Fulfilling the American Promise: The Education System, Outside and Within

Essential Questions
  • What are the connections among systems, individuals and educational instruction?
  • How do instructional practices that reflect the dominant culture leave out some students?
    • Recognize how a system that aims to treat all students equally may contain elements that perpetuate inequity.
    • Consider how the failure to recognize the diversity of student populations may negatively affect classroom instruction and student learning.
    • Devise strategies to meet the needs of diverse student populations, maintain academic rigor and hold high classroom expectations.

    You need:

    • ability to access audio and video on your device;
    • pen and paper or a computer;
    • and about one hour.


      In his classic history of southern blacks and American education, James D. Anderson writes:

      It is critical for an understanding of American educational history … to recognize that within American democracy there have been classes of oppressed people and that there have been essential relationships between popular education and the politics of oppression. Both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education. 

      Take a moment to reread the passage.

      How do you think race, gender, class and other identity markers shape our school system, particularly through the relationships developed within the teaching and learning process?

      Take a few minutes to jot down your thoughts.

      In a group? Share your thoughts with the person sitting next to you.



      Take a few minutes for this task:

      Step 1—Without using a dictionary, record your definition of a “system.”

      Step 2—Based on your definition, is there a system at your school?

      Step 3—List examples of how the system functions in your school.

      Step 4—Elaborate about the system you identified. What are the pros and cons for students? Who created the system? Who benefits from its implementation?


      View this clip from American Promise.

      How do students benefit from systems, and how can they be harmed?


      American Promise uses the experiences of two black males to illuminate how the educational system is molded to the needs of a population that is predominately white and middle-class.

      Early in the film, both sets of African-American parents express concerns about sending their sons to a predominantly white school. Despite reservations, Idris’ and Seun’s parents enroll them at Dalton because they believe that the educational benefits and the academic opportunities outweigh the school’s lack of racial diversity.

      • What does Dalton’s aggressive recruitment of students of color suggest about the school’s goals?
      • Thinking about both Dalton and Banneker, how did each school’s approach to education affect Idris’ and Seun’s learning experiences and personal development?

      Go Deeper

      Consider these questions as you view the scenes that follow.

      • In your school, are children of color disproportionately labeled with learning disabilities, despite beliefs that children are categorized regardless of their racial, ethnic or class backgrounds?
      • Do you think the concerns expressed by the boys’ parents are valid?



      Take a few minutes to record your thoughts about the connection between Idris’ and Seun’s experiences in Dalton’s education system and their personal development.

      • Where did each boy start, and where did he end?
      • How did each boy change?
      • Who are the people and what are the events that shaped the boys’ childhood experiences? 
      • What role did educators play in the boys’ development?


      School Leadership and Student Learning:

      View the following clips to compare the leadership at Dalton and Banneker.

      Both schools are part of the larger educational system, but their instructional approaches differ greatly. What explains the divergent pedagogies?


      Dalton’s High Expectations and Banneker’s Nurturing Learning Culture

      Banneker’s principal, Dr. Daryl Rock, challenges the white, middle-class assumptions that are central to how children are educated in the United States. Martha Edleson articulates Dalton’s expectations for its students.


      • How are the two schools’ approaches different? How does each school define success? How could each school improve?
      • Select the approach that is most similar to your school’s approach, and redesign it. Think about concrete, measurable ways to improve the system used at your school, as well as how the students, instructional staff and school leadership might benefit from your suggestions.


      What’s Next?

      Analyze and evaluate your school’s system and its impact on the children and adults within it.

      • Are instructional strategies responsive to the needs of diverse students? Is the curriculum engaging?
      • Do administrators encourage instructional collaboration?
      • What can teachers learn from one another to improve instruction in the classroom?

      With your colleagues, share instructional strategies and brainstorm new ways of measuring student achievement and learning while maintaining rigor. If possible, devise ways of collaborating that will help create a system between classrooms in your school where teachers can openly share successful approaches that ensure the learning of all students.

      Continued Learning: Facilitating Faculty Discourse via Social Media

      After sharing your observations, start a formal conversation among the staff about ways to improve the learning culture. Creating a private Facebook group accessible only to school faculty is one way to facilitate these discussions in a confidential and easy manner. A Facebook group also allows staff to communicate about students during the school day, as most smartphones have an application for the social media site.

      Group Option—Look at Your Department

      Gather with instructional staff in your subject area to discuss your classroom routines and pedagogical approaches.

      • Is your department uniform, or does each instructor have an individual, autonomous classroom system?
      • Share and list the benefits of your system, as well as the challenges it creates.
      • Do your department’s practices meet all of your students’ needs, or should they be refined?

      When you finish, share your observations with colleagues from other departments.


      Go Deeper

      Teacher Swap

      With the consent of school leadership, devise a plan to observe other instructors or co-teach with a colleague to learn new practices that may improve your classroom routines.

      You may also ask your supervisor to observe your instructional practices before and after you swap classrooms, and invite him or her to participate in the planning and teaching of your activities.

      This is the last in the four-part series examining American Promise and the education of black boys in the American educational system.


      Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. University of North Carolina Press, 1988, p. 1. 


      John Adams is a freelance writer and PhD candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.