Why Are Children of Color Constantly Losing the “Race to the Top?”

There are a number of indicators to suggest that race warrants the majority of our attention as we try to target a factor that is consistently shown to have a direct relationship with poor student achievement. Fact… all across this great nation, children of color are scoring persistently lower on all student achievement measures (standardized tests, graduation rates, advance placement course completion, etc…) as compared to their Caucasian and Asian peers. When we speak of “children of color” as we analyze such data points, while many non-Caucasian ethnicities exist, we are often referring to one segment of the non-Caucasian community—African-Americans.

Within the historical context of public education in America, African-American students have been seen as the group most affected by the ineffectiveness of public education. Today’s data are as reflective of these disparities as any other time in history, especially for African-American males. When compiling educational statistics in most schools, school districts, or states, African-American males are much more likely to have the lowest grade point averages. They are most likely to be retained in a grade. They are most likely to be removed from class/school for disobedience. They are most likely to be labeled as emotionally handicapped and/or learning disabled. The coincidental nature of these educational facts is not without accusatory feelings from the research community. In his 1974 book, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, David Tyack stated,  “To have been born black was normally to have been labeled a failure—an inferiority all too often justified by a bogus science—as millions of Negro children learned in school systems which were consciously or unwittingly racist.”

Recently compiled statistical data suggest that race, particularly the African-American race, is a more reliable factor to hold constant when looking at school reform efforts meant to target underperforming students. I have seen pedagogical experts profess a “new and innovative” way of teaching subject-matter to African-American children. I have also seen school leadership experts boldly recommend “new and innovative” ways to lead schools with very large African-American student populations. These “new and innovative” pedagogical and/or leadership programs promise beyond-normal results, with hefty price tags. These types of reform efforts focus solely on overcoming “blackness” in order to increase student performance. This is to suggest that being black is the equivalent to a social disorder. This has been a huge mistake in thinking, not to mention the millions of dollars wasted on such programs and the continuation of the achievement gap between African-Americans and other races.

As a society, we are “missing the boat” in a big way. If one looks deeper, you will find that African-American students, males in particular, fall behind in school because they are: least likely to live in a home with two college-educated, biological parents; least likely to have been enrolled in a rigorous pre-school program; least likely to have a computer and/or high speed internet access at home; least likely to have a parent/guardian participate in school activities; least likely to receive adequate healthcare; least likely to regularly travel out of state or country; and least likely to own the home they live in.

African-Americans are more likely to live at, or around, the poverty line; and therefore are suffering from aspects that derive from their socio-cultural condition. This is an important fact for us to all understand. It is their economical “poorness” that creates the obstacles to attaining a quality education, not their “blackness.” Statistically speaking, and comparative to other races, there is a disproportionate number of African-American people who are living in poverty. Subsequently, African-American children disproportionately suffer from the social ills that make learning how to read, write, compute, and think critically, so remarkably difficult.

Now that we know the problem, poverty, what is the solution? I’m glad you asked (smile). If, as an American people, we are going to have any chance at all to increase the number of children who receive a quality education and eliminate the educational disparities that exist among sub-groups of our society, we must, with all of our combined efforts, improve the economic condition of our brothers and sisters living in poverty. We must pour all of our efforts into eradicating poverty in this great country. We must ensure healthcare for all; we must ensure housing for all; we must ensure employment for all; we must ensure guardianship for all; and we must ensure all people live in a safe/clean community; just to name a few. And… Yes, we must require those of us who “have” to provide for the “have-nots.” I know this last miniature “rant” has caused many conservative eyebrows to raise, but it makes philosophical sense and it makes economical sense.

Without quoting the exact numbers, we all know that it costs thousands of dollars more to incarcerate an adult than it does to provide social and educational interventions for a toddler. Over time, we will use far fewer tax dollars to economically supplement the life of a child living in poverty than we will spend to make accommodations for this child in our judicial and penal systems. In essence, you can either take your hard-earned, well-deserved resources and give a portion to a poverty-stricken child to teach him out to read; or you can show up to your burglarized BMW in the parking lot of a local mall to find your valuables missing. You will have to replace what was stolen; you will have to pay an increased insurance premium; you will have to pay for the criminal investigation; you will have to pay for the trial; you will have to pay for the incarceration; and, it all may happen again. Ignoring poverty is socially and educationally very costly.

