Boosting our Community’s Economic Capacity by Inspiring Heightened Student Performance in School
Here we go again—obliged to contend with the same old tired, negative, stereotypical assertions a propos black intelligence. This time, from the bloviating, obnoxious ignoramus currently occupying the Oval Office whose towering simple-mindedness continues to stun and alarm the world. And as African Americans are set to mark the 4th century next year of our ancestor’s first steps upon the shores of Jamestown, VA in 1619, this all too familiar refrain has surfaced yet again.
For centuries our aptitude, in almost every endeavor, has been studied, analyzed and dissected most often by those with questionable motives and dubious mental heft themselves. Perhaps, the time has come to lay these contentions to rest once and for all.
But we have a problem. We tend to make it easy for any disparaging skeptics to levy such declarations against our scholastic capacities by failing to ensure that our children can compete and win in the arenaofeducational enterprise. For decades, state and national student testing data has continued to illustrate that black students in America’s public schools are the poorest performing pupils in every standard measure. It appears as though we are giving our critics, like Mr. Trump, all the ammunition they need to make such ill-informed claims about our academic astuteness.
Outside of educational circles, not many are familiar with the so-called achievement gap. This measure outlines the scholastic performance variables between racial sub-groups in U.S. schools. For too many years now, African American students have been at the bottom of the scale in every subject area tested. It has been a cause for concern for educators and parents for decades.
The essential foundations of this issue can initially be found at home. The National Education Association reports that black students enter kindergarten a full two years behind their white and Asian counterparts. The notion that somehow our kids can overcome such a massive deficit so early on has proved completely irrational. As the years pass, the farther they fall behind.
As we embark upon a new school year, we are forced to take an unbiased look at the true root causes of why this persistent gap exists. Beyond the pervasive attitude among many educators, in the past, that black students, particularly poor black students, are intellectually incapable and inferior we must deal with the reality that our kids are simply not performing at optimum levels.
According to the College Board, nearly 2,000 African American students scored in the top percentile on last year’s SAT. While this number represents only about one percent of all black test takers, it does reveal what may be possible if we change our focus. However, it will take a tremendous effort on behalf of all of us. It will require that black parents and teachers drop the nimble, acrobatic variation of excuses about black student performance. Yes, the test may be culturally biased, and yes the teacher may have some hidden,engrained prejudices but it is no longer acceptable to allow our students to not meet high standards.
The lack of intense focus on academic excellence in our community continues to be glaring. For instance, when Cameron Clark, an African American Philadelphia senior, achieved a perfect score on the SAT a couple of years back, very few media sources, particularly black media expressed an interest in providing well-deserved coverage of his accomplishment. He was one of only 360 students to achieve this remarkable feat among the more than 1.66 million test takers that year. We consistently miss opportunities to showcase students like Clarke who can serve as ambassadors for other students and who are in a position to better inform their study habits and attitudes towards learning.
Conversely, we are far more familiar with our young people that exhibit athletic skill than academic talent. For instance, we watched LeBron James, Tiger Woods and countless others, from the time they were pre-teens as they nurtured their boundless physical skills. At this very moment in every community all over the nation, we watch, evaluate, and encourage the development of our kid’s abilities to run fast, jump high, build strength and fling a ball through an apparatus with tremendous proficiency. Rarely, if ever, do we pay similar attention to the more important efforts of our academic superstars. They don’t appear on the front pages of our papers. They aren’t profiled on our broadcasts, pod-cast, blogs or editorials.
As a student who graduated from an all black high school in St. Louis, our reputation was not built upon how many students received scholarships to the university or any other academic measurement, it was based on whether we went to state in football, basketball or track and field. It is a regretful truth in schools all over this nation.
As a group, our obsessive focus on athletic prowess over academic pursuits may well be central to the problem. All across the nation at this very moment, millions of young black males are enduring two-a-day practices, in 100+ degree heat, muscle cramps, risking heat stroke all in order to make the team—juxtaposed against empty libraries and study rooms. Of course, there is nothing wrong with hard work in the quest to achieve a predetermined goal but the reality is that by working just as hard scholastically can yield far more tangible career results for our young people in the long term.
Perhaps the most vexing aspect of attempting to address the achievement gap is that our students themselves are totally oblivious to the fact that they are dead last across the board academically.
