In a debate about lagging Hispanic and Black achievement scores, people are getting an inkling that culture is an issue, but they’re still getting confused by trying to phrase the problem as one of race, not culture — a way of categorizing the issue that’s always going to make it a target for easy arguments about “racism.” Anyway, here’s the beginning of the article that triggered the preceding assessment:
Every time state schools chief Jack O’Connell thought he was doing something to close the achievement gap, a new round of test scores showed that black and Latino students had gained no ground on their white and Asian American peers.
Like many educators, O’Connell assumed the culprit was poverty. Then he noticed an even wider ethnic disparity among students who were not poor.
The realization was a jolt: Being black or Latino – not poor – was what the low-scorers had in common. And it changed everything.
O’Connell now believes that widespread cultural ignorance within the California school system is responsible for the poor academic performance of many black and Latino students in school.
He offered the example of black children who learn at church that it’s good to clap, speak loudly and be a bit raucous. But doing the same thing at school, where 72 percent of teachers are white and may be unfamiliar with such customs, will get them in trouble, he said.
The achievement gap is “absolutely, positively not genetic,” O’Connell said. “All kids can learn. I’m saying it’s racial.”
I think O’Connell is almost right. Where’s he’s wrong, though, he’s wrong in big ways that obscure his message. First, he’s wrong when he says the issue is “racial.” While he gets that messages in the home may well contribute to school problems, these messages are cultural, not racial. Race is a biological classification; culture is how we’re raised. Framing the problem in terms of “race” not “culture,” is a disastrous way to get your message across, because people start hearing with their emotions, not their brains, when they hear the word “race.”
Now, once you start talking culture, you’re really talking. I happening to be a huge believer in the culture of education. I think race has a minimum contribution to academic success, despite the fact that Jews do seem to test out higher on the IQ scores, regardless of their ultimate academic achievement. I’m also dubious about poverty as a factor, since I think culture can override a lot of the poverty issues. My examples for this would be the Jewish emergence from the ghettos 100 years ago, and the ongoing success of Asian immigrants who leap in a single generation from slums to suburbs.
The Jewish and Asian cultures place a premium on education, while other cultures do not. Very wealthy Hispanic friends of ours many years ago started an organization aimed at combating the work-oriented culture of recent Hispanic immigrants. Our friends complained that the Hispanic parents, many of whom came from agrarian communities, fail to recognize education as the fast track to economic success in America. Instead of pushing their children to stay in school, they actively encourage them to drop out of school and get low level jobs as gardeners or field hands — effectively short-circuiting the American dream and creating a poverty, instead of a success, cycle.
O’Connell’s second error is that, at least in the quotations included in the article, he focuses on behavior, not values. Children can easily be taught to behave one way in one venue, and another way in another venue. This means that, just because African-American kids are lively participants in church does not mean that they cannot quickly master sitting quietly in class. What you can’t easily teach them, however, if they’re not already getting the message at home, is to value education, as opposed to looking at it as something forced on you by government or by a hostile white society. Still, I don’t want to denigrate the fact that O’Connell is on to something, which is that the home messages matter, and that home and community values will affect academic performance.
O’Connell’s going to have a tough road to hoe with his message, since nanny state representatives are already lining up their arguments saying that everything is the school’s fault and responsibility:
Also on center stage will be Glenn Singleton, the coach O’Connell hired for the Education Department’s racial sensitivity classes. Singleton runs a San Francisco consulting firm called Pacific Educational Group and is the author of “Courageous Conversations about Race: a Strategy for Achieving Equity in Schools.”
Contrary to widely held views that parents play a strong role in whether their children do well academically, Singleton believes the schools, not parents, are the biggest influence.
“If we were to say that black or brown kids don’t perform as well because of their parents, we’re saying black and brown parents aren’t as effective as white parents,” Singleton told The Chronicle. “That’s pretty much a racist statement.”
At schools with large numbers of black and Latino students, white teachers are not only culturally unfamiliar with their students, they are often the “least seasoned and skilled” at teaching, he said.
Curriculum and achievement tests are also Eurocentric, Singleton said, despite the state’s efforts to purge all bias.
By the way, anyone who wants a quick lesson in home matters should watch Everybody Hates Chris, a show that’s mostly funny, and that is one of the best vehicles for conveying the responsibility parents have to their children when it comes to doing well in school and living a moral life, regardless of surrounding circumstances.
UPDATE: Selwyn Duke has a great companion piece to this post, an article in which he discusses the fact that we now shy away from any information about different group characteristics.
By the way, I’ve noticed that discussions about differences in racial or cultural groups can be discussed if they come from sensitivity trainers. Although I grew up with a bazillion Asians (my high school class was about 60%) Asian, it wasn’t until I was forced at one of my law firms to go through a mandatory sensitivity training class that I learned that Asian women are retiring and cannot be criticized in public. I hadn’t noticed that in my friends, many of whom were wild women who made me look like a quiet, blushing flower. I gather that we’re allowed to reach race based conclusions if it will force us to change the dominant culture ‘sbehavior, but not if those conclusions try to examine the group’s characteristics to explain vexing cultural problems.