Teaching social norms makes it possible for poor black students to do well in school, writes Abigail Thernstrom.
(Successful inner-city) schools combat what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has called “the greatest problem now facing African Americans.” And that is “their isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture.” His statement is really the academic version of Bill Cosby’s recent remarks in which he talked about black parents who are not parenting and about kids who can’t speak standard English and who will be shut out of the world of economic success.
This is how the best inner-city schools I know address that “isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture.” In addition to an academically superb program, they demand that their students learn how to speak standard English. They also insist that kids show up on time, properly dressed; that they sit up straight at their desks, chairs pulled in, workbooks organized; that they never waste a minute in which they could be learning and always finish their homework; that they look at people to whom they are talking, listen to teachers with respect, treat classmates with equal civility, and shake hands with visitors to the school.
These are skills as essential as basic math. Without them, disadvantaged children cannot climb the ladder of economic opportunity.
This only works if parents and students have chosen the school, Thernstrom writes.