John U. Ogbu's book hasn't been published yet, but Ronald Ross hates it already.
Ogbu's "Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb" is based on a study done at the behest of African American parents in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who wanted to know why their middle-class children were lagging academically behind their white counterparts.
"What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents," Ogbu -- who helped popularize the notion that hardworking black students are often put down by their peers for "acting white" -- told the New York Times. "They don't know how their parents made it. They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models; they are looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children."
Ross saw the Times piece -- and hit the ceiling. "Anyone foolish enough to write some foolishness like that . . ." he sputtered during a long telephone interview. "How can he be so deliberately naive? You can bet the white conservatives will jump on that as an excuse for not addressing the real problem."
Well, what does Ross think the real problem might be? "Racism," he says without hesitation.
Ross is worth listening to. Now a "distinguished fellow for urban education reform" at the New York office of the National Urban League, he is credited with turning around the school system of Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the few years of his recent superintendency. At Longfellow Elementary, for instance, only 12 percent of the fourth-graders passed the state achievement test the year he arrived. The following year, 94 percent did. The citywide pass rate rose in a single year from 33 percent to 50 percent -- then to 75 percent and up.
He insists he found no particular evidence of the "acting white" syndrome. "Of course there are kids who don't want to study, or who put down their peers who do, but there's nothing about that that's endemic to the black race. This is everybody." The real problems, he insists, are money and racism.
Since by his own account he wasn't able to do much about the money, how did Ross root out the racism that was holding black kids back?
What he did was to accuse white teachers and administrators of not really caring about the education of black children. "I'm bestowing an Oscar on all of you," he told one gathering in a speech that landed him in political trouble, "because every time I come here, you make me believe you care about these children."
And that ended the racism and made the turnaround possible? "I can't tell you how many racists retired or moved on," he said, "and I don't care." What he does care about are the administrative, curriculum and pedagogical changes he ushered in. "I worked with the unions to move teachers and principals who weren't performing. We tore apart the curriculum and developed a new one based on the New York state exams, then took a careful look at our best practices. It just made sense to me that what's taught should be what's tested."
And that's not all he did. He cajoled parents into participation, at one point charging them with reading to their children for at least half an hour every night. In short, he did what Ogbu, the Berkeley anthropologist, might have done: He set about changing the culture in which his youngsters operated.
So why is he so furious with Ogbu? As far as I can tell, it is because Ogbu, a Nigerian-born immigrant, sees culture as the overriding determinant (though he would acknowledge the effect of racism), while Ross, a militant black educator who just turned 58, looks at the same scene and sees race first and foremost, though it is clear from what he did in Mount Vernon that he sees the importance of culture too. If there's a critical difference between these two thoughtful men, it is that Ross sees it as of greater importance than Ogbu that white people confront their racism.
My own vantage point is the District, where the superintendent, the school board majority and the overwhelming majority of principals and teachers are black. And yet, the academic outcomes here -- the achievement gap -- seem no different than in Cleveland or Shaker Heights or Mount Vernon or the affluent and predominantly black Prince George's County. Surely unacknowledged racism can't explain them all.
I guess I'll have to wait for his book.