Embracing Excellence and Diversity


Public education's success early in the new millennium hinges largely on how well the nation's schools address two critical challenges. On the one hand, our society is growing steadily more dependent on technology. Simultaneously, it is becoming increasingly diverse.

To succeed in the new century, our schools must work to ensure that all students, particularly minorities, are able to meet the demanding standards for excelling in science and technology. Consider the following:

  • By 2050, experts predict the U.S. population will increase by 60 percent to 400 million and that almost one of every two Americans will be non-white;

  • By 2030, one of every two Americans will support one retired person (in the 1950s, the ratio was four workers to one retiree);

  • Currently, we barely can meet half of the nation's demand for a skilled information technology workforce. Also, women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in science and technology disciplines; and

  • By 2003, worldwide Internet commerce will exceed $1.3 trillion (last year it totaled $50 billion).

    Most important, our growing, aging and increasingly diverse population is unevenly prepared to participate in a booming technology-based economy. By extension, one of our most critical goals for American education should be to eliminate the gap in achievement levels between the "haves" and the "have-nots," recognizing that many of those in the latter category are minority.

    Information Processing
    Regardless of their backgrounds, students will need to be comfortable with science and technology in order to succeed in the future. Though most, of course, will not be computer professionals, students will need to have basic technical literacy and upgrade their skills constantly regardless of career choice.

    Our information-based economy also will place a high premium on the ability of citizens to think critically and communicate clearly, given the need for evaluating the quality and variety of information fueling the economy. For example, by the end of 1999, the World Wide Web will have amassed nearly 1.45 billion pages, which will more than quadruple to 7.7 billion pages within two years. Also, surveys indicate the average e-mail user sends and receives up to 25 to 30 e-mail messages daily, making e-mail the predominant mode of communication for business and personal use. How will students handle so much information? What are we doing to prepare them to think critically and express themselves clearly in such a world?

    Clearly, education will be a lifelong process. We will need to be able to learn in both formal and informal settings, grasp new concepts often and quickly and work well with others from diverse backgrounds given the increasingly interdependent nature of problems (and solutions). Public education will require strong, skillful and imaginative leadership that encourages innovative approaches that reverse the tide of apathy toward hard work and inspire all students to want to achieve.

    Despite the demand for skilled information technology workers, college enrollments in computer science and information systems have declined. One reason is the poor performance of American students in math and science. When I ask schoolchildren about their favorite subjects, they often tell me "math is too hard" or "I don't like math." Their responses contrast sharply with what I've observed in other countries, where students actually rise to applaud high academic achievement by their peers. In the new century, we must work to make education the No. 1 priority of our society, so that high academic achievement is the rule rather than the exception.

    Overcoming Odds
    To ensure the success of all students, public school educators must find ways of engaging parents and families in the process of educating young people. This is especially true for school districts with significant minority populations because of our concerns about the low academic achievement level of these students. In fact, we often hear about unsuccessful minority students, why they are failing and how their attitudes are not conducive to high achievement. Yet we need to listen carefully to the voices of successful minority students and their parents in order to learn what factors made the positive difference in these young people's lives.

    Often when I meet with young black males in a school, one or more of them will ask, "What did we do wrong this time?" "Nothing," I quickly respond before telling them I asked to meet them because I know they are bright and I want to ensure they understand that to succeed in life, they have to succeed in school. At first, I usually see some doubt on their faces about my sincerity. But as we talk and I offer them attention and praise, the students become truly engaged in the discussion and show pride in their ability to think.

    In Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males, my fellow authors, Kenneth Maton and Geoffrey Greif, and I interviewed the parents and sons of 60 families affiliated with the nationally acclaimed Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, designed to address the shortage of minorities in professional science careers. Over a three-year period, we listened to mothers, fathers and sons talk about what they did to ensure the student's academic success. We chose to look initially at males (and have begun a second study on talented black women in science) because they are doing the least well academically in schools across the country.

    Our goal was to provide interested groups with information about what actually works in raising academically successful black males. So what did we find? First, we explored the parents' own upbringing and how their experiences affected how they raised their sons. The result was like an intricately woven tapestry of three generations. Regardless of their own education or their economic or marital status, the parents in our study were influenced most by an emphasis on education and academic success, coupled with a focus on hard work and overcoming adversity.

    More specifically, we identified the six most prevalent components of successful parenting among the 60 families, whether the sons grew up in Baltimore, New York City or Oakland, Calif. They included (1) child-focused, self-sacrificing love, including a deep and enduring commitment to education; (2) strong limit-setting and discipline by parents; (3) continually high expectations of the sons; (4) open and consistent communication between parents and sons; (5) positive black male identification; and (6) parents' reliance on community resources, such as churches and schools.

    We also uncovered several related factors contributing to the academic success of the young men in our study: (1) the importance of reading, beginning with parents reading to their sons at a young age; (2) the parents' view that education is both necessary and extremely valuable; (3) parents' active encouragement toward academic success; (4) close interaction between parents and their sons' teachers; (5) strong parental interest in homework; (6) considerable verbal praise; and (7) parents helping their sons understand that even when they face prejudice or racism, they cannot afford to see themselves as victims and still succeed.

    A Family Duty
    What's most significant about the families we studied is that the parents have viewed their sons' education as their top priority. Although they knew that the schools and others could help them, it was ultimately the family that took responsibility for developing the boys' reading skills, values and positive attitude toward education. These parents have been their children's chief advocates and have regularly offered both praise and criticism. Most important, they have helped their children to want to achieve academically in a society where too many minority children believe it is not "cool" to be smart.

    In our book, we describe a single father, who was only 14 years older than his son and who, with his mother's help, raised the boy from the age of 5. He told us about his approach to addressing the child's mediocre performance in school:

    "One particular hard time I had with him was in his junior year when we were going over his report card like we always did and he blew up. He said, 'Look, dad. Get off of it! Leave me alone. I just want to be like everyone else.' That was the first time I experienced that he was not going along with me. I stood back and thought a minute and told him, 'But you're not average. You were never average and never will be. Even if you try to be average, you won't be.' And he said he just wanted to be like so and so and named some of his friends. And I said to him, 'You know those people whose pictures are on your walls? Michael Jordan and those musicians? Those people are not average. They tell you they are average but they are not. If they were, they would not be making millions of dollars.' When I was done talking to him, I was pleased and I said, 'Whew,' to myself.

    "I kept telling him one thing when he was young--I would ask him, 'Who am I?' and I would say, "I am your father first and your friend second. And when you become wise enough, I'll become your friend first and your father second. And I'll decide when that time comes."

    Whether as parents, teachers, school administrators or members of the public, we need to set high expectations for our students and ourselves as we strive to ensure the success of all students in the future.

    Freeman Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250. E-mail: