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Early academic self concepts and the racial achievement gap.

The aim of this essay is to examine the racial achievement gap in American education through the lens of Erik Erikson's fourth stage of psychosocial development: industry vs. inferiority (Erikson, 1950). To set the stage, I will argue that the well-documented academic underperformance of certain minority groups (chiefly black and Latino Americans) may stem from the unfavorable resolution of a key developmental crisis in constituent members' early scholastic experience. According to this view, minority students' academic self-conceptions are at a heightened risk, compared with their non-minority peers, of becoming defined by an early and enduring sense of Eriksonian inferiority. This risk increases, I will try to show, as a function of the extent to which their homegrown cultural identities are at odds with the cultural values endorsed, both implicitly and overtly, by the schools they attend. Taking this possibility into account, I go on to suggest that individual educators can play an important role in eliminating the achievement gap by changing the way they teach in their own classrooms. A major prerequisite, in this case, is raised awareness. Specifically, teachers must begin by identifying the tacit and explicit cultural values they hold personally as well as those encrusted both in their respective schools and in the larger society from which those schools derive their institutional character. Then they must determine how those values shape and influence classroom expectations vis-a-vis academic and socio-behavioral standards of evaluation, whether formal or informal. Finally, they must use this knowledge to see how their unconscious and hence unreflective espousal of those values (cf. Earp, 2010) may impede the proper development of an academically-industrious self-concept in their minority students--especially those students whose cultural backgrounds, as opposed to intellectual promise, do not immediately synch with social and institutional orthodoxy. I conclude by advocating a "transcultural" pedagogy or teaching style, according to which both teachers and their minority students develop (at minimum) transcultural proficiencies and (at maximum) transcultural identities, as a promising way to achieve two important ends. First, the fostering of an academically-industrious self- concept in members of historically underachieving minority groups and hence, second, the closing of the achievement gap "from the bottom up"--one classroom at a time.

Part I. Approach

The racial achievement gap in American education cannot possibly be resolved in the course of one short paper. As Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994) writes:
 No challenge has been more daunting than that of improving the
 academic achievement of African American students. Burdened with a
 history that includes the denial of education, separate and unequal
 education, and relegation to unsafe, substandard inner-city
 schools, the quest for quality education remains an elusive dream
 for the African American community. (p. ix)

Yet there is much productive work that can be done. In this essay, I am going to shy away from large-scale policy suggestions, such as affirmative action initiatives, or other legal maneuvers, and focus instead on pedagogy in the early K-12 years. Let me take a moment to explain my choice of focus.

By "affirmative action" I mean the policy in higher education among some schools by which a person's status as an underrepresented racial minority is explicitly, positively factored into his or her admissions decision. This practice, despite the best intentions of its designers and apologists, rests, in my view, on an inherently messy concept and may in consequence have troubling "side-effects" as well. To illustrate just one aspect of its messiness, the problem of stigma, here is an excerpt from Justice Clarence Thomas' sharp-tongued dissent in Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Supreme Court case which ruled to uphold The University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program. Thomas writes:
 It is uncontested that each year, the Law School admits a handful
 of blacks who would be admitted in the absence of racial
 discrimination. Who can differentiate between those who belong and
 those who do not? The majority of blacks are admitted to the Law
 School because of discrimination, and because of this policy all
 are tarred as undeserving. This problem of stigma does not depend
 on determinacy as to whether those stigmatized are actually the
 "beneficiaries" of racial discrimination. When blacks take
 positions in the highest places of government, industry, or
 academia, it is an open question today whether their skin color
 played a part in their advancement. The question itself is the
 stigma--because either racial discrimination did play a role, in
 which case the person may be deemed "otherwise unqualified," or it
 did not, in which case asking the question itself unfairly marks
 those blacks who would succeed without discrimination. (p. 26)

It is perhaps fair to ask whether Justice Thomas' status as the only black member of the Supreme Court (assuredly one of the "highest places of government...") gives him special insight into the matter. But as I said, affirmative action is not going to be the focus of my paper: as an approach to resolving the racial achievement gap in education, such an approach could reasonably be seen (if I may mix sports metaphors to make my point) as coming into play too late in the game, or as lowering the bar--for a select group of minorities--right at the end of the educational race. Why not instead level the playing field at the beginning? In other words, why not focus our efforts on eliminating the achievement gap at its roots--in the K-12 years and even earlier--so that all students, regardless of skin color, can not only be held to the same standards throughout their educational careers, but meet and exceed those standards full blush at all levels?

