Schools can't close parenting gap

The racial achievement gap reflects a parenting gap, writes teacher Patrick Welsh in the Washington Post. Most of his black students — except for the immigrants — don’t have two parents at home pushing them to work hard.

“Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?”

In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class — and was constantly distracting other students when he did — shot back: “It’s because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study.”

Another student angrily challenged me: “You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us.” When I did, not one hand went up.

His students attend a “new, state-of-the-art, $100 million” high school, “where every student is given a laptop and where there is open enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors courses.” But the school doesn’t supply fathers.

Achievement gaps don’t break down neatly along racial lines. Take Yasir Hussein, a student of mine last year whose parents emigrated from Sudan in the early 1990s, and who entered the engineering program at Virginia Tech this fall. “My parents were big on our family living the American dream,” he said. “One quarter when I got a 3.5 grade-point average, the guys I hung around with were congratulating me, but my parents had the opposite reaction. They took my PlayStation and TV out of my bedroom and told me I could do better.”

When administrators focus on race as the reason for low achievement, they stigmatize blacks — and encourage low achievers to think they’re victims, Welsh writes. Teachers are told the achievement gap is their fault: They don’t have high expectations.

Last year, two of the finest and most dedicated teachers at my school — one in science and one in math — tried to move students who were failing their classes into more appropriate prerequisite courses, because the kids had none of the background knowledge essential to mastering more advanced material. Both teachers were told by a T.C. Williams administrator that the problem was not with the students but with their own low expectations.

His school board spent more than $1 million to add two extra days to teachers’ school year and wasted the time on a three-day Equity and Excellence conference, writes Welsh. The one speaker who made sense, Yvette Jackson of the National Urban Alliance, said disadvantaged students “need school to give them the basic knowledge that other kids get from their families — knowledge that schools expect students to have when they start classes.” That’s a gap schools could fill. It’s much harder to create schools that make up for absent or inadequate parents.

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  1. This is why the Direct Instruction guys don’t rely on kids doing any homework in their lessons, because schools can’t control what happens at home. (And the DI programme isn’t just about changing what teachers do, it’s about changing the whole setup of the school, including non-teaching staff).

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted this when he was a high official in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor way back in 1965 (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” aka the Moynihan Report). He was called a racist and a sexist and accused of “blaming the victim.”

    He later became a Democratic Senator from New York (Hilary Clinton succeeded him) and had learned his lesson. He shut up about missing fathers. If we had only listened 44 years ago …

  3. There’s cause, and correlation. Best not to confuse them.

  4. This kind of thing makes for rampant speculation that can help to justify the gap in achievement, but careful study of the issues don’t always hold up well. Going back to Bronfenbrenner’s work in looking at children of divorce, he found that following an initial adjustment period, problems typical in children were found to abate, provided that the absent father was supportive of the role of the mother.

    Comparisons of the school-related tasks carried out by parents at different socio-economic levels, it appears that among middle-class, suburban, two-parent families, there is a higher level of school volunteer activities. However, this is not the activity at the top of the list with regard to impacting school achievement. The activities with a bigger bang for the buck are those activities that occur at home–homework monitoring and talking with kids about school. In this category, urban parents outweigh suburban parents (sorry folks–these are the categories they used, cannot hone in any further on marital status). Other research, by SES, showed that this category did not appear to differentiate by income level.

    We know that expectations play a role (measureable, if not substantial) in affecting outcomes. Research also indicates that low-income parents have higher expectations for students than do teachers. For this reason as much as any other, I cast a jaundiced eye when even fine and dedicated teachers suggest moving kids out of their classes to “more appropriate settings.”

    But even more important–as long as no one is willing to do anything to change the marital status of students parents (and as a single parent I stand waiting for anyone willing to enroll me in a competent dating service), I suggest the we move forward in the direction of working with the parents who our children actually have, rather than wringing our hands and wishing we had a better set. Trust me–I grew up in all white upper middle class suburbia of the fifties and sixties. It wasn’t all that.

