Preacher of Power

By Lynn Olson — February 01, 1994 26 min read

In 1985, social psychologist Jeff Howard and a colleague wrote a cover story for The New Republic that they expected would outrage many of their peers in the black community. The article, “Rumors of Inferiority: Barriers to Black Success in America,’' examined the explosive topic of why some black adults and students were shunning or evading academic competition.

“Black people have proved to be very competitive at some activities, particularly sports and entertainment,’' wrote Howard and his co-author, Ray Hammond. “It is our sense, however, that many blacks consider intellectual competition to be inappropriate. It appears to inspire little interest or respect among many youthful peer groups. Often, in fact, it is labeled ‘grade grubbing’ and gives way to sports and social activity as a basis for peer acceptance. The intellectual performance gap is one result of this retreat from competition.’'

The two men described such behavior as a natural reaction to widely held stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of African Americans. And they urged the black community to begin a “nationwide effort, now, to ensure that all black people--but especially black youths--are free to express their intellectual gifts.’'

“The record of the last 20 years suggests that waiting for grand initiatives from the outside to save the black community is futile,’' they warned. “Blacks will have to rely on our own ingenuity and resources.’'

Three African-American publications--Ebony, Essence, and Black Enterprise--turned down the piece before The New Republic accepted it. As the article itself noted, African Americans are sensitive about any discussion of the performance gap. “I was fully prepared to change my phone number,’' Howard recalls. At the time, Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected president by a landslide, a victory that augured poorly for low-income and minority communities. And at least some readers labeled the two men as “neoconservative Reaganites in sheep’s clothing,’' says Hammond, now the minister of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Others accused them of “blaming the victim,’' Howard says.

In general, however, reaction to the piece in the black community was surprisingly positive. “It was widely read and mimeographed and passed around among black folks,’' Howard recalls, “because by 1985 serious-minded black people were looking for answers. They knew that something was wrong. And they knew that what was wrong could not just be white folks. They knew that something was wrong with the culture.’'

Jeff Howard does not mince words. Sitting with one arm draped over the back of a Queen Anne sofa in his office, Howard is unsparing in his criticisms of whites, who created many of the problems black Americans face. And he is equally unsympathetic toward blacks who think that only white Americans have the power to improve their circumstances. What Howard believes is that people can’t surmount the psychological barriers to performance until they confront them openly and completely. And that’s true whether those barriers affect an individual or an entire community.

It’s the reason he wrote the New Republic piece in the first place. “I had no question that the whole idea of intellectual inferiority was one of the legacies of our oppression,’' he says, “and my theory was that you could not get people to overcome it until you could get them to face it.’'

Tall and slim, at 45, Howard has a deceptively easy-going smile. But on this blustery fall day, his words have the same sharp precision as the room itself, which is neat and almost devoid of personal artifacts.

The building, located in a corporate development in Lexington, Mass., looks like a miniature replica of an Ivy League campus. Howard’s office has a large fireplace and French doors leading out onto a stone patio. It is the home of the Efficacy Institute, a nonprofit agency that Howard founded the same year the New Republic piece appeared. The institute works with school systems and community agencies in cities across the country to help improve children’s performance using Howard’s ideas about intellectual development. Last year, it trained some 5,400 teachers in 55 school districts. Howard’s separate for-profit consulting firm, which provides human resources training to Fortune 500 companies, is located just down the hill.

According to Howard, America’s approach to educating children is failing because the attitudes that underlie it are wrong. The chief culprit is what he calls the “innate-ability paradigm.’' This is the notion that intelligence is a gift, like being born a great artist or a great composer. It assumes that how much a person can learn is determined at birth and that only a small percentage of children are born intelligent enough to become well educated. “Right now, the schools are organized around a very simple, unspoken operating principle,’' Howard asserts. “And that is, we sort children by judgments of learning capacity. We decide who can learn. All of the policies and practices in American schools are based on that simple principle.’'

