Don’t blame the teachers for the racial achievement gap, poverty is main culprit

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by Larry E. Davis

For more than a decade now, blame for the racial achievement gap has been laid almost solely on the failure of teachers and schools. I believe this focus to be both incorrect and unfair.

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LARRY E. DAVIS

Teachers and schools by themselves cannot close the racial achievement gap because this gap is due not to lazy teachers, unskilled principals nor inept superintendents, but to poverty.

The problems that many children exhibit in school are but manifestations of the problems they witness and experience in their homes and communities. Children bring to the classroom what they get, or don’t get, at home and in their neighborhoods. Often the homes and neighborhoods of Black children are too chaotic, unstable and insufficiently nurturing to provide a satisfactory learning environment. It does “take a village” to raise a child, but that village must be functional.

Presently, almost 40 percent of all Black children in America live below the poverty line. That’s 40 percent, and in many of the poorly performing school districts, the rate is nearly double that.

Some will argue, correctly, that much of this poverty is due to the fact that roughly 70 percent of Black children live in single-parent homes. Sadly, this is the case, but it has little to do with making teachers and schools virtually the sole culprits in the underperformance of so many Black students.

Some teachers and principals should be re-trained or replaced, but this is not the case for the majority. Nor should most superintendents be run out of town after three to ?ve years when student test scores fail to improve consistently.

The education system has become the scapegoat for a society that for decades has failed to meet the basic economic needs of an increasingly larger segment of its Black population.

Huge stretches of Black communities have been allowed to become economic wastelands, yet we expect the children of these impoverished communities to compete on an equal footing with their middle-class peers. We expect educators to replace all that is missing, but necessary, for these children to be successfully educated. We expect them to be social workers, parents and even clergy to their students. This is completely unrealistic.

How did we get here? How did we manage to buy so completely into the idea that teachers and schools are at the crux of the racial achievement gap? I believe there are three reasons:

1.) Shifting the fault to educators is in keeping with our conservative political climate, which is comfortable blaming a left-leaning, largely unionized group of individuals rather than the societal inequities that create educational inequalities.

These include unequal tax bases and our

history of recalcitrant racial segregation.

2.) The idea that schools could be changed and the problem ?xed was something that people could get their minds around.

3.) We Black Americans were desperate to support any effort to improve the educational outcomes of Black children. We were particularly eager to support an initiative which did not have at its core the implicit assumption that Black children are somehow genetically or culturally inferior. At the same time, we did recognize that some educators were incompetent and often had little cultural sensitivity to the Black children they were required to teach.

Increasingly, I see colleagues who at one time were convinced that the education gap could be solved by improving teachers and schools move away from this idea. While they still recognize the importance of good teaching, most now focus on engaging what might be called “extra-school means of influence.” That is, they now spend as much time talking about factors operating outside of the classroom as inside it—and this is a good thing.

I support comprehensive community school efforts, such as the Harlem Children Zone, which are at the forefront in attempting to prevent and undo the effects of poverty. These efforts improve the lives of small but significant numbers of Black children. But they do much more: They demonstrate that if we provide the resources to poor Black children that middle-class White children have—predictable meals, mentors, parents who know how to parent, health care and a safe environment—Black children can learn as well as any other children.

Some will argue that poverty is not an excuse for poor academic performance. They are correct; poverty is not the excuse, it is the cause.

(Larry E. Davis is dean of the School of Social Work, Donald M. Henderson Professor and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh (ledavis@pitt.edu).)

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