Specifically I want to concentrate on what individual teachers can do to reduce or eliminate the achievement gap in their own classrooms. I favor this "grassroots" emphasis because it puts the agency (and onus) for change squarely in the lap of individual educators. Rather than lamenting the impossibility of overhauling district policies or the structure and administration of individual schools, or placing blame on the incurable ills of society, this approach is for those teachers willing to take personal responsibility for the academic success of all of their students.

Part II. The Problem

The framework I will use for my discussion of the problem of minority under-achievement is Erik Erikson's (1950) theory of psychosocial development, in particular stage four: industry versus inferiority. In this stage, compassing approximately the elementary and early middle school years, Erikson suggests that children--in their new role as students--face a set of challenges very different from their pre-school home life. This is how Alan Wong (1998) describes the situation:
 At the school-going stage, the child's world extends beyond the
 home to the school. The emphasis is on academic performance. There
 is a movement from play to work. Earlier the child could play at
 activities with little or no attention given to the quality of
 results. Now, he [or she] needs to perform and produce good
 results! The child soon learns that he [or she] can win recognition
 from parents, teachers and peers by being proficient in his [or
 her] school work. The attitudes and opinions of others become
 important. The school plays a major role in the resolution of the
 developmental crisis of [industry] versus inferiority. If children
 are praised for doing their best and encouraged to finish tasks
 then work enjoyment and industry may result. Children's efforts to
 master school work help them to grow and form a positive
 self-concept, [...] a sense of who they are. Children who cannot
 master their school work may consider themselves a failure and
 feelings of inferiority may arise. (p. 1)

Given this framework, let me now introduce a crucial premise of my argument. Broadly speaking, black children in the U.S., from the day they first enter a school classroom, are at an comparative disadvantage relative to their white peers when it comes to building a self-concept defined by industry and academic success as opposed to inferiority and academic failure. I will provide support for this claim shortly. But granting it for now, what follows? According to Erikson, the resolution of this key crisis during childhood--whether positive or negative--can have a lasting effect on a person's identity and academic self-image. Consequently this day-one disadvantage which I claim hampers many black children at a crucial stage of their psychosocial development wields the potential to define the ensuing course of their entire educational careers. Taken together, these premises entail that a teacher who wishes to reduce the racial achievement gap in and beyond her own classroom must (1) strive to develop a sense of academic industry in all of her students and (2) understand the ways in which black children in particular face distinctive, even unique challenges towards that end. In other words, she must not be colorblind.

It is popular among liberal white educators to associate progressive education with colorblindness towards their students (Scruggs, 2009). Determined to banish any trace of racial prejudice from their classrooms, they conclude that they "must only look at behavior, and since a black child will be more prominent in a white classroom, [teachers] must bend over backward to see no color, hear no color, speak no color" (Paley, 2000, p. 7). As Theresa Perry (2003) points out, their enlightened conviction that children of every racial background are inherently equal with respect to intellectual potential leads them to simplify: "if you know what works for the white child, then you will know what works for the Black child" as well (p. 4). In a spirit of benevolence, they seem simply to "want the same thing for everyone else's children as [they] want for [their own]" (Delpit, 1988, p. 28). Thus they employ, or attempt to employ, (ostensibly) identical instructional, disciplinary, and other classroom methods, regardless of their students' racial group.

There can be no doubting that the intentions behind a "colorblind" approach to teaching are impeccable. However, mounting evidence suggests that these educators--educators with the most egalitarian mindsets, at the forefront of issues on race in education, who are invested in closing the achievement gap--may be making a fatal error.

