President Barack Obama signed a highly acclaimed executive order July 26, one that will significantly improve the education of African Americans. For educators across the United States, the initiative is a long time coming. Many are hopeful the president's recent action will finally facilitate a level playing field for black children, most of whom have been receiving substandard classroom instruction in comparison to their white counterparts.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans is the first strategy of its kind to be executed by the United States government since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were "inherently unequal" and ordered U.S. public schools to desegregate "with all deliberate speed." Many black Americans remember the rioting that ensued as a result of that order.
When African American students were bused across town to attend white schools in various parts of the South, communities across the country exploded with violence. The Little Rock Crisis, as it became known, was just one of many catastrophes that erupted when then President Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded schools to integrate. More than 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers had to be called in to ensure the safe entry of nine black students set to attend Little Rock Central High School on Eisenhower's order. While most would agree the United States educational system has come a long way since then, tens of thousands of African Americans still perceive schools in predominantly black areas as inherently unequal to those in most white neighborhoods.
Many of the black children who attended the segregated schools of the 1950s have grown up to become college graduates, but incredible obstacles still exist for African American students. For instance, many black students are without access to safe schools that are not overrun with gang violence and drug related activity. Others receive less than adequate instruction from teachers who are underpaid and dispassionate about teaching their students. Furthermore, due to the low school tax paid by homeowners in lower end areas, a considerable number of black students do not have proper resources like computers and updated books. As a result, those who hope to attend prestigious universities or go on to pursue fulfilling and high-paying careers are often ill-equipped for life after high school.
As reported by the National Center on Educational Statistics, more than 34 percent of all black children live in poverty. Black students have higher dropout rates than white students -- the "event dropout rate" is 4.8 percent for blacks and only 2.4 percent for whites. Plus, the number of dropouts living in low-income families was about five times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families.
Obama's recent initiative, which has been given a top priority status at the federal level, has been designed to counteract these impairing circumstances. Its aim is to offer every African American student an education that ensures the successful completion of high school, a college degree if so desired and a prosperous career.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans has been created "to restore the country to its role as the global leader in education, to strengthen the Nation by improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages, and to help ensure that all African Americans receive an education that properly prepares them for college, productive careers, and satisfying lives."
The initiative comes on the coattails of Obama's expressed goal for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. In order to accomplish this objective, the administration recognizes the need to allocate extensive resources, increased academic assistance and better support services for African American students. These additional provisions are expected to produce a greater opportunity for black Americans to attend college, become teachers and improve employment rates.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans will operate within the Department of Education to improve student achievement among black students, developing a national network of organizations to implement these practices. An executive director will be appointed by the secretary of education to execute and oversee the initiative, which will be supported by an interagency group established by the executive order. Specially crafted federal programs will also focus on meeting the unique educational needs of African Americans to ensure success of the program.
In order to deliver an inherently equal and competitive education for black students across America, Obama's initiative has outlined the following goals and objectives:
- Strengthen the nation by improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages; and help ensure that African Americans receive a complete and competitive education.
- Complement and reinforce the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Initiative and together, they both will support enhanced educational outcomes for African Americans at every level of the American education system.
- Increase general understanding of the causes of the educational challenges faced by African American students, whether they are in urban, suburban, or rural learning environments.
- Increase the percentage of African American children who enter kindergarten ready for success by improving their access to high-quality programs and services that enable early learning and development of children from birth through age five.
- Decrease the disproportionate number of referrals of African American children from general education to special education by addressing the root causes of the referrals and eradicating discriminatory referrals.
- Implement successful and innovative education reform strategies and practices in America's public schools to ensure that African American students receive a rigorous and well-rounded education in safe and healthy environments, and have access to high-level, rigorous course work and support services that will prepare them for college, a career, and civic participation.
- Ensure that all African American students have comparable access to the resources necessary to obtain a high-quality education, including effective teachers and school leaders.
- Support efforts to improve the recruitment, preparation, development, and retention of successful African American teachers and school leaders.
- Reduce the dropout rate of African American students by promoting a positive school climate that better engages African American youths in their learning and provide those who have left the educational system with pathways to reentry.
- Enhance the educational and life opportunities of African Americans by fostering positive family and community engagement in education.
- Reduce racial isolation and promote understanding and tolerance among all Americans.
It has been almost 60 years since the integration of public schools in the United States. While black and white students now attend classes together peacefully, our educational system still has a long way to go before it can claim that Brown v. Board of Education has fully and successfully implemented an equal presentation of educational opportunities to people of color.
Hopefully, in time, The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans will truly bring about the kind of change sought by civil rights activities in the 1950s. Maybe, as a result of Obama's forward-thinking initiative, we will finally bear witness to more than just inherent equality, but a true and lasting colorblindness in the eyes of the U.S. educational system.