Black Community Must Press for Reforms, Black Scholars Assert

By William Snider — May 31, 1989 8 min read

Washington--A group of prominent black scholars has challenged the black community to act in concert to exert pressure on the public schools to meet the needs of black children, particularly those from economically deprived environments.

“The improvement of public education must be the principal objective of the black community in the next decade,” the scholars argue in an essay entitled “Visions of a Better Way: A Black Appraisal of Public Schooling.” The document was released last week at a press conference here.

“We can meet the challenge of ensuring a world-class education for our children only through political activism,” the authors say. “All segments of the black community must demand that the schools have the staff, policies, and resources necessary to their tasks.”

The report draws upon recent research to chronicle the current failings of the public schools and to illustrate concrete ways that positive changes can be accomplished.

The essay was issued by the Committee on Policy for Racial Justice, a group of 29 black scholars that includes Derrick Bell, professor of law at Harvard University; Mary Frances Berry, professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania; James P. Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University; Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, professor of law at Georgetown University.

The panel was led by John Hope Franklin, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Duke University.

It was convened seven years ago by the Joint Center for Political Studies, a research group focusing on black issues; it has issued two previous reports on racial justice and the relationship between blacks and the federal government.

The current national debate on education prompted the new report, its authors said.

“I have a sense that the conversation about education is becoming more relevant to the needs of poor black kids, but it’s happening much too slowly,” said Roger Wilkins, a committee member who is professor of American history and culture at George Mason University.

“Only a generation ago we were talking about integration to the exclusion of almost everything else,” he said.

The new report is a significant step, he said, because it demonstrates that “we are moving from broad, general theories to some fairly concrete ideas about how to educate children.”

Schools Must ‘Shift Focus’

“For far too long, excuses have been made by educators and others to justify the failure of educational institutions to take children as it finds them and to educate them,” said Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, the primary author of the report, in remarks at the press conference. Ms. Lightfoot is a professor of education at Harvard University.

“We believe it is the school’s responsibility to overcome social barriers that limit academic progress,” she said. “What we demand is this: that the schools shift their focus from the supposed deficiencies of the black child and the alleged inadequacies of black family life to the elimination of the barriers that stand in the way of academic success among these and other children.”

Among the barriers to black student achievement cited by the essay is the continued use of inflexible tracking systems to place a disproportionate number of black children in classes that fail to challenge them to achieve.

The research literature, it says, reveals “strikingly little” evidence to support the popular notions that ability grouping reduces competitive stresses among students or makes teaching and learning easier.

“In fact,” the essay states, tracking “is one of the major reasons that many black students fall further and further behind their peers academically as they advance through the grades.”

The prevalence of standardized testing, particularly when it is linked directly to grade promotion or the availability of academic opportunities, also raises a barrier to the achievement of black students, the report says.

“Serious questions must be raised about the validity of standardized testing and its effects not only upon black and minority children but upon quality education for all,” it says.

“Contrary to the longstanding view that intelligence is a unitary phenomenon measurable by a single test, we believe--and recent research confirms--that all people are blessed with multiple intelligences, which can be tapped only through a variety of teaching methods.”

‘Human Relationships’

The report differs from other recent critiques of public education in its emphasis on what it calls “the centrality of human relationships” in education.

“Although society has grown increasingly complex, young children are no more innately intelligent or socially developed than they ever have been,” it says. “They still need consistent relationships with supportive adults to help them mediate their experiences and thus learn how to understand and to control the world around them.”

But many black children lack these supportive relationships because of a variety of social and economic forces that have left them increasingly isolated in ghetto neighborhoods, it says.

“We call upon all black people to apply their skills and abilities aggressively on behalf of our youth,” the essay says, noting that decreased residential segregation and increased economic opportunities have created a black middle class that has become removed from the greater black community.

“Middle-class black role models are still needed as positive role models for less fortunate black youth,” it states.

“The hard part is that when middle-class blacks come out of schools these days, they tend to go into fast-track, mainstream professional lives,” Mr. Wilkins said.

