08/13/2012 09:58 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2012

How To Make the African American Education Initiative Work

After reading President Obama's Executive Order creating the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, I thought about my father, Harold P. Chavous. Born on a farm in Aiken, South Carolina, at nine years old he began his educational journey by walking seven miles each way to a one room schoolhouse. At fifteen, he was the first in his family to go to college. After graduating from South Carolina State University, he became a lieutenant in the Army and was one of the first African American officers to command white troops following President Truman's desegregation order during the Korean War. Later, he briefly attended medical school, but he had to drop out because he couldn't afford school and feed his ever growing family at the same time. But he was determined to better himself. He enrolled in a night pharmacy school program, eventually graduated and became one of the first African Americans licensed to practice pharmacy in the state of Indiana. As educated as my father was, however, at his core, he remained that country boy from Aiken whose eloquence was found more in simple, straightforward talk rather than sweet sounding rhetoric.

And though he was an African American man born in the south in 1931, my father's life story served as the embodiment of how education can change one's life. Before he died, he would reflect on his journey and would express amazement at how unlikely it was for him to be able to go to college and have a professional career. "It just goes to show that in life," he would say, "with an education, anything is possible."

Applying my father's mindset and logic, I am sure that, on the one hand, he would be glad to see attention being given to the educational challenges of African American children, particularly boys. On the other hand, however, I am certain he would feel that the initiative's stated mission was lacking by understating the obvious: the need to ensure that a quality teacher is in every classroom, especially the classrooms of kids with the greatest need. As he said to me time and time again, "Boy, reading and math are the most important subjects. But you have to understand what you are reading and know what you are counting. You can only get there with a good teacher every year."

Not surprisingly, when our kids fail, a review of their educational record will usually reveal a history of bad teachers. What's worse is that because of most school district's over commitment to the outdated tenure system, it is virtually impossible to ensure that the most challenged students have a quality teacher leading their class year in and year out. While the President's Initiative mentions the need for African American students to have "comparable access to resources necessary to obtain a high quality education, including effective teachers and school leaders," the level of importance attached to this goal clearly is not what it should be. Was he sidestepping the union tenure issue? Hopefully not.

Either way, we are all delusional if we believe we can change the educational outcomes for African Americans, or any other race for that matter, without high quality teachers in every classroom. For that to occur, we need to change many well-established rules that are pervasive in education circles. Easier said than done? Well, as my father would say, "Do we want these kids to learn or don't we."