Jewish World Review August 14, 2003 / 16 Menachem-Av 5763
Schoolchildren of all races at risk without parental guidance
Everybody has something to say about parents and public schools. A columnist has only to raise the subject and the e-mails come pouring in.
"Although your article addressed the African-American community, what was written holds true despite the race," a Dallas private school teacher wrote after my recent sermonette on closing achievement gaps between black and white students. "Most of the children I teach come from affluent homes, but I have experienced a lack of guidance from parents when it comes to developing a work ethic. Notes from home that my colleagues and I receive concerning the homework load typically read like this: "Johnny didn't get home from baseball and soccer practice until 9 p.m., and by the time he ate dinner and showered it was too late to finish his homework. Please excuse these assignments.'" Sorry, folks, but you can't raise kids on "autopilot," she concluded.
Other readers agreed, seeing perils everywhere in modern society. "There are a precious few parents of all colors who are battling uphill against a culture that seems to be trying to find new lows in the common denominator," wrote a self-described "dinosaur" from San Angelo, Texas. "Have you tried shopping for little girls' clothes recently? Garments for the six and under set look as though they were designed for `prostitutes in training.'" Parents, take note: If you don't want your daughter to be a whore, don't put her in the uniform.
Readers were responding to a column I wrote about black parents in the affluent and integrated Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Back in 1997, they hired the respected black anthropologist John U. Ogbu, of the University of California at Berkeley, to find out why most of their teens were not bringing home grades and test scores that were as high as most of their white peers, despite having similar economic advantages. Among the biggest problems, Ogbu concluded, were the parents. Overall, they were not emphasizing academic achievement as much as most of the white parents were. Predictably, several e-mails applauded my "courageous" call for personal responsibility from my fellow black parents, instead of blaming white racism for all black problems. Thanks, but it doesn't take as much courage as you might think. Most of the black parents from whom I heard agreed with me and wanted answers and advice.
A black mom from Greensboro, N.C., for example, described how her daughter is doing well despite pressures from her peers to "do well in school, but not too well," while some of her fellow black parents don't bother to follow up with homework if they can get away with it. "I was appalled," she wrote, "when the mother of one of my daughter's friends scoffed at having to contact the predominantly black school to get the summer reading assignment because `they haven't contacted us with any assignment.' Her child is starting high school and will be behind because the parent didn't follow through." No, it takes more than just telling them to do well. You have to follow up. Relentlessly. As a female Memphis psychologist wrote, "Listen to the words, trust the behavior."
Such are the elements of successful parenting, regardless of a family's income bracket, according to William A. Sampson, a black associate professor of public policy at DePaul University in Chicago. He's written two books, "Black Student Achievement: How Much Do Family and School Really Matter?" and "Poor Latino Families and School Preparation: Are They Doing the Right Things" after studying the daily lives of low-income black and Hispanic families in suburban Evanston. His conclusion: For all the fuss that is made about other reforms like vouchers, increased spending, smaller classrooms and standardized tests, "the family is more important in improving schools than the schools themselves." Rich or poor, Sampson found, student performance depends directly on how well parents promote the old-fashioned virtues that schools prize: Discipline, delayed gratification, responsibility, self-control, self-esteem and cooperation. "Public schools are middle-class institutions," he told me, quoting Dr. James P. Comer, a famous black child psychiatrist at Yale University. "As such, they work best for students from families that stress traditional middle-class values, regardless of the income level of those families."
Poor parents with middle-class values? Sampson and I quickly found that each of us was raised by such parents: poor in income, but rich in hope, love and effort for their offspring. Now it's our generation's turn. We need to find ways to share the wealth. Experts spend a lot of time studying families that have failed. We need to spend more time figuring out why some families succeed.
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