If we fix poverty in America, we will see student achievement in our schools increase significantly. We will see the performance gap that exists between sub-groups of our culture, especially along lines of ethnicity, erased. As an American people, we will never realize the best in us until we ensure prosperity for the least of us.

Dr. Desmond K. Blackburn has served one of the largest school districts in the nation as a Math Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of School Improvement, District Trainer, and Area Superintendent; all in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership. His book, Socio-Cultural Leadership, provides principals and aspiring principals with specific strategies to lead school improvement efforts, especially for children living in poverty. Visit www.dgleadership.com for more information.

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The Teacher-Student Socio-Cultural Gap

Historically speaking there was a time when children walked into classrooms, sat quietly, folded their arms, and eagerly participated in the acquisition of information being dispensed by the teacher. They did this for each and every teacher, regardless of subject matter and regardless of delivery style. Without thoughtful and deliberate actions performed by the teacher, very few classrooms still function in this manner. In fact, the same child now reacts very differently from class to class; grade to grade; school to school; and most importantly, teacher to teacher. Today’s child is much more of a “critical consumer” of education. Today’s children, at all levels, no longer passively accept learning. They must be “convinced” that learning is the right thing to do.

In order to teach today’s child, one must possess the ability to “reach” today’s child. By “reach” I mean the teacher must be able to emotionally stimulate the child and then explicitly prove how subject-matter will help this child successfully negotiate life, as seen through the child’s eyes. Here is the crux of the challenge. There is a significant socio-cultural gap that exists between students and teachers. Teachers primarily come from, and live in, middle class America. Children who live in urban, poverty-stricken communities, with the associated value system, are exponentially increasing their presence in America’s schools. What, you ask, is the impact of this socio-cultural student-teacher gap? To illustrate the answer to this question, I wrote a story.

To understand my story, you are going to have to practice a high level of acceptance in the paragraphs to follow. I am going to attempt to place you in a contextual setting that I feel will be an optimal position to understand the socio-cultural forces that make public school education so very challenging. So, please comply with my requests and allow yourself to be placed in my context. You are going to be required to play an active role in this journey by assuming a character in my story as well as interacting with the other characters. Trust me… There is a point here!!

Self Reflection. First, let’s start with who you are. You are a veteran teacher with 20 years of classroom experience. You were born and raised in a traditional middle-class family. Your mother and father were both hard-working parents and your family consisted of a biological mother, a biological father, 2.5 children, and a dog. As a child, life for you was very simple; you assumed the norms and values that your parents demonstrated for you. As a matter of fact, they did such a good job raising you that you are now the mother or father in a family quite similar to the one in which you grew up in. Likewise, your 2.5 kids succumb to your will, and walk in your way. Life is grand. Life is grand until the first day of a new school year, and you sit at your desk as your students walk into your classroom for the very first time. Before I go any further, please reflect on who you are and what you bring into that classroom in terms of socio-cultural values and expectations. As your students come walking in, you develop an interest in two students in particular. I’ll call them Alex and Sidney. All you know about these students right now is what you can see by way of their appearance.

Meet Alex. At this point, I am going to do my best at giving you a head-to-toe description of Alex. Starting with the head, Alex’s hair is in braids that you can hardly see because of a blue bandana being worn. Alex is wearing a t-shirt that seems to be five sizes too large with a huge picture of a recently murdered rapper on the front of it. Alex’s neck has a gold chain around it with a pendant at the end of it that looks like a semi-automatic handgun. On Alex’s left forearm, you notice a tattoo that reads, “Thug 4-Life.” Moving on to Alex’s lower body, you notice that Alex is wearing blue jeans that seem 10 sizes too big. On the upper-right portion of these jeans you see a spray-painted picture of a slain civil rights leader. For some reason that you cannot imagine, Alex’s left pant leg is rolled up just above the knee. Alex is wearing what seems to be an expensive pair of Reebok tennis shoes. However, you do not understand what makes them so expensive because they do not even have the standard Reebok emblem on them. Instead Alex’s shoes have the number 50 inscribed on the side. Alex does not say much except to tell you that Alex is not the name this student prefers. Alex informs you that the name you are to use when communicating is “A-Dawg.” When Alex says this your eyes are drawn back to the facial area where you notice that Alex has strategically placed three gold caps over three different teeth. At this point your eyes have fixated themselves on Alex. That is, until Sidney walks in giving you a reason to look at someone else.

