Equity & Diversity

Meager Effort Said To Fuel Racial Gap

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 12, 2003 8 min read
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The noted anthropologist John U. Ogbu argues in a recently published book that African-Americans’ cultural attitudes toward education, their generally minimal involvement in schools, and black students’ own lack of effort contribute to the persistent achievement gap.

In Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement, Mr. Ogbu tackles how community dynamics can help explain why many African-American students academically lag behind their white and Asian-American classmates.

The professor at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledges that his conclusions, based on research conducted in the Shaker Heights, Ohio, school district in 1997, may be hard to digest. Last fall, news accounts about the book, which had not yet been published, led some commentators to condemn or question his assertions.

No stranger to criticism, the 63-year-old, Nigerian-born scholar popularized the term “acting white” in the 1980s. His research then, conducted with Signithia Fordham, found that some black students dismissed certain behaviors, such as getting good grades, to avoid being associated with the white majority.

Mr. Ogbu believes his latest research, released in January by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, of Mawah, N.J., is vital to understanding and addressing the complexities of the achievement gap.

“People can hate me for pointing these things out,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But you can’t leave it all to the school system. This is something we [African-Americans] have to solve, because the school system will not solve it.”

Three Prongs

Throughout his book, Mr. Ogbu stresses that addressing the black community’s roles and responsibilities in boosting African-American student achievement can’t by itself eradicate academic disparities.

Instead, he argues for a three-pronged approach, involving the schools, white society, and the minority community whose children are negatively affected by the gap. Mr. Ogbu believes that of those, the minority community’s role has been largely neglected in discussions about the achievement gap.

But Mr. Ogbu admitted that his work could be used to validate the beliefs of those who say that African-American students and their parents are to blame for the poor achievement of black children.

Ronald O. Ross, a distinguished fellow for urban education at the New York City-based National Urban League, said it would be easy to sensationalize Mr. Ogbu’s work, even though ample evidence from the anthropologist’s research and that of others points to racism, history, and other factors as contributors to the achievement gap.

“Some white folks always want to find a way to get around what they’re supposed to be doing,” Mr. Ross said. “They’ll take what he says and say that’s the reason for the achievement gap—because black parents aren’t doing.”

‘What Is Going On?’

At the invitation of Shaker Heights parents, Mr. Ogbu and another researcher spent eight months in 1997 observing, interviewing, and holding discussions with residents and educators in the upper-middle-class, racially mixed suburb of Cleveland.

For many years, residents of the suburb have tried to understand why its much-heralded public schools continue to see disparities in achievement among students.

In 2002, for example, white students at Shaker Heights High School earned a mean composite score of 1201 on the SAT, out of a possible 1600, while black students earned 928. The 5,600- student district’s enrollment is 52 percent black, 41 percent white, and 7 percent Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or multiracial.

At one community meeting, Mr. Ogbu writes, an African-American woman posed the following question: “In this community, we have large numbers of black families which are stable and in which both parents are well-to-do, educated professionals, upholding all the virtues that are assumed to be the prerequisites of educational success. And yet, the children of these families still seem to underperform when compared with similar white families. What is going on?”

Mr. Ogbu focused his work around responding to her question. What he and his researcher discovered over the next few months often raised more questions than answers.

Few African-American parents participated in the district’s open-house events, for example. Black parents also spent little time supervising their children’s education, Mr. Ogbu found.

Their attitudes seemed to suggest, he writes, that moving to Shaker Heights and enrolling their children in its schools was the goal for most black parents, and that the rest was thought to be up to the teachers.

While it was unclear why many black parents didn’t actively participate, Mr. Ogbu discerned a sense of mistrust of the school system.

In the classroom, Mr. Ogbu said, he was taken aback to find that many black students didn’t work as hard as their white classmates. Although African-American students knew what skills they needed to be high achievers, they often didn’t listen in class or didn’t know how to study properly, he found.

“I’m not saying that black kids don’t want to make good grades. They want to make good grades,” he said. “But they avoid behaviors conducive to getting good grades.”

