Can white middle class teachers teach black children? 

That was the provocative question posed by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu an author and Chicago based educational consultant who spoke to teachers of the Forest Park Middle School (FPMS), Betsy Ross and Field-Stevenson Elementary Schools at an institute day on Friday.

Kunjufu said the answer is yes, but only if teachers make a determined effort to include black history, culture, and role models into their teaching and if they hold black students to high standards.

“It’s not the race of the teacher, it’s the expectations of the teacher,” said Kunjufu.

Kunjufu was invited to speak to teachers after the most recent Illinois Standards Achievement Tests showed that only 22 percent of black eighth graders at FPMS met or exceeded national standards last year while 78 percent of white eighth graders met or exceeded standards according to the Illinois School Report Card.

These results mean that FPMS did not meet the annual yearly progress requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The issue of low academic achievement among black students, when compared to white students, has been a persistent problem for schools across the country.

In fact, slightly more than half of the students at FPMS are black.

“We are failing (black students),” said FPMS principal Karen Bukowski. “They are not succeeding as well as other students.”

Kunjufu rejected the usual explanations that the so called achievement gap between white and black students is caused by
poverty. 

“The first reason for this gap is low teacher expectations,” said Kunjufu who challenged the teachers to have high expectations for their black students.

“Don’t think you’re helping a brother out by lowering standards,” warned Kunjufu.

Kunjufu harshly criticized teachers for too quickly referring black students, especially black males, to special education. He noted that while African-Americans make up 17 percent of students nationwide, 41 percent of special education students are black.

He also challenged teachers to educate themselves about the achievements of Africans and African-Americans and to incorporate that knowledge into their lessons.

Kunjufu pointed out numerous examples of African-Americans who have been inventors, scientists and leaders and claimed that their achievements are often left out of textbooks. Because of this black students do not believe in their academic potential and often feel inferior to whites.

“You can’t teach a child if you can’t respect and understand their culture,” said Kunjufu who noted that black history must be taught throughout the year and not just during black history month in February.

Kunjufu also noted that peer group pressures and images from mass media that glorify sports and music while demeaning academic achievement are influences schools, teachers and parents must confront.

He says that black students who do well in school are often accused by their peers of “acting white.”

“If being smart is acting white, how do you act black,” asked Kunjufu. “The black peer group discourages academic achievement. Peer pressure is tremendously significant.”

Kunjufu cited research that indicated that black students nationwide spend an average of four hours a week on homework while white students are doing an average of eight hours of homework per week.

“What you do most is what you do best,” said Kunjufu saying that black students often spend too much time on unrealistic dreams of professional careers in sports or music.

Black, especially male, role models are vital said Kunjufu.

At many schools, Kunjufu noted, the only black men that students are likely to see are custodians or perhaps a gym teacher.

Kunjufu emphasized that elementary and middle schools, dominated by white females, are failing black boys in particular.

He said that boys develop differently than girls and generally mature at a slower rate. Boys value activity and have trouble sitting still for long periods of time. Most classrooms are inhospitable to boys said Kunjufu.

“Have we designed a female pedagogy for male students,” asked Kunjufu. He recommended that perhaps boys should start school at an older age than girls and touted the benefits of single sex education for both boys and girls.

He also recommended that teachers adapt to various learning styles using visual, active, and participatory learning rather them merely relying on lectures, dittos, rote learning and departmentalization.

He emphasized that teachers must teach the child and not just the subject.

Kunjufu ended his talk with a list of specific suggestions that included holding mandatory training in African-American male learning styles, a black male role model program, a rites of passage program, a fourth grade intervention program, a moratorium on the placement of African-American males in special education for reasons other than physical impairment, and hiring African-American males as teachers among others. The teachers found his ideas thought provoking.

I do think there has to be a larger African-American presence in our schools,” said special education teacher Janice Peterson.

“He targeted the stuff we’re having trouble with,” said eighth grade science teacher Mike Bakula. “He gave a lot different angles that we’ve never thought about. He was pretty on target. The best thing is that he got people thinking.”