Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children

Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children

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Johns Hopkins University Press
Pub. Date:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children

Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children

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In Learning While Black Janice Hale argues that educators must look beyond the cliches of urban poverty and teacher training to explain the failures of public education with regard to black students. Why, Hale asks simply, are black students not being educated as well as white students?

Hale goes beyond finger pointing to search for solutions. Closing the achievement gap of African American children, she writes, does not involve better teacher training or more parental involvement. The solution lies in the classroom, in the nature of the interaction between the teacher and the child. And the key, she argues, is the instructional vision and leadership provided by principals. To meet the needs of diverse learners, the school must become the heart and soul of a broad effort, the coordinator of tutoring and support services provided by churches, service clubs, fraternal organizations, parents, and concerned citizens. Calling for the creation of the "beloved community" envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hale outlines strategies for redefining the school as the Family, and the broader community as the Village, in which each child is too precious to be left behind.

"In this book, I am calling for the school to improve traditional instructional practices and create culturally salient instruction that connects African American children to academic achievement. The instruction should be so delightful that the children love coming to school and find learning to be fun and exciting."—Janice Hale

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801867767
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date: 12/04/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.67(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Janice E. Hale is professor of early childhood education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She is the founder of Visions for Children, a demonstration school designed to facilitate the intellectual development of African American preschool children. Her books include Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles, Unbank the Fire: Visions for the Education of African American Children, and Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Mastery and Excellence
versus the Bell Curve

Our society works remarkably well for people who go to good schools and can score well on the SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test]. The people for whom it works least well are those at the unacceptably bad lower end of the public-education system. For them, the only reliable way to guarantee a good education that confers the basic skills for a decent life—what they're not getting now, in other words—would be to make sure that all our schools meet a minimum standard of quality.

—Nicholas Lemann

There has been growing alarm about the multitude of problems in the African American community that have circumscribed the life chances of African American children: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, poor school performance, and early termination of education, to name but a few. These maladies are apparently symptoms of a complex web of social and historical problems that have festered for centuries. Many of the underlying causes are both difficult and expensive to address.

    This book comes at midpoint in my career, as a clarification of terms. I have spent nearly twenty-six years attending conferences, reading treatises, listening to diatribes about the causes of and solutions to the educational maladies of African American children. My scholarship during these years has centered on an analysis of the learning styles and educational issues affecting African American children; observations from supervising student teachers and teaching in inner-city, suburban, andprivate schools; and experience in negotiating the schools as the parent of an African American male child.

    It seems to me that the majority of the analyses of problems with the education of African American children have come from newspaper columnists and politicians. I am not suggesting that everything they have said is wrong. Some have made good points; and some of those points are noted in this book. However, their ability to create a comprehensive solution has been limited by their not being educators.

    Some architects of educational policy have advocated school vouchers, charter schools, longer school days, longer school years, mandatory summer school, school uniforms, teacher testing, the creation of a national test, transformation of public education into military-style boot camps, and variations along those lines. The time has now come, it seems to me, for a critique to emerge from an African American educator. Many of those who have been searching for a solution remind me of the three blind men, each of whom is touching a different part of an elephant—the trunk, the tail, a leg—and trying to piece together an accurate image of the animal. The critique I offer in this book analyzes the problem; but I also offer a clear working plan and solution, for there is work for all of us to do.

    The model of school reform presented in this book, if implemented, will improve the educational future for African American children. It is a comprehensive model of school reform that features a coordinated effort on the part of parents, churches, community volunteers, and teachers and focuses on learning styles and teacher strategies for children from preschool through elementary school; the implications for secondary education are clear. Specific strategies are presented that involve the whole village in raising the child.

    I offer a solution that places the school at the center of the effort to achieve upward mobility for African American children. The school is the appropriate focal point because everyone is required to attend school. Not everyone has a functional family, not everyone attends church, not everyone participates in the YMCA or YWCA, but everyone is required to attend school.

