over a hundred years ago, the Black-White economic gap continues to be painfully evident in the United States today. These gaps are evident in economic, political, demographic and educational arenas (Farley, 2004). A historical perspective is essential in creating a backdrop of America’s enslaved laborers and their American experience of oppression and discrimination. As Franklin pointed out:

Although the Africans who were kidnapped and brought to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came from western, central, and southern Africa, they shared a distinctive and identifiable worldview. Anthropologists and historians have examined the communication styles, artistic practices, and religious expressions among African people in Africa and in the United States and have noted profound continuities from the Old World to the New. Ecstatic religious rituals, musical styles, funeral rites, folklore and other cultural expressions of sub-Saharan Africa were transferred to the New World (pp. xi – xii).

Franklin stated further that unlike slavery in Africa, where most slave laborers were, after several generations, often adopted by the kinship group of the slaveholders, in the United States, enslaved laborers were viewed as possessing lesser mental capacities than the descendants of the European settlers and were legally deprived of the training and education necessary for their eventual incorporation into the society as free and equal citizens. As far as slaveholders were concerned, all that the enslaved workers needed to learn were the work routines and skills necessary for the production of cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and other such crops. Some slaveholders allowed enslaved workers religious training, but the message was always, “Be a good slave, do everything your master wants, and you will receive your reward in heaven”.

Not only did most enslaved African Americans reject such slaveholding piety, but they also developed their own version of Christianity, which taught that to hold another human being in slavery was the greatest of sins and that the God of the Old and New Testaments helped the poor and oppressed.

Franklin (Hale, 1994) documents that the testimony and autobiographies of formerly enslaved African Americans reveal that spirituality was an important element in their lives. Their strong attachment to literacy and schooling was an important element in their transition from slavery to freedom. Even though it was illegal in virtually all slave states to teach slaves to read and write, thousands of enslaved African Americans became literate. Once slavery ended they filled the schoolrooms of makeshift school houses in the South after the Civil War. Franklin states further:

From the end of Reconstruction through the first half of the twentieth century, these states failed to provide equal or even adequate schooling for African American children. Nevertheless, thousands of African Americans achieved upward mobility during that period (p. xiii).

Also, it is not well known that following slavery, freedmen were required to pay taxes to support quality schools for white children that their own children could not attend. After paying the required taxes to support white children’s education, they had to take their pennies and create schools and colleges for the education of Negro children (Hale, 1994).

The historical context for the economic, political, educational and social inequality of African Americans has been discussed in detail elsewhere (Hale, 1994: 11-24). Evidence was provided to document that white immigrants had access to tools for upward mobility that were denied to Africans in slavery and in freedom. Evidence was provided that documented that the system of sharecropping that was established following the legal end of slavery was worse than slavery in terms of its economic consequences to African Americans. This was an economic system to which most African Americans were relegated from the end of slavery until 1948 when the mechanical cotton picker went into widespread use. Disenfranchisement was a key weapon that was used to circumscribe the ability of African Americans to improve their condition in the political arena. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, but political mischief designed to eliminate and frustrate African American voters continues up to the present. This mischief continues as Congress eliminates its oversight this year of the implementation of the Voting Rights Act in key states of the Old South.

Comer (1988) notes that, in the 1930s and 1940s, the inferior education of African Americans in the southern states, where the majority of African Americans lived, crippled an entire generation. When the factories closed in the 1950s, African Americans were not prepared, as the grandchildren of the white immigrants were, to move into the postindustrial economy. Even though some African American families overcame their lack of readiness, most families foundered under such stress.

These conditions locked ninety percent of them into the bottom of the job market – sharecroppers, tenant farmers, domestics, the lowest-paid industrial laborers – and to the margins of society, without the political, economic, and social opportunities in the mainstream. Despite this, through the social organizations provided by the black church, minimal incomes and the controls that were a part of small town rural life, most black families functioned reasonably well until the 1950s. In fact, the 1950 census shows that onl y twenty-two percent of all black families were single parent – now about fifty percent. And black neighborhoods across the country were reasonably safe. (ibid., 213). Franklin (Hale 1994) points out further that:

Deteriorating housing and social services in black neighborhoods and the flight to the suburbs or to predominately white neighborhoods by blacks who have reaped the benefits of advanced schooling limit the positive role models to which young black children are exposed while growing up. The culture of the public schools, dominated by female teachers, alienates many black pupils who increasingly turn to their peers and peer culture, to the streets, ball fields, and neighborhood clubs, for positive reinforcement of their social behavior and to develop feelings of self-worth. Numerous studies (Ford & Harris, 1991; Ford, 1993; Ford & Harris, 1999) make it clear that African American children possess high self-esteem despite low academic achievement. Success in school is not highly valued, particularly among African American teenage boys, not merely because the school culture is dominated by (increasingly white female teachers but also because the school curriculum does not reflect the patterns of acculturation and socialization in their homes and communities.