The error is what Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994) calls "a stubborn refusal in American education to recognize African Americans as a distinct cultural group" (p. 9). On this view, teachers may commit the fallacy of identifying equality ("all men are created equal ...") with sameness: "It is presumed that African American children are exactly like white children but just need a little extra help. Rarely investigated are the possibilities of distinct cultural characteristics (requiring some special attention) or the detrimental impact of systemic racism" (p. 9). In other words, by failing to acknowledge (or: choosing to ignore) the real and distinct cultural backgrounds of their individual students while at the same time "treating everyone the same" in the best progressive spirit, these educators effectively deliver a different and unequal educational experience, often with black children losing out. To paraphrase Harvard's Vito Perrone, equity demands individuation--not standardization and continuity (Perrone, 1991, p. 32).

There is one more piece to the puzzle. Let us grant, someone might object, that there are real cultural differences between (especially poor) black minority students and (especially middle-class) "mainstream" white students. But wherefore the claim that these mere differences yield qualitatively unequal educational experiences, let alone that it is specifically the black children who suffer?

The work of Lisa Delpit (1988) can help to answer this question. In her essay "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Delpit points out that from day one, middle-class white versus poor and nonwhite children come to school, that is, from home, with vastly different stores of background information vis-a-vis what she calls "the culture of power" (Delpit, 1988, p. 24). Delpit argues that the avenues to success and power in American society were historically, and continue to be presently, carved out and perpetuated primarily by the values of middle- to upper-class white people, the dominant majority. Schools, being in essence highly porous social institutions, are prime absorbers of the values and structure of that power-culture which scaffolds and defines society at large. Thus they inherit the codes or rules for participating in that culture, namely the "linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of the self; that is, ways of talking, ways of writing, ways of dressing, and ways of interacting" deemed appropriate by mainstream society (Delpit, 1998, p. 25). A minority black student with a non-mainstream home culture, therefore, who wishes to succeed in what one black parent not-inaccurately called "the white man's world" (quoted in Delpit, 1988, p. 29) must play catch up, starting in her school environment, to learn the skills and codes of behavior it endorses.

But schools--and many teachers--don't make it easy. As Edgar Epps (1972) states the problem, "black students constantly find themselves faced with a struggle for survival in a world they never made" (p. ix). There is of course no rulebook or explicit "how to" guide given to black children as a school-culture primer, saying, in effect, these are the ways of talking, listening, walking, dressing, writing, expressing, etc., in which you are expected to be fluent--else you will be pegged as disruptive, rebellious, learning-disabled, remedial, or otherwise underachieving in this environment. Instead, black children get an implicit message: There is something wrong with you. Your language is not our language. You are too loud. You are too brusque. You are too slow. You are behind. You are inadequate.

To illustrate, consider the following dilemmas which Theresa Perry (2003) suggests black students face when they come to realize that their home culture is not esteemed by the culture of power as institutionalized in schools:
 Can I invest in and engage my full personhood, with all of my
 cultural formations, in my class, my work, my school if my teachers
 and the adults in the building are both attracted to and repulsed
 by these cultural formations--the way I walk, the way I use
 language, my relationship to my body, my physicality, and so on?
 How do I commit myself to do work that is predicated on a belief in
 the power of the mind, when African American intellectual
 inferiority is so much a part of the taken-for-granted notions of
 the larger society that individuals in and out of school, even good
 and well-intentioned people, individuals who purport to be acting
 on my behalf, routinely register doubts about my intellectual
 competence? Can I commit myself to work hard, to achieve in a
 school, if cultural adaptation effectively functions as a
 prerequisite for skill acquisition, where "the price of the ticket"
 is separation from the culture of my reference group? (pp. 4-5)

Notice the parallel between Perry's "cultural formations" in this passage and Delpit's codes for participating in the culture of power in the paragraph above. The lesson is that it is precisely the day-to-day expression of their personal and cultural identity that brings many black students into direct conflict with the modes of success defined by the dominant culture of their schools. And as Bourdieu (quoted in Perry, 2003) (somewhat verbosely) points out:
 An educational system that puts into practice an implicit pedagogic
 action requiring initial familiarity with the dominant culture, and
 which proceeds by imperceptible familiarization, offers information
 and training which can only be received and acquired by subjects
 supported by the system of predispositions which is the condition
 for the success of the transmission and inculcation of the culture.
 (p. 68)

Overwhelmingly, black students are "subjects" decidedly not supported by the "system of predispositions" Bourdieu has in mind.

