Can Obama Initiatives Elevate Black Achievement in Age of Higher Education Standards?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014. Filed under: U.S. News

by : George White

President Barrack Obama (

President Barrack Obama (

If President Obama’s new initiatives for boys and young men of color are to succeed, educators must find ways to help underperforming students thrive under Common Core, the new and more rigorous academic standards that schools in 45 states are beginning to implement.

That’s the assessment of Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and chair of a new commission working on behalf of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The commission and the initiative’s managers will launch their efforts at an education summit in Atlanta on March 28-29.

“Common Core has the potential to have a very a positive impact on learning but we have to think about implementation,” Hrabowski says. “We need to give teachers the professional development they need to implement these new standards. Some schools may need to provide additional time and instruction to help [underperforming] students adjust – more after-school and summer programs.”

Hrabowski is widely credited for making UMBC a top national source of African-American posstgraduate degrees in science and engineering. He supports the more challenging Common Core standards but says educators must also address the lingering achievement gap.

Data from the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress, dubbed the nation’s report card, found that nationwide, just 18 percent of African American students were proficient in 4th grade reading compared to 46 percent for whites. Similar gaps exist for math.

Obama in January appointed the members who will join Hrabowski on the African-American education commission. The commission includes Dr. Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment and leaders in the fields of education and law.

Originally announced in 2012, the initiative is being launched as President Obama also seeks to rally support for his “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign. The two campaigns are part of a dual push to improve the education and life prospects of young Latinos and African Americans.

A recently announced summit is slated for March 28 in Atlanta, the first stop of a multi-city listening tour to identify projects that are elevating black academic achievement. A number of prominent scholars, meanwhile, are urging the commission to consider new proposals on ways to help black students who are performing below grade level in reading and math, subjects that are being overhauled under Common Core.

Hrabowski says the new standards can make it easier to learn math-related subjects because Common Core requires students to engage in more project-based learning, as opposed to simply mastering abstract concepts. As an example, he points to the success of Civil Rights activist and educator Robert Moses, who created the Algebra Project. The program has provided curriculum and teacher training that has helped schools improve the math performance of students in many low-income communities.

“The Algebra Project has been advocating for more real-world [math] applications for years,” says Hrabowski, who led a 2011 National Academy of Sciences study on increasing minority participation in science and technology. “There are many ways to help students connect to the real world. We can get companies involved by asking them to provide math-related projects to schools.”

While some education initiatives at public and charter schools have boosted the math performance of students of color, school districts have not found a model for elevating the reading and writing skills of underperforming African American males, says Alfred Tatum, interim dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and director of a UIC reading research clinic that examines factors in black achievement.

For example, he says efforts to improve black male reading by providing culturally relevant texts have been used to boost self-esteem. “However, this has not translated to improvements in reading and writing … A lot of teachers can select texts but they can’t teach reading and writing well.”

Tatum, who authored a chapter on Common Core and the White House African American education initiative in the anthology Quality Reading Instruction in the Age of Common Core Standards, says universities should require education students to take more courses on reading and writing instruction. He also says the White House should also examine new proposals for addressing black achievement issues. For example, he calls on the Obama administration to consider creating a national research center on reading for black male students.

“We need to put reading and writing at the center of all reform efforts because students will fall short of their potential if they don’t have reading and writing skills,” says Tatum.

Researchers and educators with ideas on how to reduce or eliminate achievement gaps will be sought, says David Johns, executive director of the White House initiative on African American education. Johns plans to work closely with Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson, who will direct a task force that will spearhead the “Brother’s Keeper” campaign.

“We need as many conversations as possible that focus on how to improve education,” says Johns, citing the upcoming March 28 White House summit in Atlanta. “We want to let people know that this isn’t just a Washington conversation.”

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