Education Letter to the Editor

Can Schools and Teachers Overcome Social Deficits?

February 06, 2007 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Saul Cooperman’s unvarnished remarks about the disheartening performance of disadvantaged students are not limited to New Jersey (“Good Families Make Good Schools,” Commentary, Jan. 24, 2007). If the Garden State has not been able to produce the desired achievement results with high funding, adequately paid teachers, and small class sizes, it’s little wonder that the other 49 states haven’t either.

The hard truth is that the best schools with the best teachers cannot alone overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development that too many students bring to class through no fault of their own. Educating the young is a partnership between school and home. If parents are not involved in their children’s education, teachers find themselves essentially undermined when they should be supported.

This can be seen dramatically in the documented cases of particular schools that successfully serve children whose parents have deliberately chosen to enroll them there. In the final analysis, these schools work because of the self-selection involved. When parents put in the time and effort to take advantage of the choices open to them, their behavior is prima facie evidence of involvement and commitment.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

Saul Cooperman points out that students are not doing well in the Newark, N.J., schools. He attributes this to “failing” families. To support this idea, he refers to the work of John U. Ogbu and concludes that “until the core of it all, the family, faces up to what John Ogbu meticulously presented, … the manifest problems in our schools will continue.”

This is what Phillip C. Schlechty calls the “pre-conception IQ solution” to education reform. If kids were only smarter about choosing their parents, all would be well.

Mr. Cooperman traces the problems of Newark and the suburban schools studied by Mr. Ogbu to the attitudes and beliefs African-American students and their families have about school. He does not mention that Mr. Ogbu found that teachers’ attitudes and beliefs about black students contributed to the attitudes of those students.

Interviews with high-achieving black male students conducted by the Schott Foundation for Public Education point in the same direction. These students have no problem with “acting white”; it is that some of their teachers had a problem with their being black. After transferring to schools with high expectations for all students, they did well at their two foreign languages, in calculus and Advanced Placement classes, and on their SAT examinations.

The Schott Awards for Excellence in the Education of African-American Male Students recognize high schools in which black male students—and, therefore, most likely all students—graduate on time and college-ready. This year, awards are going to the Frederick Douglass Academy in central Harlem, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, and Elmont Memorial High School, located in a working-class neighborhood of Elmont, Long Island. Three-quarters of the students in these schools are African-American, almost all graduate on time, and nearly all go to college. Their common feature is that their teachers are selected on the basis of how much they care for their students.

As we look for solutions to the problem of educational achievement, it is reasonable to consider first those matters for which we are responsible—most importantly, assuring the quality of schools. The challenge presented by such exemplary schools as Frederick Douglass and Elmont is for all schools to provide an excellent education to all students, without regard to the nature of their family situations.

Michael Holzman


Schott Foundation for Public Education

Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Can Schools and Teachers Overcome Social Deficits?


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