Once adults decide that children are too dull to learn complex material, Howard argues, they stop teaching them. And once children internalize those judgments, they become less willing to work. Many children, especially poor and minority children, begin to show a strong aversion to academic work in elementary school, Howard observes. And by the 6th grade, they have effectively dropped out, refusing to commit any effort at all to learning. That’s why the innate-ability paradigm is such a setup. It’s a self-fulfilling philosophy for both students and teachers.

But what is damaging for all children, Howard says, is lethal for children of color because after decades of racism they are presumed to be born with less of what it takes to succeed academically. “There is a rumor of inferiority that follows black children to school,’' he says, “especially racially integrated schools.’' It is a rumor rooted in false thinking about the nature of race and IQ in America. And it is so powerful, Howard says, that many black people have internalized it--permanently undermining their capacity to work hard.

For more than 20 years, Howard has been trying to break this cycle of learned helplessness among teachers, students, and black professionals by educating them in a different frame of mind: “Think you can. Work hard. Get smart.’' He believes that intellectual development is a long-term process that stems from self-confidence and effective, hard work. All children can learn, he suggests, if the process of learning is effectively organized and managed by adults. “Smart is not something that you just are,’' Howard likes to say. “Smart is something that you can get.’'

By the end of high school, Howard argues, all black children should master calculus or its equivalent at the Advanced Placement level and should achieve fluency in at least one language in addition to standard English. They should also demonstrate a capacity to write a literate, well-structured, well-researched 25-page essay. And they should exhibit the ability to live by strict, high ethical standards.

Such goals put Howard squarely in line with the current school reform movement and its emphasis on developing high standards for all students. He agrees with the rhetoric that says “all children can learn,’' but he doesn’t think most people believe it. Meanwhile, the situation for black children is getting worse.

So last year, Howard wrote another piece, “The Third Movement: Developing Black Children for the 21st Century.’' It was published by the National Urban League in the 1993 edition of The State of Black America. And it is basically a call to arms. What Howard has in mind is nothing less than a third social movement, much like the civil rights and desegregation movements of an earlier era. But this one would focus squarely on the development of black children, and it would be led by the black community, particularly the black middle class.

“There’s been an ideology that’s grown up and taken over since the death of Martin Luther King Jr.,’' Howard asserts, “that says that the way to solve the problems of the black community is to hold white people’s feet to the fire because they started these problems. Now, that has a validity; that has a truth to it. White folks are the original source of these problems. But the fact is that, right now, white folks don’t have a clue about what to do about these problems, and given any other priorities they can switch their attentions to, they will. So if these problems are going to get solved, they have to get solved by a mobilized black community.’'

Self-help is nothing new for minority communities. Last March, more than 250 black leaders launched the Black Community Crusade for Children, coordinated by the Children’s Defense Fund, to rescue black children and families from what the organizers describe as the “worst crisis since slavery.’' In October, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, citing a “wave of violence’’ that is overwhelming inner-city schools, began an education campaign centered on black churches. Across the country, thousands of grass-roots efforts are drawing on a rich tradition of community service.

Then in November, President Clinton called on all Americans to take responsibility for the social ills that have plagued black communities in particular. There are changes that government can make “from the outside in,’' Clinton said from the Memphis pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last sermon. “And then, there are some changes we’re going to have to make from the inside out, or the others won’t matter.’'

But discussions among African Americans about how to balance government’s responsibility, on the one hand, with personal and community responsibility, on the other, have always been politically charged. And no more so than in recent years, when the black political establishment has come under fire for focusing too heavily on such issues as affirmative action and not enough on such problems as inadequate schooling, rampant crime, and debilitating drug use that plague inner cities.

Howard has waded firmly into the middle of that debate. And his often blunt criticisms of black Americans for not doing more have raised a few hackles. But Howard is less interested in casting blame than in prompting action. His goal is to get the black community to make better use of the resources it has.

“I think that it would be naive for us to take what Jeff Howard says literally to mean that there are no obstacles,’' says John Jacob, president of the National Urban League. “Clearly, there are. And Jeff has to, in his impatience, understand that those obstacles are real. I think what Jeff is really saying is that those of us who have succeeded have not fully appreciated that we could mobilize our resources differently and organize our resources differently to attack this problem. A lot of people talk about self-help, and a lot of people talk about developing communities. But they have not found the process to make that happen. What Jeff has done, I think, is to find a key that unlocks capacity.’'