Living among African-American professionals seemingly had little impact on black Shaker Heights students’ choice of role models, whom the researchers found to be black athletes, entertainers, and rappers. Mr. Ogbu said the students explained that the media doesn’t often glorify the achievements of doctors and lawyers.

“So there is something there that kind of screws up our [black] kids,” Mr. Ogbu said.

Closing the Gap

Despite Mr. Ogbu’s observations, he is careful to point out that racism and the legacy of racism still shape the attitudes and perceptions African-Americans have about education. The school district, he argues, bears responsibility in addressing any barriers that negatively affect black student achievement.

Despite the challenges, he said black families can take steps to help their children succeed in school.

He suggests that African-Americans create community-based education programs, such as after-school tutoring. Black parents also must promote their children’s learning success at home while becoming more involved at school, he writes.

African-American students must learn how to become more focused and self-motivated and should be exposed to more professional role models, he recommends.

At the district level, Mr. Ogbu advocates the expansion of a local honor society for black students and the addition of a study skills course. Teachers need to learn more about the influence race, gender, and class have on student expectations, he says.

In addition, Mr. Ogbu writes that the consequences of the district’s academic-tracking system—college- preparatory, honors, and Advanced Placement—should be more clearly explained to black parents.

Shaker Heights school district officials have already put many of Mr. Ogbu’s suggestions into place, some before his recommendations were made. The honor society was expanded to include 5th and 6th graders, teacher training is ongoing, and more black students are enrolling in upper- level courses, they say.

In 1998, the percentage of black students in AP classes at the district’s high school was roughly 10 percent. This year, about 14 percent of AP students are black.

Superintendent Mark Freeman said that what gets lost in Mr. Ogbu’s research is the fact that Shaker Heights’ black students outperform their counterparts in Ohio and the nation on standardized tests. He added that 77 percent of the district’s black high school graduates in 2002 attended college; the national rate was 56 percent in 2001, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Any educator or teacher that works in a desegregated or integrated district for any number of years and looks at these issues should not be surprised by the comments of Dr. Ogbu and what his research staff observed in Shaker Heights,” Mr. Freeman said.

Reuben Harris Jr. was one of the parents who urged Mr. Ogbu, in addition to Harvard University’s Ronald F. Ferguson, to study Shaker Heights’ achievement gap.

Mr. Harris, an insurance agent whose daughter graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 2001, admitted that although some of Mr. Ogbu’s observations are “uncomfortable,” he generally agrees that African- American parents must do more to encourage learning. But he cautioned that black parents’ lack of involvement in schools is both a symptom and a contributor to the disparities in achievement.

“If a child doesn’t choose effective parents, does that mean the [school] system can’t reach that child?” Mr. Harris asked.

Given the nationwide interest in closing the achievement gap, Mr. Ogbu’s work is sure to be debated in research and policy circles.

Contextual Factors

Because Mr. Ogbu is an anthropologist, he describes what he observes, but doesn’t explain the context or the dynamics that contribute to the current conditions, noted Dr. James P. Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University and the founder of the School Development Program.

He said districts must “create trust” to cultivate better relationships with parents.

And while it may be true that African-American students don’t work hard, Dr. Comer said, it’s the children’s developmental experiences, and not their racial or ethnic culture, that contribute to that lack of academic effort.

Mr. Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said his student surveys indicate that African-American parents are involved in their children’s education to some degree. He also found that black, Hispanic, and white students reported spending similar amounts of time on homework. (“No Racial Gap Seen in Students’ School Outlook,” Nov. 20, 2002.)

Based on his understanding of Mr. Ogbu’s research, Mr. Ferguson said, his own work supports some of the Berkeley professor’s observations, including those about students’ classroom behavior.

African-American students don’t necessarily need more direct support from their parents to improve their performance in school, he argued. Instead, the intellectual climate at home, including engaging children in discussions that get them thinking critically, needs to be addressed.

“The danger in blaming parents is not that parents don’t deserve some blame,” Mr. Ferguson said. “It’s that they react so self-defensively that what happens afterwards is self-destructive.”

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