When pressed to grade public schools’ efforts to educate black children, education advocates and politicians painted a less-than-promising picture during an NAACP town hall meeting here this month.
The grades offered by the 11-member panel varied from “incomplete” to an F. The only optimism came from the 16-year-old “youth mayor” of Washington, who gave the education system a B-minus during a frank and emotional dialogue at the NAACP’s Fourth Biennial Daisy Bates Education Summit.
The three-day event drew representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 2,200 chapters to discuss “Advocacy, Achievement, Accountability: A Look at Public Education in America.” The summit honors the legacy of Daisy Bates, who led the NAACP Arkansas State Conference when nine black Little Rock students desegregated Central High School in 1957.
John H. Jackson, the NAACP’s national director of education, said the civil rights organization has been in a reactive mode putting out fires in education. Now, he said, the summit will help the group come up with proactive measures to tackle education’s most pressing issues, including testing, discipline, and teacher training.
While panelists at the May 17-19 gathering here struggled to assign grades to the nation’s public education system, in 2004 the NAACP will publish a grading system of its own.
Marking the 50th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down segregated systems of public schooling, the NAACP plans to release report cards evaluating the quality and racial equity of school systems in communities across the country. The 2,200 report cards will assess class size and suspension rates, among other factors.
Mr. Jackson said a draft of the grading system had been completed and would be reviewed by a variety of national education stakeholders, among them the U.S. Department of Education, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.
‘Will and Desire’
The frustration over the quality of public schools felt by many African-American leaders was evident here.
Velma Cobb, the director of education and youth development for the National Urban League, noted that existing research shows ways to help boost the achievement of black children. But until people have the “will and the desire” to turn the system around, she said, the situation will worsen.
Added fellow panelist Sheila Evans-Tranumn, an associate commissioner of education for New York state: “Black people know that nothing happened for them in this country that they didn’t make happen. We can’t sit here and wait and play politics while our children are dying. It’s time to take it back to the streets.”
Thomas W. Dortch Jr., the national chairman of 100 Black Men of America Inc., an Atlanta-based organization focused on the educational and economic development of African-Americans, agreed. He said African-Americans need to stop sitting on the sidelines and blaming others for the state of public education.
“Black folks need to get off their butts and get involved,” he said.
The education summit every two years gives the organization’s leadership a sense of the “passions and priorities” of members, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said.
The group will take direction from local members to shore up the NAACP’s objectives, he said, outlined in a five-year strategic plan to be ratified at its national convention in July.
Mr. Mfume reiterated his organization’s support for national testing without racial bias. Still, he cautioned that testing has not always been used in the best interests of black children.
In his keynote address, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige emphasized the role of testing in highlighting the achievement gap between minority and white students and to hold educators and policymakers accountable for improving schools for minority children.
Mr. Paige also espoused private school choice as a missed opportunity to help minority and poor children in low-performing schools and encouraged the NAACP to take risks in education reform.(“Black Alliance Weighs In With Pro-Voucher Campaign,” May 30, 2001.)
Meanwhile, during a panel discussion about education policy and funding, Ohio state Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat, said education must be the No. 1 issue on the civil rights agenda. She said local communities and states must use education data, including test scores and dropout rates, to demand additional resources.
“The bottom line is that it costs money if we’re going to reach all of our children,” Ms. Prentiss said.
But Barbra Shannon, a lawyer with the Education Department’s office for civil rights, cautioned that improving the public school system isn’t all about money. By examining individual districts, communities need to determine whether minority children are receiving equal resources, access, and the same quality of education as their white peers, she said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as NAACP To Publish Report Cards Evaluating Schools