MAXWELL: Effective parenting is the key
1/7/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Part one of a series
In Pinellas County, like in many other parts of the nation, black parents and the public school district are locked in a virulent, protracted and phony debate about how to close the achievement gap between black and white schoolchildren.
For their part, black parents, represented by the group Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, known as COQEBS, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund mainly are blaming the public schools for the poor performance of black children. They are demanding that the school system shoulder the lion’s share of the responsibility in attempts to close the achievement gap.
The school district, represented by superintendent Clayton Wilcox, argues that black student performance is improving and the achievement gap is slowly closing. Wilcox also said that Pinellas is unrealistically expected to solve a problem that no other district in the nation has been able to solve.
“I think it’s a tougher problem to crack than people are willing to credit,” Wilcox told the St. Petersburg Times. “The (district employees) I meet are absolutely committed. They’re absolutely working as hard as they know how. … I personally see us making progress.”
I said at the outset that the achievement gap debate is phony. It is phony primarily because black parents, many of them low-income single moms, have virtually absolved themselves of academic responsibility for their children’s poor performance in school. They also ignore the negative effects of non-school-related factors, such as dysfunctional environments, poor nutrition and a lack of adult role models that harm their children.
At a Dec. 18 news conference, held by COQEBS and the Defense Fund, the Rev. Louis Murphy, an influential local pastor and a member of COQEBS, acknowledged a harsh truth that few other blacks have the courage to acknowledge, at least publicly: “If we are going to close the gap, we must first heal our families.”
Murphy is no Bill Cosby, who is being excoriated for beseeching black parents to invest in their children’s learning, but he is sounding an equally urgent alarm: For too long, far too many black parents have let public school teachers – mostly white women with little in common with their charges – serve as surrogate parents while simultaneously trying to maintain discipline and appropriate behavior in their classrooms.
If the leaders of COQEBS, the NAACP Defense Fund and rank-and-file black parents are sincere about closing the achievement gap, they can take at least two steps that will yield positive results immediately and over time.
First, they need to accept the reality that their children’s education is their responsibility. Parents who accept this duty naturally get involved in their children’s learning at home and in school. They also guide their children’s lives in larger society by, say, taking their children to museums and art galleries. They travel with their children to important places and sites that lend texture and depth to their children’s experiences.
They buy books and magazines and read to and with their children. They teach their children the importance of politeness, civility, getting along with others. They teach their children the importance of keeping their word. They stress to their children that learning is the surest route to personal and professional success. They routinely speak words of encouragement to their children and avoid words that injure.
All research on the subject shows that the children of involved parents almost always perform well in and out of the classroom.
The second step that black leaders and parents can take is to educate themselves by forming committees that collect the cogent research on how and where effective learning occurs.
Everyone connected with COQEBS and the Defense Fund should become thoroughly familiar with Richard Rothstein’s book, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. (I will say more about this book’s findings and the findings of other studies in future columns.)
All concerned blacks should read James Coleman’s congressionally mandated work outlining why schoolchildren in black neighborhoods performed far below children in white neighborhoods. Concerned blacks should mine the work of Doris Entwisle and Karl Alexander of Johns Hopkins University. They show why a group of Baltimore’s black schoolchildren surprised everyone with their high performance.
Concerned blacks should learn all they can about the results of studies on children’s language acquisition, IQ and classroom performance conducted by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley of the University of Kansas.
And concerned blacks should know all they can about the KIPP schools’ approach to teaching poor children. Founded by David Levin and Michael Feinberg in 1994, KIPP means Knowledge Is Power Program. The schools, featured on 60 Minutes, received a gift of $8-million from the Gates Foundation because they succeed with low-income black students. The KIPP schools have two simple and strict rules of conduct for students: “Work Hard” and “Be Nice.” Good stuff naturally flows from adherence to these two demands.
In her Aug. 9 column for the New York Times, titled “It Takes More Than Schools to Close Achievement Gap,” Diana Jean Schemo said that recent studies have forced educators and policymakers – even some committed to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program – to ask the following questions: “What if the impediments to learning run so deep that they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms? What if schools are not the answer?”
These are the scary questions that concerned blacks seriously need to ask themselves when they blame the schools. Until they muster the courage to ask these questions, the debate about closing the achievement gap will remain a phony one.
Black schoolchildren will continue to lag behind their white peers.