Troubling the Waters: Fulfilling the Promise of Quality Public Schooling for Black Children
reviewed by Floyd D. Beachum - June 14, 2010
Title: Troubling the Waters: Fulfilling the Promise of Quality Public Schooling for Black Children
Author(s): Jerome Morris
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750158, Pages: 216, Year: 2009
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Troubling the Waters: Fulfilling the Promise of Quality Public Schooling for Black Children is a fresh and fascinating look at the promises and perils that Black children face in public schools. The book is divided into three parts: Part I Visions and the city; Part II Beyond central cities: In search of Browns second promise; and Part III Quality schooling in the new Black metropolis: Possibilities and dilemmas. The book also has eight chapters:
Troubling the waters: Brown and Black folks shifting visions of quality schooling
Making central city schools and communities: The indelible influence of race
Whosoever will, can they come? Black families and choices in a magnet school
Ambassadors or sacrificial lambs? Black families and students in a suburban, white school
Out of Nazareth? Promise in central-city schools
A man named Mr. Wooden: Generational wisdom and the care of Black children
Voices in the Wilderness: Black educators on school reform
Fulfilling the promise of quality schooling for Black children
This book offers a unique critique of educating Black children in urban contexts. In the spirit of DuBois (1978), Dr. Morris employed ethnographic techniques and some descriptive statistics with a heavy emphasis on social context. In addition, this work was well-situated in social history, thereby connecting contemporary experiences with past situations, thus creating a holistic picture from which to view this work. According to Morris, the purpose of the book was to underscore
persistent structural inequalities affecting urban African American schooling, while simultaneously capturing African American agency and resilience as well as the role of African American culture and institutions in the educational experiences and achievement of African American students. (p. 2)
Specifically, Dr. Morris gathered data from different types of public schools in the St. Louis, MO area: 1) a predominantly Black neighborhood elementary school, 2) a predominantly White suburban elementary school, and (3) a magnet elementary school. In addition, data were also gathered from a predominantly Black neighborhood elementary school in Atlanta, GA.
In part I of the book, Dr. Morris provides a retrospective look at the purpose and outcomes of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision. He also compared and contrasted the challenges facing African American education back then with todays challenges. To add additional complexity, he reminded readers that Black people had many different visions of education with some promoting the integration of schools while others wanted to retain the communal structure and local control of predominantly Black schools. According to DuBois (1935), The Negro needs neither segregated nor mixed schools. What he needs is education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools (p. 335). Many Black educators, activists, and parents have long realized DuBois poignant point. To add additional context and framing, Dr. Morris provided a robust, yet terse history of African American schooling in both St. Louis, MO and Atlanta, GA.
Part II of the book examines the experiences of African American students and parents in a magnet school and a suburban school (both elementary level). The faculty in the magnet school was 75% White, 25% African American. Although the school had both an African American female principal and instructional coordinator, they still faced substantial challenges trying to provide a quality education for Black children. The school struggled to get parents involved, White teachers frequently ignored or avoided issues regarding race, and even within the school teachers were largely segregated with most of the White teachers on the first floor and most of the Black teachers on the second floor. The principal and instructional coordinator frequently acted as advocates for Black children, connecting with parents, identifying and addressing bias (e.g., getting more Black students into the gifted and talented program), and working to build a healthy organizational culture for faculty.
Part II also addressed the issue of educating Black students in a St. Louis suburban school. In this instance, many African American parents sent their children to this (and other county schools) with the hope that their children would receive a high quality education and have access to additional educational resources. This effort was facilitated through a desegregation program. The community surrounding the school was 90% White with some of the nations fastest-growing businesses calling this area home. Out of sixty staff and faculty members, there was one White male teacher and one African American female teacher (p. 61). The rest were White females. The principal was a White male who did have prior exposure and interactions with Black people, but the majority of his faculty and staff did not. Some of these suburban schools were as far as 30 to 40 minutes away from St. Louis, so transportation was a problem for many parents, limiting their participation in parent-teacher conferences and other school-related activities. In the day-to-day life of the school, the African American experience was lessened by the Black kids being labeled as city kids, a noticeable lack of an African American adult presence, and token recognition of African American cultural heritage. Although low-income African American students were physically present in the school, they were invisible when it came to having a role in the school (p. 82).
