Dr. Dolly Mullen

Dr. Dolly Mullen

Observations on Education

Dr. Dolly Mullen discusses ways to improve education.

Dr. Dolly Mullen
Dr. Dolly Mullen

Dr. Dolly Mullen, who spent much of her career as a professor at UNC Asheville, echoed a comment from County Commissioner Al Whitesides about the differential between money and achievement but offered a different take on the nature of educational disparities.

“Asheville schools have the highest expenditures per pupil in the state, but are at the lowest achievement levels,” Dr. Mullen told The Urban News.

A former member of the Asheville City School Board, she has frequently pointed out to the board as well as to other community members that the entire society is, ultimately, “the client” of the system.

“I look first at the students,” she said. “Our expectation is that they will do well, and that they’ll turn out as productive members of society. That’s what we need. Because we’re the client of who these children will grow up to be.”

“When I was on the school board people would say ‘It’s the parents, the home.’ My response was that, in that case, ‘We need to advocate for them, too.’ The consequences are what make me concerned,” she continues. “We aren’t turning out people who will have an easy time being productive members of society.”

The pipeline

If children aren’t learning, that’s more than a red flag to Mullen—it’s a siren. “It’s as important as if a child were making physical threats to students and teachers. If they’re not able to learn …”

Mullen asks, rhetorically, “What’s the relationship between poor academic performance and the pipeline between school and ‘juvie’ [the criminal justice system]? For one thing, a number of children who are in academic trouble are also more likely to be considered disciplinary problems. And that’s understandable. If school doesn’t excite them, they look for things that do.”

And that, of course, is what gets children in trouble, especially as they get older.

So the question becomes more than just ‘What are the teachers teaching?’ or ‘Why aren’t the children learning?’

“It’s crucial to address how they’re teaching. Are the teachers able to teach? Obviously, a number of them aren’t. So we have to address what the system is doing about that problem now. What are the pedagogies being used?”

Family participation matters

In addition to teaching methods, she points out, parent involvement is extraordinarily important, but it’s not the only factor that keeps children engaged in school. Many children are reared not by parents but by grandparents or other guardians, and even when those “substitute parents” are involved, as the children get older they often back away. Whereas parents or guardians of primary and elementary school children are more likely to attend school meetings and be in contact with teachers, the adults responsible for teenagers do so less and less.

“That’s a national phenomenon,” says Mullen, “but with the results we’re getting, the city school system may need something—not a mandate, but something, some structure, that strongly urges that parents or guardians come to school meetings regularly.”

And a program of some sort should be in place to support such interactions.

“The city, the system, the broader society ought to be working together with the school system to teach all those people who work with children how they can do better at that. Imagine: We do that with prisoners who are released, early or at the end of their sentences. We have parole officers who are specifically trained to help them settle into a return to society. That’s their job: to guide former detainees into becoming productive members of society. And that’s the job of schools: to help kids get into society as responsible adults.”

A successful model

That, she says, is where the public school systems seem to be failing. The Peak Academy, which was set up as a private school, is designed to do just that: prepare students to participate as citizens when they grow up. [Mullen has a grandchild enrolled there.]

“The school does that by looking at teaching pedagogies: Who teaches the children? How do they teach? How is information delivered? The pedagogies that are used are important. And family involvement is more solid. About 95% of parents came to the first parent meeting. That’s very important. And it’s a majority African American school. At least that’s who I see when I go there.”

That phenomenon raises the issue of desegregation, which was mandated by the US Supreme Court by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court case. To this day, questions arise as to whether its expected benefits—equalizing education opportunities for all—outweigh its costs—the loss of institutions, career paths, role models, and community expectations for achievement.

Separate but Equal

Mullen herself attended a segregated school in Baltimore, MD, for the first few years of her education. Like segregated schools across the country, it had fewer resources than white schools; children went to school in shifts, either from 8 a.m. to noon or noon to 4 p.m. The teachers taught both sections, but the children had fewer hours to learn.

Yet a strong sense of shared responsibility and high expectations permeated the African American community. Black teachers knew their students and often their families, and Black principals were professionals with a well-established career path. Family-teacher interaction was crucial, whether formally, at a school meeting, or unexpected and casual, in church or at a grocery store.

So when Mullen moved into a desegregated classroom in 4th or 5th grade, her mother was afraid she’d start out behind, or soon fall behind, at the white school. And she herself quickly discovered the lowered expectations that white teachers had for her performance.

“The teacher wasn’t mean,” she said, “but I was not her concern. I did good work in the white school, but not as well as in the segregated one. So the assumptions that it would be good to attend a ‘better’ school didn’t necessarily pan out.”

The missing factor

A lifetime later, as professors at UNC, Dr. Mullen, her husband, Dr. Dwight Mullen, and Drs. Charles and Dee James, the other pioneering married Black couple on the school’s faculty, made sure that the Black students they taught faced—and lived up to—high expectations. Their ongoing support included morning meetings with the students, in an atmosphere of Black culture, social life, music, and conversation, so as to be very affirming before the school day even began.

Dollars count. Equal opportunity is important. Good pedagogical methods matter. Competent teachers are essential. But all those attributes fall short if the school system, the faculty, the family and caregivers, and the full community do not expect accomplishment from every student—and provide the feedback and resources to make it possible.


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