  5. Why is it that Catholic schools are able to get their students from disadvantaged, single-parent families to succeed?

    I think it’s time for schools to stop making excuses and blaming factors beyond their control. They can’t do anything about the percentage of students coming from single-parent households, but they can do something about what goes on during the 30+ hours/week they have the children in the classroom.

  6. “Why is it that Catholic schools are able to get their students from disadvantaged, single-parent families to succeed?”

    1) Because parents pay for their students to go to Catholic schools, and you always value more what you pay for than what you get for free.

    2) Parents who are willing to pay for private school are precisely the ones who monitor and influence their child’s performance.

    3) Catholic schools kick out the disruptors.

  7. > I think it’s time for schools to stop making excuses and blaming factors beyond their control.

    Clearly, that’s not a widely-shared sentiment. No, it’s still time to make excuses and blame *everything*, not just factors beyond their control.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    fatherless homes vs. Margo’s divorced couples where the father supports the mother’s efforts. Yup. Equivalent, by golly.
    Problem with a fatherless home is that it’s not always male-free. Sometimes there’s a boyfriend who is utterly uninterested.
    There was a study years ago about parents talking to their small, pre-verbal kids. Middle and upper class parents talked something like a twenty times as much. Full sentences. Pointing things out. Explaining things.
    Direct instruction may work–but some teachers think of it as a stifling of their creativity and its one-size-fits-all implication. Hint: Sometimes one size fits a bunch.

  9. Don Bemont says:

    In a rough sense, this is true. No doubt, the extent of parent involvement has a lot to do with a student’s progress, and, in a rough sort of way, a one parent household has only half the chance of a two parent household to contain a parent strongly committed to education.

    Add to that the opportunity for split parents to compete for a child’s allegiance by being the “good guy” in favor of all fun all the time, and you increase the odds that split parents will have children who struggle in school.

    This is not, by the way, primarily a matter of doing homework. In fact, the most obvious difference at the high school level is in attendance. If you don’t work in a high school, you might be surprised at the number of students absent more than 20% of the days and often tardy (often by 2-3 hours) half of the other days. The second most visible sign is not getting nearly enough sleep. Less visible but probably most salient: some students know their parents notice and respect school success; many others know the reverse. One does not need to be a child psychologist to know that that is important. Truly, homework is mostly a red herring in this discussion.

    However, the connection to race seems like the weak link here. Maybe in other places people are observing a racial correlation, but I have not seen it here in this poor rural school district.

  10. Galtonian says:

    Well anyway it is all a reflection of lower IQ.

    Yeah, before you people get too excited about this dubious concept (i.e. the notion that not having a father causes students to be dumb) you should probably be aware that single parent motherhood is a often a sign of low IQ. This was shown in an elgant paper “Income Inequality and IQ” by Charles Murray, available free at this link:

    When will people realize that the simplest and the truest explanation for why black and Hispanic students seem to be less intelligent, is […drum roll…] that they just ARE less intelligent! Of course hundreds of IQ tests and standardized tests have already proven this point to all reasonable unbiased observers.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    Richard–the Risley study (the one that suggested that poor kids simply don’t hear enough words) was very small and invites a lot of methodological questions. The low-income group consisted of about 6 families from a single geographic area. Really big problems with generalizability. But I don’t know when we will ever hear the end of people quoting as gospel that poor families ruin their kids by not talking to them enough. As a matter of fact, I don’t know that Americans know how to do it at all. Other research has shown that American mothers, when talking baby talk put all their emphasis on nouns–naming things. Japanese mothers, by contrast, stress the vocabulary if human interaction–hello, how are you? etc. One of us must be more correct than the other–correct?

    Bronfenbrenner’s work with divorced families contributed a couple of findings. One is that the trauma of loss can be overcome. As a single parent who adopted children alone, I can testify that I started out ahead of my peers who began raising children in a relatioship that was later disrupted. The second finding is that the relationship between the parents–whether married or not–could be either supportive of children’s development or not. Much more going on than one-parent vs two. And that doesn’t even get into the existence of extended family. I have known single parents who were worlds ahead of me in terms of the support available to them within their biological circle. As you suggest, dating practices can also have an impact. I wouldn’t suggest that this is always harmful, although I have personally experienced it as a parenting distraction. But, I have known second marriages, or other pairings that have resulted in a positive addition for children growing up.

