The reasons for the growing movement of African American homeschooling are instructive to parents about the potential impact of bias on student achievement, and school curriculum, instruction, discipline, and policy.
“I don’t teach about the violence that blacks suffered at the hands of whites during slavery.”
“John Brown was a terrorist.”
“John Wilkes Booth was a famous actor. He assassinated President Lincoln to help the South win the Civil War.”
“In Native American communities, there are many social problems, like poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, suicide and crime.”
“All the problem kids are black.”
“When you bounce around the room like that, you look just like a little monkey!”
These are the expressions of veteran, highly effective teachers, uttered while working at a high performing, racially and economically diverse public elementary school in Northwest, Washington, D.C.
Imagine a teacher making any of those statements – or analogous statements, if your child is white, Jewish, disabled or part of some other demographic group – directly to your child, during a lesson, or in a school leadership team meeting. How would your child feel? As a parent, how would you feel? Would you have liked to have had some control over the teacher’s ability to offer these thoughts in the classroom or to school leaders as they formulate school policy?
Upon close examination of the statements, several troubling themes and pedagogical problems emerge.
The first statement showed an aversion to teaching about the experience of people who were oppressed, as well as their participation in, response to, and perspective on historical events.
The second set of statements is comprised of a teacher’s conclusion about John Brown and an intentional juxtaposition of Booth’s celebrity to a dubious motivation for killing the President (assassination as a “justifiable” act of war?). The Booth comparison is problematic because it leaves out other negative motivations for the assassination supported in many history texts, such as Booth’s well known hatred for Lincoln and his anger because Lincoln discussed extending the right to vote to African Americans.
Reasonable people would disagree about whether John Brown was a terrorist. Writers have described Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey as terrorists. But, District of Columbia Public Schools’ then current social studies standards described John Brown as an “abolitionist.” Why didn’t the teacher plan a lesson to elicit student conclusions about John Brown instead of offering her own? After all, making a judgement about John Brown is a higher order thinking skill that would require the use of other critical thinking skills like understanding and analysis.
The third statement generalizes about Native Americans and casts the socioeconomic condition of Native Americans in a light that could leave learners with the impression that pathology in the Native American culture is the sole reason for the social ills that plague parts of that community. The statement failed to provide an account of the historical – and current — motivations, actions and governmental policies that arguably contributed to the socioeconomic conditions in Native American communities.
Finally, the last two statements drip with racial animus towards students – one caricatures a student and the other unfairly brands a group as a “problem” since it fails to acknowledge that other factors —learned teacher biases, school pedagogy, teacher skills and training, children’s socioeconomic environment, children’s current academic achievement levels, for example – may have contributed to individual student misconduct and teacher perception thereof.
What does any of this have to do with African Americans home schooling?
Three recent articles – in The Atlantic (“The Rise of Homeschooling Among Black Families,” by Jessica Huseman), the Washington City Paper (“The School House,” by Jonetta Rose Barras), and the Washington Post (“Racism in schools is pushing more black families to homeschool their children,” by Ama Mazama) – described a nascent and growing movement of African American parents who are home schooling their children, and who cite teacher stereotyping, low teacher expectations, Eurocentric bias in curriculum, disparate application of exclusionary discipline to African American children, and over referral of African American children to special education –as some of the reasons why they are withdrawing their children from public schools to teach them at home. These rationales, which some have called “racial protectionism,” are consistent with the reasons that white parents often give for homeschooling their kids – to protect their children from the influence of teachers or a curriculum that the parents view as contrary to their mores, religion, political positions or other beliefs.
Black parents reported that their home schooled children experienced soaring self-confidence and self-esteem, outperformed their school based peers, and secured admission to Ivy League colleges. Since home schooling requires at least one parent to be home during the day, from an economic standpoint, it seems feasible only for folks who are solidly middle or upper middle class, and who can rely on one income. But networks that connect home school parents and provide curriculum and materials, and flexible work schedules provide dual income African American families, and even single parent African American families a greater opportunity to take on this once daunting challenge.
To parents who have the means, flexibility and inclination to home school their kids – you should not feel odd if you make that choice for your children.
What should parents whose children receive instruction in school take from the growing African American homeschool movement?
• Read and understand your school’s social studies and history curriculum. Understand that good social studies and history teaching incorporates the actions, experiences, and perspectives of all peoples in history, and can have a positive effect on the self-esteem, pride and confidence of diverse student populations. Nonetheless, schools adopt curricula and use textbooks and other materials that may reflect a bias or singular worldview, so be prepared to expose your child to other resources like museums, books, and the internet to ensure your child gets a balanced social studies education. Feel free to raise with your child’s teacher, the school principal, or the district administrator responsible for curriculum and instruction your concerns about social studies or history curriculum that is unbalanced, parochial or exclusive.
• Teachers are human; as such, they can and often do bring their learned race, national origin, class, religious, cultural, and disability based biases to the classroom. Schools, like other public service organizations that serve diverse populations, should recognize that biases can seep into instruction. Therefore, school leaders should train teachers to neutralize their biases, to minimize the chance that teachers harm students while instructing them.
• Advocate for your child when she is disciplined by her school and you feel that the discipline is unfair, inconsistent with discipline given to other children for the same misconduct, punitive, or bears no logical connection to the misconduct.
• Children have different learning styles. Share with your child’s teacher what you know about how your child learns best. Good teaching is differentiated to fit the varied learning styles of children.
• If you believe that your child is not making academic progress, then request a meeting with his teacher or the school’s multi-disciplinary team to determine the cause of the stagnation and formulate a plan to address it. Schools have primary responsibility and the best opportunity to ensure that your child makes academic progress, though you can provide helpful support. Be prepared to engage professional help, including your child’s pediatrician, an educational expert, or lawyer if necessary.