Like many other school districts nationwide, the Pinellas County district is urgently trying to figure out how to help black students succeed academically. The countywide academic gap between blacks and their counterparts of other ethnic groups is dismal.
Officials want to identify teachers whose black students are succeeding — meaning students who are earning higher scores on standardized tests — and use these teachers' techniques to train other teachers whose students are not doing as well.
Earnest attempts to help black students succeed in school are fine, but we should be wary of efforts that leave out the responsibilities of black parents in educating their children.
For decades, scholars have studied the role of parents in children's learning, and their conclusions are clear. But because many scholars and educators are afraid of being accused of racism and cultural insensitivity, they rarely introduce their findings during public debates.
That's too bad, because parental involvement must become a natural part of the black esprit de corps if blacks are to keep their children from falling further behind in school.
Universally, people understand the importance of parental involvement. Some cultures practice it much better than others.
In some parts of the world, governments and government-supported organizations have adopted formal statements about parental involvement and the family. For example, the Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe, the official body that investigates issues for European nations and recommends solutions, spells out in unequivocal terms the role of parents.
"Education is, from birth to adulthood, a mixture of factors and influences," according to the council's directive titled Parents' and Teachers' Responsibilities in Children's Education. "Two institutions, however, play a pre-eminent role and have formal educational responsibilities before the law and society: the family and the school."
The council places the family ahead of the school for good reason: "Parents have always been and always will be the first educators of a child. They have the right and the duty to lay the intellectual and emotional bases for their children's lives, and to help develop their system of values and attitudes, particularly since a child's future is strongly conditioned during the preschool period. They must also exercise their responsibilities as parents of schoolchildren."
I fear that too many black parents fail to grasp the concept that they have a "duty" to lay the intellectual and emotional basis for their children's lives and to help develop their systems of values and attitudes.
Many low-income black parents, especially uneducated single mothers, are unprepared to effectively teach their children. To be effective, parents must spend what experts call "quality time" with their children. The 1995 study "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children" shows that the vocabularies of children of parents on welfare were smaller than those of children of professionals by an average of 1,537 words by age 3, primarily because professional parents naturally hold more positive and complex conversations with their children.
"The effects on future student academic achievement are very large — differences among children at entry into kindergarten in the skills that are a product of the home environment are more powerful predictors of future academic achievement than variables under the control of K-12," Grover Whitehurst, an expert on parental involvement with the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Education Week during a recent interview.
I was encouraged that recent census numbers show that more low-income black parents are involved in their children's education than a decade ago, this is in large part because of federal programs such as Reach Out and Read, Early Reading First and Reading is Fundamental.
A problem now is that funding for these programs has been slashed. Federal funding or not, black parents have a duty to be their children's first teacher. Until they understand and practice this universal concept, their children will continue to lag behind.