Last week the College of Education hosted Dr. Theresa Perry, professor of Africana Studies and Education at Simmons College in Boston, as our Thompson Lecture Series speaker. Dr. Perry enjoys a well earned reputation as one of the foremost voices for the education of African American students. In addition to the public lecture last Thursday, she spent considerable time meeting with students and faculty in the College to discuss her ideas even more deeply. As a follow-up, longtime colleague and friend, our own Dr. Bob Lowe, reflects on Dr. Perry’s visit and the implications of her message in the post that follows. — BH
By Bob Lowe, Chair and Professor, Department of Educational Policy & Leadership — Reform meant to redress racial inequality in the United States currently focuses almost exclusively on educational accountability. It does so through increasingly intrusive government regulation as represented by a profusion of standardized assessments and, foremost, by the stipulations of the No Child Left Behind Act. Alternatively and paradoxically, it does so by pursuing deregulation through voucher and charter schools that seek to shift accountability from the government to parents.
One thing that is fundamentally missing from both approaches (and from the recent conflict in Milwaukee over mayoral control of public education) is a serious conversation about what quality education should look like. This is exactly what Theresa Perry initiated with reference to African American education in her Tommy Thompson Lecture and in smaller sessions with students, faculty, and administrators.
Dr. Perry’s starting point is the infinite intellectual promise of young African Americans set against the ways their capacity is questioned by the larger society. This questioning takes place not just through amorphous sentiments that African Americans are less smart than white people and concrete practices like educators’ tendency to place African-American children in inferior tracks in suburban schools or in underfunded segregated schools with impoverished curricula. It also takes place through well meaning formulations like “the achievement gap,” as well as constantly linking race to poverty.
Though hardly wrong, these ways of framing inadvertently tend to naturalize inequality. In other words, they cast African Americans as responsible for their circumstances, or, only slightly better, reduce them to victims without any agency. Perry, in fact, objects to constant talk of an achievement gap for an additional reason: closing it is not equivalent to achieving excellence. Excellence, she states, is exactly what African Americans will attain if their educational experience is framed as a counter-narrative to negative beliefs about their intelligence and culture.
In practice, this counter-narrative comprises a rich intellectual and affective environment that engenders achievement through deep engagement with the liberal arts canon as it is currently defined, as well with the vibrant African-American intellectual traditions of literature, history, and the arts. Collective identities of achievement are also ritualized through a variety of performances, speeches by African Americans who are accomplished in the academy and the professions, and other activities that normalize such achievement. Whole-school assemblies are important locations for these events.
Crucial to the whole enterprise is not only setting high standards, that is, laying out what excellence looks like in the various subjects, but making transparent to students what skills must be learned and steps must be taken to get there, plus supporting students in producing iterations of their work that move toward that goal. (For a much fuller discussion of her thinking, see the first section of Perry, Steele, and Hilliard, Young, Gifted, and Black.)
Perhaps it’s partly due to my experience teaching in a Historically Black College (where I first met Theresa Perry) and working in the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette that I find her view of a proper education so compelling. To a significant extent, I have seen it in practice. (Perry also has evidence of these high achieving environments today at the classroom level and in some cases whole schools.)
Even though she makes it clear that she is only talking about the education of African American children, it is precisely the sort of education I want for my white daughter. Of course there are going to be other viewpoints about what the best education should look like, but as long as they are predicated on all children’s full humanity and capacity to become active, deeply informed citizens, there is a basis for productive conversation in the College of Education, Milwaukee, and the nation.
Accountability, at any rate, cannot drive meaningful reform. Instead, we need a compelling vision of education that informs what it will take in funding, teacher training, curriculum, school organization, and, finally, accountability to put that vision into practice at scale. I think Theresa Perry’s vision is an essential starting point.