Substantive meaning of achievement, The

substantive meaning of achievement, The

Sylvia T Johnson

This issue of the JNE opens its 66th volume of continuous publication since 1932. During that time, multiple aspects of the education of people of color have been investigated and reported in these pages. One major continuing theme of this work has been academic achievement. Whether the focus of a particular article over this long span was on student personnel service needs, child development, or equity in salaries for African Americans teachers in southern states, the importance of performance and progress in school has been consistently emphasized.

In this issue, for example, Mavis Sanders’s article, “Overcoming Obstacles: Academic Achievement as a Response to Racism and Discrimination,” reports an important study that provides some ideas on how to move toward improved academic performance for African American youth. Other articles in this issue, though varied in their perspectives, offer important information on achievement-related topics. Their contributions range from insights on the ways African American students at elite independent schools provide vital academic and social support to one another (Datnow & Cooper), to a focus on ongoing legal efforts to ensure equal educational opportunity in a majority-Black school district (Harris), and to programs designed to help grandparents play more meaningful roles in their grandchildren’s educations as well as other aspects of children’s lives (Watson).

There are many factors in the lives of today’s children that operate against their developing a positive, substantive, and internal sense of the importance of achievement. The lack of a system that has worked for such achievement in the lives of many of their parents and community members, and the obtrusive presence of get-rich-quick models in the culture of the streets, are factors that strongly mediate against our young people in this regard. Notwithstanding, the meaning of achievement for young learners is especially important now. The level of academic skills necessary for successful entry into today’s job market, with or without a college education, has risen to the point that a focus on achieving academic success is necessary for all students throughout each and every year of schooling from prekindergarten to 12th grade.

This critical condition underscores the importance of developing, or redeveloping, a culture of achievement. In such a culture, learning, progressing academically, and working steadily and purposefully in school is seen as the standard pattern of behavior for students in elementary and secondary school and beyond. For this to happen, kids have to “get it”-that is, there must be a substantive meaning of achievement that they understand and believe to the extent that it becomes the primary piece of their motivation to do well academically. This motivated desire can then result in performance that is reinforced in the school, the home, and the community until it becomes the guiding pattern of a child’s life.

The need for higher achievement, incidentally, is not confined to low-income communities. Many Black middle-class areas report consistently lower levels of academic achievement and attainment; of children finishing high school without extended sequences of mathematics, science, languages; and student performance deficits in other demanding areas that require diligence and support. In the Montgomery County (MD) public schools, for example, Black students do as well on tests as all children nationally but not nearly as well as do their White and Asian American classmates (Shen, 1997). Surely these are indicators of important work that remains to be done in terms of establishing and raising expectations and motivation for high performance.

Of course, it is easy for me to say that in the Black community on Chicago’s south side where I was raised, achievement was always expected-and generally achieveddespite an array of obstacles. I’m sure many of our readers could tell a similar story. However, now is not the time to reminisce; rather, it is time begin to make the changes necessary to restore the meaning of achievement in our nation’s schools so that kids feel this need deeply at their very centers. That deeply felt need for achievement should extend to parents and community members as well. More importantly, it needs to show up in these significant others’ priorities regarding how their time, energy, and money are spent. Perhaps Black parents need to make some new choices: between the Mercedes and the summer math camp, between more family visits to science museums, and more trips to the video arcade, between the home computer and the designer clothes. A move away from an emphasis on consumerism to one that emphasizes the expenditures necessary to promote achievement could serve only to our children’s benefit.

The issue of student achievement is presently receiving some of the national attention it needs. Recently, Hugh Price of the National Urban League gathered together representatives from over 20 national Black organizations to “convince Black children and their parents that education matters now as never before, and to create a wave of consumer demand for improving the public schools” (Raspberry, 1997, p. A27). The impetus for such action from high-profile groups and individuals is very important and timely. However, for meaningful change to occur, it must happen at the community and city level or it goes no further than academic and intellectual discussions. All of us-educators, parents, and community members-have to make it happen, and time is running out.


Raspberry, W. (1997, December 5). To change a culture: Making achievement cool. Washington Post, p. A27.

Shen, F. (1997, December 10). Scores rise in reading in Montgomery; Disparity persists for racial groups. Washington Post, p. B1.

Copyright Howard University Winter 1997

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