U.S. Politics and the Economy

School Achievement Gap

Stop Blaming Black Parents

By Glen Ford

An extensive study by two Black academics shows there is no positive correlation between student achievement and parental help with homework or involvement in school activities. The findings, based on longitudinal surveys over three decades and assessments of 63 different types of parental involvement, tend to once again confirm that achievement gaps are not the fault of uninvolved Black parents, but rather, closely hew to patterns of poverty and historical racial oppression.

In an article for the April 12 issue of the New York Times, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, professors of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and Duke University, respectively, conclude that “most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.”

Black parents try as hard as whites and Hispanics to help their children in school, to just as little effect, say Robinson and Harris. “Regardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades,” they write. In fact, “Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.”

Robinson and Harris have published their findings in a new book, Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education (Harvard) that should shatter the racist notion that lackadaisical parenting is to blame for Black children’s poor school performance. “The idea that parental involvement will address one of the most salient and intractable issues in education, racial and ethnic achievement gaps, is not supported by the evidence,” the two social scientists maintain. They point out that both President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top “promote parental engagement as one remedy for persistent socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps”—with no basis in actual fact.

Blaming Black parents for the racial achievement gap is simply another variation on the theme of Black cultural pathology—a slander deployed by a ghastly spectrum including white racists, Black opportunists and economic oligarchs to saddle the victims with guilt for the rich man’s historical and contemporary crimes. Racial gaps in school achievement are no more nor less “intransigent” than the economic chasms that reproduce themselves from generation to generation—and which are becoming even more calcified and immutable in the era of neoliberal capitalist austerity.

The solution is not less engagement in civil and political affairs by Black and other oppressed people, including parents, but more of it, and in much broader ways than simply attempting to help kids with homework. Robinson and Harris report that the short list of parental activity beneficial to children’s school performance includes communicating “the value of school, a message that parents should be sending early in their children’s lives and that needs to be reinforced over time.”

The young Black sociologists’ findings indicate that children internalize the general moral and political commitment to the social values of parents (and, we believe, adults in general in their communities). Therefore, the deficit that must be corrected is in the arena of demonstrable social and political commitment. Just as children will respond to the perception that their parents value education, so will they be shaped by the perception that responsible adults are motivated by social values, such as belief in the necessity for social change. Don’t worry so much about the kids’ homework, but more about the social values they are absorbing and the role models they will follow in life.

Worry that their model of Black adult behavior has a Kill List, like Obama, or a spy-on-your-friends briefcase, like Al Sharpton—both of whom also support the privatization of education and blame Black parents for racial performance gaps.

Black Agenda Report, April 16, 2014