Could African Americans Learn from High-Scoring African Students?

African father helping son with homework

By Manny Otiko

Brown v. Board of Education, which ended America’s separate and unequal education system, was passed more than 60 years ago, but there are still glaring inequalities in the school system. Black American students still score lower than white students on standardized tests. According to a 2014 PBS story, a little over half of African-American males who entered high school in 2006 graduated in four years, compared with 78 percent of white males and 58 percent of Latino males. The PBS story also stated only 16 percent of Black males hold college degrees, as opposed to 32 percent of white males.

However, African immigrants and their children seem to be thriving in American schools. A study by Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania showed more than a quarter of the Black students at Ivy League schools were immigrants. This is not just restricted to the United States. Nigerian students are famed for their academic prowess in Britain. The Imafidon family, which has been dubbed “the smartest family in Britain,” is of Nigerian descent. Anne-Marie, the oldest of a family of overachievers, speaks six languages and graduated from Johns Hopkins and Oxford University before she turned 20. She is also the youngest person to pass the British A-level (college prep) computing exam.

So what’s going on? Why are Black Americans’ test scores still lagging? The answer is complex and factors in several issues such as poorly funded schools in high-crime neighborhoods, lack of parental involvement and bias from American educators.

John Allen Bailey, an Austin, Texas-based social worker, has mentored and studied students in the local school system. He said students coming from stressful, unstable environments suffer academically. He also says there may be some bias from American teachers.

“The primary educators are white and teach white supremacy,” Bailey said. “Our children (African-Americans) are more frequently stigmatized for their nuances and put into special education, which is crippling.”

The Imafidon family

The Imafidon family

Studies of several school systems have shown Black students are more likely to be suspended and are highly represented in special education classes.

Bailey said many educators already walk into the classroom with preconceived notions and low expectations about Black American students.

“We are already perceived as ignorant and treated as such,” Bailey said.

He has witnessed this in Austin schools, where some students are labeled “bad kids.”

“They are calling these children ‘bad’ and I’m from NYC and these children aren’t doing anything that the bad kids do,” Bailey said.

African students may be succeeding academically because of several reasons. For one, they are not labeled negatively by American educators and they come from intact cultures and close-knit families that provide positive role models. Also, in many cases, the children of African immigrants come from families where their parents are already college graduates.

“I think having an actual clear and distinct culture has something to do with it,” Bailey said. “Children do what they are steered to do.”

According to Bailey, Black children trapped in underperforming schools in high-crime neighborhoods get exposed to a lot of negativity growing up.

“In bad neighborhoods that are in turmoil, the best will leave,” he said. “The role models are the best of the worst.”

However, it’s not just Black children from low-income neighborhoods who are underperforming. In 2003, John Ogbu, a University of California, Berkeley, anthropology professor, published the findings of his study of middle-class Black students in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He found Black students’ test scores still lagged behind white students. Ogbu, a Nigerian native, came up with the term “acting white,” for the practice where some Black students do poorly academically because they want to be popular and fit in with their friends.

In his study, Ogbu concluded many of the African-American parents were so busy working multiple jobs to provide for their families they neglected to oversee their children’s homework and monitor their academic progress.

In a New York Times interview, Ogbu said, “’There are two parts of the problem, society and schools on one hand and the black community on the other hand.”

Bailey said Black parents need to be an active presence in their children’s academic careers because some of the information Black students are being taught is culturally biased and inaccurate.

“Take an interest,” he said. “Even if you were being taught lies, you should be able to break down the lies. I got good grades and I knew I was being BSed.”

Back to top