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African-American Educators Talk about Change and the Unchanged

New America Media, News feature, Jun Wang Posted: Jan 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES The tyranny of low expectations and negative stereotyping of African-American students is one of the biggest hurdles educators face in raising academic achievement among them.

That was the theme of a keynote address by Prof. Tyrone Howard of UCLAs Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the annual breakfast meeting of the California Alliance of African American Educators (CAAAE) last Saturday.

Howard said that black students are usually labeled as students who cant learn, wont learn, are oppositional to learning, resistant to learning and dont want to learn.

Not only do adults hear this; our children hear this, too, said Howard. They automatically think they are not expected to learn.

The breakfast drew dozens of African-American educators to discuss strategies that do and dont work in education reform.

Howard said he was fortunate that when he was young, his parents discussed his future in terms of when you go to college, creating the expectation that he would attend college.

Unfortunately, not every black child is encouraged to pursue academic achievement, Howard noted, and that is reflected in low achievement statistics. For example, 17-year-old black and Latino students reading and math skills are at the average level for all 13-year-olds, according to the California Academic Performance Index Scores.

However, African-American students have shown great potential in learning.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), black 4th graders made the most dramatic gains in math proficiency of any group between 1992 and 2007, and they made the second largest gains in writing proficiency in recent years.

CAAAE executive director Debra Watkins, a high school teacher by training, said caring teachers can make the difference and it starts as early as pre-school. Its not about the color of a teachers skin, she said. Its about the heart connection that they make with their children.

Prof. Jose Zapata Caldern, of the Sociology and Chicano Studies program at Pitzer College, said he was motivated by his own teacher to work in the field of education.

As a 7-year-old immigrant from Mexico, Caldern didnt understand a single word of English. So at school he didnt speak at all. After a couple of months, he was sent for a hearing test. But one teacher stayed with him after school to try to communicate and discovered that he could speak, but only in Spanish. When she pointed to the door and said, door, I said puerta, Calderon recalled.

Educators at the meeting agreed on the need to raise another generation of caring teachers, especially from diverse backgrounds.

In the recession, theres potential for us to be divided and blame each other, said Caldern. Barack Obama brought some dignity, but there is still a long way to go.

Los Angeles school board member Marguerite LaMotte was honored by the group with its Culturally Courageous Leadership Award for her work. She told the audience that leaders need to be courageous because there are so many children who need you to be courageous.

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