The Lost Report: The Commission on Students of African Descent
The existence of a school-to-prison pipeline for African-American students across the country has been well-documented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and many others. In fact, the largest educational sewer line is running right here in New York. The LDF report on the problem says that “The New York City Department of Education’s ‘Impact Schools’ program is among the most aggressive and explicit School-to-Prison Pipeline policies in the country. Borrowing methodology from the New York City Police Department, schools perceived to have the highest levels of ‘crime and violence’ are labeled as ‘Impact Schools’. A report by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy shows that the Impact Schools suffer from significant resource disparities, including severe overcrowding and lower per-pupil expenditures. Rather than address the educational inequities that contribute to negative student conduct, the policy floods these schools with police officers and surveillance equipment. As a result, an alarming number of students are removed from their schools and placed in suspension centers, alternative schools and juvenile detention facilities.” These methods of social control originate in the slave codes and the overseer’s whip.
A better path to a disciplined learning environment is one that winds its way from those who taught in secret, using a tree stump for a desk, and students with literally nothing except their passion to learn. This is the wellspring of the recommendations in the reports the Commission on Students of African Descent issued between 1994-98 to the New York City Board of Education.
We’ve reprinted this summary of the reports, because as this school year begins, we should be doing better than having our children taught only to the test and that done with armed guards walking the halls. After the sacrifices they had made, our ancestors expected better of us. David Mark Greaves
A Summary of the Commission’s Reports to the Board of Education of the City of New York
By Dr. Donald H. Smith
The Commission on Students of African Descent was authorized by the New York City Board of Education, June 22, 1994, based on a resolution introduced by board members Dr. Esmeralda Simmons, director, Center for Law and Social Justice, Medgar Evers College, and Dennis Walcott, president and chief executive officer, New York Urban League. The board’s adoption of the resolution came at the urging of a number of organizations concerned with the welfare of people of African descent. Among those organizations, the African-American Leadership Summit played a prominent role.
Members of the Commission were appointed jointly by the Board of Education and Chancellor Ramon Cortines and included public school and university teachers and administrators, parents, students, representatives of civil rights organizations, business persons, corporate executives and a member of the City Council. Board members Simmons and Walcott were among the appointees. Chancellor Cortines’s successor, Dr. Rudolph Crew, later appointed additional members.
The Commission’s purpose is to make recommendations to enhance the achievement of students of African descent, to include policy recommendations in such areas as curriculum, staffing, professional development, parent involvement and resource equity.
The Commission held its first meeting November 21, 1994. Dr. Beverly L. Hall, Deputy Chancellor for Instruction, New York City Public Schools, and Dr. Donald H. Smith, Associate Provost and Professor of Public Affairs, Baruch College of the City University of New York, were elected co-chairs. Upon Dr. Hall’s assuming the Superintendency of the Newark Public Schools in 1995, Dr. Smith was elected chair and remained in the leadership until 1998 when Galen Kirkland, Executive Director of Advocates for Children, was elected chair.
During its four-year existence, the Commission has met monthly to discuss public education issues, to hear reports from various officials of the public schools, including the several chancellors and deputy chancellors, the State Education Department, university personnel and a member of the State Board of Regents, to formulate policy recommendations. The Commission has also issued position papers and press releases on such topics as school safety, school vouchers and social promotion.
The Commission has authored three reports: Professional Development for Teachers and Administrators of Students of African Descent; Curriculum and Instruction to Support Academic and Cultural Excellence; and Improving Family and Community Relationships. These topics were selected because the Commission believes that each represents a critical element in the achievement of students of African descent. Well-trained educators, familiar with and supportive of the culture of the students, curriculum which celebrates their heritage and inspires high academic achievement and family and community encouragement, are key factors in producing students who excel in school and who feel good about themselves. Students of African descent are capable of high levels of academic achievement, yet few of the children and youth of African descent reach these levels in the New York City Public Schools. They are most often relegated to the lowest-achieving, underserving schools in the city. Their schools represent the highest number of SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) schools in the state and they are taught by the greatest number of uncertified teachers. The Commission holds teachers and administrators responsible for high levels of achievement of students of African descent. The Commission insists that schools must provide educational experiences that facilitate lifelong academic, technological, psychological, cultural and physical development. The professional development we advocate for educators, the curriculum imperatives we urge and the family-community partnerships we suggest will help teachers and administrators fulfill that responsibility.