What is to be done? There seem to be at least two options. One option is what Perry labels "cultural adaptation" and "separation from the culture of [one's] reference group" in the "dilemmas" passage above. Ladson-Billings (1994) calls this "assimilation" (p. 55) while Carola and Marcel Suarez-Orozco (2001) prefer out-and-out "ethnic flight" (p. 103). Whatever the term, these authors aim to show that schools are set up in such a way that the acquisition of basic skills, let alone the prospect of academic excellence, comes at a price for many students of a minority culture. Faced with a choice between academic failure on the one hand and alienation from their home identity on the other, these students pay an enormous psychological cost: they attempt to assimilate in order to succeed. Take as an example the story of Richard Rodriguez as reported by Suarez-Orozco and Suarez Orozco (2001):
 In acquiring English and an education, Rodriguez gained as well as
 lost. He gained both the capacity to enter the public arena he so
 much valued, as well as the ability to communicate and command the
 attention of powerful members of the dominant culture ... But he
 lost emotionally on several levels. Most important, he lost the
 feeling of belonging to his family. With the transition to English
 ... he lost the easy intimacy and open communication between family
 members. A numbness engulfs Rodriguez, separating him from his
 increasingly "foreign" parents. (p. 105)

While Rodriguez is Mexican American rather than black, his minority culture status provides a clear window to the analogous experience of many black students in white-culture schools. The issue of language acquisition (in Rodriguez's case, moving from Spanish to English) is especially relevant: I will consider the Black Language vs. Standard English example very shortly.

My Eriksonian thesis, recall, is that long-term and consistent academic achievement rests upon the weaving of a sense of academic industry into one's personal identity to form a cohesive, positive self-image. But "ethnic flight," while it may lend superficial advantages in certain respects, actually involves a painful shearing off of huge portions of one's developing identity. Alienation from or outright renunciation of one's home culture and the culture of one's reference group for the sake of academic recognition cannot be the best solution to the racial achievement gap.

Another option, the opposite reaction, is to become "adversarial" towards the dominant culture as it is enshrined in schools (Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco, 2001, p. 112). The underlying motivation is captured succinctly by professor Ann Ferguson (2000): "Black people in this form of racism," she observes, "can only redress their condition by rejecting the cultural modes that make them 'different'" (p. 20). That is, they dis-identify with school culture and with that culture's definitions of success. Consider the story of this minority student cited the Suarez-Orozco and Suarez Orozco (2001) study:
 [My] school had two ... languages. Two skin tones and two cultures.
 It revolved around class differences ... The teaches and
 administrators were overwhelmingly Anglo and whether they were
 aware of it or not, they favored the white students. If you came
 [to school with a minority culture] you were labeled from the
 start. I'd walk into the counselor's office for whatever reason,
 and looks of disdain greeted me--one meant for a criminal, an alien
 to be feared. Already a thug. It was harder to defy this
 expectation than to just accept it and fall into the trappings ...
 The first hint of trouble and the preconceptions proved true. So
 why not be proud? Why not be an outlaw? Why not make it our own?
 (p. 111)

No wonder some black students come to associate doing well in school with "acting white" (cf. Ogbu, 2004): for that is the very association implicitly but potently broadcast by the whole make-up of many teachers' default pedagogy and disciplinary methods, the character and structure of most schools, and indeed society at large. As Ferguson (2000) notes, "the social hierarchy of society is recreated by the school: [...] manners, style, body language, and oral expressiveness influence the application of school rules and ultimately come to define and label African American students and condemn them to the bottom rung of the social order" (p. 51).

There must be another way. Adapting from the work of Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco (2001) with the minority children of immigrant families, I will suggest that it is possible for black students to "have the best of both worlds." With proper guidance and encouragement from teachers who practice what I will call "transcultural pedagogy," they can achieve "bicultural ... competencies that become an integral part of their sense of self. [...] The culturally constructed social strictures [of their home life] are seen as legitimate, while ... doing well in school [is] viewed as [a competency that does not] compromise their sense of who they are" (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001, p. 113). Developing and describing this transcultural pedagogy is the work of the latter part of this essay.

