Monday, February 9, 2009

Academic Underachievement in Black America: A Personal Analysis

We can beat around the bush all we want. We can talk about discrimination all we want. We can talk about overt and covert racism all we want. But the fact is that black students of all social backgrounds are lagging far behind. What follows is my view of what's happening.

I teach at a smack-dab middle-class 98% black school. The kids who attend attend with ipods, cell phones, nice clothes, new sneakers, and often come to school sipping on Starbucks. It is no exaggeration to say that the black middle class students I teach were the goal of the civil rights movement... in all but one respect; the kids I teach are, by in large, "just getting by." We hear a lot of talk (from them and their parents) about "passing," rather than "excelling," and "getting through" rather than "getting ahead."

This is a problem that is not just about the high school at which I teach. It is a problem nation wide; the "achievement gap" between black students and their white and Asian counterparts has been widespread news for years now.

The problem is that when we "talk" about it, we tend to press for external explanations and places to lay blame: it is due, we hear, to covert racism, to internalized low expectations by teachers, to the low self-esteem that comes with being black, etc, etc. What we do not talk about - Bill Cosby tried it - is the responsibility black parents and black students have for this situation.

As an educator, what is appalling to me is not simply that the widespread trend of students not studying for tests or doing homework (what student WANTS to study or do homework?!), but the fact that I hardly ever hear a parent voice concern. What I do hear from parents are defensive queries about why I gave their child - who did no homework for my class - a failing grade, why we took away his ipod, and what we, the school, will do to make sure that neither of these things happen again. When students get in trouble, the parents invariably defend their children. What I do see is students who are failing one class while getting D's in all the others being allowed by their parents to play extra-curricular sports (and I have heard students tell their peers that the only way they would get grounded is if they brought home two or more failing grades).

Now that I've written about what I do see, here is what I don't see. I don't see very many students working part time jobs (which, oddly, I saw all the time when I taught in a very affluent mostly white school). What I don't see is students caring whether or not a bad report goes home to their parents. What I do not see is students coming into school with a respect for the enterprise of education (if your parents respect education, their children will respect it either out of love or fear).

I cannot speak about "minority schools" outside of my own purview, but these are the things I have seen taking place (and not taking place) in my school. And from those I've talked to in similar predicaments, my experiences are quite typical. Even as a white man, it makes me concerned - concerned that the hard-earned black middle class will become a memory as quickly as it became a reality.

When I came to teach at this school, I was excited at the shiny facilities and the thought that I would be teaching the neglected black middle class. I was excited about the hope that existed there, and the thought that I might be teaching the group that could prove any racists that still existed wrong. Now, two years later, I am ready to leave - my optimism collapsed into cynicism, and my enthusiasm no longer in tact. I can no longer take the disappointment of seeing a group that, by all accounts, should be doing well, doing poorly and not being bothered by that fact.

We can talk about covert racism, victimization, and inequality all we want (and I fear that we will talk about them longer than we want, for fear of having to deal with the hard truths). At my school, and many others, the "achievement gap" is not about racism or poverty, and the only oppressors these students have are themselves. The achievement gap is largely about a widespread undervaluing of education by parents and students alike.

I agree with Dr. Cosby that it boils down to this: the crisis in black America is a crisis brought on by a lack of responsibility-taking and an excess of excuse-making and blame-throwing. For black America to work, "responsibility" is the key.

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