Good Families Make Good Schools
And Other Lessons of Urban Reform Learned in New Jersey (and in Life)
Improving the academic performance of the children in New Jersey’s urban schools is not an easy job. If it were, the problem already would be solved. But the focus for improvement has always been on the schools themselves—the buildings, the equipment, the funding, the teachers, the union, the curriculum, and so on.
Certainly my state cannot be faulted for the amount of money it spends on urban schools. According to a March 2005 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the seven highest-spending school districts in the country are in New Jersey: Newark, Trenton, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden, Passaic, and East Orange.
The average Newark teacher’s salary in 2004 was $77,000. And average class size is mandated by law for the New Jersey Abbott urban districts (named for the state’s landmark school finance case) at 21 students for grades K-3, 23 for grades 4-8, and 24 for high school.
But even though spending is high, teachers are adequately paid, and class sizes are low, the results are not good: In the 4th grade in Newark, 38.6 percent of the children failed the state language arts test, and 40.4 percent failed the math test; in the 8th grade, 53 percent failed in language arts, while 69.7 percent failed in math; and for the graduation test, 47.6 percent failed the language arts portion, and 62.7 percent the math. And the state’s standards are not particularly high.
New Jersey was first in the country for its graduation rate, but we shouldn’t brag too much about this because the numbers are cooked. If students fail the state’s graduation test three times, they are eligible for something called the Special Review Assessment, or SRA. This means that their teachers, principal, and superintendent must sign a statement saying they really have the required skills, even though they have failed the test on three occasions. In almost every case, students who fail the graduation test repeatedly miraculously “pass” the SRA. In Newark, for example, 740 students passed the graduation test in 2005, while 940 got the same diploma through the SRA. Another 243 were exempt from taking the graduation test for special education reasons. So, without the SRA (which will be phased out in less than four years), the graduation rate in Newark would be well under 50 percent. Add to this picture a dropout rate of 28 percent (2,998 9th graders in 2002-3 and 2,192 12th graders in 2005-6), and the picture is even more serious.
The usual statements will be made by leaders that we must define our goals, plan the work, work the plan, supervise carefully, require accountability, reduce violence, involve parents, eliminate nepotism, institute sound practices, and so on and so on. These are the same things that have been said for decades. They are good objectives, of course, and if they are pursued with vigor and relentless persistence, there will be improvement. And, in Newark, the schools are not led by political hacks. Quite the contrary. The superintendent is honest and pragmatic, and the deputy superintendent is a most caring and competent child advocate.
So why aren’t the Newark schools doing better than they are? Because improving the schools from within, while of tremendous importance, is only part of the solution. Parents are ultimately the other part. But all too often they are part of the problem rather than the solution.
Parents are their children’s first teachers, and many in cities such as Newark are failing in that responsibility. The institutions of the family and the school are inextricably linked. Good families make good schools, and where families fail, inevitably schools do also.
I saw this firsthand when I worked in Newark from 1990 to 2000, heading two nonprofit foundations. This opportunity was given to me by Ray Chambers, a philanthropist and caring human being who sincerely wants to give urban kids a chance to survive and thrive in America. In my work in Newark, I visited hundreds of homes. I met some wonderful people, and, at the same time, I saw poverty, invariably female-headed households, few books, and home environments that, despite the parents’ professed desire to see their children get a good education, were anything but conducive to that goal. Too often, the TV or music was on, and there was not a quiet place in the home for study. Adult involvement in the schools was minimal or nonexistent.
Also during this time, I began to mentor a 7-year-old African-American boy, whom I am still mentoring, 11 years later. He and his friends enabled me to see the world through their eyes, and at that time, education and learning were not on their agenda. The words of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black scholar, often echoed in my mind. In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article, he had said: “Imbued with a belief that our principal avenue to fame and profit is through sport … far too many black kids treat basketball courts and football fields as if they were classrooms in an alternative school system.”
