‘Afrocentric’ Approach Doomed to Fail

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Underprivileged inner-city youth don’t need more cultural sensitivity to succeed, they need higher expectations.

The Toronto District School Board has approved the establishment of a Black-focused or “Afrocentric” school, so it appears curriculum specialists have still not learned this valuable lesson.

For decades, education officials used schools as laboratories for propaganda. Topping the list is multicultural education and touchy-feely self-esteem training.

The result is lowered standards, a movement away from core competencies in literacy and numeracy, and youth unprepared for the knowledge-based economy.

While supporters of this school are well intentioned, they adopted the wrong means. The push for the school began with concerns over a high dropout rates among urban black youth. Some of the youth were being recruited by gangs.

This trend should concern all of us, but it does not mean the answer is segregation.

Some argue, however, that higher academic standards are the way to go.

Aboriginal author Calvin Helin, in his book Dances with Dependency, identified models for improving the chances of underprivileged youth, many coming from violent and dysfunctional backgrounds. The example he used was an elementary school in East Vancouver. With a school population of 50% aboriginal and the rest from immigrant families, the demographic was underprivileged. In 2001, a provincial test revealed that only 22% of Grade 4 students passed the reading test, 63% passed writing, and 42 passed numeracy. As a result of hard work and higher expectations, in 2004, 88% of the Grade 4 students reached expectations in reading, writing and numeracy. Part of the problem, said principal Caroline Krause, was past emphasis on cultural sensitivity. All of the staff, she said, rejected cultural sensitivity as the solution.

“Many of the middle-school aboriginal kids had been put into a segregated program long on cultural sensitivity, self-esteem and hugs, but short on literacy. There were no demands on the kids, and they were out of control. Far from feeling self-esteem, they felt like failures,” she said.

Covering up failure with culture does not address the issue. “You can’t fool kids,” said Wendy Fouks, a teacher at the school. “They know when they’re not succeeding.”

What made the school shine was the right school environment, including a common vision, high expectations, a focus on academics, a school-wide behaviour code, and strong parent support and student engagement.

All of this does not exclude greater cultural sensitivity. Nothing prevents the Toronto District School Board from teaching black history, or introducing black role models and black authors into language arts.

Manitoba has sadly flirted with this trend. In 2006, the Aboriginal Education Directorate released a plan to combat declining aboriginal achievement in Manitoba schools. While big on increasing aboriginal cultural content and introducing aboriginal languages, the plan was short on improving core subjects like reading, writing and math.

A study by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy pointed out that this approach is misguided as focusing on the basics is the best way to equip youth for our modern economy.

Anything less is cheating our students.