The point has been made elsewhere (Hale, 2001) that many Americans are of the opinion that African Americans should achieve success the old fashioned way, playing by the rules and advancing through the educational system. This perspective, advocated mostly by white Americans is popularly known as “bootstraps” among African Americans. Rather than addressing public policies that would elevate the masses of African American people, this approach focuses on the success of upwardly mobile individuals who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Dalton Conley (1999) traces the notion of equality that prevails in public discourse – equality of opportunity – to the French Revolution. “Under this concept, equality would be achieved if each individual in a society enjoyed the right to compete in a contest unimpaired by discrimination of any kind” (p. 7). Equality of opportunity is the least threatening type of equality to the white majority, who feel that all should have a place at the starting gate. This fits with the game like imagery many Americans use to describe the capitalist system.”

Conley maintains that equality of opportunity served as the underlying philosophy that drove the triumphs of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, which were capped by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “In theory, after 1965, discrimination in hiring, housing, and other aspects of life were illegal” (ibid., 8). (Discrimination in federally funded housing was not banned until the Civil Rights Act of 1968.)

However, William Julius Wilson (1978) maintains that at this point an overt phase of racial oppression ended in the United States and was replaced by economic subordination. Although the civil rights movement created legal equality of opportunity, and some income gains were achieved, institutionalized racism persisted, and the scars of centuries of overt repression remained. “A second type of equality had yet to be realized: equality of condition – more progressive and less ideologically acceptable to the American public than equality of opportunity” (Conley, 1999, p. 8).

Although African Americans have made notable gains since the passage of civil rights legislation, upward mobility for the masses has not been one of them. Perhaps, as Conley contends, the locus of racial inequality lies no longer primarily in the labor market but rather in class and property relations that in turn affect other outcomes. “While young African Americans may have the opportunity to obtain the same education, income and wealth as whites, in actuality, they are on a slippery slope (italics added), for the discrimination their parents faced in the housing and credit markets sets the stage for perpetual economic disadvantage” (ibid., 152).

Conley’s overall thesis is provocative, but this author disagrees with the assertion that young African Americans have the opportunity to obtain anything close to the same education as whites, regardless of their educational setting. The point was made in my book, Learning While Black, that African American children can receive racialized treatment that results in an inferior education, even when they are seated with white children in the same classroom. Certainly Conley’s point is true that because of the economic position of their parents, it is more difficult to purchase quality education or purchase homes that will allow them to attend quality public schools.

The Labor Market

The point has been made elsewhere (Hale, 2001) that quality of education is more important than quantity of education. The payoff for increased rates of high school graduation and enrollment in college for African American children is challenged further as they move out of school and into the labor market. The gap in wages between blacks and whites at all educational levels has widened since the 1980’s. Among college graduates, the black unemployment rate is typically twice that of whites (Cose, 1999, p. 144).

The labor market difficulties African American men continue to encounter have repercussions in many areas. Conley contends that the black-white wealth gap is even wider than the income difference. The current low marriage rate seems to be related in part to a shortage of well-employed men. Conley notes that American society may be moving closer to educational parity between blacks and whites in terms of quantity of schooling (years spent in school), but that progress has not translated into occupational (and earnings) success for blacks relative to whites. Conley’s (1999) and Cose’s (1993) analyses support the thesis that educational differences in quality of education and racialized treatment in obtaining employment, higher salaries, raises and promotions combine to produce these effects.

According to Cose, the real issue is white racism. “And it’s very hard to call people on that, because nobody wants to think they’re prejudiced. They reject it. They reject it instantly. So, we wind up doing this whole rationalization thing, where we’re winding up talking about dismantling affirmative action . . . But affirmative action is a bridge to get us over racist attitudes . . . It’s a necessary mechanism. And it’s not about past days . . . from history. This is everyday reality.” (ibid., 123). Conley states, the higher an African American attempts to rise in the occupational hierarchy, the more discrimination he or she faces (1999, p. 9).

Social Class

The other debate that is seemingly never ending revolves around whether race or social class is a greater determinant of life chances and success for African Americans. William Julius Williams (1978) argues that class has eclipsed race as the most important factor determining the life chances for African Americans. Cose finds support for this claim in terms of occupational mobility both within and across generations. However, he finds race to be the most salient predictor of earnings for given education levels and for net worth (1999, 12).

Some theorists, in trying to explain the labor market difficulties of African Americans, have suggested that while the quantity of education attained by blacks has more or less equalized, racial disparities in the quality of education continue to exist, resulting in a skills mismatch that is particularly significant in our increasingly technological economy. Quality of education is, however, notoriously difficult to measure (Conley 1999, 88).

Defining quality of education and understanding why African American children are not receiving it is the daunting task of the Institute for the Study of the African American Child (ISAAC). Just as “all roads lead to Rome,” so the inferior quality of education that African American children receive leads to perpetual economic inequality and lack of political power to change it.

This is the backdrop for describing the achievement gap; delineating the causes of the achievement gap; and developing strategies to eliminate the achievement gap. There is a dimension of European colonialism in the American educational ethos. There is a non-recognition of the culture of African American children in mainstream psychology and education practice. African American culture is overridden, ostensibly to impart efficient “mainstream” education. But the process creates alienation and disconnection from the school and academic pursuits for many African American learners. The goal is to impart the same excellent outcomes to all children but to find a way to do it within the context of their culture and learning styles.

