March 01, 1999 3 min read

Largely overlooked in the hubbub that followed the book’s release were Harris’ observations about schools and teachers. Harris asserts that because teachers are leaders of large groups of youngsters, they influence kids in ways that parents cannot. She believes, for example, that teachers can counter certain destructive group attitudes--such as “reading is for losers” or “school sucks"--by giving students tough challenges and common goals. Harris points to legendary math teacher Jaime Escalante, who, she writes, motivated his Los Angeles barrio students by making them feel that they were “part of a brave corps on a secret, impossible mission.” Skillful teachers are able to foster a cooperative spirit among the most diverse and potentially contentious collection of students, even finding ways to get their more advanced pupils to encourage and applaud the successes of their peers.

In a way, Harris’ peer-group theory provides a context for the recent trend toward smaller, more close-knit schools. “Numbers count,” she says, claiming that students in large schools are much more likely to stratify into distinct and sometimes opposing peer groups that hold strong sway over kids. Harris suggests that educators target their efforts at groups of children and avoid pull-out programs that separate a single student or small groups of kids from the larger group. “Once kids have split up into [different] groups, it’s extremely difficult to put them back together,” Harris concludes. “It’s better to discourage them from splitting up in the first place.”

Over the past decade, education reformers have been searching for ways to increase parental involvement in schools, believing the parent to be the key factor in a child’s life. Harris’ findings suggest those efforts may be misguided; it’s teachers, not parents, she writes, who have the greatest opportunity to shape young lives.

I’M CHOCOLATE, YOU’RE VANILLA: Raising Happy, Healthy Black and BiracialChildren in a Race-Conscious World, by Marguerite Wright. (Jossey-Bass, $22.) When a black child says, “I want to be white” or is told by a classmate to wash her “dirty” hands, adults tend to become alarmed, sometimes delivering stern lectures on the ills of racism. But this, writes African American child psychologist Wright in her wise and sensitive book, is a serious mistake. Young children, she insists, are barely aware of race and color, and when they talk of wanting to “take this color off” or of being “painted,” they are more likely playing with different identities than expressing racial self-contempt.

Though children have little consciousness of race, adults have plenty, which often leads them unwittingly to foster in children what Wright terms a “hypersensitivity to race that is just as crippling as the racism they fear.” Embittered black parents may teach their children that whites are the enemy, putting them at an enormous disadvantage in an interracial society. Teachers trying to promote multiculturalism, meanwhile, may embark upon discussions of racism that inspire more anxiety than enlightenment.

Wright makes a persuasive case that the most important gift we can give children is a normal childhood. To this end, she argues, teachers should discuss race as little as possible and do all they can to ensure that their young charges “learn more about their similarities than their differences.”

AGAINST THE ODDS: How ‘At-Risk’ Students Exceed Expectations, by Janine Bempechat. (Jossey-Bass, $32.95.) Most studies of at-risk children take a deficit approach, examining the reasons such youngsters fall behind and fail. Bempechat, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has taken a different tack, focusing instead on those children who have succeeded in spite of their disadvantaged circumstances.

There are few surprises here. Children do best, Bempechat finds, when their parents stress the value of learning and emphasize the role of effort, not natural ability, in achieving success. They also do well in schools that maintain high expectations for all students; the model Bempechat points to are urban Catholic schools.

The one finding that stands out in this otherwise middle-of-the-road study is that at-risk kids who receive lots of help from parents on schoolwork tend to be among the lowest achievers. In an age when everyone is hawking parental involvement, it’s something of a relief to think that the best advice a parent might give a child is: “Your homework is your responsibility--do it yourself!”

--David Ruenzel