Part III. Narrowing the Focus with an Eye Toward a Solution

Thus far I've made only broad gestures. I've pointed to "differences" between an undefined "black culture" and the culture of "power" enshrined in schools without giving a concrete sense of what I mean--for example, what these differences are, how they manifest in a classroom setting, and specifically how they may interfere with black students' finding a positive resolution to the industry vs. inferiority identity crisis. Let me resolve these important questions with an eye towards the transcultural pedagogy I advocate in Part IV.

First, what do I mean by "black culture"? It would be impossible (not to mention ridiculous) to attempt to provide an authoritative list of distinctive linguistic, artistic, historical, behavioral, relational, and other characteristics. What I can do is offer two specific examples or scenarios with direct implications for classroom politics. First, the use of Black English (also sometimes called African American Language or Ebonics) as one's home or primary language; second, characteristic responses of black children to differing modes of authority.

Black English

As the novelist James Baldwin, writing in the New York Times of July 29th, 1979 eloquently stated, "Language is the most vivid and crucial key to identity. It reveals the private and connects one with, or divorces one from the larger, public, or communal identity. To open your mouth ... [is to confess] your parent, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and alas, your future." It is manifest that in any culture there is a great deal riding on the way one speaks, and how one is perceived and judged on the basis of that speech. Consider, then, the role of language in the developing identity of a young speaker of Black English enrolled in a mainstream school in which Standard English, the language of the dominant culture, is taught. Ray Rist (1973) gives us this picture:
 Evolving from the realities of slavery, segregation, racism, and
 northern ghetto life, there has developed within the black
 community a speech pattern that has an order and logic of its own.
 Yet when black children come to the public schools, they face a
 teacher, curriculum, and cultural system that deprecates the
 language they speak as "ghetto English" or "street talk." As a
 consequence, the black children are forced to communicate in a
 dialect foreign to their own. The training of teachers reinforces
 the notion that there is really only one "correct" way to speak and
 that this is to use the "standard" dialect of the schools. (p. 43)

Yet far from seeing that their black students come to school speaking a language of their own, much less a "distinct, systematic, rule-based language capable of accommodating the full range of intellectual and cognitive tasks" (Perry, 2003, p. 53), many white teachers immediately and unconsciously form judgments about the intellectual capacity of those students, interpreting what they take to be their use of a "deficient" form or "corrupt dialect" of English as indicative of either cultural poverty generally, or sub-par intelligence individually (Doss & Gross, 1992). As linguist and educator Geneva Smitherman (1981) puts it, "schools use the children's linguistic, cultural, and social characteristics to label them 'slow', 'educationally retarded', 'learning disabled' and on and on ..." (p. 11). Thus unfairly pegged as "behind" from day one, many black children are shuffled into remedial classes ("speech pathology for a non-existent language deficiency" [ibid.]), inculcated with the message that they are inferior in some way--linguistically? intellectually?--to their peers in the "regular" classes who speak naturally in the "right" way.

Modes of Authority

Another characteristic of black culture has to do with the way authority is communicated. Lisa Delpit (1988) cites research by Snow and colleagues (1976), who have found that poor or working class mothers, of whom a disproportionate number are black, often use a more direct style when giving commands as compared to middle- and upper-class parents. To use her illustration, white middle class parents are likely to give the directive to a child to take her bath as, "Isn't it time for your bath?"--couching what is really a command in the form of a question. In contrast, a black mother (who "loves her son as much as any mother" [p. 34]), is more likely to say something like, "Boy, get your rusty behind in that bathtub!" (p. 34). Ann Ferguson's (2000) research at Rosa Parks School shows how these differing modes of authority translate to the school environment:
 Several black teachers ... described the present mode [of
 authority] at Rosa Parks ... as representing a "white" style that
 was confusing to black children, who were used to more direct and
 clear-cut authority relations and practices in black households. A
 frequently cited example was that the white style disguises what
 are really commands in the form of suggestions or requests, thus
 causing black children to misinterpret the nature of the
 relationship with the consequence of getting in trouble. (p. 42)

The Black English example showed how black students are apt to be misjudged as academically inferior starting on their very first day of school; the Modes of Authority example shows how they can be inappropriately pegged as trouble-makers as well. Together they serve as concrete illustrations of the ways in which the cultural and institutional odds appear to be stacked against young black students' developing a sense of academic industry in their personal identities.

