In New York City, Class is in Session but the Mayor Dismisses Parents

Let’s end the cycle of blaming black families in all cities

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

America’s black mothers and fathers never seem to catch a break. They are blamed when achievement scores are down and ignored when test scores are up; even in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, where classes begin on Sept. 8.

In the Big Apple, test scores are arguably improving. Although one can’t consider the results gains because the tests and testing rules changed, the figures have encouraged many: In the English exams for grades 3-8, the traditional public schools passage rate “rose” by 7.6 percentage points, and for charter schools, the figure was up 13.7 percentage points.

But just when you thought families would finally get some credit for helping their kids do better in school, state and city officials instead tapped into the charter vs. public school arguments, which are shouted passed parents.

“Some charters, sadly, have a long history of exclusion,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, focusing on the disparity in scores. “Clearly there is a current within the charter movement that focuses heavily on test prep and I don’t think that’s the right way to go.”

Related: Veteran black principal lifts New Orleans school with strength and love

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa responded by saying: “I think we’ve made it very clear that this year’s exam cannot be compared, and yet we have out there people looking at different pieces of this test and reacting to different pieces.”

What a shame. The new data offered an opportunity for a mayor and chancellor to reach out to all families. In New York, 70 percent of public school students are black or Latino. De Blasio is white and his wife is black. They have two children. The mayor might have set a trend of unification for the whole country to follow.

The good news is that no one is saying that students in traditional or charter schools are in decline. If parents were recognized, they would be seen as the powerful constant in this real to life experiment.

Instead, a predictable ensuing debate on the accepted reasons for differing results parroted the charter/traditional school battology in which both parties assume school structure is all-powerful in determining academic outcomes. And that’s without any tests that offer solid, conclusive evidence.

Attributing academic growth too heavily on schools or reform is the most common way we dismiss the impact of parents and communities on achievement. Research on academic achievement tends to focus on factors of which schools have control.

Our focus on in-school factors isn’t simply because we feel we can control it (by the way – we can control for poverty). Black parents are insidiously dismissed because of our disbelief in their positive contributions.

The most powerful predictors of academic success are factors that are not school related. Interrelated factors like parental income and race, family structure, neighborhood, and wealth foretell performance better than what goes on in a school.

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One study that examined the influence of social capital – the resources inherent in relationships – at home and at school and found the information, obligations, and norms transmitted in the home had a greater bearing on academic success than those gained in school. “The family is more influential for children’s achievement than is capital at school; however, school capital is still a significant positive factor in promoting academic achievement even in the presence of family social capital,” the study said.

Studies like this one consistently show that families and schools matter. However, we tend to blame parents for busted school systems, barren economic markets and crooked criminal justice systems that mitigate positive parental investments in children.

The previous New York City mayor provided the quintessential example of this. “Unfortunately, there are some parents who … never had a formal education, and they don’t understand the value of an education. Many of our kids come from [such] families — the old Norman Rockwell family is gone,” said Michael Bloomberg.

This was said in the face of overwhelming evidence that black families are the most likely to value a post-secondary education in becoming successful. An ACT study determined that it was poverty, not motivation or attitudes, which contributed to the lower performance. Black families have the will but don’t have the way. So stop blaming black parents for underachieving kids.

The mayor before Bloomberg revealed his negative view of black parents in a recent interview on police brutality.

“So if you want to deal with this on the black side, you’ve got to teach your children to be respectful to the police, and you’ve got to teach your children that the real danger to them is not the police. The real danger to them, 99 out of 100 times,” is “other black kids who are going to kill them; that’s the way they’re gonna die,” Giuliani said on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Black parents aren’t given the benefit of doubt NYC or anywhere else. They are made invisible in the face of positive outcomes and are made targets for anything bad. Bill de Blasio’s comparisons and qualifications of incomparable test outcomes only adds to the camouflage that hides parents’ contributions to student growth. He’s doing only slightly better than his predecessors who outright blamed parents for negative outcomes.

If we’d start to recognize that black and brown parents add value, maybe we would enhance it. Imagine that radical shift: Giving credit to whom it is due.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).