Meet Sidney. Let me describe the next 30 seconds of your life as you observe Sidney’s appearance from head-to-toe. Starting with the head, you notice that Sidney’s hair consists of a long black pony-tale. Sidney is wearing a chain, but not around the neck. Instead this chain connects the earring to the nose ring to the piece of metal that is sticking out of Sidney’s chin. You notice mascara on Sidney’s left eye, but none on the right eye. You also notice blush on Sidney’s right cheek, but none on the left cheek. Sidney is wearing a black t-shirt that seems to be one or two sizes too small. You really cannot make out the picture on the front of the t-shirt. For some reason, the picture looks like a bloody, gory crime scene. Under the picture are the words, “Rest in Peace.” On Sidney’s left forearm you see a tattoo of a tombstone that reads, “Sidney–01/13/2009.” You look down at your watch to notice today’s date, August 25, 2011. Sidney’s pants are all black and they too seem a couple of sizes too small and they only go down to the mid-calf area. These are cargo-style pants with bulging pockets. Sidney is wearing black stockings. In fact the only splash of color on this ensemble comes by way of the high-top, hot-pink Converse All-Star tennis shoes that Sidney is wearing. Because these are the same type of shoes you wore as a child, you begin to connect with Sidney. That is until Sidney opens the mouth in order to quietly utter the following words, “Don’t call me Sidney. I only answer to Marylyn.” This is when you notice that there is a huge chunk of shiny metal protruding from Sidney’s tongue.

Your Thoughts? At this point, what preconceived ideas do you have of these two students? I know we are only two minutes into the first time that you are meeting these two students, but you have made some judgments simply based on your observations of them. If you have not, may I suggest that you do not really know yourself, or you are lying? These ideas that you have of these students are going to impact your interaction with them. Do you know how? Do you know when? Before going on, I am going to ask you to go back and read the descriptions of Alex and Sidney again. After reading the descriptions again, what do you notice? Have I left anything out? Do you have any idea of the race, gender, or social class of Alex and Sidney? This is a trick question because I know you think, based on their descriptions, that you know their race, gender, and social class. Hold on tight to your computer mouse because I am going to give you some additional information on Alex and Sidney.

More on Alex. First of all Alex is short for Alexandria Goldman. She is a 15-year-old Caucasian female with one 8-year-old sibling. Alex lives in a middle-class neighborhood with her biological father, who owns a small accounting firm, and her biological stay-at-home mother. Both of her parents have tried desperately to get her to conform to their socio-cultural values that are entrenched in their strong Jewish faith.

More on Sidney. Sidney is not short for anything. He is a 15-year-old African American male with four older siblings whom he rarely sees because he lives with his maternal grandmother and an aunt in a small lower-income community on the edge of a large urban city. His siblings live with his paternal grandmother. Regardless of his grandmother’s attempts, he absolutely refuses to attend church with his grandmother. She was born and raised in the Pentecostal church.

Reactions. Let’s be honest, when these students first walked in you categorized these students as “abnormal,” right? As you learned more about their race, gender, and social class, you are thinking that they are not even “normally” abnormal. It seems like a lot doesn’t it? Let me remind you that you are only five minutes into a student-teacher relationship that is scheduled to last for 180 days. What are you thinking? Are you thinking? Are you thinking about how your preconceived ideas regarding their appearance were going to impact your interactions with them? Have you acknowledged that you actually have these preconceived ideas? Have you realized that these students are totally disconnected from their families, their peers, their communities? Are you thinking about ways to connect to these students? Are you wondering how you are going to manage the socio-cultural chaos that exists in your classroom? Or, did you just take attendance and jump right in to your attempt of forcing the state-mandated curriculum down their throats? If Alex or Sidney gets fed up with you as you present “rigorous and relevant curriculum” and stands up in the middle of your presentation and shouts out a profanity-laced expression of frustration, do you have him or her immediately removed from class and charged with defiance?

Disclaimer. The scenario that I described is being played out every day in every public school in America. I apologize for not offering any solutions. Right now, all I have are questions? I’ll end with the question with which I began this little scenario—What is the impact of socio-cultural factors on student achievement and school improvement?

The story above is merely an example of the complexities seen in schools around race, class, gender, and religion, just to name a few. There are far too many to give adequate attention to. In my development of Socio-Cultural Leadership, I sought to deal with social class primarily and focus on poverty’s impact in schools. In my travels as an educator and a researcher, I found poverty to be the most challenging factor in moving student achievement forward. Today’s school leader must know that the aforementioned socio-cultural chaos is alive and well in his/her building. The principal must assist teachers in “reaching” our children.

