I don't know what will come out of the two-day conference on blacks and education starting here Monday. But I do know what I hope for. I hope the conferees will decide to drop the other shoe.
Next week's conference, at the University of the District of Columbia, will bring together black scholars, civil rights leaders, entertainers, educators and scientists to discuss "education and the future of black Americans." It promises to be a useful, if perhaps overly ambitious, two days of panels and speeches: blacks and technology, blacks and public education policy, blacks and historically black colleges, blacks and the recent rules changes of the NCAA, blacks and the global perspective.
What the conferees, convened by Operation Push, apparently won't spend much time with, except in a broad-brush way, is black children and the public schools: the second shoe. No doubt this omission hits me especially hard because I've just read an interview with the celebrated Marva Collins of Chicago on her most famous student: former Creighton University basketball star Kevin Ross, who, at age 24, has enrolled in Collins' school for the breathtaking purpose of learning to read.
How, asked USA Today's Barbara Reynolds, did the 6-foot-9 Ross, now studying with small chilren, manage to get through 16 years of school without learning to read? "Is Kevin a victim of the athletic system rather than racism?" Collins wouldn't take the bait. "Kevin," she said, "just happened to be an athlete and he didn't get as much as the average black child. But how did he ever get through grammar school without learning to read? He didn't start school playing basketball. What happened in kindergarten? And first and second grade? Kevin can't remember the teacher that taught him how to read, which meant he must not have been taught."
In other words, Collins sees Ross's plight as an indictment of the public school system she left years ago -- fed up with its record of failure and its unwillingness to change--to open Westside Prep.
Wouldn't it be exciting if an assemblage of black brainpower could follow up next week's conference with an attempt to understand how public education, despite recent improvement, has become such a disaster for black children? Wouldn't it be wonderful if they could ask the embarrassing questions and propose solid, practical steps for doing something about it?
Have we spent too much of our energies integrating black children and too little seeing to their proper education? Have we been too protective of black teachers and school officials to demand that they do better what they are paid to do? Are we guilty of a failure of faith in the ability of black children from low- income families to do well in school?
Shouldn't we be spending more time looking at, and learning from, that small but growing list of schools where these children do manage to achieve? Could the Marva Collinses of America offer us some advice for turning dreadful schools into pretty good ones, and good schools into excellent ones?
"I think the expectations of minority children are very, very low," Collins told USA Today. "It seems almost a hypocritical situation. It's okay for them to be mediocre when they are young, but all of a sudden when they get older, then they are stupid, they are inferior, they are welfare recipients, and it seems a different standard is expected of our children."
The result: Too many black children miss the "opportunity to become universal citizens of the world, to be able to compete in the marketplace for jobs." Which is the cart next week's conference will discuss. When will we get around to addressing the horse?