Student Achievement

An Interview With Lisa Delpit

By Catherine A. Cardno — April 24, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The next Education Week Teacher Book Club discussion—focusing on Lisa Delpit’s “Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children (The New Press, 2012)—will take place May 16 - 18, 2012. There’s still plenty of time to get your copy and read the book, but in the meantime BookMarks recently caught up with Lisa Delpit and talked to her about race, poverty, and teaching in low-income, inner-city schools.

— — —

I’m curious about the title of the book—“Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children—because this isn’t a book that focuses solely on math or even STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. How did you end up selecting this particular title?

Actually the title came from a conversation between a middle schooler and her tutor. The tutor was attempting to help the student learn multiplication. The child looked at the tutor and said, “Why you trying to teach me multiplication, Ms. L? Black people don’t multiply, black people just add and subtract. White people multiply!” The editors chose the title, but it does reflect one of the major themes of the book—that, like the rest of the U.S. population, children of color have internalized all of the negative stereotypes about themselves and people who look like them. If we are truly to educate all children, we have to consider and work against these stereotypes.

I’m curious about the fact that you focus so closely on a low-income, inner-city African-American population and juxtapose it with a middle-class white population. What about other ethnic and racial groups within these two economic levels? Is there a point at which the education and experience issues that you discuss are ones of poverty, rather than race?

Although I have previously written about other cultural groups, the most prolific conversation in American education has been the achievement gap between African-American and white students. Many of the perspectives in the book apply to any marginalized population, but this book is focused specifically on African Americans, arguably the American subpopulation least well served by the American education system. Certainly poverty plays a role in marginalization, but regardless of socioeconomic status, African-American students nationally score lower on standardized tests than white students. Thus, while poverty plays a significant role, the repercussions of racial attitudes and beliefs play a major role, as well.

I believe it is vital that we look at what is happening for African-American students in our schools. The truth of the matter is that were it not for people of African descent, “white” people would not exist. The concept of “white” as opposed to French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, etc., was created to establish a power majority over those considered “black.” Molefe Asante says that “white” people gave up their birthright (their cultural heritages) to become “white,” and are therefore representatives of a hegemonic power. People of African descent were the iconic “other” who became the prototype of “other” for other marginalized groups. Therefore, I believe it is very important to fully understand the relationship of the country’s attitudes and beliefs toward people of African descent as we try to understand how marginalization affects education. I do believe it is always important to look at specific cultures and the specific stereotypes held by this society toward those groups. Doing so will enable us to know what schools will need to do to address any negative repercussions and convince all teachers and children of all students’ brilliance.

I know you believe strongly in a diverse teaching corps, and the importance of mentorships for non-black teachers in inner-city schools to fully understand the population they are teaching. How do you see these two ideas meshing, and in your opinion what is the best-case scenario for current students in inner-city schools?

I want black children to have the opportunity to have teachers who understand their culture, their intellectual legacy, their communities, the best ways to teach them, the best ways to motivate them, the best ways to connect to their parents, etc. Those people can be of any color. It is not the color that matters as much as the connections. While many black teachers have an easier time connecting, I have seen black teachers who cannot connect with certain black children because their backgrounds were so different. I have seen many white teachers who can connect because they have been humble enough to know that they have to learn a great deal about their students to be good teachers. It is, of course, important for all children to see some people in positions of power who look like them, but it is also important that they have the opportunity to learn from teachers who are different—as long as those teachers are also prepared to learn from the students, their parents, and their communities.

To ask a really specific question: You come down pretty hard on the Teach for America program (in Chapter 6). In your opinion, where does the TFA failure lie and is there a way the program can be adjusted so that it better meets the needs of students at inner-city schools?

I strongly believe that it is important to have a diverse teaching population. However, I do not believe that the most vulnerable, the most school-dependent of our students should be taught by a revolving door of young teachers who have no commitments to or understanding of the local communities, who have limited teacher training, and who plan to leave teaching before they have had the chance to become good at it. It is no wonder that well-to-do schools refuse to have TFA teachers in their schools. As to how the TFA program could improve, I believe that we should increase the commitment time to teaching, and have TFA teachers practice under the mentorship of experienced, competent teachers with long-term experience in urban schools. I would also like to see such mentors play a much larger part in the training of the TFA teachers.

What I would really like to see is a lot of the money going to TFA going instead to carefully train cohorts of teachers who specialize in teaching urban, low-income children of color as a career, rather than as a step to another profession. I believe we have seen teachers and principals who produce miracles in inner-city schools, but have not garnered their collective knowledge to create cohorts of exceptional educators who can replicate their results. To do so would take time and money, but I believe this would be money better spent than continuing to dedicate millions to short-term “visitors” to our most needy classrooms.

What are the top three most significant takeaway points you want teachers to get from your book?

I would like teachers to understand the brilliance of the children that they teach and teach accordingly; I would like them to understand and fight against racial stereotypes in their classrooms and their school systems, including addressing their respective curricula; I would like them to understand that teaching African-American students is not just about teaching content, but addressing the implications of societal beliefs that mitigate their learning.

All teachers need to know that they have to learn from the communities in which they teach. They must know that their students have unlimited potential. They must understand, however, that the students they teach are very “teacher dependent,” i.e., they desperately need teachers to learn to be academically successful, as their parents may not have the skills or the time to help them learn the things that middle class parents provide on a regular basis. Therefore, their teachers are even more important to their future well-being that the teachers of middle class children. They need to know how to talk to parents and community members in order to get help understanding problems that may occur in their classrooms and in the school as a whole. They need to be advocates for the children.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.