What also sets Howard apart from many other reformers is his faith that, if Americans could just change the way they think about intelligence, everything else would fall into place.

Howard’s core beliefs about intellectual development stem from years of person- al experience and reflection. Born in Chicago in 1948, he was the younger of two sons in a stable, lower-middle-class family. His father was one of Chicago’s first black bus drivers and, later, among its first black police officers. His mother was an administrative assistant at the University of Chicago Press. Howard describes himself as a member of the “equal opportunity’’ generation: the group of black men and women growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s who benefited most directly from the civil rights and desegregation movements.

As a teenager, he attended Tilden Technical High School, an integrated, competitive-entrance school on Chicago’s South Side. It was there, he recalls, that he began to see how the system works. “We were the ‘smart boys’ of the South Side,’' he says of the young black men who attended school with him. “We had to take a tough test to get in, and everybody passed the test. Then, once we got there, all the smart boys were sorted in the first year into the ‘very smart,’ the ‘sort of smart,’ and the ‘kinda dumb.’ And the ones who were in the third group, in fact, became dumb. I also noticed that kids became stupid in class who were anything but in the halls and on the playground. They became halting; they became poor students. The school created losers.’'

It was his reputation as a high school wrestler, Howard says, that enabled him to excel academically without suffering too much derision from his peers.

But at Harvard in the late 1960s, he found the same anti-intellectualism eerily repeating itself. “I noticed as an undergraduate that we, the group of us, pulled back,’' he recalls of his fellow black students. “Here we’d been among the most successful high school students in the country. We got to Harvard and immediately created a culture that had the same anti-intellectual elements: People were hanging out in the dining halls for hours after meals. We would go to each other’s rooms and listen to music. There was a strong sense that you were supposed to graduate, and everybody did. But there was also a sense that it was all right not to be really committed to academic work.’'

As chairman of the Association of African and Afro-American Students, Howard tried and failed to raise the problem as a political issue. Then a member of the administration slipped him a copy of a confidential report that compared the grade-point averages of various ethnic groups on campus. In almost every category, black students were at or near the bottom of the list. “That was the beginning of my understanding that external pressures and a history of oppression can operate to affect the culture of the group,’' Howard says. “Even when opportunities are available, the group cannot mobilize itself to take full advantage of them. That becomes an important part of the problem.’'

In 1969, when Howard was a senior, The Harvard Educational Review ran an article by Arthur Jensen, titled “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?’' The piece began by asserting that compensatory education had failed and concluded by arguing that 80 percent of intelligence was genetically determined. If poor and minority students were faring poorly in school, Jensen implied, little could be done about it.

“It was absolutely electric, the whole idea of genetic intellectual ability,’' Howard recalls. “It was as if you had lined up 100 kids--or however many of us there were at Harvard at that time--and thrown a single spear through everybody’s heart.’'

Howard had already been accepted at Yale Law School. But his growing conviction that the learning gap between black and white students was rooted in the psyche led him to stay on at Harvard and pursue a doctorate in clinical and social psychology. While there, he studied under David McClelland, an expert in achievement motivation. In 1972, while still a doctoral student, Howard combined some of McClelland’s ideas with his own and conducted his first “efficacy training’’ for a group of about 20 black undergraduates. “I took four three-day weekends of their semester,’' he recalls. By the end of the semester, the students’ grades had improved.

In 1976, four years after he began efficacy training, Howard left Harvard to set up his own private consulting firm as a way to support his growing family. The firm specializes in diversity issues and offers efficacy training to black professionals. In 1982, Howard traveled to Detroit to work with a group of minority employees at Hudson’s Department Stores. Mia Roberts, now on the Efficacy Institute staff, was one of those employees.

