Preface to one of books…
On the fringes of most school environments gathers a shadow population of students whose motivation and achievement are stymied. These are the marginal students who are not being well served by our public schools. Precious little attention is given either to the needs of these young people or to their assets. They are viewed as deviants from the ‘regular’ students, outsiders who are not productive members of the learning community. This persistent problem of increasing numbers of students who are not succeeding must be attacked because youth who fail on the margins as deserving as those who thrive in the mainstream.
–Sinclair and Ghory (1992, p. 33)
The seeds for this book were sewn several years ago, while I was still in formal schooling — a ninth grader. In 1976, I received an academic scholarship designated for bright and promising economically challenged students. I remember sitting in the auditorium where the entire school gathered for this important event — taking the exam for the scholarship entitled ‘A Better Chance.’ Within a few months, my mother and I were summoned to the principal’s office, at which time we were informed that I had been awarded a scholarship. I was given a number of private high schools options from which to attend. Too many of my classmates were less fortunate. Those who suffered from test anxiety, who succumbed to peer pressures, who believed negative stereotypes about Blacks, who did not take the test seriously, and who had other priorities, for example, did not score at the designated level to receive a scholarship. I did.
After some discussion with my mother, I chose to attend a local private high school located not too far from my family and friends. I had never been away from my mother and sisters, so staying close to home, commuting each day, was best for me. I thought this was the best choice for my family and myself – close to home meant that I’d be in a safe haven. This is where my story begins, for my life changed forever. Everything plummeted — my grades, self-esteem, academic self-concept, racial identity, and my dignity. My most pleasant memory about school was the food. I gained over 50 pounds that year.
I attended a private school for females. In grades 9 to 12, there were only four Black females, including myself. I was the only one on scholarship and poor. I quickly learned that one could face discrimination based on not just race, but also socio-economic status. I could not identify with my wealthy White classmates. They spoke a language foreign to my ears – vacations, housekeepers/nannies, inheritances, personal jets, swimming pools, yachts, jacuzzies, Porsches, Jaguars, and Mercedes. I, literally, carried a dictionary with me to translate. I understood the language of my Black classmates, but they, too, had little in common with me. While not rich, they were well off but they were lost racially and culturally, as will be discussed later; I was on scholarship. Further, they were, on the surface or superficially, part of the ‘community’, having attended the school for a number of years. I was truly the proverbial fish out water – I connected with neither the more privileged White girls nor the Black ones. I was low income, others were not. That was at school.
Back home, there were other trials and tribulations. My ‘friends’, whom I’d known for years, resented my being at that ‘uppity, White’ school. I was now deemed a ‘sell out’, a trader, who was ‘acting White’ and disowning my community and sacrificing my racial identity. Survival guilt weighed heavy on me as a teenager. I contemplated the myriad of sacrifices I was making to become successful as a gifted Black student who was also female, and low income and (but?) ambitious – and wanting so desperately to be accepted, affirmed, and to fit in… somewhere.
I remember vaguely my teachers, for I have a tendency to push to the subconscious unpleasant memories and thoughts. My English teacher had the most significant and negative impact upon me. She violated my trust and respect in her as an educator, professional, and responsible adult. One of our class assignments was to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne. For the first time in my life, I learned the potency of bibliotherapy, of the catharsis one can get from identifying with a character. Being in this school, I now realized that I, too, had a scarlet letter — the color of my skin. Some 30 years later, and five decades after legalized and legislated desegregation via Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, KS (1954), I still get frequent reminders (sometimes daily reminders) that, because I am Black, little is expected of me, and I should expect little. However, unlike Hester, Hawthorne’s heroine, I committed neither a sin nor broke the law; I was born into my circumstances – this was not a choice.
I wrote about my ‘scarlet letter’ for the class assignment. I analogized that my scarlet letter was being black – it was a curse, along with being poor. My teacher was so ‘surprised that I could write so well’ and was so ‘insightful’ that she requested that I share it with the class — a group of 15 or so rich White females who had I had so little in common with, females who lived in mansions, who drove the most expensive cars, who had personal drivers, personal planes, and yachts. I refused. My teacher’s request eventually became an order and ultimatum. The A+ eventually became an F for ‘lack of cooperation and comradeship.’ My teacher simply did not understand – and maybe did not care to understand. The reading and writing assignment had been a welcomed relief, a mental and physical catharsis and implosion. I was able to vent, rant, rave, scream in text; I felt relief but not vindicated. My paper was like sharing a piece of my soul and my diary, but it was me, a teenager, against an adult.
The school administrators are also fuzzy images. They often searched my person, my possessions, and my locker when money, jewelry, or other items were stolen or misplaced. They violated me in almost every respect – psychologically, physically, academically, and more.
It was not long, perhaps a month after school began, that I began to withdraw, to show classic signs of educational disengagement or burnout — daydreaming, procrastinating, turning in incomplete assignments, and coming to class late or not at all some days. Eventually, I committed the ultimate act of educational disengagement and apathy; I dropped out of ‘schooling,’ not physically, but socially, psychologically, and emotionally. This disenchantment and disconnect revealed itself in my lowered motivation and grades, which plummeted from As to Cs. I had never made a C in my life. To say the least, my mother was worried and distraught; but I blamed the low grades on everything else but the truth. I never told her about the academic and social and emotional hell and torture that I had to endure for 280 days. My mother (my number one fan) believed that the school meant or guaranteed a promising future; the first step on the upward and social mobility ladder. I could not and would not disappoint my mother by telling her about my daily trials and tribulations at school.
After a year, I dropped out of that school and transferred to my neighborhood school – low income and overwhelmingly Black. I needed to be affirmed socially, culturally, intellectually, and academically. Had my mother insisted that I return to the private school, I would have dropped out completely. I felt like a soldier must feel after battle – both battle fatigue and survival guilt were common to me. I was suicidal. My self-esteem, academic self-concept, and racial identity had been shattered. I needed to be among students and teachers who shared my struggles, who looked like me, who talked like me, who understood (or wanted and tried to understand) me. These students and teachers did not have to look like me, they just had to care.
My less-than-rigorous neighborhood school had its share of problems. I remember being taught in the 11th and 12th grades what I had learned in the 10th grade at the private school. As I reflect, it is clear that I received what some educators and researchers consider an inferior education at my neighborhood school. Yet, the teachers (all White) were wonderful — caring, humanistic, energetic, and skilled. Over time and slowly, my love for learning and motivation began to return.
As with many adolescents, I also experienced a dilemma, a conflict between my need for achievement and my need for affiliation — the latter won out. Although teachers were caring, I felt unchallenged in school and was fearful of doing well; many of my Black classmates (male and female) accused me of ‘acting white’ and threatened me physically. It had been too easy to make the honor roll, top easy to change the Bell curve, too easy to win writing scholarships, and too easy to become President of the National Honor Society.
I graduated from high school with several academic scholarships; I decided to attend, on a full academic scholarship, a local, private university where I was majoring in mathematics/ engineering. Before the semester ended, I dropped out. Two professors had convinced me of three things. First, I did not belong in math because I was a female. Second, and more importantly, I did not belong in math and science because I was Black. Third, I would never earn a degree from that university — they would see to it. Again, I found myself underachieving and flight from academics was the only option I could see. I also found that out that I would be a young mother at the tender age of 18.
I stayed out of college for one year, got caught in the vicious cycle of being a single mother, and trying to envision life without a college degree, life without a career with engineering or math. My mother, barely 40 years old, eventually gave me the most important ultimatum of my life — get back in school or else… I was blessed! She agreed to take care of my son, her grandson.
In 1980, I enrolled in a different university. After changing my major four or five times (maybe more), I graduated within four years with a degree in both communications and Spanish. I barely had a 3.0 grade point average, and Cs were familiar and even comforting to me – at least I had not failed.
