Why It Matters

Why It Matters

Racism has been the dominant factor retarding African American educational progress, as played out on the macro socio-economic levels and expressed through the cultural values and choices of the larger American society throughout history and to the present. My premise is that public schools have embedded in them continuously reproduced enduring structures that severely constrain the life learning opportunities of African American students as well as other minority groups. These constraining structures reproduce a stratified society of unequal social and economic capital.

Just as technological innovation increases exponentially, so too does its impact on society increase exponentially. There is a growing divide between the technological advances / demands in society and the ability of students in public schools, particularly African American students, to match those advances / demands. There is a real danger that African Americans and other minority groups will become a permanent underclass, unable to compete with respect to other groups, if the technical knowledge gaps continue to widen.  It is vital for African Americans to demand and devise educational programs that utilize advanced technologies to accelerate the attainment of their educational and societal goals.

One means of accelerating the closure of the Black / White achievement gap in public education is through collaborative web technologies, or E-learning, backed by a culturally sensitive pedagogy. The use of collaborative technologies or E-learning, backed by culturally sensitive pedagogy in public education systems, can accelerate educational attainment for African Americans, which would benefit the nation’s educational systems as a whole.  If we can learn how to significantly improve education for African American students in public schools, we would have learned how to improve education for all students in public schools. The sooner we can close the said achievement gap, the closer we will be to producing a truly pluralistic society where all are more capable of meeting the demands of a modern world.

I want to elaborate on how and why this issue matters to me by briefly relaying some salient episodes in my educational and professional life. At the beginning of my sophomore year in college I decided to reevaluate whether or not I should remain a psychology major, as my passion then was philosophy and comparative religion, with the possibility of me going into ministry. The philosophy major was the closest offering that matched my passion at Westfield State University in MA. I recall locking my self in a 3rd floor in the campus library and mapping out all the possible major and life trajectories I could pursue.  This was for me a serious evaluation that would set the course of my productive life. During that period on intense introspection, I had a most fortuitous dream. I dreamed that a computer desktop was in front of me in an auditorium on a table, and I had the thought that with this or any computer I could solve any problem presented to me. By extension I thought I could solve any problem that was important to the people who I wanted to fill the auditorium seats, members of communities I envisioned I would one day help, particular African American communities. This dream confirmed then for me my decision to give up the philosophy and religion in favor of the then budding field of computer science. Within a week of that dream I changed my major to computer science and was totally committed to it.

It was a few months after that when I had yet another fortuitous dream, that was to shape the course of my academic and professional career. I dreamed I was in an advanced math class on campus. I was sitting in the back watching a teacher put all kinds of math that was “Greek” to me. The students, all White, were able to understand it. I had no clue what it meant or why it was important, but instinctively I knew it was important to know. I thought to myself that if I had enough space and time that I took could learn and even master that “Greek” math.  Within a week of having that dream, I added mathematics to my major.  I was a double major.

In my senior year, I caught the fever to study economics.  By then I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to be involved in a big way the uplift of underserved communities, utilizing my knowledge of computer science, math and economics. I augmented my double major with a minor in economics and graduated with honors in 1986. I was accepted to the University of Maryland’s PhD program for computer science. My specialty was Artificial Intelligence. Unfortunately I only completed 1 year of the program because I was forced financially to start working on account of my need to support my new family.

The reason I convey this story is because it contains the seeds of my passion fruit to help African American and other underserved communities by using technology, advanced science math and economic principles, to solve problems of minority groups beset by racism and multiples levels of oppressive constructs. Upon entering the workforce as a computer programmer/analyst my goal was not only to support my family, but, to learn as much as I can about how computer technology is used to advance the interest of corporate America. My subversive goal was to extract this knowledge and to cipher it off to minority communities, as a resource to advance their interests, as on would divert some oil from a pipeline or power from a power line. I knew concretely even then, that knowledge is power, if used to solve one’s own problems and those of his/her community. So I went into my computer technology career with this subversive plan. This was how I reconciled my intense opposition to racism and structural inequalities with being about to work in corporate America.  It was primarily this idea that sustained me in this field for 17 years. I must say though that I never planned on staying in the field that long.  I figured after 5 to 10 years I would have learned what I needed in order to position myself to help under severed communities in a significant way. However, I did not know how to make that transition and still support family. I felt trapped for the last 7 years or so of my career. It was only six years ago when I decided to go for broke and make a desperate change. I decided to leave the field cold turkey, and go into education. I lived off of my savings and used much of it to pay for a Master’s in Math Education. I acquired a k-12 teacher’s license in NJ.  Immediately after completing my master’s I entered a PhD program in Urban Education at CUNY. I am still trying to figure out how to help solve the problems faced my underserved communities, using what knowledge capital I have, but also through collaborating with other’s who have the same passionate goal.

