Graduation ceremonies are book-ending the academic year and schools are closing for summer break. Soon, the topics of education and the stubborn academic achievement gap will retire from public discourse for its annual 2-month hiatus. But, sadly, the facts that continue to tell a disturbing story will reemerge just as strong by the fall:
- There are significant gaps between blacks and whites in virtually every measure of achievement: NAEP math and reading test scores, high school completion rates, college enrollment and college completion rates.
- Blacks are not faring well in high school graduation rates—only 55 percent, compared to 78 percent for white students and 72 percent for Asian students.
- The dropout rate for black students is almost double the dropout rate for their white peers.
- By the twelfth grade, on average, black students are four years behind their white or Asian peers.
But, discussion about this ominous academic achievement continually ignores one larger-than-life elephant in the room: the reality that African-American children are growing up in a peer culture and community network that, in too many ways, does not foster academic ambition. Instead, it’s a culture that, in too many ways, celebrates achievements in sports and entertainment more than academic achievement.
Consider these realities: Studies show African-American students are the least likely out of students in all racial and ethnic groups to:
- Spend more time on their studies outside of school
- To participate in academically-oriented peer groups or study groups
- To believe success is based on effort rather than innate ability
They are more likely to view a C as a decent letter grade. They spend 40% less time on homework than their white peers and 80% less time than their Asian peers. And, nearly half of African-American fourth-graders and eighth-graders spend five hours or more watching TV on a typical school day. This is compared to less than 20% of white fourth-graders.
It’s time administrators, educators and parents opened their eyes to the impact of the peer culture and community norms on how African-American children are faring compared to their peers in other racial/ethnic groups. It’s time to consider new approaches for motivating student engagement in learning and commitment to achieve in school.
Consider the time and energy many parents invest in their sons’ and daughters’ athletic careers, yet they may not take 60 minutes to review their child’s academic standing or assist with homework. And, consider that students in general, and African American students in particular are often ashamed to excel academically. According to Lawrence Steinberg’s Beyond the Classroom, one out of every six students hides her intelligence and interest in academic achievement because she is worried about what her peers think.
We have to remove the blinders that relegate us to standard approaches to remedying this problem. We have to recognize that school reform, while a viable part of the solution, is only a part of the solution. We must supplement reform by confronting the overwhelming and powerful influence of peer, family and community culture—promoting a culture that routinely recognizes and rewards academic achievement as much as, if not more than, achievement in athletics and entertainment.
This is a battle we can win, but we must recognize the elephant in the room and see that a culture that respects education pays dividends.