Because of my involvement with black families, especially the children, I also was drawn to the work of John U. Ogbu, a Nigerian-born anthropological researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1997, Ogbu listened as a black parent in Shaker Heights, Ohio, told him at a public meeting: “In this community, we have large numbers of black families which are stable and in which both parents are well-to-do, educated professionals, upholding all the virtues that are assumed to be the prerequisites of educational success. And yet, the children of these families still seem to underperform when compared with similar white families. What is going on?”
Ogbu was intrigued, and his 2003 book Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement was the result of an eight-month study in Shaker Heights, answering the question, “What is going on?” Here is a very small sample of what he found: “Parents’ participation and involvement [with schools] was dismal … involvement with their children’s education at home was equally dismal … there was the failure to supervise homework, failure to teach appropriate use of time, and inability to shield their children from negative peer pressure. … [T]hey [parents] did not think they needed to be involved in the teaching process for their children to learn … black parents did not attend school meetings, participate in school programs, go to parent-teacher conferences. … [B]lack parents mistrusted the school as a white institution.”
As for the students, Ogbu found that they “rarely made a connection between what or how they were doing in school and what they would become or do when they grew up … their schooling was not goal-oriented and lacked motivation. They did not seem to know that some jobs or professions required certain skills and knowledge that students might begin to acquire during their education.” He said that black students were not working hard at school. He called this a “low-effort syndrome” and a “norm of minimum effort.” As evidence, he noted “the failure to do homework, inability to concentrate on classroom tasks, a focus on part-time jobs, emphases on sports,” and other markers.
John Ogbu showed a fundamental disconnect between the black home and the school, to the detriment of the children. In a March 12, 2003, article in Education Week, he was quoted as saying: “People can hate me for pointing these things out, but you can’t leave it all to the school system. This is something we [African-Americans] have to solve, because the school system will not solve it.”
Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald, who is also African-American, has tried to deal with this largely unexamined set of roadblocks, too. In an Oct. 10, 2005, column he directs his ideas to black men, not to government policymakers. He places responsibility squarely on individuals, rather than arguing that people are perpetual victims of larger economic forces. Bluntly, Pitts recommends the following course for black men:
Seek a career, not a job.
Don’t make children you can’t support.
Understand that support means money.
Understand that support means more than money.
Marry the woman.
Model manhood for your children.
Save some money.
Buy a home.
Build a life.”
“Easier said than done?” Pitts continues. “Yes, very much so. ... Yet I persist in believing that for African America, changing the world lies in the embrace of these and other old-school dictums. And that revolution can be as simple as having dinner as a family, checking homework, and going to church on Sunday.”
Does this “changing the world” mean that the schools can’t improve themselves or that they aren’t really important? Is it only through a family “revolution” that improvement can be made? Am I simply giving the schools a pass by presenting this point of view? To this I give an emphatic No!
Our urban schools need to get better, much better. Too many adults in urban schools serve themselves, rather than the children who desperately need their help. There is far too much nepotism on the part of boards of education—relatives and friends get jobs, and payrolls are padded. School boards also are often part of the local political machine, with the district serving as a money and job pot for mayors. Favored contractors get jobs through political connections, and “kickbacks” are the order of the day. Administrators often get their jobs based on contributions and connections, not knowledge and ability. Union dominance plays out, with the contract often more important than the curriculum, and the union putting candidates on the school board whose allegiance is to its leaders, not the children.
Yes, there is plenty of work to be done within the school walls, and we need more than a few good men and women to improve things from the inside. Progress will be made by caring, hardworking, competent people who plan well, execute well, and get results, not with incompetent “professionals” who mouth slogans about children succeeding and do little to see that this happens.
But until the core of it all, the family, faces up to what John Ogbu meticulously presented, and Leonard Pitts courageously states, the manifest problems in our schools will continue. Schools must do more, but they will not be able to do it alone. As the writer James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This problem must be faced, and Ogbu, Pitts, and others like them have pointed the way. We ignore it at our peril.
Vol. 26, Issue 20, Pages 38-39