Reasons Minority Test Scores Lag Behind

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

A recent AP article showed that a gap in achievement scores still exists between whites and blacks. This is true for all minorities, including Hispanics. According to the Education Department report cited in the article, unprecedented efforts to improve minority achievement have failed.

Experts say the problem stems from entrenched familial factors such as skipping breakfast, watching too much television, and reading less. Growing up in a poor family and working in an underprivileged area for twenty-five years, I must concur.

A large part of my work, as a pediatrician, involves asking patients about drug use and emotional and educational health. Because I came from a poor Hispanic family, I am always eager to advise my patients on academics, hoping to give them more confidence and ambition. In talking to my patients, I learn a great deal about the attitudes and goals entrenched in many minority families. I often notice that parents do not themselves create an environment promoting education and academics. Instead, they hope only that their kids will avoid gangs, drugs, and stay out of prisons. Unfortunately, these low expectations lead to low self-confidence and little ambition.

For example, one of my patients, Juan, will be a varsity football player next year and has been working all summer to get in shape. I commend him on his achievement and ask how he is doing in school. Juan answers that he is getting C's, and his mother proudly explains how that means he will maintain eligibility. "Juan," I reply, "I don't know what you plan to do as far as college is concerned, but if you were my son, you wouldn't be playing football unless you could prove to me that you were able to handle sports and academics. A "C" average doesn't cut it. If you cannot maintain a B or B+, you should not be playing."

Many minority parents simply do not focus on education. Academics takes back seat to athletics. Time after time, parents brag about their child's latest sporting accomplishment, but they rarely mention academic success.

As farm workers, some of my friends and I came from one of the most severely disadvantaged segments of our society, with no access to health care or decent education (in fact, we were pulled out of school to harvest the crops). Through hard work and diligence, we overcame our economic and social situations and made it to college. For the most part, what we had in common was a parent, teacher, friend, or mentor who encouraged us. Some parents did not want their kids working in the fields for the rest of their lives like they had themselves. I was lucky to have a teacher change my own attitude toward education. Without this supportive individual, I would not be where I am today. I worry about the kids today who don't have this support.

These days, I think of myself as both a parent and a role model. When other minority parents also take this role upon themselves, stressing the importance of reading and learning, and ask their children which college they wish to attend, not if they will attend, then their children are far more likely to succeed both professionally and academically. I give credit to the parents who sacrifice to ensure their kids receive the best education possible.

Unfortunately, a large number of minority parents do not place such a high priority on education. For years, Bill Cosby has led a campaign expressing to parents and students the importance of education. He feels parents allow their kids to remain in the "street culture" where they never amount to anything. In 2004, while speaking to black leaders in an address before Jesse Jackson's 33rd Annual Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conference in Chicago, he told them: "Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other [the N-word] as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read. They can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere." He goes on to say the parents will pay $500 for brand name athletic shoes but won't spend $200 on reading programs. I notice the exact same thing. Parents gladly splurge for athletic equipment, but they don't spend a dime on their children's academic success. Their priorities are for the here and the now, and not for the future.

Teachers can only do so much with what they are given. It is up to the parents to begin the teaching process at home and instill in their children the responsibility to learn. To blame the school system or society for the failings of their children is unacceptable. To have the schools baby sit their kids and expect nothing of their children is unacceptable.

Parents who attend teacher conferences and college nights, not just sporting events, demonstrate to their children that they are keeping tabs on academic performance. Their kids will understand that the purpose of school is to get an education, and everything else is secondary. When an education is used to escape an entrenched lifestyle, children will generally grow to become healthier, happier, and more successful.