INTERVIEW: How to help disadvantaged students succeed academically – African-American School Superintendent

Pascal Mubenga, Ph.D., a teacher and Transformational Education leader
Pascal Mubenga, Ph.D., a teacher and Transformational Education leader


Pascal Mubenga, Ph.D., a teacher and Transformational Education leader, was recently appointed Superintendent of Durham Public School District, North Carolina in the United States. In this role, he leads 53 schools ranging from kindergarten to high school with a population of thirty-thousand students, three thousand teachers, and thousands of administrative employees. The Durham School District has a budget of over $400 million and three quarters of its students are minorities, meaning they are Hispanic or Latino , African-American, Asian-American and Native American. The rest are white.

In the United States, the education of minority students is contentious and problematic. There are different kinds of minorities, those whose ancestors were enslaved and colonised like African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, and those who migrate willingly such as Asian-Americans, Middle-Easterners, African immigrants, and White immigrants. African-Americans are not immigrants.

The late John Ogbu, a Nigerian-American anthropologist, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, called those whose ancestors were colonised or enslaved involuntary (nonimmigrant) minorities, and those who came on their own voluntary minorities. He studied the education of the children of these two types of minorities for decades in countries like Israel, Britain, Japan, Australia, and the United States, and concluded that children of involuntary minorities do not usually do well in school because of the factors of racism, discrimination, deprivation, and their own responses to this oppression. Their lack of academic achievement has nothing to do with genetic inferiority but rather to do with the discriminatory caste-like conditions fostered on them. On the other hand, the children of voluntary minorities usually do well because they do not have the social and psychological burdens placed on involuntary minorities.

In the United States, children of African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans struggle in school because of the history of slavery, conquest and on-going white racism. In Japan, descendants of Koreans who were colonised by Japan are treated as an inferior group so their children do not perform well in the Japanese school system, whereas when Koreans migrate to the United States where they do not suffer historical oppression and stigmatisation, their children do well in school. Children of African immigrants who came voluntarily also do well in the American school system because their parents and ancestors do not have the psychological, physical, social and economic burdens of slavery and Jim Crow oppression. Mr Ogbu’s research shows that Finnish students did not do well in Swedish schools because the Swedes historically were overlords to the Finnish people so they were considered second-class in Sweden; but when the same Finnish migrated to Australia, their children did very well in Australian schools because they were considered a high-status group. Those who do not perform well in Australian schools are the children of Aboriginals, the natives of Australia, who have been conquered and subjugated.

The difference observed between the academic achievement of children of involuntary and voluntary minorities is often referred to as “achievement gap” in the United States, which is really not an achievement gap at all. It presumes that everybody in the population is starting at the same line when in fact, some have been harmed and held back for centuries because of the tragic history of slavery in the country while the white majority have benefited beyond their wildest dreams. Whites who have been supported through public policies in housing, loans and education historically have children who do well in school, while black Americans who have been denied basic rights historically have children who struggle in school. Each population’s academic achievement is as a result of the resources provided or deprivation inflicted. The gap is not in achievement, it is in how society distributes resources, material and psychological, to each group.

It took an African immigrant scholar, Mr Ogbu, to study and reveal the factors behind the differences in academic performance. Children of involuntary minorities are constantly compared unfavorably with the children of voluntary minorities without acknowledging that some children of involuntary minorities excel in school in spite of the burdens of racism because of what Mr Ogbu called “community factors.” These include the protection, values, and encouragement fostered by certain families and communities among involuntary minorities to build the self-esteem, intellectual growth and confidence of their children so that they can thrive academically. Among African-Americans, such communities are usually found around black universities, known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) where people are largely insulated from the toxicity of white racism and parents could use the intellectual community around them to set high expectations for the children.

The argument that involuntary minorities under-perform academically because of racial and genetic inferiority is nothing but ignorant racism as demonstrated by Mr Ogbu’s robust research. The phenomenon of under-achievement in school is seen in all countries, within and between races, where dominant settler groups live side by side with conquered groups and groups brought over involuntarily.

Children of oppressed involuntary minorities are also observed to react to racism and discrimination by developing an oppositional culture, something called “acting white” in the U.S, by rejecting academic excellence as a white thing, and engaging in behavior inimical to its development.

Education provides the surest access to social and economic mobility. It is a resource fiercely fought over in the United States, especially when it comes to the education and advancement of minority children. It is nothing short of a miracle to find a leader who transforms an under-performing school district to one where children flourish academically. It is even more miraculous when this leader himself is a first-generation African immigrant. The consequences of not doing well in school are severe for minority children when they grow up. It means poverty, crimes, jail, and early death for many.

African immigrants are arguably the most educated immigrant group in the United States and this society enjoys their great contribution in all spheres of human endeavor. Providing transformational leadership in the highly contested domain of education takes special thinking and vision that does not subscribe to conventional wisdom and academic orthodoxy. It is a notable achievement.

Mr Mubenga wore many hats along the way in his career. He started as a Math teacher and became an assistant principal. He served as the principal in different North Carolina schools before becoming a District Transformation Coach. Because of his excellent leadership, he was appointed Superintendent of the Franklin County Schools. During his tenure at every level of education, Mr. Mubenga ensured that children of all races and social classes were given the support and encouragement to perform to their full potentials, thus turning under-performing schools into oasis of learning and achievement.

Bunmi Fatoye-Matory interviewed him in his office at the Durham Public Schools to learn about his strategies in accomplishing these miracles and the values that undergird them.

Bunmi PT: Where were you born?

Mubenga: I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Kinshasa, the capital city. I was raised by both my parents.

