Faced with a barrage of sobering statistics about the state of education in black America, an ad hoc group of black educators, politicians and civic leaders is promoting an experimental public school curriculum that emphasizes language skills and "real-life" reading material such as "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
The group, which calls itself The Select Committee on the Education of Black Youth, this week held its first meeting at Harvard University. In a report prepared for that meeting and released Wednesday, the group said the high dropout rate of black youths, their consistently below-average scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) and the declining number of blacks going to college is first and foremost a problem of poor self-image.
The new curriculum, called "Foundation for Learning," aims to "create a new self-image" among young blacks by first improving their reading, writing and speaking skills. "Language competence is central to educational performance," the group's report said.
"The traditional curriculum, with its emphasis on grammar and literature, has failed with most black students," the report said. "Remediation tends to repeat, with greater emphasis, what has proven unworkable."
The select committee is chaired by Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard and includes House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), National Urban League President John E. Jacob, National Education Association President Mary Hatwood Futrell and D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie.
The group was organized by Dr. Arthur E. Thomas, president of Ohio's Central State University, where the "Foundation" curriculum was developed and put into practice to help improve the communications skills of black freshmen. It is now in use in two schools in Chicago and Inglewood, Calif., and educators there say there has been a marked improvement in blacks' standardized test scores.
The group hopes to use those results to convince large urban school districts -- particularly those administered by blacks -- to experiment with the "Foundation" learning system.
By emphasizing English language and communications skills as the key to erasing decades of educational underachievement for blacks, the group is rejecting past demands by some black community leaders and scholars that the "black English" dialect be fostered in schools to avoid alienating black youth.
"Black English" has been controversial within the black community for decades, with some educators arguing that it provides blacks with a cultural sense of community, while others -- including most mainline black organizations -- say it has stymied students' ability to succeed in American society.
Poussaint, a spokesman for the select committee, said in an interview that teachers should recognize "black English" as a dialect and a useful means to teach students standard English. "We're not denigrating or demeaning black English," he said. "But we feel that students, if they are going to succeed in school and on the job, must learn standard English."
The committee was formed in response to recent reports and statistics showing that blacks still lag behind whites educationally, and that the affirmative-action gains of the late 1960s and 1970s appear to be eroding.