Draft copies of the reports were circulated to educators, parents, students, politicians, clergy, businesspersons, community and civic organizations. Public forums were held to receive input and recommendations from these groups, and the final reports reflected this input. The Professional Development report was printed and circulated throughout the country, including all members of the New York City Board of Education, New York State Board of Regents and superintendents of major school districts in New York State and throughout the country. Response cards were included in the mailings. All responses were favorable, with the greatest number coming from educators in the State of Texas. There has been no official response from the New York City Board of Education. The other two reports have not yet been printed for circulation. This paper synthesizes the conclusions and recommendations of the three reports.
Traditional approaches to professional development have proved ineffective in meeting the needs of most students of African descent. Too often, there has been a reliance on remediation and strategies corresponding to a perceived condition of student deprivation and Hilliard’s critique of contemporary views about teaching and learning for students of African descent contends that they are said to be more retarded, more emotionally disturbed, more learning disabled than others. Families are said to be dysfunctional, as are the communities from which students come. As a result, remedial education strategies take on the character of therapy, externally designed and implemented. Children are seen as culturally disadvantaged and distorted problem definition, and without recognition or respect for African ethnicity, it is impossible to pose valid remedies for low student achievement, including the design of valid teacher education.
Approaches emphasizing remediation and/or treatment of these interventions have failed to contribute in a substantial way to the attainment of academic excellence overall. In addition, notions of student deprivation and risk are philosophically at odds with the conviction that despite research evidence to the contrary, educational practices often serve to perpetuate the pernicious myth that students of African descent cannot be held to the highest standards of academic success. The assignment of the least-qualified teachers to schools with a majority of students of African descent, and the disproportionate numbers of students of African descent trapped in provide a stark measure of the low level of expectations of what students can achieve.
Students of African descent make up more than half the enrollment of New York City’s Public Schools. Their collective educational experiences are replete with many examples of outstanding achievement, of perseverance and determination, and of hard work. But the educational experiences of students of African descent also reflect a tragic story of reports institutional paralysis in the face of the need for change. The themes of this story are neglect, apathy, indecision, inadequate funding for educational and cultural programs, and the well- entrenched legacy of enslavement, racism and low expectations regarding what students can accomplish.
That so many students have achieved success in the public schools is a mighty testament to their resilience and strength. Yet, in spite of these successes, public education has exacted a heavy price from the great majority of our children. They have learned, through years of exposure, to master challenging course content. They have learned African heritage is neither valued nor respected; through years of inculcation, that their culture is not considered worthy of inclusion in the curriculum; that the content and methods of education bear little relationship to their life outside the classroom. They have been taught that they must suppress most expressions of their cultural heritage in the classroom.
The Board of Education should reorganize professional development at the Central office. Adequate funding and staffing must be provided. The Board of Education and the Chancellor must give direction and resources to the professional development training in the 32 community school districts, as well as high school superintendencies and citywide programs. Central to the professional development of teachers, principals and students is significant knowledge of the history and cultures, and, in the cases of Caribbean students, languages of students of African descent.
The Chancellor should meet with deans of education at CUNY, Columbia, Fordham, Bank Street, New York University and St. John’s to discuss the reconstitution of their undergraduate and graduate programs, with special emphasis on the above-described history, cultures and languages of students of African descent. The Board of Education should establish programs to help teachers obtain certification.
Special efforts should be made to increase substantially the numbers of teachers and administrators of African descent. Particular attention should be given to the recruitment of educators with Caribbean heritages. The Board of Education should redistribute resources so that elite schools such as Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant do not receive a disproportionate share while schools with greater needs are deprived.
The Board of Education should utilize the richness of community resources to supplement classroom instruction. This would be particularly helpful to deal with a population of schools whose staffs lack the linguistic skills to deal with a population of nonnative speakers of English or non-standard English.
