THE BLOG

Parents Aren't to Blame for the Achievement Gap: A History of Injustice Is!

09/12/2011 12:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

I have spent considerable time reading, thinking and researching issues inherent in the achievement gap. I practically lived and breathed the achievement gap, as during my time as a high school English teacher in Washington, DC, I daily encountered the gap and fought to close it by pushing my students towards academic success and college matriculation. Now, as a fledgling academic and teacher-educator, I think critically about the hows and whys of the gap from a more macro level. And given that I've now experienced this gap from numerous perspectives, if I have learned anything, it is that understanding the educational achievement gap between Whites and their non-White counterparts takes a constant consideration of which solutions work, but also (and foremost) the historical factors which have made the gap so wide.

Dozens of critiques have floated around the gap debate and many have been squarely directed at the various stakeholders involved. Teachers blame uninvolved parents for their apparent lack of concern for their child's development; administrative leaders blame unmotivated principals and teachers for student failure; and parents and students blame boring and uninspiring lessons from disconnected teachers for failures.

While there may be some limited merit in elements in each of these critiques, perhaps the most unproductive and most startling accusation I've seen involves those who engage in the useless practice of lobbing the blame for student failure solely toward marginalized families. And many who shoot blame at parents do so because they view parental action (or lack there of) as a result of a "presumed" devaluing of education.

To be perfectly honest, while working as a classroom teacher few things frustrated me more than teaching a full day, coaching after school, then staying two to three extra hours for parent-teacher conference, only to have a chance to speak with the families of four of the ninety students I taught. The lack of parental involvement simply baffled me, and it left me jaded to the prospects of truly engaging with the families of the students I so diligently worked to instruct. At the time, I cared; I cared deeply. But my students' parents didn't seem to care, at all.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about the parents' struggles to arrange nighttime childcare for their other children. I wasn't thinking about the hours' worth of lost wages those parents would have to sacrifice to be present at school functions. I also didn't consider how well, or not, the school advertised for the parent teacher proceedings, nor did I consider the more pragmatic struggle to secure transportation to these events given the complexities of urban public transportation schedules. Furthermore, I assuredly never thought about how separate (be it through language, etc.) some of these parents feel from their child's schools. I didn't consider that some schools undervalue at best, and devalue at worst, the perspectives, expertise, and opinions, of urban families. Unfortunately, it seems the wealth of cultural and parent-based knowledge in high-need schools is only tapped when school practitioners contact parents to fix the bad their child does, rarely to support or augment the good. But, given the numerous societal realities marginalized families encounter, it becomes critical to consider parental involvement in a different light and not assume that they devalue education.

I have argued that to fully understand the achievement gap in the United States, it's important to consider how closely issues of race, poverty, and educational attainment are woven together. Once we accept that these issues have been intricately related since the inception of the United States, we can then honestly begin a discussion on where the gap came from, and how we can even begin to address it. I think a good starting place would be to uncover the history of domination, exploitation, oppression and marginalization, initiated at the settling of the North American continent. If we consider the achievement gap through the lens of the history of exploitation, for people of color, then it becomes quite evident that if anything marginalized families have utilized education as a key tool in securing any semblance of economic, social, or political footing for themselves. Thus, to blame these same victimized families for the achievement gap, and to scorn them for devaluing education, is futile at best, and fallaciously shortsighted at worst.

While Latino and Native American communities have suffered and continue to suffer greatly as a result of their exploitation and domination, the institution of African chattel slavery in the United States can assuredly be viewed as the single most important historical occurrence providing the clearest foundation for the origins of the American educational achievement gap. Slavery's role in initiating the wide economic, social, and educational attainment gap between Whites and Blacks cannot be understated.

Those who accept the historically inaccurate arguments attributing Blacks' seemingly poor educational performance to their lack of desire for educational attainment, need look no further than the pro-education actions of slaves pre- and post- emancipation. Prior to emancipation, slaves could be whipped, mutilated, or even killed for reading or for learning to read. Yet many intrepid slaves still hid books behind wood panels of their quarters, and met with literate Blacks and benevolent White reading teachers at night to learn the foundations of reading.

As soon as the Emancipation Proclamation was signed (and Juneteenth for others), freed Africans ran to start schools. Thus, beginning in the mid-to-late 1800s Blacks and White allies founded vocational schools, grammar schools, normal schools, and colleges across the Northeast and Southeast regions of the United States. Schools were built in fledgling Black communities with tremendous zeal, as even freed, illiterate slaves knew that education - the ability to read and write, in particular -- was not only the bridge to them achieving not only their independence as members of society, but also it was their key to achieving humanity at its most basic level.

While there were benevolent White sympathizers during this time who contributed greatly in the efforts to educate freed slaves, schools were started by concerned Blacks and were mostly built with the limited resources they could secure during a devastatingly vitriolic period of resistance. In fact, my great-grandfather, William James was one such concerned Black educator.

In rural Statesboro, Georgia during the early 1900s William James started schools for rural Blacks during a time of ravage racial discrimination. And even when some of the school buildings were destroyed in fires, they eventually were re-built because of the assiduous efforts of not only Professor James (as he was called), but also because of the efforts of students, the community members, and most importantly, the parents of schoolchildren.

And just like the parents of the Statesboro schools, what is important to realize is that contemporary parents can and should be a crucial element in the re-building of failing schools in the United States. We rely too heavily on schools and outreach groups to do the work that parents can and, many times, are willing to do. And we do so because we do not believe in the power, relevance or in the worth of urban Black families. We incorrectly assume that lower income parents do not value their child's education and would not be interested in serving in a more involved capacity in their child's schooling. We incorrectly assume that Black families are simply not involved in the educational and organizational planning needed to stimulate better outcomes for themselves and their families. To the contrary, according to 2008 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed Blacks spend more time working and more time engaged in organizational, civic, and religious activities than the overall average of employed persons, aged 18 years and older.

Parents bring a tremendous wealth of knowledge regarding the academic and social performance of their child. They also are experts in the workings and cultures of the neighborhoods within which these schools are situated. Since urban school practitioners rarely live anywhere near their school sites, brokering the knowledge of parents and localized community members becomes an even more paramount endeavor.

In sum, we need to re-think how we approach parental involvement in schools, and a good starting place would be to consider historically how much these communities have valued, supported, and been involved in the school experiences of their children. In urban schools today, parents are ready, able and more importantly, willing to assist school practitioners in providing optimal learning experiences for kids. While parents need to do their part in reaching out to the schools, educators can help by building essential bridges to parents, shake free previous notions that parents devalue education, and then empower parents to assume important roles in school decision-making for the most optimal outcomes for students.