Bunmi PT: Could you tell us about your early education?

Mubenga: I attended a Catholic Elementary School. I had a good education. I also attended a Catholic High School. I took the National High School Diploma Assessment, the equivalent of the West African School Certificate Exams, and I came number two in my class. After that, my cousin living in the United States and some good American missionary friends asked me if I wanted to study in the U.S. I worked with the missionaries as a translator. As you know, French is the national language, so I translated to English.

Bunmi PT: How did you learn English?

Mubenga: I started learning English as a subject in the 9th grade in High School, then I went to the American Language Institute to learn English. I was interested in it because of the work I was doing with the missionaries.

Bunmi PT: What denomination were they?

Mubenga: They were Pentecostal. I took their advice and applied to a college in the U.S. I was admitted to the Wake Technical Community College in Wake County, North Carolina. My mother paid for the tuition for the first two years. I spent a year at the college and transferred to Shaw’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina where I got my Bachelor’s degree in Math Education. I also got a full scholarship given by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). The scholarship called MASTAP, is to promote Mathematical studies among African-American students, with a commitment
from them to teach Maths for four years in North Carolina.

Bunmi PT: So you taught after graduating?

Mubenga: Yes, I started teaching Maths at Nash and Rocky Mount Schools. I was a natural teacher because I love teaching. I used to tutor my peers when I was in high school in Kinshasa.

Bunmi PT: What grades did you teach?

Mubenga: I taught Algebra I and II, Trigonometry, Precalculus and Calculus to students from 9th to 12th grades.

Bunmi PT: Given the fact that many of us find Maths difficult, how did you develop your love of Maths?

Mubenga: I had a good teacher in high school. How students respond to Maths depends on the teacher. My teacher did a lot. I did the same for my students. They loved my class.

Bunmi PT: What’s your approach? I still have terrible memories of my own Maths teacher in my first year of high school.

Mubenga: I start with what the students know already and make it relevant in a real life situation before going to the abstract.

Bunmi PT: For how long were you a teacher?

Mubenga: Nine years in Nash, Johnston, and Durham county schools.

Bunmi PT: How did you get into administration?

Mubenga: I was observing how things were done and I felt I could have more impact in the lives of students. So I got my Master’s degree in Secondary Education from Liberty University and my Ph.D from Capella University, which opened opportunities for me in administration.

BunmiPT: What was your first job as an administrator?

Mubenga: I was an assistant principal at Franklin High School and then became principal for four years at the Jones County School.

Bunmi PT: What was the profile of the school?

Mubenga: It was about 55 percent African-American, 33 percent white, and two percent Latino.

Bunmi PT: What was your experience there?

Mubenga: It was one of the lowest performing high schools in the state. Only 50 per cent of the students were proficient. By the time I left, 90 per cent were. That was the beginning of my fame. Sixty-seven high schools were low-performing in the state and Jones was one of them. In three years, I got it to 90 per cent. After that, I went to work with the North Carolina Department of Education, at the Department of Public Instruction, for four years as a consultant working with low performing schools. After that, I became the Superintendent of Franklin County Schools for two and a half years. Franklin school system has 16 schools and seven of them were low performing. Only one was low performing by the time I left.

Bunmi PT: Left? Where next?

Mubenga: I was recruited to be the Superintendent of Durham Public Schools last November.

Bunmi PT: We know it is extremely difficult in the United States to turn low-performing schools around, especially those with high concentrations of minority students. What are your strategies?

Mubenga: First, I strongly believe all students can learn regardless of their socio-economic status, race, or gender; and with this belief, I came up with four pillars. One is to have high expectations for all students, two is to provide support for students and staff, three is to hold everyone, students and staff alike, accountable. And finally, it is important to celebrate success along the way. This is my driving force. Support comes in different forms. You just don’t tell people what to do, you show them. I drew from my own experience as a successful teacher. We have to run schools as a business in terms of accountability. When a principal is employed to run a school and student achievement does not improve after five years, maybe that person is in the wrong business. He or she needs to be replaced.

Bunmi PT: Some people argue that because of the low socio-economic status (SES) of students, it is difficult to make them achieve academically.

Mubenga: Well, it just means a wrong person is in that job, and it also means the person will continue to be there and students will never improve. I’ve done it as a principal and as a superintendent. It can be done by providing full support. Jones is one the poorest districts in North Carolina with many low SES students. We turned it around. These students spend six to seven hours with us daily. We provide food and other resources for them, but coming from a low SES background they don’t believe in themselves, in their own abilities. So, it’s left to teachers to motivate them. If kids don’t see the advantage of education, they won’t do well. So we provide an incentive by celebrating better performance at the end of the semester. We recognise their efforts and achievement. Seventy per cent of the teachers are white and young, and sometimes they feel challenged. There needs to be on-going professional development to empower them and the administrative staff.

Bunmi PT: Does your upbringing have anything to do with the belief that all children can do well?

Mubenga: Yes. In Africa, even when children are 50 in class, many do very well. I don’t see how it should be difficult to manage a class of 20 students with all the resources available here. I came from humble beginnings and this shaped my can-do philosophy.

Bunmi PT: You are an African immigrant married with children. What is your advice to African immigrants raising children here?

Mubenga: Raising children here is different from Africa. Statistically, children of African immigrants are doing well in U.S. school systems. There are opportunities available to them. Parents should stay focused and have very high expectations for their children. Their accent and skin colour might elicit some discrimination, but parents have to stay focused and not be confused. The goal is to produce highly accomplished and well-educated children who will contribute positively to society.


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