History is not destiny, and that has to count as a good thing for black parents preparing to send their children back to school.
Even in this age of seemingly limitless possibilities, our children’s track record in the classroom is not what it should be, or could be.
Despite huge leaps in the decades following the demise of government-sponsored segregation and the individual success of many, many black students, African Americans as a group lag far behind whites and Asian Americans in nearly every measure of academic achievement: standardized test scores, class grades, college enrollment and completion rates. Their dropout rates are higher, and their attendance rates are lower.
The gap persists even though researchers confirm what we know instinctively: that black children have the same inherent ability as everyone else.
The conundrum of black underachievement in school complicates the already difficult question on the mind of every parent: How do I ensure my child’s success?
That question was certainly on the minds of my wife and me two decades ago when the first of our two children started school.
We live in Baltimore, a tough city with an even tougher school system. Year after year, the system’s test scores were at the bottom in Maryland. Yet my wife and I are both public school graduates, which we felt connected us to a broad cross-section of people, and we wanted the same for our children.
At the same time, we had many friends who headed straight to the suburbs when their children approached school age. After all, that is where the best schools were, if you judged by test scores or the look of the playgrounds or the number of computers. Others dug deep to send their kids to expensive private schools, even if that put them on the financial edge.
But the dirty secret in the suburbs, and even in many private and parochial schools, is that black kids were more likely than others to underachieve, according to standardized tests, including in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Most troubling, my wife and I agreed, was that black kids sometimes held back and cut up, particularly in those schools, in a misguided attempt to assert their racial bona fides.
So we stuck it out in the city, resigned to the idea that academic pitfalls lurk everywhere for black kids.
We resolved to closely monitor their school performance, and to tap the often underused and surprisingly low-priced cultural and recreational resources that were all around us — museums, libraries, music classes, theatre collectives, basketball leagues and swim teams — to supplement their educations. We kept televisions, and later computers, out of their bedrooms.
Beyond that, we figured we could put a fraction of the money we saved in tuition and suburban mortgage payments to camps and vacations to further enrich them.
We mostly stuck to our plan. We asked about homework, even when they were high schoolers. We kept a close eye on their course selections. We made our way to back-to-school nights and teacher conferences, science fairs and plays, debates and countless ball games.
Sure, the kids were sometimes forced to do science experiments in under-equipped labs. At times, their games were played on dusty gym floors and overgrown fields. As often as not, their plays and concerts were performed in ill-lit and overheated auditoriums.
But they also made friends all over town, and from all racial and religious backgrounds. They have buddies who were more privileged than they were, and many others who had very little. Both are valuable life lessons.
They also received top-flight educations in the classroom. They both attended the same top university, where they said they never felt underprepared. Our daughter went on to medical school and now has a coveted hospital residency. Our son is working as a paralegal for a Baltimore nonprofit organization, the first step in what he hopes will be a career in law or public policy.
Looking back, I know it helped immensely that I was lucky enough to have a career in newspapers, and that my wife worked as an educator. It also helped that our children were lucky enough to go to some of the best schools in the city, populated with many motivated students supported by committed parents.
Still, we know it was more than luck that propelled them. We could tell by looking at their many friends who also beat the racial education odds in schools urban and suburban, public and private.
For them, the decisive factor was less the schools they attended than the role adults — parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, neighbors, coaches and friends—played in shaping their development.
It is an idea both simple and profound. And it is certainly not fool-proof. Yet, it is the best way I know for black parents to defy history.
Michael A. Fletcher is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
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