Equity & Diversity

Shift in Research on Educating Blacks Urged

By Debra Viadero — October 25, 2005 3 min read
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A new book calls for a fresh approach to research on the education of black students in the United States and abroad.

In a new book for educators, policymakers, and researchers, leading African-American scholars are proposing to reframe the way they study and think about educating black children, both in the United States and around the world.

The problem with most of the research and debate on the subject so far, according to the authors of Black Education: A Transformative Research and Action Agenda for the New Century,is that it portrays black children as “deficient.”

“What we want to do is flip the script and look at children’s strengths rather than their deficits,” said Joyce E. King, an education professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She edited the volume, which was produced by a scholarly panel commissioned by the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, which represents 22,000 scholars worldwide.

Speaking at a news conference here last week, the authors pointed to dozens of studies of educational programs that use the less formal knowledge or street skills that children bring to school with them to improve their academic achievement.

For example, said Carol D. Lee, an associate professor of education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., an 8-year-old living in a public-housing project who regularly shops for his family already knows how to count money and make change. Educators could capitalize on those skills to improve students’ more formal mathematics learning.

“Kids who live in poverty learn how to read the world and engage in it in a way that their middle-class counterparts often don’t,” Ms. Lee added.

Yet, the researchers said, scholars such as Ms. Lee and others whose work draws on students’ cultural resources often find themselves on the margins of mainstream educational research and policymaking. The researchers also acknowledged that some of the studies they cite as examples don’t fit the model of “scientifically based research” that the Bush administration is strongly promoting as the basis for education programs.

While federal policymakers are calling for large experiments in which students are randomly assigned to either treatment or control groups, the book highlights some projects that are smaller or more descriptive, or that measure progress through means other than standardized tests.

“What we’re saying is that there are various pathways to success and the definitions of success,” said Ms. King. “Some of our examples might not be large-scale, well-funded endeavors, but we’re also calling for funding for more of exactly that for these kinds of efforts.”

A Global Focus

The researchers also recommend broadening the studies to include black students’ schooling around the world. They note, for example, that in Britain, France, Portugal, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the United States, black people have fought to gain access to schooling for their children.

Black Education: A Transformative Research and Action Agenda for the New Century is available for purchase from the American Educational Research Association.

“There is no place on earth where black children are thriving in education, health, or employment status,” said Gloria J. Ladson Billings, the president of the AERA and a professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The research association’s Commission on Research in Black Education began its work in 1997. Besides tapping prominent African-American education scholars, the group consulted with a wide range of other researchers who had studied the same issues. It also held forums in Detroit and other cities to get input from teachers, parents, and other community members on the elements of successful schooling for black students.

An ultimate aim of the group, the researchers said, is to establish a new field of study on black education that incorporates global schooling experiences and draws on decades of existing research in cognitive science, human development, and other fields.

Some of the volume’s basic tenets, though, may prove controversial in some circles.

“If you think it’s desirable that large numbers of blacks graduate from college and go on to top professional schools, then it is a huge problem that black students are performing so poorly on tests of basic skills,” said Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard University history professor who has written on the achievement gap that separates black students from their better-performing white and Asian-American peers.

“And if what they are saying is that the tests are racist,” he said, “then that’s wrongheaded.”

But Patricia A. Bauch, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, called the volume a “cutting-edge compendium of research, and information globally, that is significant for blacks and education.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Shift in Research on Educating Blacks Urged

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