Monday, October 20, 2014

When Pygmallion Goes Wrong

As I stated in the previous post, the Pymallion Effect holds that people tend to live up to the expectations of others.  I shared with you in that earlier post why I endorse this idea.  I also noted that there is, in my estimation a positive compounding effect associated with Pygmallion in that the better a person does, the wider the circle of people that expect good things from him becomes and, therefore, the more good things he accomplishes as a result.  The corollary to the positive compounding is, of course, the negative compounding.  Perhaps I could put that more eloquently by stealing the underlined phrase from a speech given by president George W. Bush to the NAACP in July of 2000.  I've inserted an excerpt below:

".....Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there's racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten. Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Several months ago I visited Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where African-Americans confronted injustice and white Americans confronted their conscience. In 43 years, we have come so far in opening the doors of our schools. But today we have a challenge of our own. While all can enter our schools, many--too many, are not learning there.
There's a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society.
And whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination.
My friend Phyllis Hunter (ph), of Houston, Texas, calls reading the new civil right. Equality in our country will remain a distant dream until every child, of every background, learns so that he or she may strive and rise in this world. No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and the darkness of self-doubt...."
It is this idea of negative compounding or soft bigotry (bigots can be, and often are, black in this context by the way) of lowered expectations that sprang immediately to mind when I read the Washington Post article below: "

Stop blaming black parents for underachieving kids  
by Andre Perry
Mayors, teachers unions, and news commentators have boiled down the academic achievement gap between white and black students to one root cause: parents. Even black leaders and barbershop chatter target “lazy parents” for academic failure in their communities, dismissing the complex web of obstacles that assault urban students daily. In 2011, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg exemplified this thinking by saying, “Unfortunately, there are some parents who…never had a formal education and they don’t understand the value of an education.” Earlier this year, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman diagnosed that city’s public schools’ chief problem: the lack of “active, radical involvement of every parent.” And even President Obama rued last week that in some black communities, gaining education is viewed as “acting white.”

Clearly, there is widespread belief that black parents don’t value education. The default opinion has become “it’s the parents” — not the governance, the curriculum, the instruction, the policy, nor the lack of resources — that create problems in urban schools. That’s wrong. Everyday actions continuously contradict the idea that low-income black families don’t care about their children’s schooling, with parents battling against limited resources to access better educations than their circumstances would otherwise afford their children.

In New Orleans this month, hundreds of families waited in the heat for hours in hopes of getting their children into their favorite schools. New Orleans’ unique decentralized education system is comprised largely of charter schools and assigns students through a computerized matching system. Parents unhappy with their child’s assignment must request a different school in person at an enrollment center, with requests granted on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, changes were made to the timing and location for parents to request changes. A long line began forming at the center at 6 a.m. By 9:45 a.m., it stretched around the block. By 12:45 p.m., officials stopped giving out numbers because they didn’t have enough staff to meet with every parent.

Research backs up the anecdotal evidence. Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research recently found that African Americans are most likely to value a post-secondary education in becoming successful, at 90 percent, followed by Asians and Latinos. Whites, at 64 percent, were least likely to believe higher education is necessary for success.
When judging black families’ commitment to education, many are confusing will with way. These parents have the will to provide quality schooling for their children, but often, they lack the way: the social capital, the money and the access to elite institutions. There is a difference between valuing an education and having the resources to tap that value.

A study released this month found 26 percent of ACT-tested students were college-ready in all four subject areas. Among low-income students, college-readiness dropped to just 11 percent. The study determined that it was poverty, not motivation or attitudes, that contributed to the lower performance. “Nearly all ACT-tested students from low-income families in the United States aspire to go to college — at an even higher rate than students overall — but many lack the academic preparation to reach this goal,” the ACT noted.

Privileged parents hold onto the false notion that their children’s progress comes from thrift, dedication and hard work — not from the money their parents made. Our assumption that “poverty doesn’t matter” and insistence on blaming black families’ perceived disinterest in education for their children’s underachievement simply reflects our negative attitudes towards poor, brown people and deflects our responsibility to address the real root problems of the achievement gap. Our negative attitudes about poor people keep us from providing the best services and schools to low-income families.

This thinking hurts not only children, but entire communities. Low expectations extend beyond the classroom into homes and neighborhoods. The greatest tragedy of the New Orleans school enrollment fiasco isn’t just that parents had to wait in long lines. It’s that the school district assumed parents wouldn’t show up. Officials assumed grandma wouldn’t be there before dawn. They assumed Ma wouldn’t take off work with child in tow. This is a sign of deficit thinking — the practice of making decisions based on negative assumptions about particular socioeconomic, racial and ethnic groups. The enrollment center was understaffed because officials assumed applying for school wouldn’t demand a larger venue, like the Mercedes Benz Superdome. An aside: The Superdome hosts the Urban League of Greater New Orleans’ annual Schools Expo.

When it comes to providing a better education for black children from low-income families, I worry less about poor folks’ abilities to wait in long lines and more about the school policies, the city halls, the newspaper columns and the barbershops that are plagued with deficit thinking."

It's fitting that the author used New Orleans schools as his example since the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to stop vouchers from going into effect for the 2014/2015 school year (which it has since dropped) based on the same kind of deficit thinking defined above.

Anyway, I said in an earlier post that I would give credit for my kids' outstanding educational performances this year to them, to my wife, and and to myself, all in varying proportions. By the same token, were they to be performing poorly, I think it would be appropriate to mete out "the blame" in the same proportions. As I've stated before, C students can get F's or A's.  Leaving aside for this argument the relative value of those A's or F's between schools and in relation to college preparedness, I believe if a kid wants an A, he can get one.  He can also make an excuse for not getting one, if  he wants to.  And his parents can lay blame for the failure elsewhere, if they want to. None of that will change the grade or the fact that Pymallion has proved out once again.  They all will have gotten what they expected and accepted from themselves, each other, and the system.



1 comment:

  1. I obviously agree that parents are the number one contributors to their children’s development. But it is striking to me that poorer students do worse than richer students, white and Asian students do better than black and hispanic students, and so on, even after controlling (as much as possible) for “how bad people want it.”

    I also agree that we are all basically C students and that people who want A’s can get them. But as the article you referenced states, almost no one (rich or poor and from whatever race or background) is prepared for college when objectively measured by a test like the ACT. And I would add that “making A’s” doesn’t necessarily mean you are ready to succeed in college. Which makes me conclude that making A’s doesn’t necessarily mean you have learned sufficiently.

    According to page 5 of a College Board report (that I am unable to link to in this comments box), students who take the SAT earn an A average high school GPA. And 91% of students earn either an A or a B average. That blows my mind when compared to the numbers reported in the article you referenced: 26% of all ACT test takers (regardless of socioeconomic background) are prepared in all subject areas. By my math, that means that most of the A-B honor roll high school students aren’t ready for college.

    So in a way, everyone is right. You are certainly right that people live up to the expectations of the people they look up to. The author of the article you referenced is probably correct that poor students are not performing poorly BECAUSE their parents don’t value education. And I would like to believe I am right in saying that our system for educating students is totally broken - for evidence see the “47% of high school students taking the SAT have A averages, 91% have A-B averages, and only 26% of all students are ready to succeed in college figures.