Closing the Achievement Gap: Promoting School Excellence Through Kwanzaa

There is much talk and debate around how to close the achievement gap between black and white students. Since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, (1954), the ruling by the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities, black students have continued to lag behind white and yellow students. That this is a national crisis is an understatement.  A new study released about high school dropout and incarceration rates among blacks raises the question. Nearly 23 percent of all American black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University, “Consequences of Dropping Out of High School.”
High school dropouts cost the nation severely. Not only are American taxpayers getting no return on the $8,701 we spend on average per student, each dropout costs us $292,000 over their lifetime in lost earnings, lower taxes paid, and higher spending for social programs like incarceration, health care, and welfare. Given the many social pathologies plaguing black males in low-income and fatherless households, some have argued that the best place for at-risk black males is not the dominant failed public school paradigm. Since public schools are forbidden to teach virtue and often reduce children to receptacles of information, expanding private and faith-based options to black parents is the only compelling solution.
Yet, it may surprise many that public schools are allowed to teach virtue and values.  Kwanzaa a value-based cultural holiday, which is now recognized as an official school holiday to be celebrated offers a potent message and method for promoting and encouraging black achievement. Though Kwanzaa has something to offer youth of all color and nationalities, it African American cultural holiday, celebrated December 26 through January 1.

For starters, Kwanzaa gift giving requires that whatever is given, a book and a heritage symbol must be given.  The idea of giving a book is to stress education and underscore the value of learning.  Not only does this support reading and learning, but encourages the building of personal libraries for students. In celebrating Kwanzaa, students could exchange books rather that the usual exchange of material items.  Thus, teachers would do well to explore incorporating Kwanzaa in their classroom curriculum.

Secondly, Kwanzaa activity of commitment to the practice of the 7 Principles offers teachers a strategy for motivating students to improve their school performance.  The Creativity principle (Kuumba), demands continuous improvement from students. This principle pushes youth, not to be satisfied with “just getting by”, with not being satisfied with being average or even above average. George Washington Carver, acclaimed scientist, echoing this sentiment states: “No one has a right to come in to the world without leaving behind a distinct and legitimate reason for having passed though it.”

Next, the Kwanzaa candle lighting activity and protocol is a powerful reinforcement of the values and moral instructions of Kwanzaa.  The candle lighting activity is instructive and underscores the primacy of effort in as the path way to learning and achieving good school outcomes.  The protocol is as follows:

The black candle is lit first to symbolize the value which is placed on people.  On the following day the red candle, which is symbolic of effort and work, is lit.  The green candle is lit on the third day. This candle is symbolic of future and prosperity.  The lesson is that if students apply themselves and work hard, they will succeed in school and thus ensure a more prosperous future.  Put another way, grades are a function and result of study and effort.

Given the educational state of black students and in particular black males, Kwanzaa is an attractive resource for teachers to use to motivate and support academic studies among black students. The Kwanzaa holiday is rich in educational materials and offers values and principles which support school excellence and performance.  For more on Kwanzaa and how this holiday supports education and learning, go to


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