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Lessons in Education From a Generation That Missed Out

January 14, 2001|SANDY BANKS

It is not something she speaks of often or easily, perhaps because it calls to mind a hurt that still grieves 60 years later--years spent on her knees, scrubbing floors for rich, white families, or standing for eight hours at a time, inspecting sparkplugs on an assembly line.

Still, she cannot keep silent when her grandchildren complain. School is boring, they say. Homework sucks; classes are crowded; teachers are lame. One grandson is flunking out; another satisfied with Cs and Ds. They are merely marking time until they are old enough to leave--as dropouts or graduates. "I just wanna get me a job," one tells her. "I'm sick of school. I'm not learning nothing anyway."

Grandma Rene tightens her jaw. "I wish I could have had the chance to go to school, to finish," she tells us. "I stayed in the sixth grade for three years because that's as far as our school went. Because I didn't want to leave."

There were few options for black kids in the rural South of her day. The "colored" schools were mostly one-room cabins that went only as high as fourth or sixth or, maybe, eighth grade. After that, you settled for picking cotton or raising chickens, or you headed north to find work as a cook or bus driver or cleaning lady.

If you were lucky, you might go stay with relatives in a big city, like Atlanta or Montgomery, where the colored schools went all the way to 12th grade. But Grandma Rene wasn't lucky.

When she was 12, there was a teacher, she said, "who knew a lady in Mobile who said I could board with her and go to school, long as I could cook and clean. But Daddy wouldn't let me go."

So she stayed on her family's Alabama farm, married, then moved north to Ohio. Her husband--who'd gone as far as second grade--found construction work, and they raised five sons and pointed them all toward college.

When her middle son threatened to quit in 11th grade, she walked with him to school each day and sat with him in class to make sure he stayed. He might have been embarrassed then. Today, he realizes what he almost threw away.

He has a great job with a television station, drives a Cadillac, owns a five-bedroom home . . . and wonders how to motivate his own teenage son, who would rather write rap songs than do English homework.


In the hours I've spent talking with elderly relatives lately, what has emerged as an unexpected refrain is how much they have longed all their lives for the kind of education our kids take for granted today.

Aunt Ida, who had to quit school at 15 to become a cleaning lady to support her family during the Depression. And Mr. Perry, whose one-room school only went to second grade. He spent his days picking cotton and, with books begged from white kids, taught himself to read.

Which makes it all the more painful to consider what is happening to children like mine. Although great strides have been made in the two generations since "separate but equal" was declared unlawful, new studies show the performance gap between blacks and whites is no longer narrowing, but widening.

Scholars call it "a national emergency," evidence of "chronic underachievement" among black children.

"Even [black] students from relatively wealthy families, with well-educated parents, do not typically perform" as well as their white counterparts in school, according to Gaston Caperton, president of the national College Board, which administers college entrance exams and appointed a task force of prominent educators three years ago to study minority achievement.

The group's report spread the blame among forces not easily addressed.

Some can be directly tied to past discrimination. Research shows that black students are more likely than whites to land in larger classes with less skilled instructors and a less rigorous curriculum. They get less attention from teachers, who tend to have low expectations for them. And implicit racial stereotypes erode the confidence of even high-achieving black students, impairing their performance in class and on tests.

Others are economic or cultural. Middle-class black families often lack the resources to pay for the kinds of things--tutoring, test prep courses, career counseling--that can boost test scores and improve grades. And because college-educated blacks tend to earn less than their white counterparts, black students often fail to see the connection between success in school and success down the road. Unlike their grandparents, they see education as a confining, rather than a liberating, force.

Of course, test scores can't tell the whole story; don't doom us to failure. An SAT could never have measured the intelligence, drive and ingenuity of a generation that battled ignorance and bigotry to rise up out of poverty.

But if, by any measure, black kids are falling further behind, that ought to prompt us to take a hard look at our children, at their schools, and at the messages we send.


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