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Why the White House Initiative on African American Education Is Just More of the Same

We don't need the same old rhetoric about closing the achievement gap.


Late last month President Barack Obama issued a new executive order creating the "White House Initiative On Educational Excellence For African Americans." The main objective of the order is to provide black students access to a quality education that would prepare them for higher education, career opportunities, and improve their overall quality of life.

Like many educators, I was excited to hear the President give public attention to the educational needs of our nation's black population. I intentionally use the term "public attention" because there have been whispers that President Obama has neglected the needs of the black community. According to some disgruntled black voters—including myself—education problems, heightened violence in urban communities and high rates of black unemployment have been largely ignored by this administration. When the President directly addressed "the nation's educational crises," and its impact on black Americans in particular, he immediately grabbed my attention. After further examination of the policy, though, the President's initiative quickly lost my attention.


It's not that establishing an office in the Department of Education that concentrates on black Americans' educational development across the life span isn't a worthwhile policy agenda, especially since formal education and advanced educational attainment will be the great dividing factor between the haves and have-nots in the global economy. Without action, black Americans will be further left behind in their own country and segregated completely out of the world market.

Citing the educational gaps—lower graduation rates, lower performance on standardized tests, and lower college entry—that exist between black students and their domestic and international peers, (including inequities like higher suspension and expulsion rates for the black student population as well as poor schooling outcomes of black males), the policy posits that improving black American’s education will improve the nation's global standing.

Unfortunately, as the policy is currently written, the initiative falls short. It's simply rhetoric that has little chance of improving educational outcomes anytime soon. For example, the initiative calls for more research to discover the problems with education in this country, but the problems in our educational system have already been extensively explored and discussed.

Now is the time to implement an action plan that extends beyond the school building, while directly influencing educational outcomes. For starters, black Americans' education has a better chance of improvement if the President gives direct attention to black unemployment and underemployment, increases the minimum wage to a living wage, provides affordable housing in communities of color, and continues to advocate for access to quality healthcare and safe reproductive care. Furthermore, there remains the problems of unfair hiring practices and wage inequality between whites and blacks doing the same job and with the same level of education. Blacks may be working just as much at schooling and in their careers, but they still get less in income and wealth allocation.

We also can't forget the "R" word: Resource redistribution. More economic and political capital is invested in white and middle class communities than in black and lower income communities. Consequently, any meaningful educational agenda must strive to redistribute resources to our nation's must under-resourced school communities, while simultaneously tackling systematic racial isolation head on.

In sum, what is found in the African American Educational Initiative is pretty much the same old Washington rhetoric of "closing the achievement gap" without addressing directly what we know leads to the gap. The time has come for the President to publicly address and put a plan in place to eradicate the structural inequalities that exist inside and outside of schools. Simply put, improve black Americans' quality of life and achievement will increase.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user AfroDad


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