When the Department of Education released a study last March submitting that black students were on the receiving end of the harshest discipline in America’s public schools, it was hardly a revelation for most educators who work with this particular student population.
For decades, as a teacher and school administrator, I have borne witness to troubling behavior on behalf of African American kids in schools. Therefore, not only did I agree with the study’s findings, I advocated for even stricter discipline measures.
The study seemed to only confirm what many have known for years. The disrespectful, confrontational behavior of our students in school must be addressed.
But that is only part of the story.
When I reported on the nationwide school survey in a June column, it garnered significant feedback from the public. However, it was not until English teachers at James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County decided to introduce the story as a department-wide student assignment that the true impact of the article began to come to light.
A little more than a month ago, I was contacted by the English department chair to speak to her students and offer some clarification, as my article apparently had a “dramatic effect” on her students.
I was forewarned that many of them were angry because they felt castigated, unfairly maligned and mischaracterized by my story. My conversation with the students in early January was, at times, tense and direct. The underlying resentment was palpable as nearly every hand in the room went up — students firing off questions in rapid succession.
“Why would you write something like that? Do you honestly think this is going to make a difference? Did you really mean everything you said? I was appalled; do you hate us? Why did you just focus on black kids? Do you think your criticism is fair? What would make you say such things about us?”
And there it was.
Instantly, it became crystal clear: Our students don’t even know how bad the problem has become. Yet, it is their overall behavior and attitude toward learning that have been at the core of higher suspensions, expulsions and the much-hyped achievement gap that exists between black students and all other kids in public schools.
The fact is black students rank dead last in every academic measurement. Irrespective of the type of assessment, as a subgroup, our students routinely score significantly lower than others. The performance gap is real whether on the Maryland High School Assessment, the Virginia Standards of Learning, the District’s comprehensive assessment, the SAT or ACT.
What was so surprising was that they appeared to be authentically, legitimately startled to learn of their status when compared with other students, regarding both discipline and academic performance.
While I stood there presenting data, endeavoring to answer their questions, I was continually vexed by nagging internal queries. Why do we refuse to tell our kids the truth? Are we afraid that we might find out that they can’t compete after all? Is it that we don’t want to destroy their self-esteem? Are we scared that it might cause them to shut down academically?
Our irrational apprehensions continue to jeopardize and undermine the talents of our best and brightest students. Therefore, while I went to Blake to enlighten them about their scholastic proclivities, it was I who walked away with the education, one that African American parents would be well-advised to heed.
The bottom line is that our kids are resilient and won’t break; nor will they flinch in the face of the truth.
So what’s the real problem?
Most non-black educators may tell you privately that it is a dangerous minefield for teachers, principals and even school superintendents to inform black parents of academic, social or behavioral problems among their children. Inevitably, race becomes a factor in conversations surrounding black student behavior and performance.
Even African Americans teachers who dare to broach this subject invariably become a “sellout” or an “Uncle Tom.”
For too many teachers, the prospect of a loud confrontation with parents, or worse, just isn’t worth it.
Therefore, the larger question is: Have black parents unconsciously created an environment of anxiety and intimidation that has led to teachers refraining from helping our children due to fear of reprisal?
After receiving more than 60 responses from students after our discussion, what is clear is that their outlook can be radically altered by simply speaking the truth. They deserve an honest assessment and the opportunity to think critically about their performance and concomitant behavior.
By doing so, the achievement gap may well fade to a distant memory. The evidence can be found in the comments I received from the students themselves.
“Dear Mr. Porter your article and presentation were great overall, but there was one piece of it I did not like the ‘out negro’ each other. I felt like that was not true and stupid, but as you explained further, it started to make sense but was still offensive.”
(In my June column, I define students’ attempt to “out-Negro” as to demonstrate to others that they are authentically black. To act out in school and reject opportunity somehow epitomizes what being black represents.)
“When he came to talk to the class, I liked how he explained his article. I agree with EVERYTHING he said. Everyday I see this happening especially the ‘out-negroing.’ I see black people at my school trying to act ‘black’ or ‘ghetto’ and it’s just them resorting to stereotypes.”
“In person meeting Mr. Porter he explained it more to me to think he didn’t really try to seem racist to his own race but what black kids have been doing for years he has been working with schooling.”
“I think it was clever for you to use the phrase ‘out negro’ each other because it caught our attention”
“Your presentation made a lot more sense than your article. I thought you were being ignorant to your own kind. I agree that black kids need to apply themselves more. I believe that secretly we are lazy. I can do the work. I’m a bright person and there is really no excuse why I shouldn’t be held to higher expectations. So now I’m on a mission.”
“When I read your article, I felt that you didn’t care for the black students, but after your presentation, it was obvious that you just want us to do better.”
“I know many people didn’t agree with your article but once you came in with the statistical proof, people started to awaken and think otherwise. Personally, I agree with the article because I have seen this behavior with my own eyes.”
Over the course of one class period, hearts and minds were changed. We owe our children the truth; it will set them free at long last.
In the end, it is not innate cognition but a lack of effective effort and poor behavior that continues to hamstring our bright African American students.
Our refusal to be honest is harmful to their long term prospects; and worse, we quickly disavow anyone else who will. The result manifests in a cruel hoax upon entering the real world believing that they are prepared.
Alfonzo Porter is a contributor to The RootDC and the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a speaker, consultant, former teacher and school administrator.
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