by Emile Session
We do our students a disservice when we focus on academics as the sole key to success. The lesson in the new documentary American Promise (available for viewing on the PBS website through March 6) is that we cannot pretend that the only skills African American males need for education are reading and writing. American Promise follows two African American boys who begin their schooling at the Dalton School. Dalton is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, and Idris and Seun are among the only Black male students. Their divergent experiences illustrate that when educating young people of color, we cannot ignore the “hidden curriculum” of American education.
The difference in our students’ academic skills isn’t only a result of what happens in the classroom. We conflate successful education with what we can measure on tests. However, anyone who’s held down a job knows that more skills are required than being a good test taker. During American Promise, Seun’s parents struggle when his teachers give him low marks even though his test scores are solid. The school cites his “organization” and openly questions if Dalton is a cultural match for African-American male students. The same dynamic confronts us when we enter the workplace, where employers rank organization and teamwork above technical knowledge as the most important skills they’re looking for and consider the inability to productively accept feedback and manage emotions as the main reasons otherwise skilled people fail. The “cultural match” Dalton struggles with has to do with how implicit the skills they’re looking for are in a classroom: we typically don’t take classes on staying motivated and dealing with feedback until we’re adults, if at all.
What drives Idris’ and Seun’s experiences at Dalton has as much to do with the “cultural match” with their families as it does with being Black males. Idris’ parents are college educated middle class professionals; they tutor Idris at home themselves and have him treated for ADD. Seun’s parents work long hours at working class jobs; one teacher labels him as too “peaceful” for the school because his hard work doesn’t look like other Dalton students’. When Idris graduates from Dalton and goes to Occidental, he struggles with not meeting his family’s expectations that he would get into and attend Stanford. After Seun leaves Dalton for the mostly Black Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, he chooses to study graphic design at SUNY Fredonia without as much pressure from the expectations of his parents.
The key to understanding Seun and Idris’ different paths to success isn’t another debate on who teaches and what is taught in the classroom. Seun and Idris are different people who respond positively to different situations. The common themes are the value of non-academic skills like their grit and the work of adults inside and outside of school to motivate them. When we think about how to reform education to better serve our children, we have to think of the skills we value in adults that aren’t traditionally taught in the classroom.
About the Author, Emile Session
Emile Session lives in Brooklyn, NY and works for Achievement First, a network of high performing public charter schools. He has worked as a math teacher, education researcher, and classroom observer, and is a graduate of Cornell and Columbia University.