Description of the Achievement Gap

The black-white achievement gap has been documented in both mathematics and reading at every grade level from grades one through twelve (Jacobson, Olsen, Rice, Sweetland, & Ralph, 2001). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) described a 26-point mathematics score gap for the nation’s fourth grade children; the reading gap for the same group of children was 27 points (U.S. Department of Education, 2007a, 2007b). For eighth grade children, mathematics scores reflected an even larger gap of 32 points, while the reading score gap was 27 points (U.S. Department of Education, 2007a, 2007b).

Theories Associated with Causes of the Achievement Gap

The achievement gap literature sets forth four broad theories as to the key contributing factors to the black-white score gap. These factors are as follows:

  • Genetic differences between races
    • The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994);
  • Behavioral differences
    • The Burden of Acting White (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu, 2003);
    • The Stereotype Threat (Steele and Aronson, 1998);
  • Differences within family structure and socioeconomic status
    • Socioeconomic status and test score differences (Duncan and Magnuson, 2005);
    • Impact of wealth upon the achievement gap (Orr, 2003);
  • Differences within the schools
    • School Quality (Phillips, Crouse & Ralph, 1998);
    • Racial Bias in Testing (Jencks, 1998);
    • Student-teacher relationships (Ferguson, 2002);

All of the aforementioned factors have been empirically investigated, and both proponents and critics are in full supply for each.

Solutions for Eliminating the Achievement Gap

According to Jencks & Phillips (1998), eliminating the black-white achievement gap could be the single most important means of promoting racial equality in the United States.

A comprehensive summary of achievement gap research, along with empirically based solutions for narrowing of the gap, was published by Thompson and O’Quinn (2001) on behalf of the North Carolina Education Research Council. In order to successfully eliminate the black-white test score gap, ten fundamental changes to educational policies were suggested, as follows:

  1. Provide qualified and experienced teachers to all students (Sanders & Rivers, 1996; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997)
  2. Maintain small class sizes in the early years (Finn & Achilles, 1999; Finn, Fox. McClellan, Achilles, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2006; Sanders & Rivers, 1996)
  3. Establish equitable and appropriate grouping practices at the elementary level (Kulik, 1993; Slavin, 1987, Slavin, 1988)
  4. Ensure equitable representation across high school curriculum tracks (Finn, 1998; Finn, Fox, McClellan, Achilles, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2006)
  5. Promote culturally responsive teaching and discipline practices (Hale, 1982, 1986, 1994, 2001; Boykin and Miller, 1997; Delpit, 2006; Kunjufu, 2002; Skiba, Michael, Nardon & Peterson, 2002)
  6. Encourage high teacher expectations of student achievement (Diamond, Randolph, & Spillane, 2004; Ferguson, 2002; Fredriksen & Rhodes, 2004)
  7. Maintain both school and student accountability measures (Betts and Grogger, 2003; Driscoll, Halcoussis, and Svorny, 2008; Figlio & Lucas, 2004; Ladd & Walsh, 2002; Reback, 2008; Springer, 2008)
  8. Adopt supportive programming, including comprehensive reforms, individual tutoring and summer programs (Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson, 2001; Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2003; Hock, Pulvers, Deshler, Schumaker, 2001; Lauer, et al., 2006; Wasik & Slavin, (1993)
  9. Enforce desegregation of schools and programs (Clotfelter, Vigdor, & Ladd, 2006; Greenwald, Hedges, & Laine, 1996;Lee, 2004; Orfield & Yun, 1999)
  10. Provide all children with high quality early childhood education (American Educational Research Association, 2005; Calman & Tarr- Whelan, 2005; Frede, 1995; Haskins, 2006; King, 2006; Kirp, 2007; Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, Shonkoff, 2006; Lynch, 2007; Magnuson Council & Institute of Medicine, 2000; Ramey & Ramey, 2004; Rolnick & Grunewald, 2007; Winter & Kelley, 2008; Wong, Cook, Barnett, & Jung, 2008)

Success of HBCU’s

One educational success story that cuts across several of the individual reasons given that makes the achievement gap insurmountable is found in the remarkable outcomes produced by Historically Black Colleges and Universities. These institutions were often founded with the pennies of former slaves. They have demonstrated that remarkable outcomes could be produced when African American children were educated in a segregated setting with paltry economic resources compared to those that were available to white children. James Comer (1988) makes the point that even in modern times, the endowment of Harvard University is over twice as much as all of the 133 HBCUs taken together. Historically, there was no comparison between the credentials of faculty in HBCUs compared to white universities across the country. Yet, Xavier University in New Orleans sends more Black students to medical school than any other university in the country. And, the medical school completion rate is higher as well. Florida A&M University has a legendary business school whose students are recruited by Wall Street and the Ivy League. Black Enterprise Magazine publishes a ranking of colleges and universities that produce the best outcomes and provide the best educational experiences for African American students. Spelman College, Morehouse College, Hampton University and Howard University normally rank in the top 4.

In spite of these and other exemplary programs, very little scholarship has been devoted to dissecting the components of their success and making recommendations for incorporating those strategies in schools at lower grade levels. Unfortunately, we do not have empirical data to document the long-term effects of Afrocentric programs on children’s development and later academic success. However, we do have the research of Jacquelyn Fleming (1985), which reveals that historically African American colleges do a better job of motivating and preparing African American students than do integrated colleges.

