Feb 14, 2013 - Issue 504

Black Parents:

We Must Regain Control over our Children’s Education

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Last week’s controversy at Bronx, NY Junior High School 80 highlights the sad state of public education in America. According to news outlets, the school’s principal, Mr. Emmanuel Polanco, moonlights as rapper “El Siki,” whose music video involves poppin’ champagne and carousing with bikini-clad video vixens.

The El Siki case is no isolated event. Career Day at Crawford Long Middle School in Atlanta, Ga recently featured gangster rapper Gucci Mane. The school seems to believe that rappers who pander songs about drug dealing and sex should be role models for our children.

These events are allowed to occur because we are asleep at the wheel, no longer stewards of our children’s education. Too many Black parents remain uninvolved in their children’s education. The students of Bronx JHS 80 knew the principal’s alter ego, but parents are just now finding out. Likewise, some parents at the Atlanta middle school claim that they were unaware that an ex-con rapper was scheduled to speak at their school.

Structural racism and poor school conditions contribute to the so-called “Black-White achievement gap” - a phrase we should be fighting to abolish. But the “hands off approach” taken by many Black parents also contributes to the problem. 

President Barack Obama has chided Black parents for allowing academic achievement to take a backseat, as ballplayers and television personalities, rather than black intellectuals, serve as role models. During the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Strike, teachers pointed to uninvolved parents - not just overcrowding or dilapidated buildings - as a major reason why they should not be held responsible for the educational crisis there.

For decades, education research has confirmed that children succeed when parents spend time at school meetings, volunteer, read and help with homework. Unfortunately, Black parents are much less likely to exhibit these pro-schooling behaviors.

A national study published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues last September shows that Black parents are less involved at their children’s schools. Lower socioeconomic resources play a factor; it’s hard to juggle multiple part-time jobs, daycare, and bake cookies for the school fundraiser. Still, the authors of that study say they were surprised to discover that Black parents with higher education and income levels are still less likely to get involved. 

In the hands of politicians, these findings can be used to unfairly blame Black parents, and feed on racist assumptions about irresponsible Black mothers in particular. Last month, Republicans in Tennessee proposed cutting the cash welfare payments to families with low achieving students. The image of lazy blacks spending money on designer nails and Lexus SUVs, instead of books, is an old favorite of conservative politicians and Bill Cosby.

The truth is that Black parents, like all parents, want their children to succeed. Part of the problem is that, as a study published last month in Journal of Educational Research found that, Black parents are only likely to get involved when schools have formal outreach programs. Some Black parents are intimidated by parent-teacher conferences, and are afraid to confront school authorities because of previous bad experiences.

Likewise, there is a tendency for Black parents to only react when their child is misbehaving or having academic difficulties. The threat, “Child, don’t make me come down to that school” may be out of love and concern, but does not increase student achievement. An on-going presence at school, along with structured educational activities at home, is the key to ensuring school success.

We need more Black parents, regardless of social class, to become everyday-activists for their children’s education.

Ms. Gabrielle McGill-Carpenter, a Black mother, articulates this message for middle-class black parents in a recent Washington Post commentary. According to Ms. McGill-Carpenter, the black parents in her affluent, suburban school district spent too much “time, money, and energy on sports,” while their children were failing in school. By simply organizing black parents around academics, they were able to ensure that their children gained access to honor courses and mentoring in the school.

Part of reclaiming control over our children’s education should also ensure that Black culture and history are part of the formal or after-school curriculum. Research shows that when Black children feel good about themselves, they are more likely to achieve. Black book stores are wonderful places to gain knowledge of self, especially for families that choose to homeschool.

Schools don’t always act in the best interest of Black children. Engaged and vigilant parents have to be the first and last line of defense.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Dr. Travis L. Gosa, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. He teaches courses on educational inequality, African American families, and hip hop culture. Click here to contact Dr. Gosa.