Therefore, if we are in search for answers to the conundrum of black academic achievement, we might well consider ways of informing our black students of the specifics of how they stack up when compared to others and the perceptions being propagated regarding their intrinsic intellectual talents. I submit that their overall response to the news may well surprise us—pleasantly.
A potential starting point might be to revive the conversations sparked by the 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, that sought to examine racial differences in IQ. The book is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in the wake of the assault on black brainpower. The stream of insults aimed at well-known African Americans like congresswoman Maxine Waters, CNN anchor Don Lemon and Lebron James that parrot white nationalist inclinations that black people are fundamentally inferior can and must be answered. The only people who can silence this torrent of outrageous allegations are currently sitting in classrooms all over this nation; namely our students.
What may be most telling about the achievement gap is that it is ostensibly an American phenomenon. This trend towards anti-intellectualism does not appear to impact black students who migrate to the U.S. from other parts of the world.
Student achievement data in American public high schools are often analyzed and disaggregated in terms of ethnic and racial parameters. Such data categorize immigrant black students as African Americans, thereby creating the impression of homogeneity within the African American racial group. As racial and ethnic identity becomes more complicated, educational practitioners are being forced to move away from the conventional notion that equates each racial group with one culture and one ethnic identity. Previous research does not distinguish immigrant black students and U.S. born blacks
Numerous studies employing different methods across a variety of disciplines have noted the strong value placed upon education among immigrant families. Regardless of their countries of origin, foreign-born black parents believe in the importance of doing well in school and attempt to instill such an attitude in their children. These parents believe that the best way for their children to succeed in U.S. society is to receive good grades, complete high school, and attend college.
The most significant challenge presented here is the assumption that the racial identities of all black students are the same; regardless of community, country of origin, and associated social-cultural factors. In fact, intergroup variability does indeed exist among black students. The academic performance of immigrant black students is compared and contrasted with that of African American students relative to the school, district, and state academic performance outcomes should be studied and analyzed. The perceived educational barriers, coupled with the more general social and psychological challenges of adapting to a new and different society, originally led to expectations that students from immigrant families were at risk and would inevitably do poorly in school. But a very different picture has emerged; one that African American parents would do well to review.
Immigrant black families have three main themes, each of which needs to be considered in order to best understand the complexity of their educational disparities: (a) immigration is a highly selective process in complex ways; (b) partially as a result of this selection, immigrant families come to the US with high aspirations for their children, high levels of family stability, and a strong work ethic; and (c) when immigrant families have access to information, resources, and opportunities, they succeed in education, but significant numbers of immigrant families do not have access to such resources and their children are unable to achieve their goals. The emphasis on education among immigrant families is buttressed by their belief in the school as particularly useful for getting a job later in life, consistent with a tendency for immigrants to emphasize the importance of obtaining stable and gainful employment.
As an involuntary immigrant and minority, we African Americans have developed a collective psychological identity to protect our self-esteem and to fight feelings of subordination. This response, of course, has had negative educational consequences. Potentially successful African American students may avoid doing their best in school because they see few future economic rewards for their efforts in education. Many of our kids fear that some of their peers will view them as adopting mainstream culture, or “acting White.” Therefore, the intense pressure to maintain group loyalty has negative social consequences and tragic repercussions academically. Immigrant black students are far less impacted by this subculture.
So, what’s the big deal?
Why should we be concerned with the rants of a few racist, extremist sociopaths? The lunatic ravings of these right-wing zealots notwithstanding, our entire future rest upon how our students fare in school. Their performance mirrors the performance of our community as a whole.
According the U.S. Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency, African American’s economic health and viability bears a direct reflection of how our kids perform academically. For example, black owned businesses are fewer in number, employ fewer employees, have smaller overall gross receipts and represent a smaller percentage of overall national sales.
As this chart illustrates, there is a direct correlation between how our students perform in school and the long-term results for our community’s economic performance and well-being. In the end, focusing on improving the school performance of black students has little, if anything, to do with the reckless proclamations of those bent on creating distractions based on racial distinctions but it has everything to do with the eventual uplift of our community as a whole.
Addressing this achievement gap means telling the truth to our students. It is my contention that they will not find much comfort in the knowledge that their performance serves as one of the sources for the distressed conditions of our communities. It didn’t start with this generation and it won’t end with it. Developing a long-term, strategic vision for the academic outcomes of our kids will ultimately yield favorable results for us all while simultaneously extinguishing our most ardent critics.