Fleming studied 2,500 African American and white freshmen and seniors over a seven-year period at fifteen colleges, including Spelman College, Ohio State University, and the University of Houston. She found that, even though the African American colleges had very limited resources and many operated under severe financial difficulty, students at those colleges gained more intellectually than did their peers at integrated schools. More African American students are enrolled in white colleges than are enrolled in historically African American colleges, but the largest numbers of African American college graduates are produced by historically African American colleges.

Fleming identified three factors that she felt made the difference in the intellectual outcomes for the students in historically Black colleges:

  • Students were able to achieve close mentoring relationships with faculty;
  • Students were given more opportunity to provide leadership in extra- and co-curricular activities;
  • Students were able to achieve more enriched relationships with peers.

An Intellectual History of Strategies to Achieve Educational Equity

Terminology as an Index of Intellectual Confusion

An index to the intellectual confusion surrounding the struggle for educational equity is underscored by the abundance of applicable terms that have evolved since the civil rights era of the 1960’s. Zane (2007) suggests that:

Disparate terminology has emerged to define the differences in opportunities and outcomes of African American children such as:
  • “teaching the disadvantaged” (Educational Policies Commission, 1962; McCormick, 1975; Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990; Noar, 1967);
  • “teaching in the ghetto school” (Trubowitz, 1968);
  • “compensatory programming” (Frost & Rowland, 1971);
  • “educational equality” (Barnett & Harrington, 1984);
  • “apartheid education” (Kozol,2005); and
  • “education debt” (Ladson-Billings, 2006) (p. 26).

However, as a generation of African American intellectuals and scholars emerged in the 1970’s, fueled by organizations such as the National Black Child Development Institute and the Association of Black Psychologists, a number of these terms have been rejected and discarded.

African American scholars rejected the “disadvantaged child” terminology that was associated with the “cultural deprivation” philosophy. The “cultural deprivation” theory was associated with the Great Society Programs of the early 1960’s. According to the cultural deprivation paradigm, configuration of achievement of Black children was framed by poverty. The poverty framework denoted that poverty was a universal phenomenon that explained any deviation from the white American mainstream. Further, the expression of poverty was not thought to have differed by ethnic group. So, if poverty were addressed, every ethnic group would enter equally into the American mainstream. This approach obfuscated the issue of historical and cultural distinctions between disadvantaged ethnic groups – between group differences. It also obfuscated the fact that the achievement gap persisted for African American middle class children (however inaccurately they were defined) – within group differences. According to Peller, 1997), the view of Black children as culturally deprived and mired in poverty, requiring enrichment in order to achieve academic success is now largely viewed as an ethnocentric and imperialist notion. Educational theory currently promotes “multiculturalism,” “diversity,” and “inclusive” education as the preferred educational norms

Legal Strategies in Courts of Law

In tracing the intellectual remedies that have been employed to provide equal educational opportunities for Africa n Americans, it is important to delineate the legal strategies over the course of the 20th century. The Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, known as Brown represented one attempt to utilize the courts of law as a tool for social reform. Aptly summarized by Zane (2009):

If W.E.B. Du Bois 191903) lamented that “ . . . the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”, it could well be argued that the solution of the Twentieth Century was found within the School Segregation Cases of 1954 (p. 24).

Prior to the Brown decision the American government permitted racial segregation by upholding the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that engendered the “separate but equal” doctrine. Even though Plessy v. Ferguson was a case that actually centered on accommodations within intrastate rail transportation – totally unrelated to educational issues – it was used numerous times by state and Federal courts to justify educational segregation. According to Marshall (1952), the Supreme Court failed to properly apply the initial ruling.

African American legal activists such as Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, James Nabrit and others created legal briefs that hinged challenges to educational segregation on the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection under the law. They had successes and failures. They were able to secure the admission of Black students into graduate and law schools as well as stimulate the establishment of graduate schools for African American students such as the law school of Texas Southern University.

The Brown decision is notable in this discussion because the lawyers brought in three leading social scientists, Kenneth Clark, Isidor Chein and Stuart Cook, to create the Social Science Statement (Clark Chein & Cook, 1952/2004) later known as Footnote Eleven. It was signed by 32 social scientists who supported the statement (Scott, 2003).

The Statement addressed two major themes: the damaging effects of enforced segregation upon the members of a segregated minority group, and the likely consequences of desegregation upon both the minority and majority societal groups. This Statement was attached as an appendix to the brief that was submitted to the Supreme Court in December 1952 (Hartung, 2004).

Thurgood Marshall (1952) gave a detailed account of the ways in which he, as Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and his colleagues engaged with the American system of jurisprudence to establish that African American children, as American citizens, are entitled to equal access to a quality education. However, even though “separate but equal” was thwarted as a part of their efforts, powerful white legislators and judges blocked the efforts of lawyers and activists to achieve equal educational opportunities for African American children into the twilight of the 21st Century.

Eliminating the Achievement Gap

Ron Paige (2010), as former United States Secretary of Education admonishes the African American leadership community to accept the achievement gap as their problem.

He concedes that it is a national problem of major proportions. He also feels that African Americans did not create the problem, but closing the achievement gap is the most important challenge for African Americans. Paige also maintains that African American leaders must put forth a concerted effort to truly understand the problem. They need to go deeper than just awareness. He points out that, “there is plenty of lip service, superficial discussion, and random and isolated activity about the Black-White achievement gap” (p. xviii).