    The Black Community Crusade for Children, which was designed by Marian Wright Edelman, is commendable. Every component of it makes sense. However, Edelman is going to find that unless it is centered in the school, her program will continue to miss the children everyone is trying to reach. I was the first chairperson of ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics), a youth achievement project of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta. We found that the children who enrolled and won the competitions were overwhelmingly middle-class children. It is middle class even to hear about a new program. It is middle class to pick up an application and get it in on time. It is middle class to design the project, pay the entry fee, and get to the competition on time. We rarely reach the children we most need to reach with such programs. If we wish to have access to the children who are the hardest to reach, the school offers us the most access because all children, including these children, are required to attend school.

     The assumptions that underlie the philosophical relationship between the schools and families must change if schooling is going to meet the needs of children and families today. Schooling in twentieth-century America has proceeded on the assumption that Ozzie and Harriet are at home. The reality is that Ozzie and Harriet are not only not at home, they are dead! We as educators need Ozzie and Harriet. Most of our efforts at school reform consist of conducting wakes, lamenting the loss of Ozzie and Harriet, or conducting revival meetings, trying to bring them back to life.

    I know Ozzie and Harriet, because I lived the "Ozzie and Harriet" life when I was in elementary school. My family lived about three blocks from every school I attended from kindergarten through high school in Columbus, Ohio. My father was the pastor of a church, and my mother was a homemaker.

    My father went to his office early in the morning; he returned home about 8:00 A.M., and we had breakfast together as a family. My father also came home at noon, and we all had lunch together. In those days, there were no school cafeterias, and everyone attended neighborhood schools, so we went home for lunch.

    When we arrived home from school at 3:15, my mother had just arisen from her afternoon nap and was seated in the living room drinking a cup of coffee. She greeted us and listened to everything we wanted to share about our day.

    My father arrived home at 5:30, and we all had dinner together at 5:45. Dinner was a time for discussing the great issues of our time. My father was active in civil rights, politics, and community service. We were probably more intellectually stimulated from our dinnertime conversations than from anything we were ever exposed to in school. I know "Ozzie and Harriet," because I lived "Ozzie and Harriet."

    My son is certainly not living the "Ozzie and Harriet" life, and neither are most other American children. Teachers have been trained in the rhetoric that the schools work in partnership with the families in educating children. This perspective sounds perfectly reasonable on the face of it. However, the attempts to make this concept concrete have produced school success only for some children: those who have middle-class mothers who do not work outside of their homes and have the skills, the time, and the inclination to supplement their children's education; the financial resources for tutoring; connection to the "culture of power" to the extent that they can carve out a path for school success for their children regardless of what the teacher does in the classroom. In a social climate in which only 23 percent of American children are growing up in two-parent families and 85 percent of African American children are in single-parent families (Schomburg Center 1999, 320), it is difficult for families to fulfill the expectations of family life generated in the 1950s.

    My brothers and sister and I attended de facto segregated schools, which were arguably the worst schools in Columbus. However, because the family was strong many achievers emerged from those schools. Having a mother who was a college graduate and also a homemaker gave us a full-time overseer who could guide our journey through those schools. My parents also sent us to elite colleges and universities out of state.

    Although at the time those schools may have been among the worst in the city, they do not look so bad in comparison with many schools today. First, we had African American teachers and administrators who lived in our community and knew from whence we came and where we needed to go. Second, when we had substitute teachers, they were my mother's friends, and they knew my name. A day with a substitute was not a day to act out! We grew up in an extended family within a coherent community.