“I had always been a very good performer,’' Roberts recalls. “Good evaluations. Nice raises. Periodic promotions. But the year after I participated in the efficacy seminar, I received my first outstanding evaluation, complete with a bonus check and a crystal decanter and a shake from the CEO’s hand.’' Roberts, an outgoing black woman with an infectious chuckle, throws back her head and laughs. “I was hooked. At that point, it was no longer theoretical for me.’'

The Hudson executives persuaded Howard to train them to work, as volunteers, with high school students in the Detroit public schools. In 1985, Howard formed the nonprofit Efficacy Institute to build on his burgeoning work with school systems.

Since then, with the help of several philanthropies, including the MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Boston foundations and the DeWitt WallaceReader’s Digest Fund, the Efficacy Institute has grown from a committee of four part-time volunteers to an organization of 22 paid staff members and trainers. Today, it is working intensively with more than a dozen large urban school systems in such cities as Boston, Denver, St. Louis, and Tacoma, Wash.

And this past fall, the Baltimore public schools began an aggressive campaign to use the efficacy framework to help shape school reform. Fifteen billboards touting the new philosophy have sprouted up around town. All of the district’s principals and top administrators have received efficacy training. Teachers and other employees in 18 schools will receive more intensive assistance to help them integrate efficacy concepts into their curriculum and pedagogy.

In addition to workshops for teachers and school administrators, the institute offers a stand-alone curriculum that can be used with elementary, middle, and high school students to help them gain control of the learning process. “People are obviously not born with the same talents in the same measure,’' Howard writes, “but it is reasonable--and prudent--for us to assume that the great majority of our children, too, are endowed enough to achieve verbal and mathematical competence.’'

The King Open School in Cambridge, Mass., began using the efficacy curriculum with middle school students last spring. A public K-8 school with about 300 students, it is located in a building just off Harvard Square that houses several separate education programs. This particular one has a reputation for being child-oriented and for working effectively with its multi- ethnic, socioeconomically diverse population. It is usually oversubscribed by parents trying to get their children in through the district’s controlled-choice program.

Several times a week, 7th and 8th graders in the school participate in a single-sex efficacy class. The curriculum is unflinching in the way it addresses the values associated with hard work and personal responsibility. Separate vignettes address the negative personal and societal consequences of drug dealing, out-of-wedlock births, and the ridiculing of students who work hard or come from less-advantaged circumstances.

On this particular day, 29 boys from a mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds are discussing ethics. The boys are told that in each person there is a “strong side’’ that lives by a code of ethics and a “weak side’’ that is filled with doubts and fears. The side in charge controls how people act and whether they build up the community or bring it down. The choice is presented as something that is under an individual’s control.

“I think everyone has a strong side, but a lot of people don’t use it,’' one student says. “They use the unethical side all the time.’'

The classroom is a hodgepodge of tables and chairs, pulled into somewhat random groupings by the students. There is a loft to one side, a sink toward the back, and a sofa and chair off in a corner. Amid a sea of constant motion and boisterous interruptions, the teenagers try to define what a code of ethics means. Says one boy: “I think, ‘If I do this, will I get in trouble?’ is more like asking, ‘Will I get away with it?’ than ‘Is it ethical or not?’ '' Maybe the question, he says, is “Should I do this? Is it a good thing to do?’'

The efficacy curriculum encourages students to identify and avoid negative influences that can undermine their self-confidence and interfere with their schoolwork. It teaches them to focus on concrete information about their skills that can be used to help them work more effectively. And it helps them view failure as a form of “feedback’’ that tells them to work harder or to work differently. Using efficacy concepts, teachers build on students’ successes so that they are always working on tasks that are challenging but realistic. Eventually, the boundaries of what is realistic get pushed further and further back.

The Open School decided to introduce the efficacy curriculum because of a persistent gap in the performance of white students and those of color. “All 8th graders were in algebra,’' explains teacher Jesse Solomon, “and most were doing pretty well. But if you took everyone’s score on the last test and separated them by race, for the most part there was a 10- to 15-point gap in the test scores, or in the last quarter’s grades. That’s a very imperfect way of thinking about it, but it shouldn’t be there. You shouldn’t be able to predict by race who’s going to do better in math class.’'

