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Educating African-American Children: Higher Than Hope

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Almost from the beginning of the American republic, African-Americans have struggled for the right of self-determination and of full participation in the political, social, and economic life of the nation. No goal has been more important to this struggle than education. And this is true more than ever today, since efforts to renew American public education, while paying lip service to equality and excellence for all, have largely ignored the needs and concerns of African-American students.

The National Council on Educating Black Children, a collaborative of national and grassroots organizations as well as concerned individuals, released in June an important attempt to address these concerns. The group's report, "A Blueprint for Action," is actually the third to bear that title since the council's founding in 1986. Expanding on similar "blueprints" completed in 1986 and 1987, the new document represents a landmark effort, outlining an educational-development plan that is not only appropriate but also relevant and compelling for African-American students. It seeks, in effect, to rescue African-American students from educational oblivion.

"A Blueprint for Action" continues a tradition in the African-American community--one that can be traced back to the Revolutionary War--of placing self-determination at the core of the African-American experience. It is a direct descendant of The Miseducation of the Negro, written in 1933 by Carter Woodson, the father of black history, which called for educational reform with self-determination at its center.

The National Council on Educating Black Children states its case for self-determination in clear and direct language: "'A Blueprint for Action' is predicated on a 'whole village' concept; a collaborative effort where all the stakeholders--parents and families, teachers, administrators, ... churches, and students themselves--take part." The African-American community must ultimately rely upon itself to reinforce a substantive and relevant education for its children.

Left in the hands of others, the education of African-American children has fallen short. But the ncebc effort relies on "effective schools" research pioneered by the late African-American educator Ron Edmonds. And Mr. Edmonds minced no words when discussing the task at hand. "We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us," he said. "We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far."

Most of the education reports of the 1980s and 90s that paid any attention to the education of minority children offered little more than prescriptions for more emphasis on basic-skills achievement. "A Blueprint for Action" goes much further by specifying the roles and responsibilities of such stakeholders as parents, students, teachers, churches, and higher-education institutions, among others. African-American families must create a home environment that communicates "respect for and interest in learning," according to the report. African-American students must attend classes on a regular basis in order to become "active and empowered learners." Effective teaching, says the report, is non-negotiable: "Teachers must ensure that each black child is provided the opportunity to attain the skills needed to achieve excellence in education." Churches also are challenged to establish such educational programs as tutorials, peer-support groups, and mentors.

Neither can higher education escape its responsibility for the education of African-American students. Reaffirming the need for pluralism and diversity in colleges and universities, the report challenges professors and administrators to increase recruitment and retention of African-American students by 10 percent each year over the next 10 years. The recommendation is a stinging rebuke to the anti-affirmative-action stance recently enunciated by the University of California system.

The obstacles confronting African-American students--underfunded urban schools, a decline in the number of minority teachers and principals who can serve as role models, a Eurocentric curriculum--call for new initiatives determined by the African-American community. The National Council for the Education of Black Children responds by detailing over 200 "implementation activities" offered to all of the stakeholders in the African-American community. These activities, ranging from promoting positive self-awareness among students to matching students and their families with support resources in the community, are examined in terms of African-American academic and cultural aspirations.

Because it addresses topics continually ignored by policymakers, "A Blueprint for Action" is a document that deserves our attention as the final decade of the 20th century comes to a close. Too much is at stake as America encounters a significant number of "third generation" school-desegregation problems such as teachers' limited expectations for minority students, the cultural bias of many instructional materials, and persistent stereotyping and racial bias. Why not challenge educational leaders to look at present patterns, problems, and practices of schooling with a recognition of the decisive role African-Americans historically have played--and can continue to play--in formulating strategies for their own advancement?

"Blueprint" is a statement of belief and expectation for those who have too often been bypassed and neglected by our education system. Will the failure to properly educate African-American students continue? If demographics prove decisive, perhaps not. By 2000, one of every five students in our public schools will be nonwhite. America then will have to be much more attentive to the education of all its students, if it is to remain a viable social and economic force in the world.

In this context, neither the African-American community nor society at large can afford to ignore the message of the report from the National Council on Educating Black Children. The words of W.E.B. DuBois are prophetic: "The caste spirit is rampant in the land; it is laying hold of the public schools. ... Never forget that if we ever compel the world's respect, it will be by virtue of our heads, and not our heels."

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