George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

The Crisis in Black Education: Reaching Students Where They Are

An education professor draws connections between critical skills and hip-hop culture, and argues that there is no crisis in black education.
Bettina Love in front of a classroom
Bettina Love in front of a classroom

The theme of Black History Month this year is “The Crisis in Black Education.” The scope of the crisis is considerable: Results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress—a test that’s also known as the Nation’s Report Card—show almost no change in the achievement gap between white and black students over the past 50 years. To help unpack the challenges facing African American students, we talked to educators who are tackling this crisis and implementing meaningful solutions.

Dr. Bettina Love is a professor of education at the University of Georgia who grew up immersed in hip-hop culture in the early 1980s. She developed Real Talk: Hip Hop Education for Social Justice, a Common Core–aligned after-school program for elementary students that "positions the culture, social context, learning styles and students’ experiences at the center" of the curriculum. Love believes that hip-hop is a valuable, highly engaging teaching tool that can help African American students deepen their understanding of racial identity, political power, and social justice—and develop crucial skills including critical thinking, problem solving, and communication.

We talked to Love about why hip-hop shouldn’t be treated as mere entertainment, how civics education can be integrated into curricula to power positive change, and why she doesn’t think there’s a crisis in black education.

EDUTOPIA: You’ve spoken about the power of hip-hop to help students develop valuable skills. Can you say more about that?

BETTINA LOVE: If you look at most schools’ mission statements, they say they want students to have skills like critical thinking, problem solving, agility, social responsibility, grit, optimism, self-advocacy, and integrity. These are all skills that can be fostered in hip-hop culture. Young folks who are creating hip-hop are critical theorists grappling with understanding and deconstructing race, writing political critiques in poetic forms, and setting them to music. They’re collaborating together, looking at themselves and their communities critically, building knowledge of self, and telling their own stories. It’s all the four Cs of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication all at once. And on top of that, they’re using digital and internet technology to build their audiences on social media and distribute their music. Look at someone like Chance the Rapper—he won three Grammy awards this year and doesn’t even have a record deal. He recorded, released, and promoted all his own music himself.

So we say we have all these outcomes we want for our students, and there they are, sitting in our classrooms waiting for us with bated breath to get started. But instead of engaging them in a modality where they’re already engaged and succeeding, we give them this dry, oftentimes out-of-touch material that’s not relevant to them. So we hear school administrators say, “These kids just don’t have these skills.” I beg to differ—they have the skills. These administrators are just not seeing it because they’re not looking in the right place.

EDUTOPIA: The theme of Black History Month this year is “The Crisis in Black Education.” Do you think we’re in a crisis? How would you describe what’s going on for black students in their K–12 education?

LOVE: I don’t think there’s any such thing as a crisis in black education. There is an educational justice crisis. Schools are just mirrors of our society, and when communities of color are deliberately gutted of their public services, jobs, housing, and health care, these human beings who are the most vulnerable in society become trapped by economic and racial isolation. We have a series of failing and interdependent systems: Educational justice is connected to economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice, religious justice, queer justice, citizenship justice, and disability justice.

We need to bring civics education back. A better world is not going to just fall out of the sky and create itself.

EDUTOPIA: Do you think there’s anything that those of us who are invested in improving education can do? What are the changes within education we should consider?

LOVE: In my opinion, there are five major issues that need to be addressed. First of all, educators need to have a deeper understanding of America’s racial history and how its policies—and therefore its schools—promote racism, both consciously and unconsciously.

Secondly, policymakers and educators also need to address the education debt that is owed to children of color and Native American children. They need to prioritize the success of these communities who have been underserved for so long.

Furthermore, creativity needs to be a central part of education. Students need to know that using their imaginations in meaningful ways is critical to their education and, ultimately, their lives. And the educational system needs to support that.

We also need to recruit and retain educators that are committed to anti-oppressive education. Teachers must be willing to not only teach youth, but also march with youth, protest with youth, and show commitment to developing and improving as educators.

And finally, we need to bring civics education back. A better world is not going to just fall out of the sky and create itself. We must ground our civics education with a commitment to youth culture, and deeply examine the sociopolitical lives of youth, their communities, and how racism functions in America and its schools. When we center civics, activism, and intersectional justice in our teaching, we are helping to create a more just society.

EDUTOPIA: To that end, let’s talk about Get Free, the civics curriculum you designed for elementary students that uses hip-hop to teach social justice.

LOVE: It’s a multimedia civics curriculum for youth and young adults of all ages. I was inspired by the exuberance, ingenuity, political energy, resistance, love, and DIY model of underground hip-hop, and created this program to push and extend ideas of democracy, community, civic engagement, and intersectional justice. I wanted to introduce young people and educators to a national network of young community leaders, artists, and activists who advocate for social change and democratic inclusion driven by grassroots organizing. So, just as the the style and music of hip-hop is hyperlocal, this curriculum is designed to provide hyperlocal lenses into different communities, and facilitate cohesion within these communities for social activism.

EDUTOPIA: As you think about this curriculum and your other work, what gives you hope?

LOVE: I’m inspired by young folk who are just embracing who they are and truly queering their spaces and identity. I’m inspired by the DIY model, and young people doing things for themselves. I just think it’s an amazing time to watch young folk carve out a space for themselves to do the work that they want to do. I am truly inspired by their exuberance and their joy.

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Chancellor Roberts's picture
Chancellor Roberts
English-language teacher.

Interesting reading. Not sure I agree with all of it, though. I guess that's because I don't believe in different races.

What concerns me most are statements suggesting, as one black newspaper columnist in Buffalo, New York suggested nearly a decade ago, that black students can't be taught by "white women from the suburbs" or what I have personally overheard black adults say, that doing well in school is "acting white" or being "a traitor to your race" or a black former school superintendent who said that the education system wasn't designed to educate blacks. The school district where all of this occurred has a student population that is around 56% black and where the four-year high school graduation rate among black males was (and may still be) a dismal 25 percent.

I have no doubt that hip hop can be an effective tool as discussed in the article, but I find the idea of having separate methodologies based on skin color disturbing. Before I was born, the Supreme Court rightly decided that "separate but equal" was not equal. This seeming desire to return to some kind of segregated education quite frankly disgusts me.

I think we need to look at issues such as the bigotry of lower expectations and of the percentage of students of color being referred for special education when compared to their white peers.

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