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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