I went into all of the above, to give the reader an understanding of my positioning as I delve into my research interest here in this paper. What I will attempt to do here is reflect of some of the things that I have learned from my past academic and professional experiences that I hope to parlay into insights on how to accomplish the up lift of underserved communities, particularly African American communities, through the field of education.

 

What the Computer Field Taught Me About Education

Standards

My first position was as a database administrator / programmer at Chemical Bank on Park Avenue in N.Y. In that first indoctrination I learned that field definitions were centrally defined and standardized. All of the developers depended on these standards to accomplish their individual work.  My job was to make sure that this central repository of data definitions was maintained according to given naming conventions and standards for common access. Even the slightest error could affect many programmers and many new or existing applications.  Immediately was gone the notion of just doing my own piece of work. My work was inextricably lined with the work of others at every turn. When I teach my students I want them to experience this interdependence with each other in the projects they do.  I want to teach them that their problem solving may be for some immediate individual gain, such as passing a quiz; however in the long term their problem solving should be put in the context of being inextricably linked to the problems of a community, such as mine was in the community of application developers.

User Requirements

One of the key things you learn as an application developer is that you don’t just create applications how you want them, but how the user demands them.  The user is king. “He how pays the piper calls the tune.” You learn quickly that you better be keen on not only understanding your skill set, what that skill set empowers you to accomplish, but most importantly that you are employed to used those skills to solve other peoples problems, not your own. In the end the user will signoff on whether or not you meet their requirements.  If you consistently fail to do so your services will no longer be needed.  Likewise our students must learn clearly who they are solving problems for, and clearly whom they should be solving problems for. Our students are taught in the main that they should acquire a skill so that they can be hired for a job, so that they can earn money and buy what they need to live the American dream of having a home, a car, and splurge money.  Some of the so called brightest and industrious are encouraged to own their own businesses and to become venture capitalists. I maintain that students should first and foremost associate their education with learning how to solve the problems of their communities.

On a national level, countries are sensitive about the direction their educational systems are headed. If there is a great need for engineering, medical expertise, technology growth, economic growth, or what have you, countries will invest financially in their educational systems to promote development in those respective areas through grants and other means. Countries “consciously” shape their educational systems to meet the goals of their country.  I maintain that in many respects, due to racism and the cultivation of a stratified society, African Americans have been pigeonholed into a situation of being something of a country within a country. The unemployment rates for African Americans have consistently been double that of Whites. The financial capital owned by African Americans needed for investments are many times lower that Whites. Recently I learned that there are only 70 African Americans in the whole country who are on a tenure track or have received tenure in American institutions of higher learning. Given these kinds of realities, it is understandable how one can view the African American collective as a nation within a nation, having different problems, hence different goals and motives than Whites. If the problems, goals and motives of African Americans are starkly different from Whites, then it stands to reason that the educational problems, needs, demands of African Americans will also be different. Surely anyone can see how more African Americans professionals are needed to analyze and solve the economic crisis facing African communities across the nation. More African Americans professionals are needed to solve the problems of student under achievement and knowledge gaps across most disciplines in schools. Gone is the need for missionaries to solve problems for African Americans according to their own value systems. I believe African Americans must rely on themselves to define and solve collective problems. Alliances, partnerships, social aid of all kinds are vitally important; but the vision, the road maps, the motive force must emanate from the people whose very freedoms and existence are at stake.

I went in a wide circle to affirm that the high level skills learned by African Americans in schools and even the work force should be harnessed to solve the deep problems faced by African American communities.  This should be part of the mission of schools where African American students predominate. African American communities must continue to demand this kind of education, for power concedes nothing without demand. Towards the end of my professional career as an application developer, I felt like a commodity, a resource, a tool that could solve other peoples (corporate) problems. I was anxious to use my abilities to solve the problems of underserved communities. I believe this axiological value must be instilled in African American youth in schools where they predominate.

Group Ware

Around the late 90’s with the advent of the internet, the methods of developing computer applications changed, and I was keenly aware of this sea change. There was a greater push towards collaborative application development, and the collection of computer software tools used to accomplish this was called group ware.  The application development platform I jumped on while I worked at J.P Morgan and Marsh & McLennan was called “Lotus Notes” and subsequently Java. It was called RAD, Rapid Application Development.  It allowed for users to access company resources and computer processes remotely through the company intra net and through the World Wide Web. I was truly fascinated by this type of technology and I quickly became certified to do this work, which I did for the later 10 years or so of my career. As the technology matured these companies moved to other platforms, which I did not keep up with.