In 1986, I applied for and was accepted into a Master’s degree program. I worked hard and excelled academically, but I felt incomplete, still searching for who I was and what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was unfulfilled academically and did not think that a Master’s degree was enough to make an impact. I sought a doctorate. Even though my grades were excellent as a graduate student, I had barely scored at the mean of 1000 on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). I felt lucky to have been admitted but also believed that the college would benefit in some way from my presence and experiences.
It was not until I entered the doctoral program that I began to feel comfortable and confident on personal, racial, and professional levels. I began to feel empowered. I majored in urban education and was challenged to explore education in the context of urban life; the focus on social justice was refreshing. I could identify with the issues discussed in class — underachievement, the achievement gap, tracking, low teacher and deficit expectations, irrelevant curriculum, achievement-affiliation conflicts such as peer pressures, poverty, racism, sexism, and other ills that permeate society and plague its schools. I learned to consider, appreciate, and respect the importance of multicultural education or culturally responsive education, teacher diversity, gifted education and AP classes, comprehensive educational and counseling services, family/caregiver involvement, and motivation for success in school and, ultimately, life.
While my story has a positive ending, albeit not the kind that movies are made of, the told and untold stories of so many others are not. This is 2010, and while there are books, studies, speculation, and comprehensive treatises on underachieving students (including gifted students, and racially culturally different students), there is no such work on gifted underachieving Black students beyond what I wrote in 1996. This is, again, an ambitious book, but not overly so. It was developed with multiple audiences in mind — educators, administrators, counselors, parents/caregivers, researchers, and practitioners. It is relatively comprehensive because it focuses on the psychological, social, familial, and cultural factors that influence the achievement of Black students who are gifted or potentially gifted – but also underachieving. It focuses on the respective and collaborative roles that families, educators, and children themselves must play in promoting the academic, social, psychological, and emotional well-being of these particular students.
Several premises guide this work. In defining giftedness, I have adopted the inclusive definitions espoused by the United States Department of Education (1993), Howard Gardner (1985), and Robert Sternberg (1985). These definitions and attendant theories contend that giftedness is a context-bound and culture-dependent construct that requires multidimensional and multimodal assessment measures and strategies. Equity and excellence are at the heart of these works and what drives me to excel and advocate for the rights of gifted Black students. They acknowledge the impossibility of a ‘one size fits all’ test to capture this elusive and complex construct, and that tests are academic electric chairs for far too many students.
A second premise is that no group has a monopoly on giftedness, regardless of its form and the group. It is illogical and statistically impossible for giftedness to be the prerogative of one racial, gender, or socio-economic group. Nonetheless, gifted programs and AP classes represent the most segregated programs in public schools. They are disproportionately White and middle and upper income or class, and they serve primarily intellectually and academically gifted students. If all gifted and potentially gifted students are to receive an appropriate education, gifted programs and AP classes must become desegregated.
Third, predicting potential is as problematic and difficult as predicting the weather. Despite sophisticated instruments (e.g., intelligence, achievement, and aptitude tests), mistakes are still made. Children score higher than we expect, others score lower. Tests touted to be highly correlated with school performance and high in predictive ability show huge discrepancies for some students. Students do well in college whose test scores predicted otherwise, and students with the highest test scores, can and do drop out. I was such an example.
A fourth premise is that all school personnel (e.g., teachers, psychologists,, psychologists, counselors, tutors, etc.) have a professional, moral, and ethical responsibility to help students reach their potential in school; no child should sit or learn on the margins, feeling either physically, culturally, psychologically, or socially isolated from the rewards of learning and educational challenge.
A fifth premise is that parent/family/community-school collaborations are essential to students’ school success. Parents are children’s first teacher; teachers are children’s surrogate parents or caregivers. Separating parents and primary caregivers from the process of schooling is tantamount to removing oxygen from air. Without oxygen, air does not exit. Without parents and other primary caregivers, like grandparents and aunts, schools and students have a challenge succeeding.
