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We Are The Achievement Gap

I recently read in my local newspaper that a group of African American parents was forming what they called a “parallel school board” to monitor efforts to decrease the achievement gap of African American children in one of the local public schools. Although I applaud their efforts, I think they’re misguided.

I’m about to say something that I think will be highly unpopular in the African American community, but it needs to be said.

We are the achievement gap, not the schools. We don’t value education enough to inculcate educational achievement throughout a child’s home life. Before you can dress down the government for the achievement gap, we have to address what is happening in children’s homes such that they are not achieving.

There. I said it. And here’s why I said it: The government doesn’t have an obligation to educate our children; the government only has an obligation to provide the means by which children can achieve an education. Whether or not a child is achieving and gets a good education is the sole responsibility of parents because only parents have a true interest in the outcome.

The education of our children is far too important to leave to the government, because the government doesn’t have an interest in the education of our children. Sure, there are dedicated teachers and administrators and some well meaning policy wonks in local, state and federal government, but, overall, the government doesn’t have an interest in the outcomes of our kids. And trying to make the government more accountable to our children while they continue to languish is a waste of time and energy that we don’t have as our children fall further behind.

I challenge you to find an underachieving child of any race in a two-parent family where the parents read to the children, supplement their education with books, music lessons, tutoring if necessary, and language lessons, engage them in critical thinking over dinner, expect – not just hope – they will attend college (and not on an athletic scholarship – don’t get me started!), and expose them to cultural activities such as dance, travel, and museums.

You see, education starts in the home. And it isn’t just reading, writing and math. It’s anything that enhances critical thinking skills and cultural exposure, whether it’s playing board games instead of video games, learning to read music instead of just listening to music, and discussing history and politics during dinner. And, no, education is not just job training writ large; it is preparation to survive in a constantly changing world by understanding how it works.

So before we go hanging responsibility for the achievement gap on the government, especially since the government will do nothing more but placate us anyway, we need to ask – what are we doing in our homes to educate our children? Because education is more than simply sending your child off to school with a bag lunch and an admonishment to learn. I think parents have to educate themselves enough to know what their children should be learning and when, and then they must make sure that, even if the schools fail to teach their children, that they themselves step in and fill the gap, whether it’s through tutoring or teaching their children themselves. That requires that parents know what their kids need to learn to achieve, which means parents have to educated enough in order to know how their children should be educated. Education can’t be a “do as I say, not as I do,” kind of thing. If it’s that important, parents need to first educate themselves, not only to be stewards of their children’s education, but to demonstrate to their children that education is that important that it is worth reaching for no matter one’s age or stage in life.

So, I would urge the “Parallel School Board” to ask the following questions of interested parents:

1. Do you know what reading and math skills your child should master this year? Do you have those skills? If not, are you prepared to get them so that you can help your child get them,too?

2. Do both parents communicate the importance of education to the children?

3. Is your child’s home life stable? If not, what are you doing to provide a stable home life?

4. Do you have at least a high school diploma and, if not, do you plan to get one?

5. Does your child have too many responsibilities at home that take away from learning?

6. Does your child have a quiet place to study? Access to a computer?

7. Do you take the time to find out what children in high achieving schools at the same grade level as your child are studying and make sure that your child is studying the same thing, even if it means learning those things outside of the assigned curriculum at your child's school?

8. Do you require your child to read books beyond those assigned in school?

9. Do you know what courses your child will have to take to be prepared for college – and no, a high school diploma is NOT preparation for college – and have you made sure they are prepared to take those courses?

10. Do you limit television viewing, internet use, and video game playing by your children in your home?

11. Do you discuss world events with your child?

12. Do you supplement what they study in history and social science with culturally and historically accurate readings?

13. Do you read the newspaper and do you make your child read the newspaper?

14. Do you make your child write beyond what is assigned in school?

15. Do you provide music lessons for your child?

16. Do you ask your school for summer reading lists for your child? Do you make your child do summer reading?

17. Do you encourage your child to get involved in educational extracurricular activities such as chess club, debate team, ACT-SO, marching band, Spanish club, etc.?

18. Do you take your child to the library? Does he or she have a library card?

19. Do you read the books your child is assigned to read for English and discuss the books with them?

20. Do you play board games with your child?

21. Do you expose your child to cultural activities, e.g., Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the ballet, repertory theater, museums?

22. Do you make sure that your child learns at least one other language other than English? Do you learn the language with your child so he or she can have someone to practice with at home?

These are tough questions. And not all of these actions require money, but they do require time, and a library card at the least. We can talk later about supporting parents in their efforts to be stewards of their children's education by including family members, neighbors, mentors, etc., but first, parents have to accept that they are indeed the stewards of their children's education, not the schools. To ask a school board to be accountable for the achievement gap without examining what parents themselves are doing seems incongruous to me, especially since uneducated and underachieving children don’t end up living in the basement at the school board office as adults.

I have a dream. I dream that African American parents will start an educational movement that won’t be dependent on public schools but instead dependent on African American parents and communities creating a free and publicly available curriculum such that African American children can be educated better than their counterparts. A movement that will not only eliminate the achievement gap, but create one in which African American children are the overachievers, putting a gap between themselves and others. But it all starts at home. Most revolutions do.

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