Black Schools Must Raise the Academic Bar, by Council Nedd

After working in the public policy arena for over ten years, I made a career change. Since last September, I’ve taught in a Washington, D.C. charter high school.

I teach U.S. history to eleventh graders. Their parents, for many reasons, removed their children from public school. The common denominator is that they want their children to get a good education. They want more opportunities than are currently available in their deprived Anacostia neighborhood.

One of the things that I have noticed, however, is that few students and parents realize the distinction between a good education and merely getting a high school diploma. This highlights a problem that goes beyond the walls of my school.

Since my first day of teaching, my mantra has been, “you have to get your grades up or you will not get into college.” I remind them they will be the first graduating class from our school, and people will be watching to see what they do after graduation. Many look at me as if they know something I’ve missed regarding their educational prospects – and apparently they do.

With few exceptions, my students say they are going to college. They also say they have good grades, but generally define good grades as anything above a 1.99 grade point average. They say they will pay for college with scholarships. I often wonder how a low-C average will get them into a decent school, much less a scholarship.

A major factor in my decision to teach was a close friend who made a similar transition years earlier. My friend’s school, about two miles away from mine, is graduating its first class of seniors this year. All of them are accepted to four-year colleges. A large percentage plan to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). My friend expresses consternation because even those with GPAs below 2.0 were accepted.

He’s proud they are going to college, but he’s apprehensive because those institutions accepted these poorly-performing students in the first place. He spent four years telling them they must study and work hard to reap certain benefits, and he was proven wrong.

Recently, black Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornell West claimed they weren’t being treated fairly and threatened to leave the Ivy League school. Almost immediately, the presidents of HBCUs began testing the waters to see if the pair might join their faculties. Some in the media suggested it was their obligation to do so, but both put an end to speculation by saying they were only interested in Ivy League positions. West later bolted for Princeton.

Apparently, Gates and West already knew what my friend and I just learned. That is, for a student to get accepted to a HBCU or for someone to get a faculty position at one can be an anti-distinction of sorts.

Why? About a century has passed since most of these institutions were founded with the intent of providing a top quality educations to black Americans. HBCUs were essential because blacks used to be either denied admission to most colleges or were subject to strict quotas on how many were admitted.

Once the legal barriers that permitted discrimination and segregation were torn asunder, the premise for HBCUs was severely undermined. Now, the best and brightest black minds have access to the finest academic institutions in the country.

HBCUs are suffering because of decreased enrollment and the subsequent loss of funds. Great professors are also interested in teaching at the best institutions and educating the brightest that America has to offer. Who can blame them? Faced with the drain of top students and faculty, HBCUs appear to be accepting ill-prepared students seemingly for the purpose of keeping the doors open.

I still believe a role exists for HBCUs. It is a right of like-minded people to associate and learn together. These schools, however, should not lower their academic standards as a means of keeping the doors open. This might seem like a good short-term fix, but the future of these schools is ultimately linked to the quality students they attract. A few of the smaller schools may close along the way, but the majority of the historically black schools will benefit in the long run.

It’s a simple matter of postponed gains. We tell students to work hard in school and not to settle. We tell them it will pay off in the long run. This same advice goes for the historically black colleges and universities. Don’t settle for mediocrity.


Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.