Congressional Black Caucus Forum Highlights Achievement Gap Strategies

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In order to eliminate the oft-cited “achievement gap” between Black and White students, the federal government should invest more heavily in HBCU teacher preparation programs instead of programs, such as Teach for America that only require short-term commitments to teach, according to Dr. Leslie Fenwick, dean of the Howard University School of Education.

That was one of most critical yet widely applauded recommendations made Thursday at one of several education workshops at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 2011 Annual Legislative Conference, which continues through Saturday.

The session, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” took place Thursday and featured a panel that included Fenwick.

When asked how HBCUs can be engaged to reduce the achievement gap, Fenwick stated that larger investments should be made in HBCUs because of their proven track record of producing more than their share of the nation’s Black teachers.

“HBCUs are less than 4 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities, yet we prepare 51 percent of the nation’s (African-American) teachers,” Fenwick said in making the case for greater investments in HBCU “pipelines” for the nation’s future teachers.

Later, when asked what policy recommendations she would make to the Obama Administration, Fenwick laid into charter schools and Teach for America.

Citing statistics that show many of the charter schools in Ohio have been pegged for state intervention, Fenwick said, “We need the administration to be a bit more wary about charter schools.”

Similar skepticism should be shown for Teach for America, she said, eliciting a chorus  of agreement among the 200 or so people who attended the standing-room-only session. But among the highly vocal audience that mostly agreed with Fenwick were several members of Teach for America, or TFA, who said they were perplexed by Fenwick’s criticism of the program and the audience’s overall agreement with it.

“We don’t understand it,” said Chante Chambers, the Managing Director of HBCU Recruitment at Teach for America, in an interview with Diverse.

“At the end of the day, I think we have a common goal, which is to improve the state of education in low-income communities for students of color, who deserve more than what the current education system is offering them,” Chambers said.

“I’m not saying that Teach for America is equal to four years of an education degree,” Chambers said of TFA, which provides college students with an alternative route to teaching. “But when it comes to effective teaching or learning in the classroom, there’s so many qualities that go into [it] besides an education degree.”

She also said the two-year commitment to teaching required by TFA is a good way to get youth advocates and leaders the kind of practical experience they need to more effectively bring about change in other venues.

Fenwick, asked to clarify and elaborate on her criticism of TFA, faulted the organization for subjecting minority students to non-credentialed teachers who are only asked to commit two years.

“Since Brown v. Board of Education, we have been having a conversation where we’re willing to put non-credentialed, non-certified teachers in front of poor Black and Brown children,” Fenwick said. “We don’t need that any more. We don’t need less-credentialed teachers going in front of children when we’re raising accountability measures.”

Though Thursday’s session momentarily turned into a bit of a trial for Teach for America, panelists focused on a variety of other topics.

Panelist Dr. Dolores Cummings, a Maryland-based psycho-educational consultant and CEO of Cummings Consulting, said educators need to be more respectful of parents.

“Too many parents feel they are not welcome,” Cummings said, “and when they come, that we’re looking down on them, judging them.

“In some ways, we’re going to have to engage them and make them our partners in raising the achievement test scores.”

Other suggestions included putting less emphasis on standardized tests in order to avoid creating an environment where teachers “teach to the test” and where, as panelist Dr. Mamie Locke, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Education at Hampton University, lamented, students are actually trying to learn to the test and ignoring things on which they won’t be tested.

Notably, the Obama Administration is expected to announce details Friday about its plan to issue conditional waivers to states on certain requirements of No Child Left Behind in order to ease the pressure the federal education law implemented under the Bush Administration puts on schools to get all students proficient in reading and math by 2014.

“States can request flexibility from specific NCLB mandates that are stifling reform, but only if they are transitioning students, teachers, and schools to a system aligned with college- and career-ready standards for all students, developing differentiated accountability systems, and undertaking reforms to support effective classroom instruction and school leadership,” the White House said Thursday.

Other speakers at the Thursday forum included Dr. Adrienne Bailey, senior consultant with Stanford University’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education; Dr. Dorothy Battle, an academic researcher at the University of Cincinnati, Patty Dineen, convener for the National Issues Forums Institute; and Ileana Martin, program officer with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, a Dayton, Ohio-based research institute. The forum was moderated by Erma Johnson Hadley, chancellor at the Tarrant County College District in Fort Worth, Texas.

The forum was hosted by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the Links, Inc., a non-profit organization of professional women of color, and the Kettering Foundation. Attended by individuals who ranged from members of parent advocate groups to officials with nonprofit organizations that work with youths, the session was just one of a half dozen or so workshops that Congressional Black Caucus members organized around issues of education. Other sessions dealt with the role of Black men in transforming education to the impact of integration on college sports at HBCUs.

The Annual Legislative Conference drew 3,000 paid registrants, but organizers said the conference drew a much larger number of unpaid registrants who were allowed in because CBC Foundation has a policy of not turning away anyone for inability to pay.

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