Paige believes that African American leaders must confront five important and difficult questions:

  1. Why do African American students, on average, consistently score lower on academic tests than their white counterparts?
  2. What are the long-term economic, social and racial consequences for African Americans in the event of a continued – and possibly growing – achievement gap between African American students and their white peers?
  3. Why have past African American efforts to close the achievement gap between African Americans and their white peers resulted in such utter failure?
  4. If African American leaders do not take responsibility for finding the solution to the Black-White achievement gap, who will?
  5. What are the implications of a continued Black-White achievement gap in terms of prolonging the racial stigma of African American intellectual inferiority?

Elaine Witty (Paige, 2010), the former dean of a college of education at a HBCU, observes that achievement gaps between African American and white students do not miraculously appear when the students begin college or enter teacher-education programs. The gaps are already apparent at the elementary school level. Yet, children are passed on from grade to grade without evidence that they have mastered the necessary skills. Surely, adults in the community must know when children are having a hard time reading. This must be evident in their daily lives and in Sunday School lessons. But there are no mass meetings about academic achievement, no alarm about the problem at all (p. xxiii).

This writer noted her mention of Sunday School lessons because her father, Rev. Phale D. Hale, the pastor of a church surrounded by the public housing projects of Columbus, Ohio was shocked by the number of children he noticed who could not read the Sunday School literature during her childhood. He commented about it, but seemed not be sure about what to do about it.

Witty further evaluated the solutions that are offered to improve the academic achievement of African American students. She observes that many of the programs focus on basic skill drills at the expense of thinking skills and engaging the children with enriched, culturally salient content.

Especially bothersome were the lines of students waiting in the halls to go to the latest pull-out programs. While these programs were planned to help students bridge the gaps, between their skills and the skills needed for success at their grade level, most programs actually led to greater disparities because students lost the opportunity to participate in whatever lessons teachers taught their classmates while they were out of class getting “special instruction” (p. xxiii).

Paige and Witty (ibid.) offer advice about what authentic African American leaders must do to eliminate the achievement gap. They correctly observe that the achievement gap is a “complex phenomenon that has powerful tentacles, buried deeply not only in school quality but also in African American home and family life and in African American community sociocultural life” (p. 154). They note that high-quality leadership is called for, given the degree of sensitivity, trust and understanding of the dynamics of the changes that are required to close the achievement gap. Because the solutions will require fundamental adjustments in beliefs, values, and assumptions, this high-quality leadership must come within the African American community. They do not suggest that leadership from outside the African American community is not needed as well. But, they maintain that outside leadership without authentic leadership from inside the community cannot succeed. In fact, they have gone so far as to suggest that the absence of authentic leadership from within the African American community is a major contributing factor to the persistence of the achievement gap. The complex and intricate change called for cannot be accomplished without a strong foundational leadership from within the community of trust.

Paige and Witty suggest six of the most important things authentic African American leaders must do:

  • Develop an understanding of the Black-white achievement gap issue
  • Accept leadership responsibility for closing the gap
  • Act with a sense of urgency
  • Help constituents understand the issue
  • Put African American children’s educational opportunities above political considerations
  • Pay close attention to local school board elections.

The first two bullet points are especially pertinent to this discussion.

Paige and Witty maintain that you can’t change anything without being prepared to understand it. They suggest that effective action always progresses through five critical steps: awareness, understanding, concern, dissatisfaction, and finally action. They urge leaders to move through these five steps. It is their observation that the current level of dissatisfaction with the existing Black-white achievement gap within the African American leadership community is too low to bring about the level of action needed to address the problem.

African Americans were able to create the post 1954 Civil Rights Movement because they were all in the same boat. The African American intelligentsia was sufficiently dissatisfied with their personal treatment that our keenest minds tackled the problem. The Black middle class stood with the masses of the people. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children could not gain admission to the Lowell School (an elite private school) in Atlanta. Ralph Bunche, Ph.D., Under-Secretary of the United Nations and holder of the Nobel Peace Prize could not register at a downtown Atlanta hotel in the 1950s.

Benjamin Mays, Ph.D., Phi Beta Kappa, graduate of Bates College and the University of Chicago; former Dean of the Howard University School of Religion and at that time President of Morehouse College, tells the story in his book, Born to Rebel, that he came to Fort Wayne, Indiana when this writer was an infant. He had a speaking engagement in the city and when he attempted to claim his room, the YMCA would not honor his reservation because he was black. Dr. Mays knew that this writer’s father was a Morehouse man who lived in the city. He called and this writer’s father, Rev. Phale D. Hale, went to get him in the middle of the night to stay in his home. Black people stood together against racial injustice because they were all in the same boat. The masses of the people benefitted from the leadership provided by the African American intelligentsia in dismantling segregation.

Rather than desegregate the schools unilaterally, the power structure allowed those African Americans who could afford it to access previously restricted private schools. They also allowed them to move into residential neighborhoods with exclusive high performing school districts. Even in cities like Detroit, schools such as Cass Tech and Renaissance were created that enabled those affluent African Americans whose employment required them to live within the city to access the best public schools in the state of Michigan. Entry to those schools was restricted to those who could meet the admission criteria. If the Detroit Public Schools knows how to create a Cass Tech and a Renaissance High School, why can’t all of the schools achieve that level of quality? The answer was given a century ago by Frederick Douglass, “Power yields nothing without a demand. It never did, it never will.” As long as the African American intelligentsia has access to quality public schools that meet the needs of their children, there is no need to demand educational equity for all children. They don’t have a dog in that fight.

