Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We have the right to remain behind: The implication for blaming culture, not money, for the racial achievement gap

Yesterday's NYT's article "Proficiency of Black Students is Found to be Far Lower Than Expected" highlighted a very important fact concerning the racial achievement gap: Money does not matter as much as we have always figured (Although it still matters a great deal). While there are real equity, noncultural issues such as school choice, the article pointed to parental practice and hinted at general culture as explanations for the 26 percentage points difference between reading proficiency rates of Black and White fourth-grade males. Reading this article and its reference to the cultural variable, while causing great alarm, inspires hope that people will begin to see the academic achievement gap not just as a money, political, or school issue, but also as an issue of culture. It shows that if we acknowledge a cultural shortcoming as a real factor alongside other factors like monies for school choice, we actually stand a chance of closing the achievement gap.

So with this "novel" idea, what can the government really do that it already has not? Policy makers are befuddled because culture--a questionable frontier for the realm of education policy-- is at the heart of the problem and the solution. Not only does pointing the finger at culture sound a lot like putting the blame on those most adversely affected, it is much easier to say to the American people that it is only a matter of streaming money into districts, schools and households than it is to point to cultural issues as a key variable. The former has no immediate promising soundbite solution to hold people off for a while before things fall back to a subpar equilibrium. In short, examining the cultural factor is often viewed as a politically incorrect move. How much can Washington, State, or City policy change our culture--our collective paradigm of education, the way we relate to each other concerning academic achievement, the way we spend our household disposable income, among other choices of prioritization? Furthermore, it is often the extent to which a policy is able to hold folks accountable that determines the degree of effectiveness. If there is an education-culture policy, what teeth will it have to keep it from being mere suggestion and propaganda of a loud yet ineffective public service campaign? How can education policy effectively confront various subcultures that are at odds with academic achievement?

A professor once said to me, "You can't make people change their culture with policies." She was pretty sure that policy and culture in that context were oil and water because of the legal implications and what it would look like to most people. Also, the American people are quick to attempt to defang that which denies us the ability to determine who we are or how we prioritize and allocate resources. Look at the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the formation of the Tea Party.

The thing is, I don't believe any of us truly want to be what we are becoming. Ostensibly it seems un-American for the government to become too involved in the private affairs of a household. But what if those private affairs work to the detriment of America as a whole? Is that not un-American? Is it still pro-American when we are self-determined to be slackers lagging behind in school, on the job, and in the world economy? While running the risk of sounding like I support authoritarianism in America, the goal is to point out that if we want to close the academic achievement gap we must pay close attention to those cultural variables that take effect behind closed doors. Whether or not there is a truly viable way for the government to do that remains to be seen. As this point we, individual community members, must take action to ensure that we put the necessary pressure on ourselves and others in our community to close this gap. We must assume our individual and collective responsibilities.

What is the solution?

Perhaps my professor was correct in suggesting that policies and culture just don't mix. Perhaps we must go through the back door so that, when achievement gap money is available we can maximize the efficiency of its use. While it is true that the problem of racial academic achievement disparity is quite complex, people fail to realize that the solution begins with one simple decision. Even though there are various factors contributing to the academic achievement gap, including SES, we--all Americans, but especially minorities who are most adversely affected by the academic achievement gap--must have zero tolerance for failure. Zero. We must throw fits, refocus, and show not only others, but ourselves, that it's all or nothing. Once we get that in our minds, in the minds of our next door neighbors, in the minds of students in failing schools and also failing homes, the academic achievement gap stands a greater chance of being closed. In short, we must have an American education cultural revolution of sorts.

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