A friend of mine, a recently retired teacher, asked me to read your recent article on the racial achievement gap existing in Forest Park schools (“It’s not poverty; It’s low expectations” by Bob Skolnik, 3/2/05). She hoped I would write a response knowing that as a sociologist and former educator, I have spent time researching, thinking, and writing about this issue.
She was particularly concerned that the workshop Dr. Kunjufu conducted for the Forest Park schools would leave teachers there feeling defensive and blamed. This worry emanated, in part, from the article’s headline.
Although my friend does not totally dismiss the idea that some teachers might have low expectations for black students, she gives more credence to the poverty argument. That is, black students perform less well than whites for socioeconomic reasons. For example compared to whites: black parents are generally less educated thereby they don’t prepare their children for school in the way more educated middle-class parents do; black children have lower quality day care and pre-school experiences; and once in school, black parents are less actively involved in their children’s educational careers.
My friend also knows that socioeconomic research commonly finds that white children of low socioeconomic status usually perform at lower academic levels than affluent white children.
Once again, the correlation between class and academic performance is demonstrated. If SES and achievement are so related, why then, in Forest Park, is blame being placed on teachers for the low performance of black students? Isn’t this really a problem of class, with the assumption being that Forest Park blacks have a lower socioeconomic status than Forest Park whites?
In response to my friend’s concerns, here’s what I would argue.
1) Despite how researchers, speakers, or newspapers sometimes explain the racial achievement gap, there is no one single causal factor. Even the article in the Forest Park Review attests to this point when one reads beyond the headline. The reporter wrote that Dr. Kunjufu cited several factors for the gap, including negative peer group attitudes toward academic achievement. This multi-faceted analysis for the gap is also discussed in my sociological research study that investigated why the racial achievement gap exists at nearby Oak Park and River Forest High School. Readers can read my study, Not Making the Grade: Barriers to African-American Achievement at OPRFHS, as it is available for checkout at the Oak Park Public Library.
2) While I believe that socioeconomics play a role in the achievement gap in terms of how different families’ class backgrounds manifest themselves in the day-to-day lives of their children’s educational careers, I nevertheless support the advocacy position that many socioeconomic factors could be overcome with effective interventions if our schools and nation had the political will.
Rather than point to poverty for the problems of black children, I blame the
continuing tragedy of the racial achievement gap on our collective lack of desire, creativity, and belief that all children deserve to be highly educated. If we would recognize that a real weapon of mass destruction that threatens our national security is our failure to teach African-American children, then we might elect politicians that would finance our public schools so they can be restructured to serve the needs of all children, and especially those that have been historically educationally disenfranchised. By placing our heads in the sand, however, we allow the racial achievement gap to perpetually detonate in the forms of racial hopelessness, racial
tensions, crime, more prisons, and the loss of productive black engagement in civil
Although a segment of black America has done well for itself socioeconomically, substantial percentages of African-Americans are still struggling with this country’s four hundred plus years of racism’s legacy. Despite the color-blind discourse that
permeates many of our radio and television talk shows, countless research studies
continue to show that blacks still receive unequal treatment in key public and
private arenas. Recognizing this fact is not about blame, it is about taking responsibility and creating workable solutions, whether the sites are our schools, our neighborhoods,or our workplaces.
3) Finally, white middle-class teachers in Forest Park who are feeling defensive
over Dr. Kunjufu’s claim that it is their
low expectations that is the primary cause for the racial achievement gap need not
feel that only they are being blamed. In his book, Black Students-Middle Class Teachers, Dr. Kunjufu does not single out only white teachers as problematic for black students. He also challenges
middle-class African-American teachers to not let their class privilege over lower-class blacks bias them toward low expectations (2002, p. 35). With this challenge, he acknowledges that the acceptance and
internalization of racial stereotypes is not only a problem affecting white America.
Nevertheless, since in today’s educational institutions so many black children are being taught by white teachers, and this is especially true in diverse communities like Forest Park and Oak Park, a great deal of responsibility is placed on whites in terms of their effectiveness in teaching black children. Therefore, teachers who really want to make a difference must challenge themselves and their racial preconceptions.
A key step is increasing their knowledge of how racism’s legacies are still with us and how they can be overcome. While Dr. Kunjufu’s provocative book is useful in this endeavor, teachers should also look at, Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students, by Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa G. Hilliard. In terms of alleviating the racial achievement gap that exists in our schools, there really is no shortage of educational resources available to help teachers and the rest of us figure out
what needs to be done. In my opinion, there is only our resistance and lack of resolve to change.
Denise Rose, Oak Park