Mayors, teachers unions and news commentators have boiled down the academic achievement gap between white and black students to one root cause: parents. Even black leaders and barbershop chatter target "lazy parents" for academic failure in their communities, dismissing the complex web of obstacles that assault urban students daily. In 2011, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg exemplified this thinking by saying, "Unfortunately, there are some parents who ... never had a formal education and they don't understand the value of an education." Earlier this year, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman diagnosed that city's public schools' chief problem: the lack of "active, radical involvement of every parent." And even President Barack Obama rued last week that in some black communities, gaining education is viewed as "acting white."
Clearly, there is widespread belief that black parents don't value education. The default opinion has become "it's the parents" — not the governance, the curriculum, the instruction, the policy, nor the lack of resources — who create problems in urban schools. That's wrong. Everyday actions continuously contradict the idea that low-income black families don't care about their children's schooling, with parents battling against limited resources to access better educations than their circumstances would otherwise afford their children.
In New Orleans this month, hundreds of families waited in the heat for hours in hopes of getting their children into their favorite schools. New Orleans' unique decentralized education system is composed largely of charter schools and assigns students through a computerized matching system. Parents unhappy with their child's assignment must request a different school in person at an enrollment center, with requests granted on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, changes were made to the timing and location of the enrollment process. A long line began forming at the center at 6 a.m. By 9:45 a.m., it stretched around the block. By 12:45 p.m., officials stopped giving out numbers because they didn't have enough staff to meet with every parent.
Research backs up the anecdotal evidence. Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research recently found that African-Americans are most likely to value a post-secondary education in becoming successful, at 90 percent, followed by Asians and Latinos. Whites, at 64 percent, were least likely to believe higher education is necessary for success.
When judging black families' commitment to education, many are confusing will with way. These parents have the will to provide quality schooling for their children, but often, they lack the way: the social capital, the money and the access to elite institutions. There is a difference between valuing an education and having the resources to tap that value.
A study released this month found 26 percent of ACT-tested students were college-ready in all four subject areas. Among low-income students, college-readiness dropped to just 11 percent. The study determined that it was poverty, not motivation or attitudes, that contributed to the lower performance. "Nearly all ACT-tested students from low-income families in the United States aspire to go to college — at an even higher rate than students overall — but many lack the academic preparation to reach this goal," the ACT noted.
Privileged parents hold onto the false notion that their children's progress comes from thrift, dedication and hard work — not from the money their parents made. Our assumption that "poverty doesn't matter" and insistence on blaming black families' perceived disinterest in education for their children's underachievement simply reflects our negative attitudes towards poor, brown people and deflects our responsibility to address the real root problems of the achievement gap. Our negative attitudes about poor people keep us from providing the best services and schools to low-income families.
This thinking hurts not only children, but entire communities. Low expectations extend beyond the classroom into homes and neighborhoods. The greatest tragedy of the New Orleans school enrollment fiasco isn't just that parents had to wait in long lines. It's that the school district assumed parents wouldn't show up. Officials assumed grandma wouldn't be there before dawn. They assumed Ma wouldn't take off work with child in tow. This is a sign of deficit thinking — the practice of making decisions based on negative assumptions about particular socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups. The enrollment center was understaffed because officials assumed applying for school wouldn't demand a larger venue, like the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
When it comes to providing a better education for black children from low-income families, I worry less about poor folks' abilities to wait in long lines and more about the school policies, the city halls, the newspaper columns and the barbershops that are plagued with deficit thinking.
— Andre M. Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of "The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City."