Tony Norman: Biggest gap in black kids' learning: parents

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Judging by recent headlines, the education of African-American public school students in Pittsburgh has finally moved to the front burner of public policy and discussion.

The fact that local black leaders are making demands about the education of black youth is enormously heartening. Their emphasis on teacher evaluations as the key to closing the education gap and spurring black academic achievement is misplaced, but at least education is on the radar as the dominant civil rights issue of our time.

We should all agree that the education of children is of more vital concern to the black community than just about any other issue, including police brutality, urban violence and joblessness. It is the root of every malady that afflicts the health, wealth and stability of black families and communities.

A black child with a desire to learn is going to learn, regardless of structural obstacles such as bad schools, mediocre teachers and negative peer pressure. Runaway slaves who "stole" literacy despite laws against educating blacks are proof of that.

The racial achievement gap and the academic mediocrity of far too many black students is not the creation of diabolical teachers unions determined to protect the jobs of unqualified teachers at the expense of children in urban schools. To reduce the complex problems in urban schools to labor contracts and job protection is ridiculous.

That's why the new system for evaluating classroom teaching that will be implemented this year strikes me as a prime example of magical thinking on the part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I understand that the balance of a $40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is predicated on a teacher evaluation system of some kind, but there are questions about the accuracy and practicality of such tests.

There is a more pressing factor in black academic underachievement in Pittsburgh Public Schools than whether a given teacher passed a high-stakes test or not. You could transfer the most accomplished teachers from the region's best schools in the North Hills and South Hills to Pittsburgh tomorrow and still face a painful reality -- the bored and unmotivated African-American students counting down the minutes until the end of the school day.

If the absolute worst teachers in Pittsburgh were replaced overnight by an army of MacArthur genius award winners, Nobel Prize recipients, Teachers of the Year from every state and the top scorers in whatever teacher evaluation test you want, it wouldn't impact black academic achievement in Pittsburgh in the short run.

Even if the Pittsburgh Public Schools were funded by taxpayers at three times the level of suburban school districts and had more resources in terms of science labs, computers, musical instruments, art supplies, modern infrastructure, sports facilities and motivated teachers, it wouldn't make a difference to students who have not internalized the value of education.

This isn't because there is some defect in the cognitive abilities of black students. Education isn't racially coded to prevent minority kids from learning the material. The missing element isn't the so-called "right teacher" with the right evaluation standing at the blackboard. The missing element is something far more fundamental.

What's missing is the active, radical involvement of every parent of a black child in the Pittsburgh school district.

This goes way beyond showing up for parent-teacher nights. This means supervising homework, modeling an appreciation for learning from the first day that child comes into the world, limiting media distractions that reinforce negative stereotypes and ruthlessly enforcing an ethic of achievement that prevents the pathology of failure from taking root.

This means parents have to stop making excuses. Instead of blaming teachers for intellectually incurious children, they have to become involved in their children's education.

While demanding competent teachers is fine, parents have to demand more from themselves and even more from their children, because they begin life at a disadvantage. Parents of black students have to become insistent stakeholders who personally reinforce the value of education even if they're not educated themselves. A home with more video games than books is a home guaranteeing failure.

Once an active partnership built on mutual trust, respect, empathy and expectation between parents, teachers and students is established, there won't be any significant racial achievement gap to speak of in a few years.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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