Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Why Johnny Won't Read, Write or Do Math

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Why Johnny Won't Read, Write or Do Math

Article excerpt

Why Johnny Won't Read, Write or Do Math.

Finding a solution to the low academic performance and graduation rates of African-American and other non-white students is by far the most pervasive issue confronting schools and local communities today. With approximately 40 percent of the nation's African-American students enrolled in fifty of the nation's largest urban school districts, this is clearly a problem that needs immediate resolution in major metropolitan areas.

Many factors and potential causes for this substandard performance have been explored over the last four decades (e.g., low expectations of students and teachers, lack of interest in schooling, insufficient parental support, outmoded curricula, peer pressure, and even the cyclic and controversial claims of genetic inferiority), but no universally plausible cause has been identified to explain and reverse the adverse patterns of performance we see occurring in many schools today. Thus, theories are continuing to be formulated in search of the missing pieces to the puzzle of why some African Americans succeed in school and why so many others are placed in classes for the educationally challenged.

Less anecdotal and more scientific information is needed to answer those questions, and Signithia Fordham's "Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity and Success at Capital High" is the latest attempt to address this perplexing issue.

"Blacked Out" is an in-depth analysis of the in-school and out-of-school lives of African-American students at a Washington, D.C., secondary school with an enrollment of almost 2,000. Using an array of qualitative data collected for her dissertation research during the early 1980s, Fordham's thesis is based on: observations and "participant watching"; formal and informal interviews; field notes of students, parents, teachers and other key school staff members; and quantified academic performance indicators.

But this ethnographic treatise combines a mixture of historical, anthropological, personal and social psychological tenets to examine why African Americans respond in different ways to learning opportunities and academic success. The historical and psychological dimensions play pivotal roles in the discussion as the author identifies and sorts out the numerous signs of dissonance, internal conflict and confusion, and daily dilemmas experienced by these African-American secondary students (and their teachers) who must decide how to survive and succed in high school, yet maintain their "Blackness" and avoid becoming and being perceived as "the Other" (i.e., the dominant members of society).

The interplay between historical, socio-cultural and psychological factors is made even more evident by the author in her statement that this is a book which "explores the complex nature of the problem of Black adolescents' academic performance in the wake of a two-dimensional cultural revolution -- the Civil Rights and Black Power movements -- in a school where achieving academic success is constructed as `acting white.'" But reducing the focus of this book to a narrow analysis of students' avoidance of "acting white" as the source of their academic disenchantment and their substandard performance would be less than fair because of all the other historical information and social science research she presents.

Much of the first quarter of the book is devoted to the development of a four-tiered typology of historical and cultural epochs which have shaped African-American orientations toward (and responses to) academic, social and economic success -- particularly in the Washington, D.C., area. These historical periods are defined as the era of slavery (1609-1865); the First Emancipation following the Civil War; a Second Emancipation which followed the Civil Rights Movement (1960-1986); and the currently-evolving period of "neosegregation."

While the author's primary focus is on the "Second Emancipation" period when Blacks were required to "act white" to compete with white Americans, she presents the post-emancipation era as a time when Blacks tried but were forbidden to do so after a long period of slavery and dehumanization. …

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