alcalloway.jpgA lot of blame is hurled at white teachers especially, but teachers in general, for the low expectations of black students when, clearly, low expectations start in the home with black parents. Too many black parents are satisfied when their children bring home a C-minus because it is a passing grade.

In large measure, it is this acceptance of mediocrity at individual levels that manifests in the overwhelming prevalence of failing, inner-city, predominantly black schools.

Even middle-class suburban blacks in high-performing integrated schools tend to score lower than their white classmates. One researcher, Ronald Ferguson, in 2002, found that many suburban black students in 95 schools across 15 school districts “underperform.” And these students come from relatively well-to-do families.

However, it is the late black educational researcher, John U. Ogbu (originally from Nigeria) whose seminal book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, that opened new vistas in examining the black-white achievement gap.

A noted anthropologist, Ogbu was invited to the upper-middle-class suburban Shaker Heights community near Cleveland, Ohio in 1997 by black parents who wanted to know why their children still lagged behind white students academically.

Ogbu brought in a research team from the University of California at Berkeley, and for nearly nine months they interviewed students, school personnel, various community residents, and conducted group and individual discussions. They also probed four elementary schools, one middle school, and the area’s high school.

Combined, black students in Shaker Heights had a 1.9 grade point average, while 3.45 was the average for white students.

Dorinda J. Carter writes in the winter 2004 issue of the Harvard Educational Review that, according to National Center for Education statistics, “at the high school senior level today [2004], 77 percent of all white students read better than the average black student . . . In math and science, the picture is even more dismal.”

Ogbu found that middle-class black parents, many of whom fled inner cities for security, good schools and neighborhoods, exhibited surprisingly similar behaviors as inner-city blacks and poor whites regarding educational issues.

Parental involvement with schoolwork at home and interaction with teachers and the school as a whole paled in comparison to the great amount of time and effort expended by middle-class whites. 

Black parents have developed a cultural model of education that places the onus of educating their children almost totally on teachers and schools. It is the school system’s responsibility to ensure that children learn and succeed, not theirs!

Predictably, such a model dictates that low student achievement does start at home. Without involvement of at least one parent or guardian in the home to check homework, provide coaching on time management, overcome negative peer pressure, and motivate children to learn, the future will produce an ever-shrinking cadre of young African Americans prepared for success.

Black students being “academically disengaged” is an enormous problem in educational circles throughout America. And while we only touched on a few important aspects that black families and communities can readily transform, there are systemic factors, too, that Ogbu dealt with at length in his study.
Ogbu’s findings also included several important policy implications and recommendations.

I have two recommendations. One is that educators, researchers, preachers, other professionals, parents and interested parties read Ogbu’s study. Second, let’s have a dialogue in various venues including churches, libraries, meeting halls – wherever; in a format such as a forum, panel discussion or roundtable. Just start talking with each other, and then do something!

Al Calloway •