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Why Jamal still can't read.

This year marks the 48th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that legally ended segregation in schools, thus mandating that minorities be afforded equal access to public education. But since that landmark decision, have our children received the kind of rigorous education necessary to attend college, compete in today's job market, and achieve economic success? Well, consider these facts:

* According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 63% of black fourth graders read below grade level, compared with 27% of white children. Even Hispanic and Asian fourth graders have better reading scores than black children, although English is their second language.

* This year, the NAACP threatened to file suit against 22 states for refusing to address racial disparities in the nation's public schools, including overrepresentation of minorities in special education programs and underrepresentation in programs for gifted and talented students.

* The New York State Supreme Court ruled this year that New York is only required to provide public school students--who are mostly black and brown--with an eighth grade education, which according to the judge is all a child needs to know in order to serve on a jury, vote and find a job.

Those are just some of the grim realities that illustrate the sorry state of education in black America. Separate and unequal education is alive and well. So the age-old questions remain: Why can't African-American kids get a fair shake in the system? And why do they continue to perform so miserably in school? The answers are complex and numerous.

Reading is F-U-N-D-A-M-E-N-T-A-L

One of the main reasons African-American youngsters do poorly in school is because of language differences between black and white children, explains Janice E. Hale, an early childhood education professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, and author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated books Learning While Black and Unbank the Fire: Visions for the Education of African-American Children. "Our culture emphasizes the oral transmission of information," explains Hale. "White people emphasize literacy, and their children are emerged in literacy at a younger age."

Research shows that children who are unable to read at grade level by fourth grade face a downward spiral. They won't be able to complete reading and writing assignments or pass tests that help them move onto higher grades or high school. These kids often end up in special education, a road that, for many, leads to a life of under-achievement.

For these reasons, it's imperative that parents engage their children in language and begin reading to them from birth, says Dr. Alvin Poussaint, director of the Media Center for the Judge Baker Children Center and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. "The attitude towards learning starts very early in the home," explains Dr. Poussaint. "It's important that parents talk to their kids constantly about their environment, whether it's explaining what foods they're eating or the colors in a room. This gets their minds stimulated and working in an intellectual way." And developing a child's literacy skills by reading to them at an early age not only increases their vocabulary, says Poussaint, "but that's the way children develop a love of learning, and a love of books."

Environment is everything

Once a child steps into the classroom, the school environment plays a key role in his academic achievement. White women make up 83 percent of the nation's elementary school teachers, followed by African-American women, then men, asserts Juwanza Kunjufu, education consultant, publisher and author of several books, including State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males. "We've designed a female classroom for male students," he says. "This is especially hard on black boys, who can go from kindergarten through sixth grade and not have a black male teacher." The only black male role models they are most likely to see, says Kunjufu, are the custodian, security guard or physical education teacher.

The school environment plays better to girls than boys, because girls are easier to manage, says Dr. Poussaint. "Teachers attracted to that may support the education of girls better than boys. And since girls are more intellectually advanced in the first place, the expectations for girls are higher." Conversely, explains Dr. Poussaint, "Teachers don't know how to deal with aggressive boys, and their expectations of them are minimal. What's a boy supposed to be good at? If they learn from TV, they're supposed to be good at rapping or sports."

It's in the genes

Regardless of gender, white teachers in both public and private schools often have low expectations of black children and may be biased in their thinking about what black students are capable of achieving academically. That attitude is based on a host of negative stereotypes that they buy into, mainly that blacks are inherently intellectually inferior, and therefore, won't be able to handle the schoolwork. "When I ask teachers what causes the achievement gap [between blacks and whites]," says Kunjufu, "they say it's genetics, low-income and fatherlessness."

Dr. Poussaint believes this sort of subconscious or conscious racism can destroy a child's self-esteem. "If children are treated in a way where they feel the teachers don't respect them, don't expect much of them, and treat them harshly, they may turn off, and might not have the self-confidence to successfully perform schoolwork," says Poussaint, who is also the consultant on the Little Bill television show and book series.

Low expectations by teachers aren't the only reason why African-American children aren't doing well in the classroom. "I think the major reason for the achievement gap is the black peer group," says Kunjufu. "Our children associate being smart with being white. This affects their academic performance and their self-esteem." Boys are especially looked down on if they choose to study instead of hanging out with their "homeboys." Unless a young brotha can fight, play basketball, rap, and wear nice clothes, says Kunjufu, he's not going to be "down."