There is perhaps one question left to ask. What is meant, for the sake of this argument, by "personal identity"? What is this thing into which black students must weave a sense of academic industry if they are to succeed in school in the long run? Dorothy Holland (quoted in Perry, 2003) suggests that "identities are the stories we tell ourselves and the world about who we are, and our attempt to act in accordance with these stories" (p. 50). But we don't write these stories all on our own. As child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott has argued, in the words of Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco (2001) "the child's sense of self is profoundly shaped by the reflections mirrored back to her by significant others. [...] When the reflected image is generally positive, the individual ... will be able to feel that she is worthwhile and competent. When the reflection is generally negative, it is extremely difficult to maintain an unblemished sense of self-worth" (p. 98). One of the most salient features of Erikson's industry vs. inferiority stage, of course, is the move from home to school--that is, a move from a small and self-contained "social mirror" whose reflections are generally positive and affirming, to a much larger and diffuse social mirror whose reflections are much more complicated, potentially negative, threatening, or even dangerous.

What do black students see when they look in the social mirror? What sorts of messages are reflected back to them as they write their stories of identity? Katz (1971), quoted in Rist (1973), reaffirms the answer I've been expounding all along--and even uses a "mirror" image to make his point. "Schools" he writes, "say clearly what their history would reveal as well: they were designed to reflect and confirm the social structure that erected them" (p. 20)--the social structure, that is, of the culture of power.

Part IV. Finding a Solution: Transcultural Pedagogy

A teacher is a paradigm "significant other" in a young student's life. If she is to encourage academic industry in accordance with the Eriksonian model under consideration, she must therefore take care to create in her classroom (as well as personally embody) a positive social mirror for her students--for all of her students. This must be a mirror whose reflection says: you are bright, talented, academically competent human beings. As Smitherman (1981) reports, "Studies have shown that the attitudes of teachers toward their students have very powerful impacts upon educational attainment. The more teachers expect from their students--however disadvantaged those students may be--the better the students perform" (p. 112). But at the same time, if the whole-school environment is overpoweringly oriented to reflect back the codes of the dominant culture, a black student who is untutored in those codes, and whose burgeoning personal identity is interwoven with a non-dominant minority culture, is apt to be getting a very different message. The task of the teacher, then, is to help resolve this dissonance in her minority students during a crucial stage of their identity-development in a manner which avoids the extremes of assimilation (trading cultural identity for codes) and adversarialism (rejecting codes for cultural identity). Enter transcultural pedagogy.

What is a transcultural pedagogy? It is a method of teaching which successfully navigates the cultural dissonance between minority students and their schools. In broadest terms, it does this by (1) honoring the home culture while (2) simultaneously giving explicit instruction in the culture of power. It is crucial that both of these components work together. If all a teacher does is honor the home culture of her black students, failing to provide instruction in the "discourse patterns, interactional styles, and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society" (Delpit, 1988, p. 29), she is guilty of condemning her students to occupy only the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy. Conversely, if a teacher harps on the codes of the culture of power but fails to foster in her students a sense of pride in their own cultural identities, she will most assuredly push them to the extremes of assimilation-versus-adversarialism.

How can a teacher avoid these pitfalls? I suggest that the best way is for teachers to develop in themselves (at minimum) transcultural proficiencies and (at maximum) transcultural identities--as a model for their students. To illustrate: the only way white Mr. Smith is going to convince his black students that their home culture is worthy of esteem--despite the powerful messages to the contrary broadcast by the rest of the school and by society at large--is if Mr. Smith himself really does esteem black culture. For that to happen, Mr. Smith has to do his homework: first by identifying within himself and then repudiating any unfounded negative stereotypes he has about blacks and black culture. And following Smitherman (1981): "[he] must come to the classroom with more knowledge of and commitment to the children [he teaches]. Language differences of Black students cannot be taken into account without more general knowledge about Black people. Not only language, but also historical, cultural, socioeconomic and political realities must be taken into account." (p.35)

What does transcultural pedagogy look like? Some of its features correspond to good teaching in general: It involves being "present" in the classroom (Rodgers, 2002, p. 5), learning to describe a situation without interpreting it right away--this will help overcome automatic judgments based on stereotypes, fear, and bias. It involves asking questions rather than "telling": teaching in a Socratic method. Only in this way can a teacher fully assess her students' true understanding and manner of thinking. It allows a teacher to see if a minority student lacks some datum of cultural capital, but otherwise gets the main idea--in which case the teacher can provide the missing information in an affirming manner without misjudging her student's competence.

