As we have said so often, the performance gap that exists between white students and their black classmates is the single-most glaring fact in all of public education. Our ability to close the gap will be driven not by more standardized testing, not by blaming teachers for their inability to help their students raise test scores, not by the creation of more charter schools with voucher programs to pay for them, not by closing the so-called “failing public schools,” and certainly not by severing the vital relationships between our public schools and the communities they exist to serve.
We must understand why so many black kids fail. What we will discover is that the high rate of failure among poor urban black students is not the result of some genetic deficiency that makes it difficult for them to learn as well as their white classmates. There are far too many examples of accomplished African-Americans, many of whom grew up in poverty in our most challenging neighborhoods, who rose to prominence in virtually every profession in American Society. A black President of the United States is just one of many examples.
The reason why so many African-American students fail is not because they are poor, although being poor creates enormous challenges. The problem is that our focus on poverty, which we feel powerless to control, distracts from actions that are within our power to do.
We all know of examples where poor children have succeeded academically, irrespective of race or family structure. What we need to do is make the effort to understand what distinguishes poor kids who enjoy academic success from poor kids that fail.
While there can be any number of things that come into play in contributing to a child’s success in school, with a special teacher one of the most obvious, the overwhelming majority of such successes flow from a commitment of a parent or guardian who somehow clings to the hope that an quality education offers a way out for their child. It is when parents have lost hope that an education can make a difference that their sons and daughters arrive for their first day of school poorly prepared for academic success and with precious little motivation to learn.
Many of these families have lost faith in American public education and have lost both faith and hope in the American dream. I suggest to you that these are realities over which we have a great deal of control if only we would accept responsibility and try.
The following story taken from my book, Reinventing Education, Hope and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, is true:
“While subbing in an alternative high school classroom (alternative school within the Fort Wayne Community Schools district is where middle and high school students are sent when they are suspended from their regular school), I had a conversation with a young African-American student. He would not work on the worksheet I had given to the class.
“You need to get busy on the assignment,” I said to him.
“I don’t do worksheets,” was his response.
“If you don’t understand the lesson, I’ll be happy to help you with it,” was my answer.
He looked at me and very calmly responded, “I didn’t say I don’t know how to do it, cuz. I said I don’t do worksheets.”
With full-fledged naiveté I asked, “You don’t think you need to learn this material?”
“It’s a complete waste of my time, cuz!” was his answer.
“You don’t think it’s necessary for you to read and write well? How will you get a job to support yourself?”
At no time did he show any emotion during this conversation.
“Cuz, you don’t know nothin’ about what I need to support myself in the hood. You need to back off, Cuz! I don’t need none of what you got!”
As I pointed out in my book, this was not a dumb kid and, in fact, if evaluated within the context of the world in which he exists he would be judged to be highly intelligent. It is also true that this young man was not an exception to the rule but rather one of many in his community. The difference is that these intelligent young kids, irrespective of race, learn what they consider to be important in their lives. The things we teach in our schools are just not on the list of the things that are important to a huge number of our youngsters.
What teachers and members of the community can do, working together in partnership, is begin to change the value placed on education by these youngsters and their parents or guardians.
If you are reading these words, is there any doubt in your mind that teacher and parent working together can be successful in helping a child see the value in an education and develop a motivation to learn? There are no guarantees, of course, and the earlier those partnerships can be formed along the timeline that represents the developmental years of a child, the higher the probability that a child can succeed. Not only will they succeed but they will rise to ever-higher expectations as identified by their teacher and parent. And, what is true for black children is true for all of our nation’s at-risk children.
The next, question, of course, is “but what can we do?”