In addition to offering review sessions, tutors, and a “parent posse’’ that calls up the families of students who haven’t done their homework, the teachers decided to try efficacy training. “Most [students] who are not doing well either don’t believe that they can do well or don’t really know how to do well,’' Solomon says. “They don’t see a connection between not having done homework two nights out of five and getting a D.’' Too often, teachers have lost their own sense of confidence in their capacity to educate students.

Research suggests that the efficacy approach works. In Peoria, Ill., for example, researchers found that 1st through 4th graders in efficacy classrooms exceeded anticipated test-score gains in reading and mathematics for all three years of a longitudinal study. And in Detroit, evaluations of elementary and middle schools that used the efficacy approach generally found statistically significant increases in reading and math scores for students who participated in the program compared with those who did not.

The institute encourages schools that participate in its training to focus on hard numbers and outcomes. It wants schools to measure how much the achievement of the average student improves over time. Arthur Kempton, director of school services for the institute, claims that school systems that use efficacy training should see “significant improvements in student outcomes’’ after two years and major changes after seven to 10 years. But, he adds, “Jeff is less patient than that. If you ask Jeff, he will probably tell you five.’'

Efficacy training, however, is only a first step. It provides a framework, not a program. It does not, for example, tell teachers how to strengthen reading instruction or what to do to enrich social studies. And its use as a community mobilization tool is largely untested. Yet, just as Howard thinks that educators can figure out what to do once they believe in students’ capacity to learn, he is convinced that the black community can mobilize, once it believes in its capacity to make a difference for children.

“We have much more to work with now than previous generations did,’' Howard says, goading his fellow black professionals, “more money, more know-how, more position power. We know more about how this society works, and there are many more of us who are well-positioned to use that knowledge.’' It is the capacity to effectively organize and marshal those resources, he suggests, that separates successful generations from less-successful ones.

His institute is now working with Urban League affiliates in a handful of cities around the country to launch demonstration projects, run by local black leaders, aimed at improving the outcomes for black children. Each of the projects focuses on two arenas: the schools where children spend most of their days and the social-service agencies that work with them before and after school hours. Success in these areas, Howard contends, can be leveraged to form the basis for a broader mobilization effort.

Work is under way in Jacksonville, Fla.; Springfield, Mass.; New Orleans; and a handful of other sites. But the project that is furthest along is in Boston. There, a group of black leaders, under the auspices of the Efficacy Institute and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, has come together to focus their efforts on improving the lives of children in the RoxburyMattapan area.

A poor, inner-city neighborhood, Roxbury reflects many of the problems endemic to urban communities. Its population is heavily African-American, containing a higher percentage of children than the Boston average and nearly double the percentage of singleparent families. In 1992, a report on poverty in Boston’s black community found household income in Roxbury lower than in all other neighborhoods studied. As in many other urban neighborhoods, crime and violence have become overriding concerns.

Last spring, Howard and the Urban League formed a Boston Coordinating Council, made up of about a dozen civic, business, and religious leaders from the black community. This year, the council plans to develop a “Children of Color Development Index’’ to chart its progress. The index will include baseline statistical data that describe the conditions of black children in the community; set concrete objectives for change; and report regularly on the results. The targets chosen will be few but compelling, such as a reduction in the teenage-pregnancy rate or an increase in the number of children trained in conflict resolution.

Three human-services agencies that work with children for most of their non-school hours have volunteered to serve as demonstration sites: the Roxbury YMCA, the Crispus Attucks Children’s Center, and a third unnamed location. In addition, the Boston school district has made a commitment to embrace efficacy principles over the next five years. Last summer, about 160 central office administrators and school principals were trained in the program’s concepts. Ten schools that have been identified as needing improvement will have the chance to participate in intensive training later this school year. Similar training will also be offered to parents in the Roxbury community.