So, strategies were employed by the power structure to satisfy the African American intelligentsia with access to quality education for their own children. They, subsequently did not have a personal “dog in that fight” for educational equity for the African American masses, so no leadership for authentic change has emerged. As Paige and Witty point out, everyone -- African American educators and Civil Rights leaders -- says that they have been working on the achievement gap all along. Even though educational reform is mentioned on every Civil Rights agenda by every Civil Rights organization, true efforts to close the achievement gap get lost in “firefighting”. As I have pointed out elsewhere (Hale, 1994), civil rights leaders engage in putting out fires such as the killing of Trayvon Martin; commemorations of the March from Here to There; or the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington – which made nice television on a slow day.

The past 40 years have seen a proliferation of celebrations of milestones and commemorations of events that occurred in the civil rights movement: a banquet to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the signing of this or that bill, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the march from here to there; the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington; the recognition of this or that figure from the civil rights movement. Much of this celebration is merely a walk down memory lane, back to the period in the 1950s and 1960s, when we knew what to do. In those days, we had Thurgood Marshall. Today, we have Clarence Thomas.

In those days, we had Bull Connor. We knew what to do with the police dogs, the fire hoses, the firebombs, and the assassins. The enemy was clear. We could all see who the enemy was and what he was doing. His language was explicit. Today, the enemy wears a business suit, and in too many cases the person speaking for the enemy is black. The language he speaks is “politically correct”. He is against “quotas”. He is for “hard work.” He is against “minority set-asides.” In courses on cultural diversity, she wants all ethnic groups represented, not just “African American”.

It gives us a sense of comfort to host events in which we celebrate the victories, the heroes and the heroines of the past. We are constantly thinking of new and more extensive honors to bestow upon them. Every civil rights warrior has written or is writing a book and receiving some type of medal or medallion. We are engaged in an orgy of celebration of the period when we knew what to do. For all of the glories and victories of the past, however, the situation for our children has changed very little.

Paige and Witty put an accent mark on the present situation where enough time is not devoted to understanding the dynamics of the achievement gap by stating:

Part of the problem now is that there is so much ineffective activity and senseless chatter in the efforts to close the achievement gap that strategic action is the casualty. Ineffectiveness also comes from completely baseless rhetoric, political posturing, and misguided actions from those who have taken little time to fully understand the issue (p. 155).

They state further that without having a thorough knowledge of the problem and any kind of sound theoretical foundation, scarce resources, precious time and irreplaceable emotional energy are wasted on ill-conceived initiatives. Worse, yet, the achievement gap facing African American children, in the words of James C. Young, is the “cash cow” for educational researchers. The same people peer review articles for publication and also peer review proposals for funding. Legitimacy is passed by members of the same group to each other. So, the same population who made their academic careers in the 1960s who were attacked by African American scholars for their “culturally deprived” theorems are still sustaining their present day academic careers on these theories that are recycled with new nomenclature. This is reminiscent of the French axiom of “plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes choses” -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Paige and Witty’s second bullet point is important in providing the rationale for the creation of ISAAC in that they maintain that African American leaders must be responsible for pointing the way. And, well-intentioned supporters should enhance the capacity of the African American intelligentsia for self-determination instead of undercutting their leadership to pad the pockets of their own careers. Howard and Hammond (1985) observe, “When economic necessity and the demands of social justice compel us toward social change, those who have the most to gain from change – or the most to lose from its absence – should be responsible for pointing the way”.

Need for a Research Institute with a focus on African American Children

Even though it is crystal clear in the literature that the Achievement Gap is by definition an expression of lower academic performance of African American children compared to white children, policy makers insist upon taking the focus off of African American children and including every ethnic group in their reform efforts. This unwillingness to focus attention on African American children persists, even when the achievement of African American children is at the bottom of the ethnic rankings, as is presently the case.

“Smushing” Black children in with other low-income ethnic groups to create a blanket solution for multiple ethnic groups is not a promising strategy. Even though the black-white Achievement Gap is the most egregious, reformers insist upon lumping remedies for African American children in with remedies for less severely affected ethnic groups. This deteriorates the effect of those remedies on those who are suffering the most. African American scholars argued against defining the academic challenges of low income children as being primarily a function of poverty in the late 1960s in favor of studying the cultural exigencies of each individual ethnic group that results in low achievement. Seymore Sarason (1973) explains between group differences in academic achievement as reflecting cultural distance between the Anglo-American mainstream and each cultural group. Those ethnic groups that align culturally with Anglo American culture face fewer challenges in achieving within the American mainstream. To truly enhance the achievement of African American children, these patterns must be understood.

Additionally, the challenges of the Achievement Gap are not limited to what are known as “low income” African American children. There are inaccuracies that need to be addressed in defining social class in the African American community as it relates to school achievement that are addressed in forthcoming articles by this writer. African American middle class children show evidence of the achievement gap in their academic performance, as well. The dynamics of this situation haven’t been given sufficient attention by those who have the funding and the power to make change.