It involves learning to "shut up and listen" (Stevenson, 2011), to open one's ears and heart as well as the curriculum to students' lives and the worlds they inhabit outside of school. As Perrone (1991) relates, "It is helpful for teachers to know as much as they can about the neighborhoods their students come from, what they encounter in the streets, what the sounds and smells are, what is watched on television, and what the popular music is" (p. 16). This is Mr. Smith's textbook if he is earnest about his own re-education.

It involves "engaging students [by] taking them seriously, acknowledging that they are trying to understand the world in which they live and that what is studied in school must make connections to that underlying intention. It means being alert to students' questions and deep interests, using them as starting points for the content being examined" (Perrone, 1991, p. 27).

It involves having high standards for all students, and believing that all students can achieve. Teachers who practice transcultural pedagogy do not see their black students as deficient, behind, from broken homes, uneducable. They are not "preoccupied wondering about their students' intelligence ... [Instead, they worry] a lot about their students' opportunities to learn, and about their own teaching, not about students' intelligence" (Hillard, 2003, p. 142). They follow the lead of Marva Collins, the famous Chicago educator (see Collins, 2008; Earp, 2010), and routinely tell their students that they are brilliant, to hold their heads up, to believe in themselves.

What is an example of transcultural teaching? Here is one reported by Delpit (1988), followed by an example from Perry (2003). (See, e.g., Hillard, 2003, and Ladson-Billings, 1994, for other good examples.)

Martha Demientieff, a Native Alaskan teacher of Athabaskan Indian students takes her students' writing and analyzes it for features peculiar to the Native Alaskan dialect of English. She then puts these words and phrases on the board under the label "Our Heritage Language" and contrasts them with their "Formal English" equivalents. Notice how she manifests the keystone tenets of transcultural pedagogy--honoring and even celebrating the home culture while giving explicit instruction in the culture of power. According to Delpit (1988), she tells her students,
 We listen to the way people talk, not to judge them, but to tell
 what part of the river they come from. These other people are not
 like that. They think everybody needs to talk like them. Unlike us,
 they have a hard time hearing what people say if they don't talk
 exactly like them. Their way of talking and writing is called
 'Formal English.' We have to feel a little sorry for them because
 they have only one way to talk. We're going to learn two ways to
 say things. Isn't that better? One way will be our Heritage way.
 The other will be Formal English. Then, when we go to get jobs,
 we'll be able to talk like those people who only know and can only
 really listen to one way. Maybe after we get the jobs we can help
 them learn how it feels to have another language, like ours, that
 feels so good." (p. 41)

Martha's methods accord almost uncannily with the teaching philosophy described in Smitherman (1981), another window into the transcultural pedagogical method:
 It is especially important that language skills development be
 conducted in a way that preserves the continuity of perspective and
 the integration of self-image which students will require in order
 to effectively deal with their pluralistic reality. [...]
 Dialect-transfer approaches, which emphasize the interactive
 dialogical process (a process which implies significant interplay
 with, and recognition of, a learner's home language) may represent
 one viable method for achieving this objective, as opposed to
 dialect-interference approaches, which imply alienation and
 self-negation." (p. 35)

Carrie Secret, a teacher at Prescott Elementary School, offers another prime example of the power of transcultural pedagogy. These are some of the components of her pedagogy as described by Perry (2003; I quote at length):

* She "routinely exposes her students to models of Black literary excellence, individuals who, in their writings-sometimes in the same text--write in both Black language and edited American English" (p. 56-7).

* She "uses the oral performance of literary texts, speeches, poems, and portions of essays to build community, create hope, inspire the children, and extend their vocabulary" (p. 57).

* She "uses music--Black popular and classical music and European classical music--to help her students center and calm themselves, and to help them focus" (p. 57).

