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Educational Emancipation

“That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, 1862

By Harrison Blackmond, DFER Michigan State Director

Over 150 years ago, with the stroke of his pen, President Abraham Lincoln legally liberated millions of African slaves from involuntary servitude. For over a century, millions of slaves in the US had been subjected to terror, degradation and all manner of brutality. Most slave owners understood that to maintain control over their human property, they needed to effectively treat them as less than human. They were deprived of their history and more importantly, of the means to learn and educate themselves through the written word.

One hundred and fifty years later we continue to work to correct this historical wrong and undo what seems to be a prevailing belief among some, including African Americans, that certain African American children and their families are responsible for their inability to learn and achieve at levels comparable to their cohorts in more affluent communities. The only solution to the problem of educating these children, they say, is to address the underlying causes of poverty, crime, familial dysfunction and addiction.

This belief has widespread implications. First, it lets educators and policy makers off the hook. The best they can do is to teach children who happen to be born into these circumstances to be satisfied with their lot and not cause trouble for those who have succeeded. Second, it sends a message to these children and families that, no matter how hard they try their circumstances have doomed them to be second-class educational and economic citizens.

As Michigan considers what to do with what has been previously called its “persistently lowest achieving schools” (now called Priority Schools), it has to face the question of whether it’s possible, given social and economic circumstances, to educate children in these schools at high levels. Priority Schools are Michigan public schools identified in the bottom 5% of the statewide Top to Bottom ranking and any high school with a graduation rate of less than 60% for three consecutive years. In 2011 Michigan had 146 such schools as well as 358 Focus Schools, which are the 10% of schools that have wide achievement gaps between various student populations.

In 2009, Michigan enacted legislation (HB 4787) that would identify the lowest achieving 5% of schools and place them under the supervision of a state school reform/redesign officer. The legislation also created a “single State School Reform/Redesign School District.” The district was made up of all the persistently lowest achieving schools whose redesign plans had been disapproved or whose plans were not achieving satisfactory results. (HB 4787 was sponsored by Democrat Tim Melton and passed by a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives.)

Finally, in 2012, legislation (HB 6004) was introduced to make the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) the “single State School Reform/Redesign School District.” The EAA would provide among other things: innovative, flexible, transparent, safe, efficient, and effective public educational services throughout the state and provide new forms of public school governance. 

The EAA legislation has yet to pass, but Governor Snyder urged the legislature to pass the bill in his 2013 State of the State speech. If the legislation goes into effect, Michigan will finally have a district with the flexibility needed to address the vexing problem of low academic achievement for Black, Hispanic and other educationally disadvantaged children. Many still question, however, if this can be accomplished.

Research suggests, that if the correct actions are taken, schools can devise “strategies that counter the effects of harmful environmental and cultural forces” that hinder academic performance. (The Trouble With Black Boys by Pedro A. Noguera)

According to Noguera’s research, effective strategies include:

  • Ensuring that only the right teachers and principals with the right attitudes and a history of success with the target population are hired;
  • Teachers and principals must have high expectations, gain the trust of the students and make them feel supported.

In his study, Noguera also cites researchers Murphy, Hallinger, and Sizemore who have found that effective schools possess the following characteristics:

  • A clear sense of purpose;
  • Core standards within a rigorous curriculum;
  • High expectations;
  • A commitment to educate all students;
  • A safe and orderly learning environment;
  • A nurturing and supportive environment;
  • Strong partnerships with parents;
  • A problem-solving attitude.

There are schools in Michigan and elsewhere that are using these strategies and others that are successfully educating disadvantaged student populations. The EAA is a way for Michigan to build on existing models of success and demonstrate to traditional school districts that all children, regardless of their background can receive an excellent education so that no more schools need be transferred to the EAA.

I envision the EAA like an “emergency room” for ailing schools but not a “long term care facility.” So once the school has been “cured” it can be returned to its home district. Once EAA schools have demonstrated that they can maintain an acceptable level of student achievement over time, they can be returned to traditional district control.

If we believe that all children are inherently created equal and that all children can learn, then it is our obligation to figure out a way to help Black, Hispanic and other educationally disadvantaged children receive an excellent education. The EAA, in theory at least, has the freedom to adopt strategies that have been proven to work. It is incumbent upon the leadership in Michigan to seize this opportunity and pass HB 6004 to make equal educational opportunity more than just a slogan.

For more than 35 years, Harrison Blackmond has dedicated his life towards helping children achieve the education they deserve. Harrison has served a multitude of roles within Michigan's education system, including Chair of the Marygrove College Board of Trustees, President of the Business/Education Training Alliance, Vice Chairman and member of the Executive Committee of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, and President of the Detroit Black Alliance for Education Options. Read more about Harrison here.