We Need an Urgent Black Education Dialogue

Without education, there is little Black progress. Yet, we're not talking about it.

A Learn4Life Feature

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by Michelle Harvey | Learn4Life | @learn4life

Recent months have experienced an uptick in reporting on the troubled state of education for Black students in the K-12 space.

After sifting through “Project Implicit” data, Princeton researchers just released a report confirming more of what was already suspected: Not only do Black students face higher rates of disciplinary action than their White peers, but those rates are also most pronounced in counties plagued with high racial bias. 

A Brookings study concludes that

“… the change in student demographics will evolve at a slightly higher rate than the expected shift in the teacher workforce demographics. This means the underrepresentation of teachers of color will likely persist or even grow in the coming decades (most likely among Hispanic teachers).”

Scandals brewed not only in illegal bribery-driven college admissions networks unveiled by federal prosecutors, but with outrage over a very small number of Black students being admitted to New York City’s most selective and elite magnet public schools.   

These headlines and the reflective follow-up are useful exercises. But the national discussion should also transition into a time of needed planning for the future. Nowhere is that planning more crucial than the field of education.  Without education, there is little Black achievement. And without Black achievement, it’s difficult to envision a successful future for Black communities.    

Missing from the broader or spotlighted national conversation is coordinated dialogue and action on the state of African American youth in grades K-12.  While encouraging, it can’t be simply relegated to continuous headlines about achievement gaps when there is little dialogue on solutions.  It must be, instead, a starting point for an urgent discussion on the still many challenges Black children face in our schools today.  This year should be that year kickstarting a refreshed and amplified conversation that harnesses the strength of those who came before us - and an effort to propel our communities into a future of collective promise.

As that future is manifested in our children, national discussions are needed to consider the state of educational foundations and systems they find themselves in.  At the heart of that discussion is a recommittment to their educational development.

Currently, it seems like there is little to celebrate.  Public schools, particularly urban and other metropolitan districts with high concentrations of African American residents, are stuck in a routine of disarray.  Young people suffer daily from institutional neglect, systemic inequities, inadequate learning methods and a constant cycle of bully-instigated violence from school yard to front door at home.  These problems present too many insurmountable obstacles to students of color, especially Black children.  What is, popularly, referred to as an achievement gap functions more like an achievement fence.  As a result, too many Black children are kept boxed into cycles of poverty, social immobility and incarceration. Too many Black children are kept out of circles of success and prosperity, a condition treated as normal.  But it’s not: These are tragic conditions threatening the short-term and long-term outlook of entire generations of Black youth.   

At 76 percent and 6.2 percent respectively,  Black graduation rates are 12 percent lower than their White peers, with dropout rates a full percentage point higher.  Lack of diploma equates to a lack of passport needed for the essential social mobility towards adequate housing, comfortable incomes, and relative socio-economic freedom.  Even worse, lower graduation rates also translate into incarceration rates that are five times higher than those of White students and incomes that are 50 percent lower.

Strides have been made. But as a 2018 Brookings’ study finds, we’re not sure if the data collected and shared by school districts are complete or honest.  Students trapped in these cycles struggle to produce the outputs demanded of them. Many teachers fail at cultural competency, and school districts are wedded to standardized testing as the ultimate measurement. 

Thus, there has been no consideration for the lack of inputs that leave them languishing in overcrowded, overheated/underheated, and understaffed schools that are clearly without the infrastructure and supplies necessary for their learning.  While White students are equipped to compete in the “Race to the Top,” Black students are finding themselves still forced to run in a Race at the Bottom

But all of this can change if communities begin talking more about K-12 education versus reacting to it.

Black students should enjoy the higher standard of nurturing educational environments tailored to their current community realities and individual needs. This should be a norm as opposed to an exception. An honest reassessment and revolutionary overhaul of how we view and construct modern education systems can help African American youth proudly take their seats at the front of the class.  Teachers, especially when we’re encouraging a larger pool of well-trained Black teachers, can lead students of color into the doorways of colleges and universities. Schools servicing predominantly Black populations can be models of stability and success – if we come together and bring Black history into our Black present, to give students the Black futures they deserve.

We should ensure these conversations are transformed into true action and educational innovation for real community momentum, purpose and power.  In this way, students can build and see futures as opposed to being stuck in, as poet Langston Hughes called it, “a dream deferred.” A revived focus on education is an opportunity to tear down achievement fences, a moment to ensure our children have access to the social passports they need - and to go as far as they’ve ever dreamed of going before.