Cream on the Brain

December 12, 2010

A Brain Floating in the Heavy Cream of Obsession with Academic Excellence, December 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A quarter-century ago, education scholar and Ford Foundation education program director Jeanne Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Oakes’ groundbreaking, definitive work on the educational inequalities created or reinforced by ability grouping has led a whole generation of scholars to examine the viability of tracking in K-12 education. In a 2005 edition of her book, Oakes wrote that “through tracking, schools continue to replicate existing inequality along lines of race and social class and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and economic inequality.”

I picked up Oakes’ Keeping Track for the first time in ’90. By then, I already knew from experience how true her words and research were. Six years in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools via the Humanities Program had taught me all I’d need to know about the tensions between creating a class of students whose level of academic performance was par excellence while simultaneously addressing segregation and diversity in the school district. The magnet program and the district failed at one and succeeded at the other, which in turn reinforced its failure.

I worked on a paper some twenty years ago for the late Barbara Sizemore, my professor at the University of Pittsburgh my senior year (and a former superintendent of DC Public Schools) looking at how magnet school programs actually created resegregation in individual schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools because of the exclusivity that comes with tracking or ability grouping. It was an easy paper for me to do, guided in no small part by my experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. Easy, but not easy to get a handle on beyond the obvious demographics of race, class and test scores.

I managed to wiggle myself into the culture wars of the early ’90s and the debate around multiculturalism and K-12 education soon after that paper. It seems obvious now that the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities was what enabled me to takes sides in favor of multiculturalism. That led to my dissertation looking at the historical development of multiculturalism among Blacks in Washington, DC (“A Substance of Things Hoped For,” Carnegie Mellon University, 1997 for those who want more information), and eventually, my first book, Fear of a “Black” America from six years ago.

But it took my memoir Boy @ The Window to bring me back to square one. I realized about a year ago that I’d done nearly thirty interviews of former classmates, teachers and administrators for the manuscript. There was much more material to mine beyond their impressions of me and how to shape their descriptions of themselves — and my memories of them — into characters for Boy @ The Window. I decided to work on an academic piece that looked at the benefits and pitfalls of high-stakes schooling — not just testing — in the form of a history lesson via magnet schools, specifically my Humanities experience.

After a quick rejection, I redoubled my efforts a few months ago. I decided to look at the education psychology and sociology literature, as well as Oakes again, to see how these interviews and my experiences could be useful in our testing-obsessed times. I finally realized what had troubled me about Humanities for the past three decades. It was the reality that all involved with Humanities had taken on the e pluribus unum identity of an academic superstar (much more than just a nerd, by the way). Beyond Black or White, and ignoring the realities of poverty in our district and (at least for me) in our program, Humanities was all about sharpening our academic personas above all else.

This fueled the major success of Humanities during its existence between ’76 and ’93, which in turn would define its failures. In successfully nurturing the idea of academic excellence as identity, as evidenced by so many of us attending and graduating from college, this magnet program failed in its other major educational functions. It failed to embrace diversity, to help its students understand the diversity that was Humanities, to nurture creativity and imagination beyond A’s and college acceptances. It failed to develop the whole student, which aside from its charge to help desegregate Mount Vernon public schools, was its original mission.

Humanities failed because its teachers, administrators (including the former superintendent of schools) and many of the most vocal parents (mostly affluent and White) refused to deal with diversity seriously. Academic excellence without significant parental engagement or the humility necessary to discuss issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation led to a severe overemphasis on calling us the “creme de la creme.” All of this would have a negative impact on our development as students, and as emerging adults.

I don’t think that it’s asking too much of parents, administrators and teachers to work together in both striving for academic excellence while building programs that embrace difference and nurture creativity and imagination, and not just an addiction to A’s. Or is it?


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