“We have an extraordinary crisis in the African-American community regarding the status of our kids,’' says Hubert Jones, chairman of the Boston Coordinating Council and former dean of social work at Boston University. “And nothing short of a total mobilization of the community leadership and its major institutions--in very determined, strategic ways--will change this. Without being isolationist, without being so inward-looking that you’re ridiculous, the African-American community has to look inward.’'

As a first step in the mobilization effort, all of the employees at the three demonstration sites are being trained in efficacy concepts. One of the strengths of the efficacy model, according to Lesley Christian, director of the Crispus Attucks Children’s Center, “is it makes no excuses. It basically says you can take control. And it gives people something to work with. Yeah, the poverty is not going anywhere. Yeah, the money is too limited. But I think we have to say there is something we can do and do it.’'

For all his fiery language, Howard is at heart an optimist. It comes through in his can-do philosophy and in the selfconfidence he exudes as he speaks.

He likes to note that there are nearly 7,000 black elected officials in the United States, including 40 in Congress. There are black professionals engaged in every sector of American institutional and economic life. And there is an institutional base that includes 99 historically black colleges and 67,000 churches and human-services agencies in cities around the country.

Maybe the coordinating council isn’t the right organization for getting a mobilization effort going, Howard says. But if that doesn’t work, he adds, “I have faith that the world will tell you what needs to be done. You just have to be able to read the signals.’'

Angela Glover Blackwell, a member of the Black Community Crusade for Children and president of the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, Calif., shares some of that optimism: “We have lots of urban school districts in which we make up a significant number, if not a majority, of those on the school board. We make up a significant number of those who potentially could vote. If the black community begins to take ownership and responsibility over the products of public schools, we could make a difference.’'

Other people looking at the circumstances facing low-income black children are less sanguine. “The problem is more complicated than black people just making an effort,’' argues James Comer, director of the School Development Project at Yale University, which works with districts around the country to improve education for lowincome children. “You have to think of what has created the problems in the first place, the systematic exclusion from the economic, political, and social mainstream. I’m not particularly optimistic because the larger system still doesn’t understand that we’re one nation. It thinks blacks can have a heart attack without the nation dying.’'

That same view is shared by some of the community workers in Roxbury itself. Tony Duarte, a chef at Crispus Attucks in Roxbury, recently participated in an introduction to the efficacy concepts. “It’s a good idea, but it’s like salmon swimming upstream,’' he says. “Look at King and all the leaders that we’ve had, and we’re still only a little way up. It’s just the way it is. I’m not saying it’s right, but you have to be realistic.’'

The fact is, poor black children get less of everything that makes a difference in education--less experienced teachers, less well-equipped facilities, fewer textbooks, fewer enrichments. Clifford Janey, chief academic officer for the Boston public schools, argues that the efficacy philosophy must be seen within this context. But, he adds, “We don’t want to be seen as not being able to do anything because there’s a larger struggle. It doesn’t afford people the excuse to say, ‘Oh, if only I had thus and such, I would be able to do it.’ That can be very viral in nature, and the virus can sweep a school and sweep a community. Learned helplessness is very powerful.’'

“There’s a faction in black leadership circles that I call the preachers of powerlessness,’' Howard says. “They seem to thrive on the idea that there’s nothing we can do to change our own circumstances. And one of their prime arguments is that, when any solution that talks about internal organization is suggested, they say, ‘It’s more complicated than that.’ No matter what the solution is, no matter how viable it might be, the idea of complication is something to hide behind and to hide from responsibility.

“In fact, effective approaches to anything wind up being distillations of experience and understanding that create a clear, clean, simple approach. And that was true for the legal struggle during segregation, and it was true for the civil rights movement. And that will be true for an attempt in the black community to take charge of the development of our own kids.’'

In the end, Howard suggests, the biggest argument for action is the fear of doing nothing. “The conditions of black and other minority children around the country are absolutely appalling,’' he says simply. “A national movement is needed because blacks and other folks of color--adults-- have lost their way and have lost any sense of focus on what we’re supposed to be doing. And it seems to me that what we’re supposed to be doing is--in an organized, systematic way--saving our children and preparing them for the 21st century.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Preacher of Power