Paul R. Lehman,Slanted cross-cultural homework causes parental complaintsJanuary 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Posted in American Racism, blacks, equality, Ethnicity in America, fairness, justice, Prejudice, Race in America, whites | 4 Comments
Tags: african american parents, African Americans, cross/cultural education, educators, European Americans, Fredrick Douglass, inferiority, math homework, parental complaints, public schools, superiority
Recently in Atlanta, Georgia, the station, WSB-TV reported that some African American parents were very upset about their children’s math homework that made references to slaves experiencing abuse and doing demeaning work. An example question asked “Each tree had 50 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave?” Another said, “If Fredrick [Douglass] got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”Other questions were along the same line. When the school district was questioned about this problem, a spokeswoman stated that “teachers were trying to do a cross-cultural activity, combining math problems with social studies lessons.” If the proper steps had been taken by the school and its educators, the concept of cross-cultural lesions could work very well. Unfortunately, the proper steps were not taken and the results were negative and unproductive. The proper steps should have involved preparation, execution, and expectations regarding the children, the educators and the parents.
Many time educators with good intentions can created ill result by failing to prepare carefully and thoroughly the material to be taught. While the idea of using social history in a math class is generally a good idea, the selection of the material to be employed should be the top priority. What the educators in the above referenced incident did not do was prepare properly. They did not consider if the affect of the information presented was offensive in any way because it was taken from social history. But if we examine what was taken from the history, we discover that the information promotes and sustains the idea of African American inferiority and European American superiority. What is generally taught in history about Frederick Douglass was his contribution to the civil rights of African Americans and women, his meetings with President Lincoln to convince him to allow African Americans to serve in the military during the Civil War. He was so successful that the Army created the 9th and 10th Calvary—all African American soldiers. Because the questions all chose to picture Douglass as a slave, they did a disservice to his story.
With proper preparation the educators could have selected aspects of the social history that presented a positive construction of Douglass. Since the question did not identify the ethnicity of the slaves everyone would assume they were African. During the early years of slavery, American Indians as well as European Americans were slaves. The reference in the questions easily suggests they were African /African American. Proper preparation would dictate that all students receive positive reinforcement from the experience. The objectives of the questions should be on enhancing and learning the subject-matter, not picturing the historical vehicles employed in an unflattering context.
Once the homework questions are created, the execution of the exam should not cause undue stress on the students. The questions referenced above could have actually caused emotional problems for students, regardless of the ethnicity. For example, the questions about Douglass showed him as a victim, a slave and therefore in an inferior condition. Since Douglass serves as a representative for African Americans chances are many of the African American students recognized inferiority underscored in Douglass. On the other hand, the abuse and forced labor of Douglass and the slaves in general, come at the hands of European Americans and serve to represent superiority. Obviously, no one is suggesting that the questions were written deliberately with this in mind, but the results are the same regardless of the intent. What if a question stated “Benjamin Franklin fathered one and one-third, out-of-wedlock child per year? How many children would he have fathered in five years? “ Where would the real emphasis lie in that question? Certainly not on the number of children but on Franklin because of his notoriety. That type of question would probably distract from the pedagogical objective and therefore be ineffective as an instrument of learning.
Generally speaking, most homework is given by the educators to measure the progress of the students’ learning and control of the subject-matter. An expectation is established for each question as well as for the entire experience. One wonders just what the expectations were for the students doing the homework in question. The reported response of the spokeswoman that “This is simply a case of creating a bad question, “shows a number of things lacking with the educator. For one, a lack of sensitivity for African American students who would have the concept of inferiority underscored. Another would be the lack of a considered expectation due to the nature of the question’s objective—not just the number of beating received, but the number that Douglass received. Still another concern is the lack of educational preparedness on the part of the educator relative to the sensitivity of the diverse students in the classroom and the affect that that disregard for feelings have on the non-African American students.
Most parents expect the school their children attend to reflect an atmosphere of safety and comfort from undue stress. In addition, they want to believe that the schools value each student’s physical and mental well-being. When incidents like the one in question occurs, the parents are well within their rights to complain and demand to know what is at work. After all, had the parents not reacted the way they did, one doubts that the educator as well as the school would have ever realized that what they were doing was in fact counterproductive to a wholesome education. By calling attention to the problem, the educator as well as the students can benefit from the changes to come, and the parents can re-establish their expectations for their children’s education, but always with watchful eyes.