Research has shown that students at all grade levels do better academically and have more positive attitudes toward school when their parents support and encourage school activities. For example, in Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail (1983), Reginald Clark studied low-income families of African descent, all of whom lived in Chicago public housing projects during the 1970s, and compared data from households whose students were successful in school compared to households whose students were not successful. Clark concluded that parental beliefs regarding their own role in their children’s schooling, parental expectations for students’ behavior at home, the regular occurrence of family discussions on school issues, the extent to which students completed homework, and the extent to which parents participated in home social activities with their children were all positively related to high educational performance. These values were far more important than characteristics such as family income, ethnicity, parental education and parental marital status. Clark believes activities and overall cultural style, not the family units’ composition or social status, children for academic, social and cultural competence.
Other researchers have found that parental alienation from schools is a factor contributing to diminished performance by children of African descent. James Comer, Yale psychiatrist, asserts: social and cultural gap between home and school may lie at the root of the poor academic performance of these [poor, minority] children. poor parents of African descent in New Haven, Comer concluded:
The need for parental participation is greatest in low-income and minority communities, or wherever parents feel a sense of exclusion, low self-esteem and/or hopelessness. Parents are the first and most important models and teachers of their children. If parents feel excluded, of little value and hopeless, they will be likely to transmit these attitudes to their children. Such attitudeshave behavioral consequences that are the opposite of what is necessary for good school learning or the achievement of long-range goals.
Educational reformers are increasingly more convinced that closer relationships among families, schools and communities are essential for improving student achievement and the quality of education offered in public schools. Communities serve as a third overlapping sphere of influence along with the family and school on children’s development, learning and success in school and later life. School staffs need to find ways to work more closely both with parents of color and with parents with little formal education and their community organizations and resources. Community organizations and institutions can provide valuable information and services needed by children, families and schools.
Although parent involvement is widely acknowledged to be an important factor in children’s achievement and the operation of schools, few comprehensive parent-involvement programs have been implemented. There are many different reasons why few teachers and administrators take any action toward this goal, even though most seem to agree that increased parental involvement is desirable. First, very few professional educators ever receive any formal education or training to help them work with families and so while they express support for partnerships, many don’t know where to begin or what to do. Second, unless improved schools are participating in a specially funded initiative, they rarely receive additional resources to support any parent-involvement activities. In New York City, money for public education has decreased at the same time that pupil enrollment is growing. For education professionals, spending money for parent-involvement activities has lower priority than using within the scarce funds for new textbooks or additional staff to reduce class size. In addition, many educators already feel overburdened and are concerned that increased parent involvement will mean more work for which they will not be compensated. Finally, many educators are reluctant to give up any formal power or authority to parents who want to participate as equal partners in school governance or decision-making.
Unfortunately, stereotypes and false assumptions about families of African descent exist and influence educational thinking and planning, thus making it difficult for educators to respect and accept parents as equal partners in educational endeavors. The history of relationships between parents of African descent and the New York City public schools has been especially painful.
The historic exclusion of and apparent disdain for parents of African descent by the New York City Public Schools finally reached a crisis and open rebellion by African-American parents in 1966. The Board of Education had promised to promote integration by building new intermediate and high schools in fringe areas shared by white and black neighborhoods. When the Board opened a new school, I.S. 201, in the middle of Harlem, parents and community exploded. Despite decades of demanding integrated schools, accompanied by several citywide boycotts, it became obvious to parents that the Board of Education had no plan to desegregate the public schools and probably had little interest in improving education for their children. Out of community rage, the Community Control Movement was born. Instead of trusting the Board of Education to improve their schools, parents and communities of African descent demanded that they be given control of their schools. As a result, three experimental community-control school districts were established, I.S. 201, Two Bridges and Ocean-Hill Brownsville.
In 1969, the state legislature decentralized the New York City Public School system, creating 32 community school districts which were given primary jurisdiction over elementary and junior high schools. High schools and certain citywide programs remained under the Central Board. Though the intent was apparently to make the school system more responsive to the concerns of local communities, the increase in parent involvement failed to occur at a significant level. For one thing, the Central Board continued to determine and control community district finances. In addition, parents were frustrated as they sought to influence community school board elections, which were controlled by special interest groups in and outside of the community.
