Education, Race and Culture

Harry at Crooked Timber had an interesting post a couple of days ago on an issue that has been kicking around for quite awhile now: the issue of minority underachievement in school and what causes it. Another way to characterize the issue might be whether it’s just one thing that causes the underachievement or an array of factors, and if it is an array of factors, what they are and how significant each is, and whether and why some get more attention than others. Whether and why some factors are downplayed or ignored while others are exaggerated and overfocused on.

Harry puts it this way:

Our school district devoted another in-service training to the Courageous Conversations program; every employee (except the many who took sick days) had to participate…It’s a kind of involuntary therapy session — the kind of thing that my friends who used to be in obscure Maoist organizations report having gone through regularly. The pretext is a concern with minority underachievement, which the District regards as being caused by institutional racism, on which the day’s conversation focused. You might expect that a focus on institutional racism would look at the racism in the criminal justice system and the labor market, which deeply affect the prospects of minority males and, presumably, therefore indirectly effect their aspirations and marriageability (with predictable consequences for family structure). But: no mention of these things. It is all about the racism inherent in the schools, and particularly in the attitudes of teachers.

He also has an Op-ed in the Madison paper, where he makes this point among others:

The second assumption the Conversations approach makes is that what is explained by race can by addressed by making teachers face up to their own privilege and racism. The problem, in other words, is in the attitudes of teachers and other district employees. But we have evidence to the contrary. Analyses of the data from summer learning often suggest that the entire growth in the socio-economic class achievement gap each year occurs in the summer, when students are out of school. It looks as if out-of-school experiences, not in-school experiences, are responsible at least in part for that gap. In fact, our understanding of summer learning suggests that schools are truly remarkable places, in which, throughout the school year, the unequal effects of out-of-school experiences on achievement are held in check.

Other people make different though compatible points. Laban Tall collected some useful links on the subject last month, at the time of a conference on ‘London Schools And The Black Child’. There was BBC sports presenter and former Tottenham Hotspur striker Garth Crooks, for example, who told the conference ‘there was a direct link between films and rap music glorifying violence and the drift of black boys away from education and into crime and violence.’ There was a March 2002 article by Joseph Harker:

If, 10 years ago, you asked black people in inner-city areas what they most feared when walking the streets, they would probably have said it was police officers; today they’d reply that it’s loud, aggressive gangs of young black boys – who may or may not be criminals, but are deliberately trying to strike terror into those around them, living up to the gangsta-rap culture which has been imported from the US since the late 1980s. “We’re from the street,” they grunt, “we want respect” (expletives deleted). For a decade now, backed by the profane, misogynistic imagery of rap videos, these people have been given free rein to hijack black culture. Being black is all about music, sex, guns, drugs and living on “the street”, they say, and their message has been taken on board by too many impressionable youngsters. As Sewell said, education has been portrayed as “white” – what use is it when strutting the streets?

And an email debate between Tony Sewell and Lee Jasper on the subject, in which Tony Sewell put it this way:

Many black head teachers and black students are clear that underachievement can be due to the individual student, parents, community, peers and, of course, school. They don’t agree that poverty and institutionalised racism are the most important factors. I would go further and say that political correctness has avoided the real issue of an anti-school black masculinity that pervades not only our inner city but those black boys who attend schools in the suburbs. When it comes to the CRE challenging failing schools, its remit must be wider than just white racism. It must also challenge a youth culture that still thinks to do well in school is to “act white”.

And Jamie Whyte had a piece in the Times about the way the evidence was used:

In the 17th century accusations of witchcraft could be made on flimsy evidence: warts and buoyancy would do. In the 21st century accusations of racism can be made with no evidence at all, or even with evidence pointing in the opposite direction…Pupils were asked how strongly they agree with the following statements, from 5 “strongly agree” to 1 “strongly disagree”:

“Q14. My teachers expect me to do well at school. Q15. My teachers expect me to do my homework. Q16. My teachers care about my progress. Q17. Teachers listen to what I say. Q18. I am often in conflict with teachers.” The average answers of black and white pupils were the same: exactly the same for questions 14 and 15 and so close for the others that the difference is statistically insignificant.

Yet the opposite answer was somehow found – the school system was declared racist when the evidence indicated it wasn’t. That’s the kind of thing that makes one want to rush out and become a teacher, isn’t it.

Clearly there is a strong taboo against saying ‘the culture’ might be playing any part in the underachievement – no doubt it seems too much like blaming the victim. But is it going to be possible to correct the problem while ignoring crucial factors? One wouldn’t think so.

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