The Mis-Education of Black Students: Teaching the Truth in a Time of Oppression

Now in four cities, the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy is a culturally, racially affirming counterpoint to the current public school climate

Apprentice teacher Tatiana Amaya instructs a student during summer Freedom Schools Literacy Academy 2022 at Mastery Charter Harrity Elementary School in Philadelphia. (Center for Black Educator Development)

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“There would be no lynching if it didn’t start in the schoolhouse”

—Carter G. Woodson

Public schools, it seems, are, once again, the fresh front in the culture wars, the next “democratic institution” to be undermined and remade in the sanitized sepia of revisionist white supremacy. The politics of white grievance have always spread through mis-education

Fresh off a series of electoral repudiations of various efforts to acknowledge in meaningful terms the impact of systemic racism on our children, our schools and society, and a general gnashing of teeth from white conservatives, there is a moment of possibility in the air for alt-right demagogues and would-be heirs to the MAGA trash throne.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is heir apparent. While a federal judge once again blocked its implementation earlier this month, DeSantis was able to pass into law last year his Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits the teaching and mention of systemic racism in schools and workplaces; was able to water down the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course and is now going after the state’s social studies textbooks, getting one publisher to omit references to race, including in the story of Rosa Parks’s arrest.

And while I laud the efforts of those who are fighting back — including three Florida high school students, represented by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crum, who said they planned to sue DeSantis over trying to kill the AP African American Studies course —the Florida governor’s actions are harbingers of more to come from his ilk as anti-CRT legislation is being passed from coast to coast.

White America’s power and position are so deeply entrenched in the very fabric of American schooling and society, the notion that it can be dislodged or undermined by the modicum of diversity, equity and inclusion work now being done in our public schools would be laughable if it didn’t have such chilling and dangerous consequences for Black and brown children.  

From how we finance public schools to how we assign our children to them, the prevailing structure of traditional public education is inexorably tilted against Black and brown students. The form and function of our traditional public school systems are a direct reflection of historical political power dynamics produced by racial and economic inequity. 

I worked with fellow educator-activists at the Center for Black Educator Development to create the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy in Philadelphia, which have since expanded to Camden, New Jersey, Detroit, Michigan and now Memphis, Tennessee. Our approach integrates proven best practices of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Philadelphia Freedom Schools, and the independent Black Schools movement, with a culturally responsive, affirming and sustaining early-literacy curriculum. 

At our summer academy, expert Black educators coach aspiring Black college teacher apprentices and work with high school pre-apprentices exploring careers in education. The effect for our underserved Black and brown elementary students is the personalized literacy boost they need, coupled with a deepening of their racial identity.

Scads of research studies provide evidence that effective, coherent, student-centered systems; rich, robust, rigorous content; and cultural proficiency are the magic ingredients of high-quality learning. Too often we have inadequacies or incompetencies at each one of those levels. None of our systems are aligned for cultural proficiency and creating the kinds of learning opportunities our students need to both be successful academically and feel connected with and supported by their teachers as people. 

Research also shows that exposing students to challenging and even uncomfortable topics in the classroom increases tolerance and interest in civic matters. Navigating controversial topics in the classroom builds communication and critical thinking skills. With a well-equipped teacher, students can ask difficult questions, grapple with ambiguity and appreciate the perspectives of other people.

However, too many teacher preparation programs and their faculties have proven time and time again to be woefully short of truly culturally responsive to Black and brown communities. The heights of tenured teachers’ college posts are too far removed from the lived experiences of Black and brown students. 

We know that when Black students have Black teachers, they do better in school. When they have one Black teacher by third grade, they are 13% more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers in the mix early on, that stat jumps to 32%. When Black boys from underserved communities have a Black teacher, they’re far more likely to experience on-time high school graduation. In fact, their dropout rates plummet by almost 40%. Our young people told us in focus groups, “We need Black teachers.” Fortifying the student-to-educator-activist pipeline is what we seek, because we know it is critical to teaching Black children superbly, which is a truly revolutionary act.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson in his genius knew that there would be no lynching if it did not start in classrooms. Dr. Jarvis Givens writes that Woodson asserted that the violence inflicted upon Black bodies began at the level of ideas and knowledge: “The knowledge system of schools constructed Black people as ahistorical subjects, obscured historical systems of oppression, and taught students to look to White-Eurocentric colonial ideology as a human standard. At an epistemic level, Black people were “human beings of the lower order.” 

Schools failed to offer African American students any cogent social analysis of their historically constructed oppression, no alternative system of representation to interpret Black life. Woodson recognized this phenomenon as a structured system of “mis-education.” 

The work we do is critical to the education of Black children nationwide. We owe it to Black families who entrust schools with the care of the persons of most value, their children. We hope to express to those parents that we, too, value their children. We see what is possible with greater cultural proficiency in teaching, what is possible when students and teachers are connected in a supporting and trusting way. From strengthening a student’s racial and ethnic identity and promoting a sense of belonging to improving critical thinking skills and strengthening reading and math understanding, culturally proficient teaching makes big differences for students — for all students.

The moment shows us both the challenge and opportunity in creating more culturally relevant and informed schools. The current post-truth political climate puts in sharp relief the need for rigorous and clear-eyed teaching in our public schools.  

An unsettling proportion of Americans now hold views that are increasingly ahistorical and untethered from reality on everything from voting rights to race relations. Beyond showing how easily whole segments of society can be manipulated, we also see the urgent need for teachers that are well prepared for the profession and possess the skills and competencies needed to equip students with what they need to navigate ambiguity, uncertainty, and outright racism, particularly of the sort manufactured for political advantage.

Doing so will require all of us to do our part. That means teacher preparation programs and institutions must step up and be accountable for outcomes and finally, fully embrace a culturally informed curriculum. It also means that we need to do a much better job of getting more Black and brown young people interested in and pursuing a career in teaching. And it means that we need schools to engage and empower communities of color and co-create a vision of public education that reflects their diverse needs and aspirations. 

There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done and precious little time to do it. Everyday that goes by is another opportunity for us to slide further from the more perfect union that we all deserve to see realized. Progress isn’t promised, but it is possible if we have a public education system that supports it. That starts with ensuring teachers can teach — and are prepared to teach — the truth without fear or reservation.

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