Part III of the book juxtaposes two successful African American elementary schools, one in St. Louis, MO (Fairmont Elementary School) and one in Atlanta, GA (Lincoln Elementary School). These schools had been recognized for their academic performance. The keys to success included strong principals who linked the school to the community and caring competent educators. The relationship that educators at Fairmont and Lincoln built with families and students was each schools foundation for cultivating an academic achievement ethos for Black students (p. 91). Each school fostered academic success and community involvement by promoting intergenerational bonding, identifying with and coming from the same or similar communities or having multiple generations of some families attending the school. Each school also built trust with parents by reaching out to them in the community, altering traditional times for events to accommodate parents schedules and reinforcing a level of comfort when parents entered the school. Dr. Morris described how both schools encouraged cultural affirmation and consciousness-raising. Cultural affirmation was evidenced by assemblies, hallway pictures and displays, and sometimes teacher attire (e.g., kente cloth). Furthermore, classroom lessons were relevant to students lives while at the same time emphasizing skill generation/traditional academic preparation. To facilitate learning, teachers would sometimes use hip-hop culture to reach students as well as draw on local history. The principals of both schools purposely built bridges between their schools and other institutions (churches, businesses, social organizations, etc.). The efforts of educators in these schools were undergirded by a deep concern for low-income African American children and their future (p. 111). Dr. Morris also included a chapter in which he provides narratives of a dedicated grandparent in St. Louis and his granddaughter. This family had a long history of support for Fairmont Elementary. He also gives Black educators a voice in another chapter. These important, but often ignored, perspectives helped lend a personal layer to the work.
The book ends with a summary of the work as well as a brief analysis. Dr. Morris advocates for communally bonded schools (especially with regard to predominantly Black schools) that are characterized by (1) schools reaching out to families; (2) intergenerational and cultural bonding; (3) significant presence of Black teachers in the school; (4) Black principals as bridges and cultural and academic leaders; (5) African American schools as pillars in Black communities. He also makes recommendations for mixed schools which include: (1) preparing White educators in the mixed school setting; (2) recruiting Black educators into mixed schools; (3) supporting Black families in mixed schools.
The methodology utilized here seems appropriate for the questions being asked. To ascertain an accurate picture of what was happening in these schools, it was necessary to investigate histories, personalities, local politics, and school setting in order to address social context. Critics may have wished to see more information with regard to qualitative data analysis procedures, but in my view, this may have diverted attention from the natural flow of the book. As written, the book smoothly combines social history, ethnographic techniques, personal accounts, and Black schooling struggles in a seamless way. It draws attention to key issues and information, while not entangling the reader in jargon or pretentious vocabulary. In this manner, the substance and style of the writing is well-balanced.
This book makes a great contribution to the body of knowledge on the theory and practice of African American education. Theoretically, it connects contemporary research findings to historically-proven strategies for student success in Black communities (i.e., high expectations, connections to local communities, caring/concerned teachers, principals as cultural/community leaders). In addition, it informs the traditional discourse on urban schooling that tends to overemphasize the perils and problems that plague urban schools. Dr. Morris work highlights some success stories and incorporates the voices of stakeholders and Black educators who tend to be overlooked sometimes, even in research. This work also illuminates a direction for further research into the experiences of African American students in mixed schools. This kind of research not only has implications for African Americans, but also White educators who are largely charged with the task of educating Black students in these environments. With regard to practice, this book encourages policy makers to carefully consider the impact of history, race, and social class when making educational policy decisions. In addition, this work provides concrete concepts for predominately Black schools as well as mixed schools with regard to how to go about providing a quality education for Black students.
Ultimately, this book is insightful, instructive, and informative. It complicates our traditional binary frameworks for Black education (i.e., Black vs. White, liberal vs. conservative, etc.), making us realize that there are many frames and a multiplicity of perspectives. It encourages readers to base educational policy decisions on research (qualitative and/or quantitative) as opposed to ideology or political inclination. Finally, it reminds us that if we truly believe in the egalitarian principles on which we base our nation, then we must ensure that our rhetoric matches the reality. If we believe in liberty and justice for all, then we must ensure that all students have the kinds of educational experiences that maximize liberty or freedom and justice or fairness.
DuBois, W. E. B. (1935). Does the Negro need separate schools? Journal of Negro Education, 4(3), 328-
DuBois, W. E. B. (1978). The twelfth census and the Negro problems. In D. S. Green & E. D. Driver (Eds.), W. E. B. DuBois: On Sociology and the Black community (pp. 65-69). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1898)