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Franklin Symposium: Black Achievement Suffers Because of Inadequate Relationships With Teachers


In this city, now unfortunately famous for an elite university’s lacrosse team party that may or may not have gotten out of hand, sits two high schools under a judge’s threat of closure because not enough students appear to be on track to attend any college, much less Duke.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has his eye on 19 schools across North Carolina, including Durham’s Hillside High and Southern High. The schools wrapped up their academic years a few weeks ago, and Manning has said they ought to be shut down if 55 percent of students don’t pass the final exams.

Much of the debate around this issue has centered on underperforming Black students. Many experts on the issue have argued that it is almost impossible to boost academic results among those students without first addressing socioeconomic factors like hunger and unstable living situations are addressed.

It was those themes that were touched on repeatedly by scholars and higher education administrators during a June 16-17 symposium on Duke’s campus. Sponsored by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine, the event celebrated the scholarship of 91-year-old historian Dr. John Hope Franklin. The overriding message of the conference, named after Franklin, was the need to find the next generation of Black thinkers.

Dr. Michael Nettles, senior vice president for policy evaluation and research at the Educational Testing Service, knows exactly where to find next batch of Black intellectuals; he says they’re in grade schools all over the country.

And as it pertains to socioeconomics, his research bears out that test scores of poor Black kids are nothing to sneeze at. These students are performing rather well, he said.

But things go south for these students when, for whatever reason, there exists inadequate relationships with schoolteachers. Without that significant interaction, a student languishes, right along with the prospect of becoming the next John Hope Franklin.

“The difficulty is developing the talent across the population,” Nettles said.

Marilyn Bell-Hawley teaches at a Durham charter school. Board certified and an adjunct professor of education at nearby North Carolina Central University, Bell-Hawley will tell you she knows what these kids need. She says she’s the kind of teacher who can cut through all the junk at the periphery of the classroom that keeps teachers and students from fully engaging.

At the same time, though, there’s the traditional way of doing things, and when the White principal running the show says fall in line, the practical teacher looking to keep her lights on and maintain a few nibbles in the refrigerator gets in step.

“I have bills to pay,” Bell-Hawley said. “What am I to do?”

What is academia to do — in particular, what is the school of Black thought to do — when John Hope Franklin’s potential successors seemingly never are given the chance to come into their own? That question has as much to do with the students already in college as it does with those trying to get there. It’s a question generally answered by three elusive letters — Ph.D.

The doctoral degree is still an elite one. Less than 1.2 percent of America’s adult population older than 25 have a doctorate, according to Nettles. Roughly 40,710 were awarded in 2003.

Only a handful of them went to Black people.

So with some of the young, gifted and Black struggling just to get out of high school, and with those who made it out stopping at bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the pressure is on those Black people with doctorates or otherwise in top positions in higher education to both maintain what scholars such as Franklin have established while at the same time enticing their like-hued brethren to follow suit.

— The complete version of this article will appear in the July 13 issue of Diverse.

Reader comments on this story:

There are currently 5 reader comments on this story:

“PhDs part of the problem”
Has anyone noticed that it might just be that it’s the PhDs that is factoring into the “problem”, and not the “solution”? The educational track for Black children got derailed when integration and education took over parenting.

Have we lost sight of how many children who didn’t have parents with the PhDs got PhDs? Have we ever stopped to ask why the children lost interest when their parents’ seat at the ‘what’s best for little Johnny’ table was replaced by an establishment and an ideology? Or why the establishment worked so hard to make parent feel that they didn’t know what was best for their children. And when the establishment said children in high school learn better when they are sitting in a class with a teacher who has cookie cut this class for him and hundreds of others? Where is the up-close and personal, and you are special and if you can dream of you can achieve it?

If you put the regular hard working person who is trying to stay afloat and the parent with the PhD from the school of hard-knocks who majored in what’s best for my child back at the table to teach the PhDs how to reach the children, you will then have little black Johnny and Sally Hope-Franklins coming out every school building door.

I don’t have a PhD, but I know enough to know– talking around, above and through parent is a major factor that has contributed mightily to this track of low achievers in the black community. How many low – middle incomers, without the college or university bestowed master and/or doctorate degrees and regular working folks do you ever see on these fact finding and solution identity panels? Right, and you think you are going to find the universal answer without a first line of defense.
-M K Veney Ashton

Regarding M K Veney’s comment: “PhDs part of the problem”
So instead of solutions offered by PhDs we could have simply gone for the same easy – all too easy – solutions Republicans have been offering us for years?  Yes, hard work and parenting, that’s the ticket – we can now simply overlook the fact that years of discrimination, institutionalized racism, and social displacement might somehow have something to do with this predicament.  At the same time, we can pass judgment an entire segment of the American population by attributing their woes to a presumed lack of hard work and parenting (why not, it’s easy to do).  Yes, and I seem to remember a sign which used to hang ( and still hangs, in fact) above the gates of Auschwitz – “Arbeit macht frei”.  Your simple “no-Phd-required” solution is no less a cruel and disingenuous lie – and one that betrays the same deeply-ingrained presumptions and callousness which have brought us here in the first place.  Thanks for your concern, M(rs) Veney, but please – at the very least – don’t play the violin and lament the lack of parenting and hard work while Rome burns.
-R Sobhani

“filling a vacuum”
Did public education institutions push parents out of the children’s lives? Maybe, just maybe, public institutions filled a vacuum.
-Tony Ansaldo

“PhDs are the problem”
I’ll admit that I’m “one of those” with a PhD, but even though both of my parents graduated from North Carolina Central University neither of them had a doctorate. Holding the degree does not make the person or change the person’s willingness to make a difference. I was an advocate for justice before I started graduate school, and as the mother of a pre-teen, African-American boy, I’ll be an advocate for equality until one of us takes our last breath.
     I’m using my Duke PhD at my parents’ alma mater, and I am stunned by the number of times I engage my students in one-on-one conversations and have them respond, “no one ever told me that before.” Those responses are enough to let me know I’m in the right place at the right time in my life because I have the credentials to justify my presence in the “house,” I look like my students, and I have the life experiences to give me credibility with them as I try to make a difference in their lives, one person at a time.
     PS One of my dissertation committee members held one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended on the state of Black youth in America. What made the conference so useful for me is that the panelists were predominantly individuals WITHOUT PhD’s!
-Sharron Hunter-Rainey

“Parent and Ph.D. responsibilities”
I am one of the few and the proud African-Americans with the “elusive” Ph.D. After reading the article and the comments, I have to say it is good to live in a democracy with the freedom to express ones views.  However, placing blame or responsiblity on one group is never the solution.  Each of us is responsible for our choices as well as the blessings we have received, like our children.  (Remember “It takes a village to raise a child.”)  I use my “credentials” to encourage and motivate all students, but especially those of my hue.  I work with students at my Alma Mater, NCCU and often hear the “nobody ever told me that” statement as well.  What my University of Maryland Ph.D. gives me is credibility,  but most important, the responsibility to reach back and help someone attain their dream; something my Ph.D. did not teach me, but my PARENTS! 

-Tonya Gerald

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