Look closely at inner-city needs, black educators say

February 04, 1992|By Wiley Hall 3d

President Bush has declared that there is a crisis in education and that the nation's schools and school children are "at risk."

With his "America 2000" program, Mr. Bush has vowed to lead an education reform movement centering on the perceived roots of the crisis: bloated public school bureaucracies that have become more concerned with protecting their special interests than educating children; ignorant, indifferent parents, and politicians whose only solution is to throw money at the problem.

But last week a group of city educators and community leaders met to discuss a different kind of crisis in education: how to protect the city's children from misguided education reformers who don't really understand the needs of inner-city school children.

"The harsh reality is that the nation has never fully accepted the fact of desegregation, and all of the policy decisions regarding urban education flow from that," said Dr. Samuel L. Banks, executive director of the division of instruction for city schools.

"This is what you have to look at when you look at the state of education," Dr. Banks said. "Public education was deliberately designed to be separate and unequal under slavery. It continues, and I believe one could argue that it continues deliberately to be separate and unequal today."

Dr. Banks and many of the other participants in a special round table discussion involving several of the city's educators, argued that many of the perceptions that drive the current reform movement are colored by racism: society's traditionally low expectations about the abilities of black children, coupled with negative perceptions about the professionalism of black educators.

The challenge, they agreed, is to fashion an education system in this hostile environment that builds self-esteem in black children and takes advantage of the traditional strengths of the black community.

"Education should be a process where the mind is transformed, people are liberated and empowered to make informed decisions for themselves," said Dr. Banks. "Instead, in urban systems, education is geared for passivity, docility -- followership rather than leadership."

Measuring the dimensions of this education crisis can bring complex results.

During the 1980s, the improvement in high school graduation rates grew at a much higher rate among blacks than whites, so a higher percentage of blacks are finishing high school now than ever before in the nation's history, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Researchers with this same agency believe the overall improving statistics mask a growing achievement gap within the black population, where more affluent blacks in suburban systems are doing well, while their poorer, urban-based counterparts are falling behind.

Meanwhile, funding to many of the state and federal programs that focused on aid to the disadvantaged was cut back drastically during the 1980s.

At last week's discussion, some participants worried that the education reform movement will further penalize the poorer systems while focusing resources on the affluent.

"We have to face the truth that some remedies will run counter to the mainstream," said Frank L. Morris, dean of graduate studies and research at Morgan State University.

"For instance, we must challenge the mainstream's view that churches should not have a role in the schools. In the black community, the church traditionally has been our greatest source of educational strength.

"We must challenge the mainstream's reluctance to teach strong moral values in the schools," Dr. Morris said.

"And we have not sufficiently challenged the role that the continued inequities in education funding plays in our children's performance. We keep saying that we recognize that 'All children can learn,' but we neglect to add, 'All children can learn under the right conditions.' In urban systems, we don't have the right conditions."

"We have to recognize that our education system was developed out of our colonial past and that it was designed to teach us to play a role within a colonial system," added Charles W. Simmons, president of Baltimore's Sojourner-Douglass College.

"So, our task, our crisis in education, is how do we design an educational system that promotes self-determination socially and politically while it is still controlled by others? How do we design a curriculum that instills self esteem in our children in an environment where many of the outside decision makers do not hold them in self esteem?"

Faced with these problems, these educators looked to remedies that differed markedly from those proposed by President Bush.

For instance, they embraced the movement to develop an rTC Afro-centric curriculum, provided the changes go deep enough.

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