Black Schools Must
Raise the Academic Bar
by Council Nedd
A New Visions Commentary
paper published July 2003 by The National Center for Public Policy
Research, 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110,
Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail Project21@nationalcenter.org,
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.
After working in the public policy arena
for over ten years, I made a career change. Since last September,
I've taught in a Washington, D.C. charter high school.
I teach U.S. history to eleventh graders.
Their parents, for many reasons, removed their children from
public school. The common denominator is that they want their
children to get a good education. They want more opportunities
than are currently available in their deprived Anacostia neighborhood.
One of the things that I have noticed,
however, is that few students and parents realize the distinction
between a good education and merely getting a high school diploma.
This highlights a problem that goes beyond the walls of my school.
Since my first day of teaching, my mantra
has been, "you have to get your grades up or you will not
get into college." I remind them they will be the first
graduating class from our school, and people will be watching
to see what they do after graduation. Many look at me as if they
know something I've missed regarding their educational prospects
- and apparently they do.
With few exceptions, my students say
they are going to college. They also say they have good grades,
but generally define good grades as anything above a 1.99 grade
point average. They say they will pay for college with scholarships.
I often wonder how a low-C average will get them into a decent
school, much less a scholarship.
A major factor in my decision to teach
was a close friend who made a similar transition years earlier.
My friend's school, about two miles away from mine, is graduating
its first class of seniors this year. All of them are accepted
to four-year colleges. A large percentage plan to attend historically
black colleges and universities (HBCU). My friend expresses consternation
because even those with GPAs below 2.0 were accepted.
He's proud they are going to college,
but he's apprehensive because those institutions accepted these
poorly-performing students in the first place. He spent four
years telling them they must study and work hard to reap certain
benefits, and he was proven wrong.
Recently, black Harvard professors Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornell West claimed they weren't being
treated fairly and threatened to leave the Ivy League school.
Almost immediately, the presidents of HBCUs began testing the
waters to see if the pair might join their faculties. Some in
the media suggested it was their obligation to do so, but both
put an end to speculation by saying they were only interested
in Ivy League positions. West later bolted for Princeton.
Apparently, Gates and West already knew
what my friend and I just learned. That is, for a student to
get accepted to a HBCU or for someone to get a faculty position
at one can be an anti-distinction of sorts.
Why? About a century has passed since
most of these institutions were founded with the intent of providing
a top quality educations to black Americans. HBCUs were essential
because blacks used to be either denied admission to most colleges
or were subject to strict quotas on how many were admitted.
Once the legal barriers that permitted
discrimination and segregation were torn asunder, the premise
for HBCUs was severely undermined. Now, the best and brightest
black minds have access to the finest academic institutions in
HBCUs are suffering because of decreased
enrollment and the subsequent loss of funds. Great professors
are also interested in teaching at the best institutions and
educating the brightest that America has to offer. Who can blame
them? Faced with the drain of top students and faculty, HBCUs
appear to be accepting ill-prepared students seemingly for the
purpose of keeping the doors open.
I still believe a role exists for HBCUs.
It is a right of like-minded people to associate and learn together.
These schools, however, should not lower their academic standards
as a means of keeping the doors open. This might seem like a
good short-term fix, but the future of these schools is ultimately
linked to the quality students they attract. A few of the smaller
schools may close along the way, but the majority of the historically
black schools will benefit in the long run.
It's a simple matter of postponed gains.
We tell students to work hard in school and not to settle. We
tell them it will pay off in the long run. This same advice goes
for the historically black colleges and universities. Don't settle
(Council Nedd is a member of
the national advisory council of the African-American leadership
network Project 21. Comments may be sent to SeeNedd@aol.com.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author,
and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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