This kind of collaborative work fed beautifully into my vision on how African American communities needed to work collaboratively to solve collective problems. Later as I moved into the educational field I transferred that same vision to how students needed to work to learn how to solve collective problems of their communities. Its this same vision I pull from today when I assign group projects to my students that use Moodle (Content Management System) and Google Mail, WordPress.com and power math modeling tools such as Maple 15. All students in public schools must become adept at using Web 2.0 tools, where they not only access the worlds information via the internet, but learn how to manage that information, author their own contributions to existing knowledge stores, and multiply their collective knowledge of solutions to problems by leveraging collaborative technologies. I advocate strongly that teachers help students to learn how to use resources in a Web 2.0 enabled classroom to solve problems that are relevant to the student and the community from which they come. In schools where African Americans predominates, this means teachers teaching in culturally sensitive ways that will help African American students to learn how to solve the deep problems facing our their communities. This is not a separatist imperative, to foster the continued divergence of Blacks from Whites. It is an attempt to level the playing field so that Blacks can compete and hold their own in an increasing technologically demanding workforce and fast paced society.

 

Obsolescence

One of the painful lessons I learned during my career as an application developer is that due the exponential growth of technology, that the computer toolkit we had acquired became obsolete in increasingly sorter time periods. I had to constantly “retool” to keep up with these changes.  At one point for example I was learning the Java platform because I was anticipating that the “Lotus Notes” platform was dying out. This constant need to retooling also accelerated my desire to leave the field, as it was not my intention to keep up with all of these changes. I was becoming critically aware that it was time to use my foundational knowledge to assist in initiatives to help underserved communities value and leverage technology to reach their goals. Failure of these communities and the educational systems in them to help their youth come up to speed with the changes in technology would clearly result in these youth not being able to adjust to demands of a 21st century economy.  They would consequently become themselves obsolete, and enter the lower rungs of society, and likely remain there.

Global Village

Another vital lesson that I learned during my career as an application developer in the financial industries is that these corporations have offices or affiliates locally, nationally and internationally. I had to learn how to develop applications that accounted for various time zones, country codes, and cultural nuances. The applications had to be extensible for different places and time frames. My thinking had to expand beyond the local. I think this is also the case for our students. Due to their fluency with information gathered from the Internet they are already acquiring this expanded sense of a global village. However, they are not necessarily positioning themselves as problem solvers for or active contributors to the global village. I think teachers of predominantly African American students must also emphasize the importance of their contributions to the global village and particularly to the Diaspora of African descendents, many of whom are looking for African Americans from the most power country on earth, to lead the way towards economic and social development of underdeveloped African communities around the world. What is the point of having the African in African American, if our youth are not taught to honor and protect the countries of their ancestral continent of Africa?

Maintainability & Extensibility

One of the main lessons I learned as an application developer is that your applications must be both maintainable, and extensible. Maintainability in this context means that once your application is rolled out it should be easy for someone else to come behind you to locate fix any bugs in the application.  The application should be documented and the code modularized well enough to isolate and solve the problem quickly. Furthermore, any application should be extensible such that newer functionality can be added easily without requiring much rewrite of existing code or radically changing existing processes. Not only that, extensibility could also mean expanding the capacity and scope of and existing application. As I mentioned in the financial industry applications should function across regions and time zones. I think these concepts can be applied to teaching African American students by emphasizing that they must learn underlying principles governing a field and be able to apply these principles in novel ways that addresses the unique problem sets of their communities. They must use the skills learned in math and science and extend them to the problem domain of their communities. Furthermore they should see their contributions as contributing to the collective knowledge capital of their communities so that it will be easier for the youth who are coming up behind them to further maintain and extend their current solutions sometime in the future; rather than have to start from scratch. So solutions to unique problems faced by African American communities and devised by vanguards of these communities should be well-documented maintained, and designed for extensibility. African American student developers should be taught these methods, as I learned them in corporate America.

I can probably go on with more ways that I can apply what I learned as an application developer in corporate America to the problems faced by African American students in public schools and the stakeholders of their education. I think the point is that exponential advances in technology are changing the way we have to address the ongoing issue of racism and the it’s various manifestations of oppression.  We have to recognize that these changes are speeding up the movement towards a condition where African Americans collectively will not develop the necessary survival tools to avoid becoming a permanent underclass in society, or a non-existent factor in total. As one who has become intimately involved in the forces of change due to technology in both the corporate world and the educational world, I could not and would not in due conscience not involve myself in researching how to advance the unique educational needs of African American students who push to the extreme abyss by the technological engine of change.

 

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