The next premise is that educators must focus not only solely on identification and/or assessment; they must also take great pains to recruit and retain Black students in gifted education and AP classes. It is not enough to place Black students in these programs; efforts must be made to keep them once placed. Recruitment is comprised of screening, identification and assessment, and placement; recruitment is comprised of the learning environment, programming, and supports.
Finally, underachievement is not a ‘sickness that can be cured’; however, underachievement can be reversed. Underachievement is learned and can be unlearned. No child is born underachieving! Deficit perspectives and blaming children for their failures do little to resolve underachievement. The potential and motive to achieve is inherent in all children. No talent or potential should be allowed to atrophy.
A preface permits the author to describe not only what a book is, but also what is not. Given this license, I shall end by dispelling any misconceptions about the goals and objectives of this book. The book does not cover the entire range of issues related to underachievement among gifted Black students. Even though I am updating this book after more than a decade, the literature on this topic is still too modest for this task. Nonetheless, it seeks to present a comprehensive and thorough discussion of the issues raised. The book discusses the educational plight of Black students, but it is not an attempt to castigate or indict the educational system for these problems. In fact, finger pointing would represent a significant waste of time and paper. Instead, I make a proactive, consistent attempt to emphasize that underachievement is a multifaceted phenomenon whose etiology is equally multidimensional and complex. I hope to unravel some of its mystery.
Personally and professionally, I have witnessed Black children, many of them gifted but not formally identified, floundering in school. We all see events through the lens of our personal ideology, but only those with myopic and near-sighted vision can overlook the crises facing Black students in general education, gifted education, and AP classes.
Racially and culturally different students are at the greatest risk of being forgotten and discounted in the context of gifted education and AP programs. Gifted Black students are a minority within a minority–an anomaly in gifted and Advanced Placement programs. That is to say, the gifted population comprises a numerical minority of the school population, and within this minority is yet another minority, namely, Black students. As a gifted Black student, I walked in and endeavored to negotiate two worlds. Illustrated, one could put my school experiences into a Venn diagram. Teachers had a difficult time understanding me for I was gifted and Black and poor — I was an oxymoron to then; just as gifted underachievement appears paradoxical. The gifted part of me was supposed to be conforming, hardworking, obedient, and academically outstanding; the Black part of me was supposed to be disobedient, lazy, defiant of authority, and academically poor. The poor part of me was supposed to also be of low intelligence, low achievement, low motivation, and poor behavior. No child should experience this hellish confusion. No human being should.
As a gifted Black student who learned to underachieve in the aforementioned private school, I needed several things to ensure a healthy, effective school experience. I needed teachers and other school personnel to acknowledge and appreciate the changing demographics of students, and to respond by:
· Seeking substantive preparation in both gifted and multicultural education;
· Changing curriculum and instruction to reflect diversity and cultural differences;
· Understanding that racially and culturally different students have a number of battles to fight. These battles include such social ills as poverty, racism, prejudice, and stereotypes that interfere with motivation and inhibit equal and equitable learning opportunities;
· Conducting more studies on the dilemmas confronting underachieving gifted Black students; and
· Developing theories, and professional and personal views of giftedness that are sensitive to and responsive to culturally and racially different students.
In gifted education years ago as a low-income Black student, I was an ‘oddity’, just as many Black and economically challenged students are even today. This book speaks to the paucity of research, theory, and practice currently available on Black students (gifted and potentially gifted) and determinants of their underachievement. Without adequate research and subsequent prevention and intervention, many gifted Black students will continue to underachieve and, thus, fail to reach their academic potential. This book is offered as a contribution to the limited data available relating social, cultural, familial, and psychological factors to achievement among Black students. Research that seeks to understand and then address social, psychological, familial, and cultural barriers to academic achievement is in great demand in our schools, gifted programs, and AP classes.