The Greatest Challenge

June 01, 1990 2 min read

“Most of my students never sit down to dinner with their families.’'

“I’m not a magician. I can’t make the pain of divorce, abuse, neglect, hunger, loneliness, and no love go away.’'

These are the words of the women and men who teach disadvantaged students--the poor, the non-English speaking, the victims of racism. They are worried and frustrated, sometimes to the point of despair. Despite their best efforts and intentions, their students tend to fall further and further behind, and many of them drop out of school.

Educating these young people is one of the nation’s greatest challenges, and it is a challenge that becomes ever more formidable. By the end of this decade, more than one-third of the children in our schools will be members of racial or ethnic minorities; many will carry the heavy burdens of poverty, discrimination, and abuse.

Efforts to meet the challenge have been multiplying. At Johns Hopkins University, the Center for Research on the Education of Disadvantaged Children is developing “intervention strategies’’ for at-risk students and testing them in local schools. In California, Stanford University Professor Henry Levin’s “accelerated schools’’ are substituting demanding curricula for remedial programs. And school districts and communities across the country, often with substantial support from businesses and foundations, are developing multicultural curricula, innovative home-school partnerships, dropout-prevention projects, and early-childhood programs.

Long before the nation focused its attention on disadvantaged students, however, two academics were immersed in the subject. For more than two decades now, John Ogbu and James Comer have studied the problems of educating minority youths. But they have taken very different paths. Ogbu, an anthropologist at the University of California Berkeley, has stayed in the academic realm, seeking to explain why some minorities have been able to overcome obstacles and build better lives while others have languished on the fringes of society. He has found some answers to his questions, but as a researcher and scholar, he has declined to prescribe specific solutions for the problems of the groups he studies.

Comer, on the other hand, has gone far beyond analyzing the problem. Drawing heavily on his knowledge of child development, the Yale University psychiatrist is working in the New Haven, Conn., public schools to devise a comprehensive approach to educating poor, inner-city youths that involves parents, teachers, administrators, and mentalhealth professionals.

Both men have attracted widespread respect and attention--and sometimes criticism--for their efforts, particularly in today’s urgent climate of school reform. They offer valuable insights into the unique challenge of teaching at-risk students. The following articles look at John Ogbu and James Comer--one man’s questions and one man’s answers.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Greatest Challenge