Educator Calls for Transformation in Schools and Society in Ridley Lecture

February 09, 2007
Feb. 9, 2007 -- The most important factor in improving the academic success of African-American youth is consistent, high-quality teaching, according to Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, an Emory University professor who gave the second address in the annual Walter Ridley Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of Virginia on Feb. 7. School reforms will not be enough, however, to close the achievement gap between white and black students.

“If African-American children are to succeed in school, both schools and society have to be dramatically transformed, not merely reformed,” said Irvine, speaking to a full house in the Rotunda Dome Room.

In her talk, she described a list of elements required for this larger transformation, including ideas for “a paradigm shift” in teacher education, as well as working on social problems of poverty and racism.

She also made a point of saying that Walter Ridley, the first African-American student to receive a degree from the University of Virginia — a doctorate in education in 1953 — understood this and was a good model of a black scholar bringing activism into education.

Also a dedicated researcher and teacher educator specializing in urban education, Irvine said her perspective changed dramatically after Hurricane Katrina when the tragedy exposed the ways that the needs of poor African Americans in New Orleans have been neglected.
“Hurricane Katrina is a symbol of what can happen when a nation systematically and unabashedly abandons the most vulnerable,” she said.

The current situation of low-performing schools and minority children is similar. The facts — 2,000 babies are born into poverty each day, for instance — show “how this country devalues children,” Irvine said.

Despite the growing diversity of children in this country, schools and neighborhoods are becoming more segregated over the past decade, Irvine said. African-American children are more likely to come from low-income families and therefore poor school districts. Black children are twice as likely as white children to have the most inexperienced teachers who are uncertified or teaching a different subject from their specialty.

In this context, teacher education reform plays a crucial role. According to Irvine, reform should include recruiting more minorities into the profession, but equally important is motivating people from dominant groups and monocultural backgrounds to teach in culturally diverse school settings, she said. “We need to find teacher candidates who are persistent, open-minded, reflective, complex thinkers and risk-takers.”

High-quality teachers need to have a thorough and deep understanding of their subject to understand how to reach different kinds of learners. They need to learn culturally responsive skills to make connections between the realities of the students’ lives and what is being taught, no matter the subject. For example, teachers should learn about the their students’ historical and cultural backgrounds and infuse that knowledge into everyday pedagogical practices.

Along with teaching reform, closing the achievement gap will take sustained, long-term efforts to solve the problems inherent in poverty and racism said Irvine, the author of several books, including “Black Students and School Failure” (1990) and “Critical Knowledge for Teachers of Diverse Learners” (1997).

“The data is consistent and convincing,” from many sources, she said, mentioning, among others, a report from the Educational Testing Service, which reviewed thousands of articles and concluded that the achievement gap cannot be closed simply by concentrating on school variables.

“We cannot close the achievement gap if we cannot close these other gaps,” Irvine said. In schools and society, gaps exist in teacher quality, a challenging curriculum, school funding, the digital divide, in wealth and income, integration, nutrition, parenting skills, employment opportunity, affordable housing, health care, and quality childcare.

Irvine believes that confronting these issues requires teachers to see themselves in an entirely new light. “Teacher educators should teach students to see themselves as social reconstructivists who dismantle systems of inequality and oppression and who advocate for children and their families who cannot advocate for themselves,” she said. “Our pre-service [teaching] students’ beliefs are unlikely to be replaced with more positive ones unless they prove unsatisfactory. They are not likely to prove unsatisfactory unless they are challenged,” she said.

“As teachers, too often we hesitate to share our beliefs and political stances,” said Irvine, stressing that educators need to understand “politics is really not a dirty word.” Part of the paradigm shift is helping educators realize “our work in schools is as much about politics as it is pedagogy,” she said. “Political influences have a great deal to do with the outcomes of our work.” Moving an equity agenda forward requires involving those who make critical decisions, who control the curriculum, the assessment mechanisms, other policies and money, she said.

“I think Walter Ridley was astutely aware of the political and advocacy roles of educators,” said Irvine, who reviewed his work after learning that the speaker series is named for him. She praised his keen intellect, commitment to social justice and his advocacy for all children.

“We must act, not by saving one African American child at a time, but by working on the institutionalization of structures and policies that protect, educate and nurture all children,” said Irvine.