The University of Maryland-Baltimore County is known for its innovative programs to recruit and graduate black students in science and technology fields,  sending many on to graduate schools at numbers unmatched by most of American higher education.
It may not be surprising, then, that as President Obama signed an executive order last week creating the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans,  he selected Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC, to chair a commission that will guide the effort.
The Obama executive order provides a summary of some of the challenges the new office is supposed to address as it considers how to promote black educational achievement from preschool through careers: "African Americans lack equal access to highly effective teachers and principals, safe schools, and challenging college-preparatory classes, and they disproportionately experience school discipline and referrals to special education. African American student achievement not only lags behind that of their domestic peers by an average of two grade levels, but also behind students in almost every other developed nation. Over a third of African-American students do not graduate from high school on time with a regular high school diploma, and only 4 percent of African American high school graduates interested in college are college-ready across a range of subjects. An even greater number of African-American males do not graduate with a regular high school diploma...."
Those and many other statistics, not to mention previous national efforts to focus attention on black students, raise the question: How can this commission succeed when so many others have failed?
In an interview Friday, Hrabowski said that he believes this commission and the new executive order can indeed make a difference. "I think the emphasis from the top, from the president, on academic achievement of African Americans, understanding the need to look at the role of different federal agencies, to think about how all of us have a role to play in thinking about the education of children" can, together, lead to new approaches, he said. "It is amazing how much can be done once you look a problem in the face."
President Obama has yet to appoint the other members of the panel, and Hrabowski said he didn't want to speak for the commission before it had even been assembled. But he did discuss some of the issues on which he would like to focus:
Consistent with the Obama administration and many foundations these days, Hrabowski said programs (federal, state, campus, local) need constant review. "Being as honest as possible can lead to actions that can help more children succeed," he said, and that means "evaluation, assessment and follow-through."
With regard to black students, Hrabowski said he believed it was important to look at groups within groups, and not just assume that there are policies or approaches that will help all African Americans. For example, first-generation students merit separate analysis, he said. "The best research practice would suggest you learn more when you disaggregate the data," he said. He said he hoped for analysis on particular issues facing black male and black female students, those in poor high schools and better-off high schools, students at different income levels, and so forth. "It's not enough to say 'How are African-American students doing in general?' " he said.
There are some issues on which the data are already clear, and on which new approaches are needed, he said. "When we look at suspension rates, you will see special challenges of boys of color," Hrabowski said. "Substantially more black boys are suspended than any other group, and when students are suspended, they are obviously not in class, and are getting behind, and when they return, they have a hard time catching up."
Other issues on which Hrabowski said that the data point to problems: "We need to look at reading and math scores and how scores lag. We need to look at the revolving door for many teachers in schools" that educate many black children.
Hrabowski declined to discuss the pending Supreme Court consideration of the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions. He said he thought it was important for the commission (and educators) to focus not just on federal policies or laws, but on roles for everyone. "We need to look at the responsibilities of families and communities," he said. "We need to have high expectations for everyone." And while part of that is looking at laws and federal policies, much of it isn't. At every level of education, he said, "we have to all understand that the performance of our students is our responsibility."
Black College Leaders Opposed Executive Order
Previous executive orders -- in the Obama administration and previous administrations, and still in effect -- have focused on educational issues facing American Indian, Asian American and Latino students, and on historically black colleges and universities. The new executive order mentions historically black colleges several times and urges the commission to work with groups advancing those institutions. But the new executive order is broader -- and is focused on black students at all levels of education and at all kinds of colleges, not just historically black colleges.
The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents historically black colleges, sent a letter to President Obama -- just prior to the executive order -- urging him not to release it. The letter said that the executive order might be "well intended," but that it could hurt black colleges, in part because there are currently federal programs that are exclusively for historically black colleges. "We are also concerned that if HBCUs are included in an executive order with early childhood education, and an array of elementary and secondary education programs, then Congress might include these programs in the same funding account. Placing HBCUs in a funding account with these and other important initiatives that we support, would pit HBCUs against elementary and secondary school advocates, the national teachers unions, counselors, superintendents and other allies in vying for funding. HBCUs would most assuredly not fare well in a competition with elementary and secondary education for funds."
The executive order, while mentioning all levels of education, and the prospect of federal agencies doing more for black students, does not suggest any shifts in funding accounts.
Hrabowski said he had not seen the NAFEO letter.
John S. Wilson Jr., director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said that he welcomed the new effort for all black students. Of the NAFEO letter, he said: "We doubt NAFEO would have generated that three-page letter to the president of the United States had they first read the actual executive order. The document provokes none of their concerns."