Making the Grade Isn’t About Race. It’s About Parents.

Patrick Welsh, Washington Post, October 18, 2009

“Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?”

In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class–and was constantly distracting other students when he did–shot back: “It’s because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study.”

Another student angrily challenged me: “You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us.” When I did, not one hand went up.

{snip} It hit me that these students, at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, understood what I knew too well: The lack of a father in their lives had undermined their education. The young man who spoke up knew that with a father in his house he probably wouldn’t be ending 12 years of school in the bottom 10 percent of his class with a D average. {snip}

My students knew intuitively that the reason they were lagging academically had nothing to do with race, which is the too-handy explanation for the achievement gap in Alexandria. And it wasn’t because the school system had failed them. They knew that excuses about a lack of resources and access just didn’t wash at the new, state-of-the-art, $100 million T.C. Williams, where every student is given a laptop and where there is open enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors courses. Rather, it was because their parents just weren’t there for them–at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.

In an example of how bad the fixation on race here has become, last year Morton Sherman, the new superintendent, ordered principals throughout the city to post huge charts in their hallways so everyone–including 10-year-old kids–could see differences in test scores between white, black and Hispanic students. One mother told me that a black fifth-grader at Cora Kelly Magnet School said that “whoever sees that sign will think I am stupid.” A fourth-grade African American girl there looked at the sign and said to a friend: “That’s not me.” When black and white parents protested that impressionable young children don’t need such information, administrators accused them of not facing up to the problem. Only when the local NAACP complained did Sherman have the charts removed.

Achievement gaps don’t break down neatly along racial lines. Take Yasir Hussein, a student of mine last year whose parents emigrated from Sudan in the early 1990s, and who entered the engineering program at Virginia Tech this fall. “My parents were big on our family living the American dream,” he said. “One quarter when I got a 3.5 grade-point average, the guys I hung around with were congratulating me, but my parents had the opposite reaction. They took my PlayStation and TV out of my bedroom and told me I could do better.”

{snip}

But Yasir’s experience isn’t what community activists and school administrators at T.C. Williams or around the country focus on. They cast the difference between kids who are succeeding in school and those who are not in terms of race and seem obsessed with what they call “the gap” between the test scores of white and black students.

This year, community groups in St. Louis and Portland, Ore., issued reports decrying the gap. After a recent state report on test scores in California schools, Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of instruction, said the gap is “the biggest civil rights issue of this generation”–a very popular phrase in education circles.

But focusing on a “racial achievement gap” is too simple; it’s a gap in familial support and involvement, too. Administrators focused solely on race are stigmatizing black students. At the same time, they are encouraging the easy excuse that the kids who are not excelling are victims, as well as the idea that once schools stop being racist and raise expectations, these low achievers will suddenly blossom.

{snip}

“The real problem,” says Glenn Hopkins, president of Alexandria’s Hopkins House, which provides preschool and other services to low-income families, “is that school superintendents don’t realize–or won’t admit–that the education gap is symptomatic of a social gap.”

Hopkins notes that student achievement is deeply affected by issues of family, income and class, things superintendents have little control over. “Even with best teachers in the world, they don’t have the power to solve the problem,” he says. “They naively assume that if they throw in a little tutoring and mentoring and come up with some program they can claim as their own, the gap will close.”

{snip}

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