Clearly new and authentic leadership is called for. There is a need for ISAAC and the Cultural Prism. The Cultural Prism is an approach to analyzing the educational needs of African American children from an interdisciplinary perspective. The Cultural Prism is defined by Hale in forthcoming publications. Briefly:

Du Bois (1903) said that “The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world . . .” The scholar/educator who is proficient in utilizing the Cultural Prism must be gifted with a Du Boisian first-sight, second-sight, third-sight, fourth-sight and fifth-sight which are all necessary to decode the difficulties African American children are experiencing in school. The professional who utilizes this Cultural Prism must be proficient in each area and must be able to move seamlessly between each dimension. If a phenomenon is not explained by one dimension, the expert should be able to shift to the subsequent-sight for a salient hypothesis.

Cultural Prism Diagram

Figure 1. The Cultural Prism.

This broader concept of Cultural Prism requires:

  1. First-sight: an understanding of African and African American history and culture as a context for behavior.
  2. Second-sight: an understanding of the socioeconomic exigencies of African American life.
  3. Third-sight: an understanding of African American child development, learning, cultural and behavioral styles.
  4. Fourth-sight: an analysis of statistics related to achievement patterns of African American children.
  5. Fifth-sight: an ability to identify discrepancies in educational practice that affect African American children which constitute malpractice. These discrepancies apply to instructional practices in addition to administrative decisions.
There is a need for consensus building around specific strategies to close the achievement gap that affects African American children.

ISAAC’s Solution to Closing the Achievement Gap

It is important to state from the outset that the solution to the achievement gap has to be framed within remedies that will be acceptable to the white citizens who control the political life in America. So, sweeping remedies that would truly change the fortunes of the masses of African American children will not be delineated, although they exist. This discussion will be limited to the strategies that can be employed by activists within the constraints of current day politics within our society. For example, it is doubtful that HBCUs will ever receive equal financial support. However, through hard work and focused strategies, miracles have been worked in producing outcomes for African American students – for over a century. The fact that fundamental solutions are not offered, does not mean that this writer is unaware of what the sweeping solutions are that would close the achievement gap. ISAAC has identified strategies that are “get attable” by educators, given the contemporary political climate in America.

Having said that, a comprehensive strategy is needed to close the achievement gap. Most of the approaches that are outlined in the above literature review are piecemeal fixes. There is some value in all of them, but each taken alone will not solve the problem. Please note that the solutions offered by ISAAC emanate from the classroom. Educational strategies take precedence over legal and political strategies. We are seizing control of the tools for change that are readily available to educators.

Creating a cohesive functional Community of Scholars of African American education

The pre-imminent step toward closing the achievement gap is to give nurturance and support for scholars of issues related to African American education. There is a need to strengthen the intellectual infrastructure within the African American community. Only 3% of holders of the doctoral degree are African American. There is a declining number of African American males who are obtaining the doctoral degree -- nationally. Of those who obtain the doctoral degree, a miniscule number are pursuing careers in the academy. There is very little support provided at universities for obtaining tenure and promotion. The financial compensation in the academy is low compared to the inducements for African American holders of the doctoral degree to pursue careers in other sectors. The money is low and the drama and politics are high.

The African American community is suffering a leadership void in several key occupations as has been pointed out elsewhere by this writer (Hale, 2001) In the 1950’s the limitations of the opportunity structure for Negro lawyers resulted in the keenest minds devoting themselves to low paid work in the area of civil rights. Today, African American lawyers are able to obtain lucrative partnerships in Fortune 500 corporate law firms.

In the 1950’s, ministers such as this writer’s father, Rev. Phale D. Hale and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored churches and led civil rights movements for little or no remuneration. Rev. Hale was keenly aware that his personal economic support was based upon the ability of African Americans to make financial contributions toward the support of the church. Pastors, in recognition of that reality, were motivated to provide support to labor movements, civil rights movements and any political movements that affected the economic fortune of their parishioners. Today, pastors are putting together mega-churches in multiple cities and are flying in on corporate jets for mega-services. They don’t have much of an investment in any of the communities that house their congregations – hence, little local civil rights leadership

In the 1950’s, even physicians were civil rights activists because they were paid directly by their patients and the economic condition of their patients had a direct effect on their ability to pay for medical services. Today, physicians receive payments from insurance companies and health maintenance organizations and are free to ignore the existential situations of their patients, because it doesn’t affect them.

In this climate, it is essential that support be given to the creation/strengthening of the African American intelligentsia in the area of education. The respect for this group is so low that a review of the directories of the key American private foundations reveals that a large number of leading foundations declare that they will not even accept unsolicited proposals. The foundation program officers have become the intellectual infrastructure that creates solutions to educational problems in the African American community. A review of the credentials of those program officers and the extent to which they are outsiders to the African American community offers another explanation for the fact that little changes in terms of progress have been made from decade to decade in closing the achievement gap.

There is a need for an entity that brings educational scholars together who are generating empirical research surrounding the achievement gap. There is a need for them to collaborate on a research agenda so that mega- and longitudinal studies can be launched. There is a need for scholars of African American education to be given support in seeking funding for their research. Even though the plight of African American children is the most bleak compared with other ethnic groups, the amount of research dollars that are provided to scholars working on issues related to their education is not proportional. In sum, African American children do not receive their fair share of foundation and government research money.