The distrust and animosity among parents of African descent, community groups and the public school system which escalated during the 1960s, continues to exist today. In public h with hearings and meetings held by different organizations across the city, parents of African descent still report that school employees systematically resist their efforts to be informed and involved.
Parents of African descent still struggle with wide-scale institutional racism as well as individual acts of discrimination by the school system. Three reports by ACORN, a community activist group, document how parents of color are frequently denied information about school programs, that they were treated differently than white parents seeking the same information or opportunity to enroll their children in special programs. The work of the ACORN researchers makes it clear that both policies and practices discriminate against parents of color and their children in the New York City Public Schools. New legislation was enacted by the New York State Legislature in 1996 amending the law which had governed the New York City Public Schools since the school system was decentralized in 1969. The new law requires that every school have a parent association. In addition, each community school district, high school region, and the citywide special education district is required to establish a Presidents’ Council, composed of presidents or designated parent members of each parent association in that district or region, to ensure that parents are represented on a district and regional basis. Yet such an effort to empower parents hardly addresses the de facto discrimination which exists within the system.
There have been Central Board initiatives to involve parents. Chancellor Richard Green established the first Office of Parent Involvement in the late 1980s; the OPI was given cabinet-level status by Chancellor Joseph Fernandez and was combined with the Office of Student Advocacy and the Office of Community School District Affairs. In July 1996, the present Office of Parent Advocacy and Engagement was created under Chancellor Rudy Crew to intensify the work done with parents to help children become academically successful. Parent Advisory Council, a citywide parent group composed of Presidents’ Council representatives from each community school district, high school superintendencies and citywide special education, meets monthly with the Chancellor and Board of Education administrators. The report also lists a number of community organizations and resources which serve as parent advocates. It remains to be seen whether the 1996 state legislation and the various efforts of the Central Board will result in parents having real power in school decision-making. The Commission on Students of African Descent will continue to monitor parent and community partnerships and their effect on the education of children of African descent.
The Board of Education should provide staff development for teachers and administrators to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to work with parents. This
would include knowledge of the history, cultures and languages of the communities.
The Central Board should provide parent associations with clerical and other assistance which will permit associations to conduct effective outreach and communication that will assist working parents to be involved in a meaningful way.
The Central Board should facilitate the involvement of community-based organizations which, in turn, can support school and parental efforts to improve schools. Community organizations also provide a range of services that support families and that foster readiness to learn in children.
The Central Board has the responsibility to implement the training of parents in all schools to be advocates for the improved learning of their children. The training should be planned and conducted with the involvement of school-parent associations. Such training should be conducted at the beginning of each school year and be reinforced throughout the year.
The Central Board should address discrimination and institutional racism. An analysis of recent reports, such as those done by ACORN, makes it clear that the institutionalized racism which has plagued the system since its inception, still exists and, as times change, has even taken on new forms. Failure to address these issues will result in continued strained, even painful relations among parents and community groups and the public schools.
Academic and cultural excellence are the twin pillars of healthy intellectual development.
Cultural excellence must include a focus on the centrality of African history, culture and civilization as a basis for modern society; the valuation of the culture and learning styles of students of African descent; and the alignment of curriculum content, materials and instruction with accurate scholarship. The curriculum must help students to examine the truth about history and culture, and about inaccuracies, and provide an understanding of the historical violence to which people of African descent have been subjected. Throughout America’s history, schools and “so-called” scholars have helped to shape negative racial stereotypes and images of people of African descent. In the introduction to Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change (Levine, et al, 1995), the editors write:
Public education in our country has been marked by a cruel gap between rhetorical commitment to democratic ideals and practices that foster intolerance and inequality. This disparity results from both the failure of schools to educate against prejudice and discrimination that emerge from the larger society, and their active complicity in reproducing unequal relationships. Rigid ethnic, racial and gender roles and stereotypes have frequently been promoted by school cultures and curricula.
Schools perpetuate historical and cultural inaccuracies regarding the alleged superiority of some groups and the alleged inferiority of others. In particular, schools reinforce the myth that Africans and people of African descent have contributed little to world civilization.