    The degree of specialized expertise and insight required of me to negotiate my son's early-childhood schooling still amazes me. I left parent-teacher conferences wondering whether one has to have a doctorate and be a full professor in a college of education to be a mother! I listen to my friends who are physicians, attorneys, and bankers express frustration as they try to cut through the "psychobabble" they hear from teachers about their children. They have the intellect, the interest, and the commitment to achieve quality educational outcomes, but they do not have the training in education that would enable them to cut through teachers' attempts to project their own incompetence back onto the child. How much worse must be the outcomes for children whose parents do not understand the path, blindly trust the professional judgment of the teachers or do not know how to challenge it, and are overwhelmed by what it takes to keep their heads above water emotionally, psychologically, and financially?

    Schooling will proceed more smoothly for all children, and specifically for African American children, when the schools improve the "goodness of fit" between their efforts and the role that parents can reasonably be expected to play in their children's education. Achievement data show outstanding performance in school districts that serve children who are white with high average family incomes. These data are sometimes used to argue that African American children are genetically inferior or that the quality of education in schools that serve African American children is inherently deficient.

    From my experience in negotiating my son's education in an upper-income private school and in observing in inner-city and suburban schools, these results are not achieved because white children are inherently smarter or because teachers in the upper-income school districts are working harder. These outcomes are a reflection of the efforts of parents in negotiating schooling for their children. Parents who are connected to the "culture of power" know the path because they have traveled that path of achievement themselves. They have the resources to purchase homes in affluent school districts; to pay for private education; to threaten to withdraw their children and educate them at home; and to devote time to volunteering in classrooms and on committees and school boards. By their efforts, they can change, even transform, their schools.

    An administrator of a prominent midwestern school district told me that the schools work well for upper-income families. I countered that it is not that the schools work well for upper-income families; rather, their children succeed because they know how to work the system or work outside of the system to produce outcomes for their children in spite of what the schools are doing. The success of children should not be interpreted as evidence that an upper-middle-class school system works.

    When I complained, in personal conversations with the associate superintendent of one school district and the superintendent of another, about the work I was having to do to create a smooth passage for my son through school, I received the same response from both: "If you were in my school district, I would route you through my best schools and my best teachers." The superintendent said that was his practice for the children of school board members. I was appalled. These statements were made casually, with no concern about what happens to the children who do not have parents on the school board or parents like me.

    When I walk into some inner-city schools, I note a look on the faces of some of the staff that conveys this message: "This is the best job I can get for the amount of money I am being paid, so I am not going anywhere. The children are not going anywhere, either. So, we are just fighting it out for six hours a day."

    It is widely known that a key difference in educational outcomes hinges on the activity of parents. Therefore, architects of popular models of school reform attempt to transform schools by transforming parents, trying to get them all to function as white middle-class parents do. My perspective is not designed to discourage those efforts; in fact, I wish them all of the luck in the world. Although this path toward school reform may benefit groups of children here and there, however, it will not significantly improve the educational fortunes of great numbers of African American children—particularly given that the parents of these children tend to be young single women and grandmothers.

    The overwhelming majority of African American children come from single-parent households. African Americans work longer hours for less money than whites earn (Toppo 2000); often, they are minimally educated and have substantial constraints on their time. Parental involvement programs that work for white middle-class families will not be effective with these parents. This is not to say that these programs would not be good if they worked. But what is to be done when these traditional programs fail? I want to offer an analysis and to provide a new tool to teachers, principals, and parents.

    Certainly, some African American children and their families will respond well to the traditional programs. However, the result is hit or miss. Because these programs are centered on the individual families, their effectiveness is not uniform, and they will not result in an elevation of all of the children in the school. The most reliable path, in my opinion, is to center school reform on the school and, more specifically, on the relationship between teacher and student—the basic building block of education.

    I call part 1 of this book "Breaking the Silence" in part because it is controversial for an education insider to assert the obvious: that the most important activity in school is the interaction between the teacher and the child. The teachers—not the parents—are being paid to teach children. When my son was in the second grade, I often wondered why he was sent home with a wheelbarrow's worth of material so that I could teach him to read at 7:30 at night, when he was with her from 8:15 until 3:15, five days a week. In my son's classroom, there were eighteen children and two fulltime teachers—a teacher-student ratio of one-to-nine.

