In the Press

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"Stigma, the endemic devaluation many blacks face in our society and schools,'' is at the heart of their school failure, a social psychologist writes in the April issue of The Atlantic.

Brushing aside familiar explanations for underachievement, such as poverty, broken families, and poor schools, Stanford University's Claude Steele cites studies and programs to illustrate his contention that alienation is the main obstacle to black educational success.

He describes the "double devaluation'' black students face in the classroom: "Like anyone, blacks risk devaluation for a particular incompetence ... [b]ut they further risk that such performance will confirm the broader, racial inferiority they are suspected of.''

In reaction to this pressure, many black students "disidentify'' with achievement, he claims, altering their value systems to make academic success less important to their self-esteem. Unfortunately, he says, the trend can quickly become the group norm, thwarting those who want to achieve. "One's identity as an authentic black is held hostage, made incompatible with school identification,'' Mr. Steele writes.

As routes to a solution, he urges greater emphasis on the academic potential of black students, coupled with more challenging classwork. Racial integration, and the inclusion of black cultural contributions to the mainstream curriculum will also help, he adds.

"[A]chievement should improve significantly if schooling is made 'wise'--that is, made to see value and promise in black students and to act accordingly,'' he concludes.

"The Private Hell of Public Education,'' is how one mother describes, in the April issue of Lear's, the choice-laden search for the perfect school for her daughter.

Bonnie Blodgett, a Minnesota author, relays the anxiety of browsing through St. Paul's "magnet mart,'' a potpourri ranging from Spanish-immersion to Montessori to environment-awareness schools.

The "brain-based learning'' program she eventually chooses turns out to be chaotic and ineffective in her estimation, confirming her sense of a lack of standards and vision within some alternative programs. "They have run a dozen flags up the educational flagpole to see who rallies around,'' she writes.

"With nothing assumed or taken for granted about what is good in education,'' she writes, "it may seem to make sense to pretend that the world is really a great big shopping mall, with all the people in it more or less free to buy what they can afford.'' But the resulting fracturing of purpose within the public schools, she warns, leaves parents with far greater responsibility.

Vol. 11, Issue 29, Page 27

Published in Print: April 8, 1992, as In the Press
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