Dr. Desmond K. Blackburn has served one of the largest school districts in the nation as a Math Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of School Improvement, District Trainer, and Area Superintendent; all in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership. His book, Socio-Cultural Leadership, provides principals and aspiring principals with specific strategies to lead school improvement efforts, especially for children living in poverty. Visit www.dgleadership.com for more information.

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The Contemporary Context of School Leadership

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required schools and school districts to carefully examine the teaching and learning process and its relationship to poor performing students. Fast forward ten years to today. The public outcry is deafening as elected officials (local, state, federal) are called upon to make the improvement of public schools a significant segment of their political agendas. While the public’s outcry is deafening, it is absolutely well-deserved. Walk the halls of any school in America, and the average citizen would be shocked (maybe not) to find that we can predict, with near certainty, which students will go on and live lives of social and economic opulence. Likewise, we can foretell who will not. These predictions, in large part, are tied to ethnicity, gender, and social class of the students in question. Our young men of color, living in poverty, are most “at-risk” for: being retained; suspended/expelled; failing standardized tests; and dropping out of school.

Clearly, as a public school educator myself, my position is not meant to be accusatory towards public education. The challenging, significantly paradoxical, expectations of school leaders are innumerable. Persons who occupy positions of leadership, within schools and school districts, are expected to successfully manage a host of social ills, while simultaneously being evaluated by a small number of objective measures. Likewise, school policy makers and practitioners spend an abundance of time grappling with dysfunctions of a greater society (drug abuse, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, poverty, unemployment, etc.). The above mentioned societal dysfunctions are extremely evident in America’s schools; therefore, they threaten the level of instruction that educators can provide. They also threaten the amount of learning that students can reasonably retain.

Herein lies the most incredible piece of irony in the expectations bestowed upon public school educators, especially school principals. Principals are trained in areas of curriculum, instruction, class scheduling, and budgeting. Yet, if there is a threat of gang violence in schools, they are expected to extinguish it; if teenage pregnancy is on the rise, they are expected to reduce it; if children are using and selling illegal drugs, they are expected to smother that problem as well. As public school principals successfully engage in such activities, despite lack of formal and/or informal training in such matters, that dissuade gang membership, discourage adolescent sexual behavior, and aggressively fight the war on drugs (just to name a few), unfortunately they reduce the amount of time spent on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nevertheless, the public’s definition of a “job well-done” for public school principals hinges upon student achievement and student achievement only. The primary indicator of enhanced student achievement is positive changes on standardized tests.

Principals are pressured, politically and otherwise, at a level that is unmatched by any other time in history to attend to the moral purpose of school and the challenges brought on by poverty, in particular. Currently, our schools are plagued by personal beliefs that suggest society is crumbling, and educators cannot meet academic demands while being faced with societal demands. These beliefs, in my opinion, must be challenged and altered. Beliefs, I assert, dictate actions. If educators do not believe they can make a difference in the lives of children and the community at large, their actions will follow suit. Such belief systems ignore the moral purpose of school activity and especially school leadership. What is the solution? The solution is the need to attract, train, and retain exemplary leaders at all levels of the educational system, especially at the school level.

The principal is crucial. The principal must be a masterful tactician. The principal must directly supervise, and continuously evaluate, classroom instruction to ensure students are given optimal learning opportunities. The principal must create teacher efficacy in ensuring they are intellectually equipped and emotionally stimulated to drive student learning. The principal must inspire and motivate an entire community, within and outside the school walls, to focus on student learning. The principal must establish and maintain school culture so that the absolute best interest of the children is at the heart of every decision that is made and every resource that is allocated, especially for students living in poverty.    

Dr. Desmond K. Blackburn has served one of the largest school districts in the nation as a Math Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of School Improvement, District Trainer, and Area Superintendent; all in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership. His book, Socio-Cultural Leadership, provides principals and aspiring principals with specific strategies to lead school improvement efforts, especially for children living in poverty. Visit www.dgleadership.com for more information.

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Introduction & Purpose

D & G Leadership is committed to advancing the exchange of ideas among those who lead schools; those who aspire to lead schools; and those who supervise/evaluate/train school leaders. Our goal is to reach 1 MILLION individuals who fall into the aforementioned categories. We will initiate posts around key topics that impact school leadership and we hope you will participate in our discussions by leaving a thought provoking comment.

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D & G Leadership

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