* She "understands that what makes students powerful is not simply their acquisition of the standard code, but their fluency in content knowledge and their familiarity with many literatures and the language of many different disciplines....She readily draws upon and uses the cultural characteristics that have been identified as central to African-American culture to ground her educational practice" (p. 57).

* She "creates multiple speech events in her classroom, events in which students are expected to practice speaking and presenting in edited American English" (p. 57). Etc.

And her methods work. Her students were among the few black students achieving (based on standardized test scores) in the entire Oakland school district at the time of Perry's writing (p. 56).

These two examples of excellent teachers engaged in transcultural pedagogy underscore the power of individual teachers to transform their own classrooms into models of success rather than "factories for failure" (Rist, 1973). Hillard (2003) cites research which shows that "by providing three good teachers in a row to [some] students ... and comparing them with students who had three weaker teachers, ...the students with the good teachers [scored] fifty percentile ranks higher than those whose opportunities to learn were obviously impeded by poor teaching" (p. 144). The lesson to be drawn here is that teachers need not wait for a miracle, nor even a fail-safe social policy capable of obliterating invidious inequality between racial groups from birth. Instead, if they are willing, they can educate--indeed, steep--themselves in the deep culture, history, language, and community of their students and practice a transcultural pedagogy which genuinely values those elements in all their richness.


Stanford's Jean D. Grambs (1965) once stated that "the [black] child, from the earliest school entry through graduation from high school, needs continued opportunities to see himself and his racial group in a realistically positive light. He needs to understand what color and race mean, he needs to learn about those of his race (and other disadvantaged groups) who have succeeded, and he needs to clarify his understanding of his own group history and current group situation" (p. 21). Far from the "progressive" pedagogy, then, according to which teachers "bend over backwards to see no color, hear no color, speak no color" (Paley, 2000, p. 7), an effective pedagogy--the transcultural pedagogy--encourages teachers to bend over backwards to see color, to see it as a positive natural difference with meaningful cultural connotations which are to be esteemed and celebrated in the classroom. The transcultural pedagogy creates a counternarrative to the negative stereotypes and low expectations for black students in school which are taken for granted by society at large--while at the same time giving black youth explicit access to the skills and modes of behavior in which they must be fluent to succeed in the dominant culture. In this way, it avoids the extremes of both assimilation and adversarialism and weaves instead a sense of academic industry into the very fabric of young black identity


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(1) The "racial achievement gap" in education refers, broadly, to abundant evidence of disparities in academic achievement between groups of students as defined by their purported race or ethnicity. Specifically, on the lower-performance end of the spectrum, we find African American/Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American/American Indian students; and, on the higher end, Caucasian/White and Asian American or "Asian" students. "Academic achievement" compasses everything from test scores, grades, drop-out rates, graduation rates, college admission rates, etc.--nearly every relevant indicator of academic performance that is data-empirically measurable in some way.

Nota bene (1) In this essay, I will be tackling specifically the problem of underachievement by African American/Black students, particularly vis-a-vis the educational institutions and standards of evaluation historically devised (and presently perpetuated) by a majority White society in the United States. I choose this emphasis because of the unique historical relationship between Blacks and Whites in this country, although some of my conclusions may generalize to other underperforming minority groups.

Nota bene (2) The racial/ethnic group "labels" (above) are inherently messy--that is, they are social constructions whose actual referents are notoriously ill defined and are themselves prone to change in both common and academic usage over time. I choose (from here on out) to use the terms "white" and "black"--without capitalization--as conventional for this essay; and I intend for those terms to refer very broadly to culturally distinct reference groups with which individuals of various racial and ethnic backgrounds do in fact self-identify. That is, I may say, "I am a white male" even though my self-conception has little to do with the color of my skin, being, as it is, rather more the color of a peach than a cue ball; while my friend Phil may say "I am a black male " even though Phil's skin is light brown and his immediate ancestry traces to Haiti rather than Africa. Both of us take ourselves to be using words with distinct cultural connotations which correspond to real cultural differences at the group level, and often observable social/behavioral differences at the individual level. Short of writing a separate essay on race-terminology or culture in this footnote, I will take for granted that my terms here are understood by my reader as well as they need to be for the purposes of this essay.

Brian Earp

University of Oxford

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Author:Earp, Brian
Publication:Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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