"When was the last time you heard a white child on the honor roll say to a child who didn't make the honor roll, `You're acting black?' White children, who know their history, would not make such a statement. If our kids were aware of the many contributions that African Americans have made and continue to make in science, math, literature and other disciplines," posits Kunjufu, "they would not equate being smart with `acting white.'"

Multicultural textbooks

In trying to appeal to an increasingly nonwhite, school-age population, publishers like McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin have tried to develop multicultural textbooks for primary school students. Houghton Mifflin's reading program, which is marketed to public and Catholic schools, includes texts for grades K through 6. "Library specialists attend multicultural book conferences and book fairs to select appropriate titles that are included in our student anthologies," says Ali Sullo, editor in chief of reading language arts and bilingual publishing at Houghton Mifflin in Boston, Massachusetts. The books include writing assignments, as well as activities that link to social studies and science. "We are very committed to the idea that children from all ethnic groups see themselves reflected in our textbooks," says Sullo. Houghton Mifflin's program includes selections about astronaut Mae Jemison, soldier and abolitionist James Forten, author Walter Dean Myers and other African-American authors, poets and illustrators.

McGraw-Hill publishes multicultural textbooks in reading, math, science, social studies, music and health by authors who are African American and Hispanic. A multicultural committee checks the reading program selections for relevancy, authenticity, stereotypes and historical accuracy, says Patricia Wicks, vice president and director of urban accounts at MacMillan/McGraw-Hill, who ensures that all of the textbook programs are infused with multicultural material.

Wicks is especially proud of the science and math programs. "We have a career-to-work feature in which we make sure that children see mathematicians of different ethnicities, because children think mathematicians are all old white men," she laughs. As an educator, Wicks believes it is extremely important that literature mirror a child's life. "If it does not, it is not relevant. If it's not relevant, it's not interesting or motivating, and the students could care less." As a result, the children lose the impetus to learn.

Dr. Poussaint agrees. "Children will identify more easily with people like themselves," he says. "If they have textbooks that show African-American scientists, lawyers or doctors that will help them to make the connection and say to themselves, `If they were able to do that, I can do that, too.' Seeing people like themselves may do away with the negative feedback they receive, like, `You're not going to amount to anything because you're poor or black.'"

Steeped in Afrocentricity

As some publishers strive to produce culturally salient material for black children, for many parents it's too little, too late. Disenchanted with failing public schools that erode their children's self-esteem and with few resources to buy progressive multicultural textbooks, black independent schools have gained in popularity.

The oldest black-run school, St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, was founded by four Haitian nuns in 1828. Today, 60,000 children attend more than 400 black independent day schools. Many provide an Afrocentric curriculum that fosters racial pride among their students, which many black educators believe will help students do better academically. But critics fear the schools are not meeting basic academic standards in math, science and reading.

"I don't want to see a school that has a veneer of an African-centered curriculum, but is not on the cutting edge of math and science," cautions Janice Hale, who for seven years ran a successful pan-African preschool in Cleveland, Ohio, and observed and wrote her doctoral dissertation on a substandard one. "The important thing is that the students are getting the skills they need. We don't want to feel that the only way an African-American student can get an education is if they dress in African clothes and speak Swahili," she says. "Because to children, that's just as strange as things they encounter in all-white America."

Where do we go from here?

Today, funding is the most important issue concerning the education of black children. With necessary resources, school districts can hire the best teachers who advocate innovative learning styles and purchase the multicultural textbooks and other aids that can help black children succeed academically. "Creating a learning environment that is intellectually stimulating, intrinsically motivating, interesting and fun, instead of the almost penal institutional veneer that many of our children's schools have is essential," says Hale.

It's also imperative that parents be involved in their children's education. "Let the child know that you admire his or her ability to learn, and give them reinforcement and rewards for academic pursuits," implores Dr. Poussaint. While Hale believes that parental involvement is a great motivator, it's too idealistic for many parents to realize. "People are talking all these platitudes, but they need to look at the state of the black family, at what a black woman is doing by herself," explains Hale. "Boys are being raised by young mothers or elderly women, whose daughters are unwilling or unable to care for them."

While the ideal model for reaching academic success may not work for all black students and their families, solutions to the myriad problems in the education system need to be put in place. So the question is: How many more years will it take before our children can gain the stellar academic instruction and success that their white peers take for granted?

A list of books about educating black children and multicultural textbooks is available online at
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Article Details
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Author:Jones, Lynda
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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Next Article:The Twins and the Bird Of Darkness: a Hero Tale From the Caribbean.

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