    Parents whisper among themselves, expressing their frustration with this situation, but it is never brought into the dialogue on school reform. My son's teachers had attended a workshop at the University of Chicago to receive training in teaching a mathematics program. Yet, they sent him home with a workbook filled with practice problems, for which I had to introduce multiplication and fractions. I had not been to the Chicago workshop; I had no teacher's manual, no manipulatives, no teaching aides. Yet his educational fortunes in that math class depended on me, and I had to scrounge around at a local toy store for some workbooks with pictures and graphs so that I could teach him the concepts. When I pointed this out to his teachers and the director of the school, they looked at me as if I were a troublemaker.

    The rhetoric on parental involvement used by educators and politicians sounds great on the surface. However, I contend that it masks some important realities. First, parental involvement as it is being espoused calls for a high degree of sophistication on the part of the parents. I am convinced that a child's success in school today is a matter not so much of how smart a child is but rather how smart a child's mother is.

    Furthermore, when one is speaking of the responsibility of the family in the African American community, one is generally speaking of the responsibility of a single woman. If she has any help, it is likely to come from her mother. African American single women are under a tremendous amount of pressure, as I know from personal experience.

    Even if individual mothers rise to the occasion every now and then, the inconsistency with which the majority can function according to white middle-class expectations will continue to produce the all-too-familiar outcomes. Children who enter school on public assistance will, as adults, reproduce the status of their parents. We will see upward mobility for the masses of African American children only when the outcomes they achieve as adults no longer rest primarily on the cultural level of their parents. We will see a difference in the outcomes for African American children only when the educational professionals and members of the community find ways to compensate for backgrounds that do not prepare parents and children to negotiate the schools in a sophisticated manner. This group is not limited to the poor but includes middle-class families who are not educators or do not have expertise in negotiating the schools.

    One of the recommendations I make in this book is the establishment of an Educational Aide Society, modeled after the Legal Aide Society, to assist parents in negotiating the schools for their children. This society could be sponsored by an organization such as the Urban League. This proposal is addressed in greater detail in chapter 8.

    Learning While Black is a call to action for the African American middle class. The impetus of the civil rights movement from 1609 to 1865 was freedom from slavery, and from 1866 to 1964, citizenship, voting rights, equal access to public facilities, and school desegregation. The defining struggle from 1964 to the present has been closing the economic gap between African Americans and whites, using strategies such as affirmative action.

    It is my contention that the African American middle class must stop for a minute and come to grips with our responsibility to provide a voice for the masses of African American people. We must acknowledge that the masses of African Americans are the wind beneath our wings. As we continue our quest for upward mobility by pushing the frontiers previously closed to us, such as suburban and private schools, it is incumbent upon us to stop, turn around, and give our voice to the struggle for a decent education for inner-city children.

    In my father's generation, before Brown v. Board of Education, African American professionals were tied to the fortunes of the African American masses because they depended upon them to get paid (see Hale 1994, 25-79). My father depended upon the African American community to put his income in the collection plate at church. African American doctors depended for their livelihoods on the lower and working classes, as well as the more well-to-do. In the absence of Medicaid and health maintenance organizations, the patient paid the doctor. Similarly, African American lawyers represented the entire community of African Americans, including the lower classes, as clients. The children of the pre-Brown professionals, like me, understood that every meal we ate had its source in the masses of African American people.

    Before Brown, all African Americans were victimized by the same legal segregation and discrimination in American society. They shared a common lot. It is more difficult for middle-income blacks of the post-Brown era to recognize this bond. Some middle-class African Americans who took a working-class route to the middle class do not have that same sense of interdependence, obligation, and responsibility to the black masses.

