Though I have never been a big fan of our obsession with race and poverty as? useful?tools for improving academic achievement ? what starts as a sociological construct (thank you, James Coleman), quickly becomes a general principal, which, by the time you get to the classroom trenches has become a horribly self-fulfilling and deterministic pedagogy ? Michael Winerip's thoughtful profile of Ronald Ferguson in today's New York Times offers some hope that we can start focusing on what counts: what you know and when you know it.?
Ferguson, the deeply respected Harvard academic, begins to get at the root of the problem by finding, as Winerip explains it, that half of the achievement gap can be explained by the fact?that ?black parents on average are not as academically oriented in raising their children as whites.??
"On average"?? I'm no statistician, but my unscientific observations suggest that?researchers seem to turn a blind eye to apples and oranges when it comes to race. By citing the proverbial ?wealthy suburb? data ? ?40 percent of blacks owned 100 or more books, compared with 80 percent of whites? writes Winerip ? to prove the achievement gap, our academics continue, in the process,?to reinforce the racial stereotype.?
But at least book ownership begins to get at the source of the problem: hey, 'bro, content counts.? I could walk you through plenty of? households in my town -- as racially and economically as mixed as America itself -- where white parents are not ?academically oriented? and have no books in their homes and ? voila! ? their?kids do just as well not reading and writing?as?the black kids whose parents are not academically oriented.
What is real, of course,?is the racial prejudice that comes from decades of focusing on race to explain the achievement gap.? And Ferguson, as Winerip explains him, does at least get to some of these real, if substantively meaningless,?issues, identifying classroom ?biases? based on race. The bias, for instance, among?teachers (and it goes unsaid that the?teachers are probably white) that, says Winerip,? ?black children are less likely to do homework because they are lazy.?? As Ferguson explains it to Winerip: ?It's not laziness?. It's a difference in skills.?
I have now been watching this vicious cycle long enough to have seen a generation of very bright black kids -- classmates of my son -- progress from?eager, smart, wide-eyed, energetic six-year-olds to?high school dropouts,?criminals, teenage parents, and academic failures?-- severely, and most likely permanently, disabled by the powerful alliance of simple racism and misguided education ideas.?
Hopefully, now that we have a black president and an increasingly visible black intelligentsia, we can begin to shine the achievement gap light where it belongs: on the knowledge deficit.?
--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow