People, including some of our most prominent columnists, are still trying to explain the popularity of Donald Trump. Peggy Noonan says he appeals to the “unprotected”; Ross Douthat says Trump is a reaction to seven years of Obama. Both are right, but the rise of Trump is not really that complicated. While President Obama famously vowed to avoid doing “stupid stuff” overseas, he unfortunately failed to apply that guideline to domestic policy. The country is awash in “stupid stuff” – and Americans are sick of it.
Just this week, The New York Times reported on the struggles of an “Afrocentric” school in Chicago, which faces closing. The Barbara A. Sizemore Academy is failing to teach its mostly black students from its South Side neighborhood to read and write. Children in third through eighth grades scored in only the 14th percentile in reading in the most recent national exams, and in the 8th in math. These are not just dismal scores in the absolute. They also compare poorly with Chicago’s results overall. The city’s median scores were in the 48th percentile in reading and 52nd in math. By any definition, Sizemore is not getting the job done.
However, the academy has its supporters – fans of its “Afrocentric” approach, which surrounds students with reminders of their African heritage. The concept was the brainchild of Carol Lee, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern in the 1970s, and took hold in tandem with the rise of the Black Power Movement. Ms. Lee says students at such schools can “view the world through the perspective of the people of Africa. Africa is the mother of civilization."
The number of schools that adopted the approach peaked in the 1990s and has since declined, mainly because of poor results. The principal of Sizemore explains that the environment is aimed at helping kids suffering “all the ills of, you know, the residual effects of slavery,” saying, “Absolutely this is where they need to be.”
Sizemore embodies the goals of many black activists. Suspensions are rare and the courses include much celebration of black achievement – a curriculum intended to make the children proud of their heritage. The day starts to the pulse of African drumming, and the kids raise their fists to salute not only the American flag, but also the Pan-African banner. They chant “We are African people” and call their instructors Mama and Baba, Swahili for mother and father. The artwork in the hallways includes pictures of African nationalists like Dedan Kimathi, a controversial leader of Kenyan independence. First graders are taught Igbo, a language used in Nigeria.
Defenders of the school argue that while test scores are pitiful, Sizemore has been successful in “instilling confidence in a psychologically battered population,” according to The New York Times. The school argues, “The Afrocentric model provides a layer of social nurturing that prepares even poor testers for success.”
It is hard to imagine a more wrong-headed concept. What could be more isolating and degrading than not being able to read and write? What could batter the confidence of a young black child more than knowing he will never find his way in our multicultural society because he lacks the building blocks of middle class life? Young people without the early education essential to graduating from high school will never be employable, never able to care for themselves.
Withholding education from children today is as morally wrong as any past injustices perpetrated against blacks, including segregation. Afrocentric education is a return to segregation, which was once thought heinous. Was the fight to integrate our schools a mistake?
Moreover, one might imagine that the emphasis on African heritage would only serve to isolate black kids. Most are not first-generation immigrants--they are Americans. Celebrating their African roots is a fine curriculum addition, but making it the centerpiece of their experience surely makes them feel “different,” as opposed to “special.” The concept is akin to the enthusiasm for bilingual education that Hispanics embraced in the 1960s – until they realized that nothing could hold Latinos back more than failing to learn English.
Americans today worry that income inequality is becoming more pronounced, and that upward mobility is on the decline. Democrats have made this a centerpiece of their campaign, but they are in fact the architects and defenders of one of the pillars of those troubling trends. Democrats, and their allies in the teachers unions, ignore the collapse of our public education system, which no longer prepares kids for success in today’s workplace. As our economy becomes more dependent on technology and more stratified by academic achievement, our schools have not kept pace. Entire communities unable to read and to perform basic math are being left behind. That is what the educational establishment is doing through its defense of its indefensible failures.
President Obama gets this, and early on advocated for reforms like greater teacher accountability. The political price for him became too hefty, however, as the teachers unions in 2010 threatened to withhold their support for his reelection bid. Obama caved, and that was the last we heard about school reform.
Does Donald Trump know how to turn around our failing education system? Doubtful, judging from what is posted on his website and his public utterances on the topic. Like most conservatives he bashes Common Core, condemning it as federal overreach, a dubious charge. He wants to shrink the Department of Education, which conservatives applaud, and is incensed that the U.S., which spends more on schooling than any nation in the world, ranks 28th. This is unacceptable, and The Donald promises to make it better. Maybe he can – and he can start by avoiding “stupid stuff” like Afrocentric schools.