    Most middle-class African Americans have a sensitivity to the plight of the larger community (that is why our voting patterns do not align with those of whites of similar income levels). However, that sensitivity perhaps comes from the memory of humble beginnings and the knowledge of the difficulties encountered by family members and friends in the community of origin—not from a sense of gratitude and interdependence.

    Some middle-class African Americans do not see the relationship between the positions they hold, which they feel they have achieved through hard work, and the miseries of most of our people. Some middle-class African Americans do not see the blood that has been shed for the minority set-aside programs they benefit from. Some middle-class African Americans do not recall the origins of the "minority top-off" that enhances their salaries for the high positions they hold. Some middle-class African Americans who escaped the corporate knife during downsizing so that "minority hiring goals" were not sacrificed do not make the connection between where they are now and the community they come from.

    The following passage is an excerpt from a novel that speaks to the experience of the middle-class African American of the post-civil-rights era who is paid by the corporation, the HMO, or the university rather than by the African American community. This excerpt is not offered as a primary example of interactions between middle- and lower-class blacks. Nor is it offered as a primary example of interactions between black brothers and sisters. This is one fictional account that expresses some of the underlying conflicts that have developed in the post-civil-rights era between middle-income African Americans, who have benefited from the social and economic changes that have occurred recently, and lower-income blacks, who remain at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

    In her critically acclaimed novel, Brothers and Sisters, Bebe Moore Campbell graphically outlines for us this tension between the achieved African American middle class and the African American underclass. Humphrey Boone, one of the main characters, is a bank president who came from humble beginnings. His sister, a single mother of teenaged boys, is a welfare recipient who constantly needs him to "ride in on his checkbook and save them." Throughout the book, the reader is led to be judgmental toward the sister for the mistakes she has made, and she is depicted as a thorn in the side of her high-achieving brother.


Excerpted from Learning While Black by Janice E. Hale. Copyright © 2001 by Janice E. Hale. Excerpted by permission.

Table of Contents

Foreword by V. P. Franklin
PART I: Breaking the Silence
Chapter 1: Mastery and Excellence versus the Bell Curve
Chapter 2: Playing by the Rules
Chapter 3: African American Goals and Closed Doors
Chapter 4: Down the Up Escalator
PART II: Creating the Village
Chapter 5: Twenty-First-Century Education Project: Report and Recommendations
Chapter 6: A Model for Culturally Appropriate Pedagogy
Chapter 7: The Role of the African American Church in Creating the Village
Chapter 8: Where Do We Go from here?: A Call to Action
Appendix - The Church's Educational and Advocacy Mission with African American Children: Cognitive, Affective, and Religious Context

What People are Saying About This

Kimberly Sams-Smith

Learning while Black borders on brilliance. It is one book that no African-American parent, teacher or administrator should be without. It is destined to become the definitive educational reform guide for anyone interested in delivering quality education to African-American children.

from the Foreword by V. P. Franklin

Hale uses her experiences as a single mother and well-respected educational consultant to chart a more positive educational future for poor black children. Learning while black need not be a negative experience, and Hale provides parents, teachers, and school administrators with a model for a culturally appropriate pedagogy to insure more positive educational outcomes for African American children.

From the Publisher

Learning while Black borders on brilliance. It is one book that no African-American parent, teacher or administrator should be without. It is destined to become the definitive educational reform guide for anyone interested in delivering quality education to African-American children.
—Kimberly Sams-Smith

Hale uses her experiences as a single mother and well-respected educational consultant to chart a more positive educational future for poor black children. Learning while black need not be a negative experience, and Hale provides parents, teachers, and school administrators with a model for a culturally appropriate pedagogy to insure more positive educational outcomes for African American children.
—from the Foreword by V. P. Franklin

V. P. Franklin

Hale uses her experiences as a single mother and well-respected educational consultant to chart a more positive educational future for poor black children. Learning while black need not be a negative experience, and Hale provides parents, teachers, and school administrators with a model for a culturally appropriate pedagogy to insure more positive educational outcomes for African American children.

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