Monday, September 06, 2010

Beyond the Classroom, Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do

Chi Tschang, Regional Superintendent for Achievement First, wins 10 points for coming up with the answer to my question in my last email:


One possible reference is the classic, Beyond the Classroom, Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, by the legendary Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg. Beyond the Classroom has influenced my thinking about school culture more so than virtually any other book, including many of the great reads you mentioned in point #6.


I'm going to excerpt two paragraphs from chapter 8 ("The Power of Peers") of Beyond the Classroom:


"It is important to understand that the pressure against academic excellence that is pervasive within Black and Latino peer groups is not unique to these ethnic groups. Rather, what we see in these peer groups is an extreme case of what exists within most White peer groups as well. As noted earlier, the prevailing norm in most adolescent peer groups is one of 'getting by without showing off' – doing what it takes to avoid getting into trouble in school, but at the same time shunning academic excellence. The chief difference appears to be not in the different ethnic groups' avoidance of excellence – this is common among all but the Asian youngsters -  but in how the different ethnic groups define academic 'trouble.'


"We measured students' perception of this 'trouble threshold' by asking them what the lowest grade was that they could receive without their parents getting angry. The students' answers to this question confirmed our suspicion: Among Black and Latino students, not until their grades dipped below a C- did these adolescents perceive that they would get into trouble. Among White students, however, the average 'trouble threshold' was one entire letter grade higher – somewhere between a B and a C. And among Asian students, the average grade below which students expected their parents to become angry was an astounding A-! One reason for the relatively poorer school performance of Black and Latino students, then, is that these students typically have different definitions of 'poor' grades, relative to their White and Asian counterparts. And because peer groups tend to be ethnically segregated, different normative standards develop within Black and Latino peer groups than in other crowds. Conversely, one reason for the remarkable success of Asian students is that they have a much stricter, less forgiving definition of academic failure than their Black, White and Latino peers, and this definition shapes peer norms."


These findings, sadly, are consistent with what I've read and observed over time, and have VERY profound and troubling implications for closing the achievement gap.  Apologists for failing schools will point to this study and say, "You see, it's not the fault of schools – it's the parents and the kids!"  There's some truth to this, of course – obviously, it's much harder to educate children when parents don't set high expectations, but the answer isn't for schools (and unions and politicians and ed school apologists…) to throw up their hands and bemoan their fate.  Instead, they must take it upon themselves to instill high expectations in every child.  This is, in fact, EXACTLY what EVERY school and teacher that is successful in closing the achievement gap does.

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