Varied and numerous attempts to redress historical inaccuracies and racial biases in the curriculum have usually been met with vigorous resistance, for example in the cases of the Curriculum of Inclusion and One Nation, Many Peoples, both attempts by the New York State Education Department to create new elementary and secondary school frameworks, well-financed campaigns were orchestrated to prevent the State from making the changes suggested by the task forces which created these reports.
Despite the preponderance of scholarship to the contrary, Africa and its Diaspora have been consigned a peripheral place in the story of civilization. Many critics of an African- centered approach to teaching and learning attack the scholarship which underlies the approach without acknowledging the many distortions, omissions and untruths pervasive in the existing curriculum. Rather than to convey respect for the role that Africa has played in world civilization, school curricula and the media have often portrayed Africa and African culture with disdain. Africa has been called the “dark” continent. In this context, the people of African descent frequently viewed themselves and are viewed differently than they would be if the truth about Africa were acknowledged and affirmed.
Not only in New York City and in New York State, but throughout the nation curriculum and instruction must undergo major revision to the benefit not only of students of African descent but all students. America will never realize its potential to be a great nation until it can come to grips with the disparity between the noble goals and preachments of its sacred documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the actual practices of racism and discrimination in the society, mirrored and fostered in the schools’ curricula.
The Commission expects that all educators and school personnel who serve students of African descent have high expectations for their students as academic achievers and for themselves as adults capable of instructing high levels of achievement.
The Commission endorses the recommendation of the National Alliance of Black School Educators Task Force on Black Academic and Cultural Excellence that a study be conducted of the school curriculum systematically and in detail in all subjects and grade levels to determine if the treatment of Africa and its diaspora is truthful, appropriate and adequate in light of recent scholarship.
Information concerning Africa’s primary role in developing civilization, in science, mathematics, religion, politics, and the arts should be interspersed throughout the school curriculum, not solely as a separate, subordinate appendage.
The Commission recommends that the Board of Education compile and examine the data reflecting the extent to which students of African descent are suspended, referred for disciplinary action, and placed in remedial and special education classes. Further, the Board of Education should intervene when there is evidence of inappropriate policies and procedures.
The Commission recommends a more extensive system of diagnostic testing to ensure that students are not inappropriately referred to special education. The report of the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ Task Force on Black Academic and Cultural Excellence underscored the importance of considering linguistic patterns as a variable in evaluating the validity of testing programs.
The Board of Education should also convene a task force to conduct a review of research on effective strategies and approaches to ensure academic and cultural excellence. Promising models and strategies should be disseminated throughout the system. The Board should also undertake pilot projects to replicate, document and disseminate successful models and approaches.
Throughout the city, there are numerous examples of individuals who possess the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to bring out the best in students. Often, these individuals labor in anonymity. The Board of Education should undertake to identify educators and schools with a demonstrated record of fostering high levels of academic and cultural excellence among students of African descent in order to develop a pool of resources for school improvement.
All children need role models in the school who reflect the diversity of the city and nation. The New York City Schools Chancellor should implement initiatives to recruit educators of color at all levels of the public school system.
Students of African descent speak a number of languages and dialects. Nonnative English-speaking students often require support that is beyond their school staff to provide. The communities from which these students come offer a rich though underutilized educational resource that can provide various assistance and support. The Board of Education should research and publish a directory of community organizations and institutions that can be utilized by educators to respond to the unique needs of students whose first language is not English.
Currently, there exists a dual system of public education in New York City. One system, ÿincluding the elite schools (for example, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant), receives a disproportionate share of resources. Another system is characterized by substandard physical plants, outdated textbooks and curricula, and inadequate laboratory facilities. The Board of Education should immediately redistribute funding and other resources to insure that schools with the greatest need receive the greatest level of support. Schools should offer all students the opportunity to take rigorous courses in mathematics, sciences and computer technology.
The Board of Education should support efforts to identify curricula which accurately encompass the contributions of Africa and Africans throughout the Diaspora and distribute this material as part of professional development activities.
The Board of Education should ensure that teachers, administrators, parents, students and others receive information about the new standards and how they will help students to achieve academic and cultural excellence.