    I just don’t see that anything is ever gained by stereotyping, pathologizing or overgeneralizing limitations placed on kids. What is the point?

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    The point is figuring out what the problem is.
    If you find a particular pathology grossly overrepresented in a particular situation, it’s worth thinking about the connection, if any.
    So Japanese moms do it differently. So? Just because they’re not American they’re superior? Yeah. Of course. How could I forget.
    I spent time working with poor folks in Michigan and Mississippi directly, and indirectly in Michigan. I watch other SES’ parents parenting. Those who will not see the difference…will simply not see the difference. It is not useful to them to see the difference.
    If, for example, the difference is ascribed to far less talking to the pre-verbal kid and the just-verbal kid, then we have a conundrum. We have to tell people from a SES who we’ve been trained to see as helpless victims to do things differently and better. With the implication that, up to that point, they’d been doing things wrong. It is not to be allowed. It’s up to them, not reproaching the standard culture. What fun is that?
    My children have kids. Their siblings and friends have kids. I see the parenting going on. I recall other families where the majority of the communications were “Shut up”, “hush” “mind”.
    Slightly OT. My father used to have a friend who was a radiologist. He retired but one practice in the Detroit area kept him on at a dollar a year so he could be “practicing”. His real function was to be an expert at trials of child abusers, to read the x-rays.
    He said the medical term for the view that this sort of thing happened equally across all segments of society was “bullshit”.
    I know you’re supposed to pretend to believe it, but to work as hard as you have to defend it to the extent you have damages your credibility.
    Cultures differ, as Thomas Sowell said, and differences have consequences. That goes for subcultures, too.
    BTW. The likelihood that a live-in boyfriend will abuse the mother’s kids is about 100 times that of a biological father.
    Feminists try to conflate the two.
    It doesn’t have to rise to the level of an ER visit to mess up a kid’s life, including his school day.

  13. It’s interesting to see what assumptions people make when they hear “single-parent household”. Some, like Margo/Mom, appear to assume the single-parentness is the result of divorce. On the other hand, when I hear “single-parent household”, I think “never married”. Rather, as several people upthread have alluded to, “never married with a constant stream of serial boyfriends”. Then again, I live in an urban area of a large city with a majority-minority population, many of whose families live in poverty and consist of a never-married parent and multiple children with different last names.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    I am not certain some of these pictures of the problem are “assumptions” as much as they are efforts to distract from the real problem.
    If we switch to divorced families, the issues with never-married, with or without revolving boyfriends with its uncomfortable racial and cultural baggage can be overlooked.
    Our high school used to have an inner-city school in its league. At a game there, the visiting football team would form a hollow square–used by Infantry several centuries ago to repel cavalry–to escort the cheerleaders on and off the field. That kind of school. The parent situation was horribly sad. On parent’s night, several of which happened to be when we were playing there, the percentage of two-parent families was in the single digits among the football and basketball players.
    Academics were terrible, crime was unspeakable.
    Was there a connection?
    Hard to imagine there wasn’t.

  15. Whatever–I do not necessarily assume that single parent means divorced, it just happens that children of divorce were a concern at the time of Bronfenbrenner’s study and I happen to think that his findings raise some interesting questions. Of course the assumption by many is that single parent is an indication of sexual looseness, a want of family feeling and concern and if not the root of all evil, then certainly an indication of inferiority, as Richard plainly believes. It hasn’t been too long ago that a woman without a man was generally regarded as being a social burden, undesireable, or immoral.