“Their concerns are very much like those of their white colleagues--geting a partnership or promotion--and they too are caught up in the American values of consumerism and self-involvement,” he said.

Problem of ‘Expectations’

The essay also takes teachers to task for accepting mistaken notions about low-income people and their lifestyles.

“Research has revealed that teachers have negative, inaccurate, and inflexible expectations based on such attributes as the race and perceived social status of their pupils,” it says.

“These expectations result in different treatment of white and minority students and affect minority students’ self-concept, academic motivation, and level of aspiration as they conform, over time, more and more closely to what is expected of them.”

The dwindling numbers of blacks entering the teaching profession contributes to this phenomenon, it says, as does the teacher burnout caused by isolation, routine, and stress.

“Teachers can spark a spirit of inquiry in students only when they themselves feel a spirit of inquiry and development,” the essay states. “Schools need to provide collaborative environments that support the intellectual development of teachers as well as students.”

Parental Collaboration

Black parents too, must play a greater role in ensuring that their children receive the support they need to strive for academic excellence.

The report cites Mr. Comer’s School Development Program, which was initated at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, as an example of how school administrators, teachers, parents, and specialists in child and adolescent development can work collaboratively to create the supportive environments that economically deprived children need to succeed.

Making black parents partners in the education of their children is difficult, it says, because “distrust often runs high between families and the schools that serve low-income and minority children, with charges and countercharges sending a mixed message to our youth: school is hope, school is the enemy.”

“Yet the New Haven experience has demonstrated,” the authors write, “that when parents participate in the schools in meaningful, well-conceived, and structured ways, they come to identify with the school’s academic concerns.”

“Parents also begin to develop a sense of ownership of the school and feelings of responsibility for academic success,” they say, and often “decide to reinvest in their own educations.”

The report also calls for more funding for programs such as Head Start and Chapter 1, for the development of multicultural curricula that reflect the interests and contributions of blacks, and for stronger cooperative links between schools and other social-service agencies.

“We are not naive about the complex processes that successfully improve schools,” the authors state. “Surmounting the institutionalized patterns of beliefs and behaviors that have, on the whole, thwarted the education of black youth requires a collaborative, evolutionary perspective.”

“We must all search for the common ground on which to build an academic foundation for this generation of black youngsters,” they conclude.

Copies of the report are available for $9 each from: Order Department, Joint Center for Political Studies Press, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Md. 20706; (301) 459-3366.

Also on the panel were:

Bernard E. Anderson, managing partner, The Urban Affairs Partnership, Philadelphia; Haywood Burns, dean of the law school, City University of New York; Lisle C. Carter Jr., general counsel, United Way of America; Jewel Plummer Cobb, president, California State University at Fullerton; Drew S. Days 3rd, professor, Yale University School of Law; Christopher Edley Jr., professor, Harvard University Law School; James Lowell Gibbs Jr., chairman, anthropology department, Stanford University; Charles J. Hamilton Jr., lawyer, Battle, Fowler, Jaffin, Pierce & Keel, New York; Matthew Holden Jr., Henry L. and Grace M. Doherty Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia; and Joyce A. Hughes, professor, Northwestern University Law School.

Also, Walter J. Leonard, executive assistant to the Governor, Secretary to the Cabinet, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; Sir Arthur Lewis, James S. McDonald Distinguished Professor of Economics and International Affairs Emeritus, Princeton University; David L. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History, Rutgers University; Milton D. Morris, director of research, Joint Center for Political Studies; William Shack, professor of anthropology, University of California at Berkeley; Elliot P. Skinner, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University; The Hon. Mable Smythe-Haith, Washington; Howard Stanback, commissioner, department of aviation, City of Chicago; Eddie N. Williams, president, Joint Center for Political Studies; and William J. Wilson, Lucy Flower Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and Public Policy, University of Chicago.

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 1989 edition of Education Week as Black Community Must Press for Reforms, Black Scholars Assert