ISAAC is addressing this need to create a strong intellectual infrastructure within the African American education community through the goals of the Research Component which will be explained in detail below.

Scholars throughout the world have been able to publish their empirical research in the journal, African American Learners that is sponsored by ISAAC building upon the volunteer contributions of scholars who attend the CORD conference. A publications committee has been established which is chaired by two distinguished scholars who also serve as the Co-Editors-in Chief of the journal of ISAAC – African American Learners. At this writing 3 issues have been published beginning in the Spring of 2012. The journal is listed in Ulrich’s and the Directory of Open Access Online Journals.

Two members of the publications committee are currently co-editing the Conference Proceedings from the 2013 CORD conference which will be published online on the ISAAC web site in winter 2014.

Creation of remedies that redefine the role of the school as the coordinator of services

Given the fact that every child in our society is required to go to school, ISAAC takes the position that identifying the school as the primary entity for change is the most logical choice. If we can change the way that schools operate, this provides the most potential for impacting the fortunes of the masses of African American children.

In keeping with the Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest”, too much effort is devoted to providing opportunities to the “talented “tenth”. There are numerous opportunities provided to give quality educational experiences to the “best and the brightest” in the African American community. Now, with the creation and publicity given to the Harlem Children’s Zone, there is the opportunity for the “lucky” to be included. The children are selected for Jeffrey Canada’s program through a lottery. It is the position of ISAAC that such strategies will not result in change for the masses of African American children. The amount of money that is being spent to show results for a small number of children in this model cannot be replicated for the masses in the present political climate.

The Culturally Appropriate Pedagogy school reform model and the Visions for Children preschool curriculum created by Professor Janice Hale provide programmatic solutions that focus on the classroom as an instrument for change for children.

Creation of remedies that support the academic achievement and talent development of African American children

One of the key reasons why African American children terminate their enrollment in STEM courses once required courses have been taken is that they do not have access to high quality, expensive tutoring that is needed to be successful in those courses. Given the fact that 85% of the jobs that are offered to holders of the baccalaureate degree are in the field of engineering, many African American children are disconnected from the future when they fail to enroll in and complete Physics I and Algebra I. Providing high quality, individual tutoring to African American children is a program of ISAAC and is a key need to foster academic success. The fact that white middle class children have unlimited access to high quality tutoring is a key reason for the achievement and employment gaps.

In the arena of talent development, sufficient attention needs to be given to supporting African American children in participating in extra- and co-curricular activities that enable them, in the words of Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, (pre-imminent African American scholar and mystic) to get in touch with “the genuine” within themselves.

Too much of the focus in the classroom and in standardized testing, in the words of Howard Gardner, are on verbal and logico-mathematical content. There is a need for African American children to be provided with educational and cultural experiences that capture their interest, connects them to academic achievement and opens up doors to future occupations, recreational interests and pathways to making a creative contribution to the society. This is not happening in the skill and drill classrooms they attend or in low enrichment street time spent in their neighborhoods.

ISAAC provides programmatic remedies to address this need through the Research and Training (Model Development), Community and Clinical Services (tutoring and Athletic Dreams) components.

Creation of remedies that support parents as they guide their children’s journey through school

There is very little acknowledgement by educators of the difficulties experienced by African American parents as they attempt to negotiate the schools. In Learning While Black, (Hale, 2001), Professor Hale wrote about her trials in guiding the journey of her son through an elite private school that defined him as gifted, then proceeded to treat him as a pariah. There was a huge response to the episodes she shared. However, there is no sensitivity or awareness of the frustration of African American parents across income levels in what is often a fight with teachers and administrators to get fair treatment of their children.

On one occasion, Professor Hale was invited to speak for an Urban League conference on African American education in Kansas City, Missouri. The head of the Urban League purchased and disseminated 300 copies of Learning While Black to the conferees. She was so excited about the description of the goals of the Educational Aide Society that she, on the spot, got the commitment from program officers of the Kaufman Foundation who were present at the address to fund it. The Urban League was given a $100,000 grant, instantly. On several subsequent consulting visits for other agencies, Professor Hale participated in meetings with her and the program officers. It was amazing to observe that every time Professor Hale returned, the key concept of which she spoke was increasingly chipped away. The initial concept of providing education advocates to assist parents in negotiating the schools had been turned into workshops training the parents how to parent. There was no grasp of the edginess of the concept of helping parents negotiate, often hostile teachers and administrators in prevailing “Foundation Think”.

ISAAC provides programmatic remedies to address this need through the Community and Clinical Services (Educational Aide Society) components.

Creation of remedies that strengthen the Village that supports the mission of the family and school

There are concerned citizens, pastors, churches, civic and fraternal organizations who sincerely desire to contribute to improving the educational outcomes for African American children. ISAAC defines the people within the walls of the school as “the Family”. Those who live and work outside of the school are defined as “the Village”. ISAAC offers programmatic features that connect “the Village” to the mission of the school. These features are found in the Research (Culturally Appropriate Pedagogy Model of School Reform) and in the Public Policy components. The Public Policy component is the arm of ISAAC that is involved in advocacy and supporting movements and legislation that will benefit the educational fortunes of African American children.


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