    My own experience, crossing multiple decades and in particular working with low income and urban families, suggests that “family” as a concept is far more nuanced. As Bronfenbrenner would point out, connections between the household family members and others outside it can have profound influence, even, some of them that have no direct contact with children at all. Imagine an employer, or an ancestor or former spouse who have been the cause of great stress and anguish–or support and comfort, to the parent with whom a child lives. Imagine a household in which mom is always home when the kid comes home from school and keeps the home spotless. The mom is terrified of the dad and afraid to step out without permission lest their be hell to pay (and frequently their is anyway). Imagine another home in which mom isn’t home until almost dinner time (in fact dinner waits for mom to get home and fix it), dad lives in another state, but grandma lives up the street and the whole family goes to church a few blocks away every Sunday. Which one would you rather drop a kid into?

    Consider again, a kid who goes to school where parents are greeted warmly, introduced to the class when they are there to help out. The kids frequently run into their teachers in the grocery store. Some kids know their teacher’s kids from Sunday School, Scouts or summer camp. At another school parents must call ahead for an appointment when they want to come in. They are frequently talked about in the teacher’s lounge. Teachers think nothing at all about saying things like: “you may get away with that with your mother, but you are at school now.” At the end of the school day, the school becomes a vacant building and this is the only place children ever see their teachers.

    Do you think that either of those situations might have an impact on kids?

  16. Bill Leonard says:

    “Cultures differ, as Thomas Sowell said, and differences have consequences. That goes for subcultures, too.”

    Ka-ching! Mr. Aubrey has it right again!

  17. Why would anyone by surprised to find that kids coming from several generations of very young, never-married mothers are not doing well? No one in their families has been doing well for generations, academically, economically or emotionally (maturity, responsibility, etc.) I remember a faculty member describing her study of grandmothers who were the primary caretakers of their grandkids. Their average age was 34, with the youngest at 28, and a number had kids of the same age as their grandkids. There was often a great grandmother also in residence, along with 3 generations of rotating boyfriends. Jobs, if any, were minimal and sporadic. No father, if known, input was present. Abuse, crime and drugs were rampant in the community. The quality of the school (curriculum, safety, teachers etc) was the only chance these kids had, and they also faced negative labelling if they did well in school.

    It IS the culture and I don’t mean just Black and Hispanic. Moynihan ran up the red flag at a 25% illegitimacy rate among Blacks (now 90%+ in some communities) and the rate among low SES whites is now at 40%, with 25% among the next higher group. The problem will get worse.

    I’d LOVE to see the “Black leaders” really get on top of the behavior/discipline issues, as well as give explicit help instilling the habits that enable both school and life success, but I can’t see it happening. There’s too much political power in playing the victim card.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    momof4. Plus, you need actual victims. Which we have, courtesy of, as Shelby Steele said, liberal white guilt.
    More accurately, he said that liberal white guilt had done something slavery, segregation and Jim Crow had not been able to do…destroy the black family.
    Liberal white guilt teamed up with race hustlers who needed large numbers of disfunctional poor as cannon fodder with which to reproach…liberal whites and cause guilt.

  19. I’d LOVE to see the “Black leaders” really get on top of the behavior/discipline issues

    What’s Bill Cosby, chopped liver?

  20. I respect the efforts of Bill Cosby and many others, but the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton model is still very powerful. No effort is spared to play the victim card and they have gained both power and wealth from playing it.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cosby is a sellout. Oreo. Uncle Tom.
    Just ask the race hustlers and excuse-makers and grafters.

  22. Bill Leonard says:

    “Just ask the race hustlers and excuse-makers and grafters.”

    Pedant that I am, I must suggest the actual criminal term is grifters. Otherwise, right on target.


  23. For some reason, we live in a society that feels something is owed to one if he or she has dealt with any kind of unfortunate lose or difficulty. I am not saying that some don’t deserve help, but many students–single-parent families or not–feel that they should not have to work. Those from difficult backgrounds either feel it’s not worth it or they should not have to work. Parents need to come into the picture just like those in the opening post. I don’t think they need to beat kids, but showing that they care in the proper way is something that I see as lacking. Many parents are not taking on their roles the way they need to.


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