Phillip Jackson
Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, believes that parents, peers and the community-at-large need to support the education of children in order to improve the quality of life in black and Latino communities. "I want to take education to the streets," he said. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

The disparity in academic achievement between white children and children of color has been an issue in public education for decades. Low-income black and Latino students consistently struggle to compete with their white peers.

African-American young men find it hardest to compete. In 2011, only 10 percent of African-American boys in the 8th grade could read at a proficient level, according to findings by the National Association of Educational Progress. Illinois was slightly lower, at 9 percent.

Phillip Jackson believes that black boys will achieve more if we overhaul the way we think about education. He founded the Black Star Project in 1996 to tackle the achievement gap.

The Black Star Project runs youth programs that build relationships between young people and their parents and community, including the Million Father March, which drew national attention when more than a million fathers walked their children to school in more than 600 cities last year.

A longtime education advocate, Jackson served as Chief of Staff of the Chicago Public Schools, among other titles, under Mayor Richard M. Daley. He has received several awards for his efforts to improve the lives of children of color, including the White House Champion of Change Award in 2013.

But Jackson claims his methodology is too extreme for some. “I am probably the most vilified man in American education,” he says, “because I believe that parents and the community are the primary teachers in a child’s life.”

The Chicago Reporter talked to Jackson about his approach to education.

How did you get involved in education?

From a very early age. I grew up in the city of Chicago and the education in the city failed me. I attended 11 different Chicago Public Schools. And after graduating from a Chicago public school, I was only in college for three months before I flunked out.

Once you’ve failed, you get that “F” on your report card; it does something to you. It breaks you down. I thought “Damn, I’m pretty dumb.” Then I thought maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s them and not me. If it’s them, what I have to do is self-educate. That’s when I started taking responsibility for my education.

Nobody had taken responsibility before then — not me, my parents, the schools — they simply passed me through. When I grew up, I knew I couldn’t let the same thing happen to other young black men. Just because the system had failed me, didn’t mean it should keep happening.

What is the central mission of the Black Star Project?

It’s an education mission, but not in the classical sense. The classical sense failed me, and most of the Black Star Project is a response to what was missing from my life as a child. While the school system has remained the same, I thought that if I can put supports in and open up the minds of young people, and encourage them to learn, then they don’t really need schools in that way.

You say that you are the “most vilified man” in the country’s education system today. Why?

Because I don’t think it’s the job of educators, whoever they are, to say we are going to educate your children. The most important educators in a child’s life are his parents, peers and community. Those are the people who can make a child want to learn.

It doesn’t matter if your teachers are from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, if you don’t want to learn you’re not going to learn. If your teachers are like my grandmother, who only had an 8th-grade education, my grandfather, who only had a 3rd-grade education and was a cotton picker in Georgia … these are the people who taught me to want to learn. Schools are ill-prepared to teach children to want to learn.

So do you think that the U.S. has a poor education system?

Education is one of the few areas that I know of that really hasn’t kept up with all the change that has happened in the world. They might have some laptops in the classroom, but the people who teach have the same mindset that people taught with in 1809, when the American education system was created. They’re still thinking, “I’m the teacher, I will stand at the front of the classroom and you will listen to me.” That’s not education.

One of the things we try to do at Black Star Project is evolve a modern education system based on education for life, not theoretical knowledge. Who cares if you know when the Civil War ended? What’s important is if we can educate a child to understand how to rebuild their community. On that subject, we’re not even trying.

Having worked with these young people for many years, how do you think they respond to this problem?

There are two kinds of kids I come into contact with. Some don’t know the deck is stacked against them, and they’re pretty bad.

And then there are the ones who do know, and for them all bets are off. They know that if the deck is stacked against them, then they’re going to do whatever they can to even the playing field. And they do, sometimes [by doing] terrible things. It’s more than an education crisis, it is a catastrophe, especially in the African-American community.

The NAEP’s study that showed only 9 percent of Chicago’s black boys at 8th grade are proficient readers is a tragedy. Nine percent is predictive of the violence that you see here, the despair that you see out here.

Have the chances for success for young black men improved since you were one?

Not only have things not improved, in many ways things have gotten worse. When I was in high school I was in a position where I could drop out, go to the steel mills and make more money than my teachers. Today, if you are an African-American male professional and your name sounds African, you are 50 percent less likely to be called in for a job interview with the same work credentials as a white person. That’s what a study by The University of Chicago found.

Globalization has changed things a lot. The Program for International Student Assessments [PISA] ranks countries in education categories like problem solving and reading. If we look at the 2012 results, In math the U.S. is ranked 31st, in reading we are 17th, in science we’re 23rd. That’s pretty bad in itself, but if you disaggregate the data, African Americans on average are ranked 46th out of 65 countries assessed. Who would hire these kids?

What are the hopes for the future of the Black Star Project in helping to tackle these problems?

We are going to continue working with the aim of providing life skills that will give young people the common sense, confidence and empowerment to make a life for themselves. And with that, we will show them how to raise their own communities up as they pull themselves up.

is an intern at The Chicago Reporter.