Educating Black Children: Why Culture Matters

Blacks and Hispanics got in trouble at home when their grades fell below C-minus, compared with A-minus for Asians

Students perform mock trials, engage in formal debates, and write stories, letters, poems, skits, and essays, [are] expected to spell correctly, and know English grammar, as well as the times tables and basic mathematical algorithms. In a class that we watched, the teacher was rapidly firing square root questions. The square root of 81 is? Students called on to answer rose from their chairs and gave the answer, loud and clear, standing tall. (An education in public speaking as well as math.) In other classes, students memorize poems and speeches. Fifth-graders must know the elements of the periodic table; sixth-graders can explain the process of DNA replication.

—Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning

That's the way they do it at North Star Academy, a public charter school in Newark, N.J., with a student body of almost entirely low-income, African-American kids and no whites. The school day runs an extra hour. The academic year is 11 months. The students wear uniforms. They pick up trash. The homework is hefty. Most parents sign a voluntary "covenant" to "check our child's homework each night." The school's founders see inner-city teaching as a calling. The school is free of bureaucratic paralysis and free to hire nonunion teachers, pay them extra for unusual success or long hours, fire bad teachers, discipline students, and allocate its small budget as it sees fit.

It works. Despite having spent five years in abysmal elementary schools before entering North Star, 78 percent of the students passed statewide tests in English language arts and 58 percent passed in math in 2002—well over double the rates of other schools in the neighborhood. And these students plan to go to college.

Compare the education children get in too many urban school systems. In the Thernstroms' words: "The days are too short, the year is too short, instructional time is wasted, the classrooms are chaotic, the academic expectations are woefully low, basic skills are not taught, intellectually sophisticated and stimulating material is not offered, tests are viewed as antithetical to education, and equity and excellence are seen as incompatible."

Critical to the success of North Star and a handful of other excellent inner-city charter schools the Thernstroms studied, they contend, is the teaching of traditional middle-class values, such as morals, manners, and responsibility, and strict rules requiring students to dress neatly, arrive on time, pay attention, be respectful, shun fighting and foul language, and finish their homework. In short, these schools "aim to transform the culture of their students—as it affects academic achievement," because "black culture ... has much to do with the racial gap in academic achievement."

Any criticism of "black culture" risks over-generalization and offends black people who are justifiably proud of the culture that they absorbed from their parents and seek to impart to their children. But the Thernstroms cite persuasive evidence that an extraordinarily high percentage of black parents and children, including many well-off families, share a self-crippling attitude that working hard in school is not important.

Only by confronting this reality can we appreciate the need both to implement truly radical school reform and to motivate many more black parents and children, if we are to close the huge black-white gap that has become the main engine of racial inequality in America. As long as most black 12th-graders have learned no more than most white eighth-graders, and blacks with family incomes of $80,000 to $100,000 have lower average SAT scores than whites with family incomes below $10,000, racial equality will be a mirage.

My last column described the Thernstroms' demonstration that the racial gap is growing and that none of the traditional remedies—not more racial integration, not more money for existing school systems, not shrinking class size—is likely to do much good. Nor, they contend, are the testing and accountability required by President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act likely to narrow the black-white gap. That law will (experience suggests) raise black and white test scores, which is good, but by similar amounts.

It will take much stronger medicine to close the racial gap, in part because only about a third of it (studies show) can be explained by differences in poverty rates, parental education, and other socioeconomic factors. Much of the gap, the Thernstroms argue, traces to "parenting practices" and other community and peer-group influences that hold back even many affluent black kids. Examples from various studies cited in the book:

  • Black and Hispanic kids got in trouble at home only when their grades fell below C-minus, compared with B-minus for whites and A-minus for Asians, according to a survey of 20,000 high school kids.
  • Nearly half of black fourth-graders and more than 30 percent of black 12th-graders watch TV for five or more hours on a typical school day; only 18 percent of white fourth-graders and 6 percent of white 12th-graders watch that much.
  • The average black five-year-old's home had fewer than half as many children's books as the 93 books in the average white five-year-old's home in one study.
  • Family influences and structure, such as the fact that fewer than 37 percent of black children live with two parents, play a more important role than school quality in determining academic performance.
  • "Clear racial differences in levels of intellectual development are evident by the time children first set foot in school," and blacks are cited for disruptive conduct at much higher rates than whites—who are cited at higher rates than Asians.
  • Among 12th-graders, at the top of the academic curve, where selective colleges seek their best-qualified students, 7.4 percent of Asians, 2.2 percent of whites, and only 0.2 percent of blacks achieve "advanced" math scores in National Assessment of Educational Progress tests—a white-black disparity of 11-to-1 and an Asian-black disparity of 37-to-1. The reason for the stunning educational success of Asian kids is "family culture," say the Thernstroms: Asian parents insist on hard work and high grades.
  • "The racial gap between relatively affluent students living outside the central cities is ... just 15 percent smaller than the overall gap"—that is, still between three and four years of school achievement at age 17. For instance, at the much-studied, racially integrated, well-funded public schools in affluent Shaker Heights, Ohio, only 4 percent of black students (and more than half of whites) passed with honors Ohio's statewide proficiency tests in 1999-2000. This despite relatively modest gaps in parental education and income and despite the schools' energetic efforts to help black students. The recently deceased scholar John U. Ogbu, invited by anguished black parents to study and explain the gap, did so in his last book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement (2003). After eight months of interviews, classroom visits, and other research, Ogbu concluded that by their own accounts, most black students did not work hard and many saw rappers in ghettos as role models; many of their hard-working parents paid little attention to their kids' homework and blamed poor academic performance on teachers and the oppressiveness of white America.

    This picture will change only when many more urban schools become like North Star Academy—and when many more black families and leaders acknowledge that the black-white gap "has less and less to do with racism and more and more to do with the habits and attitudes we inculcate among our children," in the words of an October 13 column by William Raspberry of The Washington Post. "Priming our children for success," he added, will do them more good than "supplying them with excuses for failure."

    The Thernstroms have little hope of seeing a great many schools like North Star Academy or radical change in public school systems any time soon: "The enormous power of the teachers unions stops almost all real change in its tracks"; the unions bitterly oppose creation of charter schools; in ordinary public schools, principals lack "the discretion to reward their best staff with higher pay, to fire those who are incompetent, to allocate funds in [the most effective] ways"; there are not many "saints and masochists" capable of creating "islands of true heroism" like North Star; and some charter schools fail.

    The best hope for progress, the Thernstroms say, is to help as many urban children as possible escape broken school systems into public charter schools and voucher-funded private schools. If enough of them are successful, they will "crack the edifice" of the public school monopolies by creating competitive pressure for more schools to emulate their approach.

    Besides, says Abigail Thernstrom: "With every kid rescued, we're one kid ahead."