August 12, 2000
The news media and academic press continue to report on the black-white test score gap and lags in minority achievement. The mistaken impression almost always is that the discrepancies are related to skin color. Such conclusions make us all victims of self-perpetuating prejudice.
Often tucked somewhere near the end of the reports is a statement suggesting that parenting practices may contribute to achievement disparities. In fact, parenting practices need to be our yardstick for assessing and addressing achievement gaps.
Researchers have known for years that the greatest predictor of a child’s success in school is the education level of the parents—particularly the mother. Yet, in an era when public support for education often depends on how school districts do on accountability tests, the federal and state governments continue to spend millions of dollars each year tracking student performance related to such narrow criteria as race, ethnicity, and gender.
Just a few generations ago, European-Americans operated plantations via the abomination of slavery. Laws forbade educating slaves.
When the slaves were emancipated in 1865, no GI Bill of Rights or Marshall Plan assisted their assimilation into the mainstream culture or workforce. For the most part, people of color lived in poverty without the means to become knowledgeable workers. When civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s, some affirmative-action plans and laws were put into place, and a few philanthropic efforts were made to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Nevertheless, the gap between rich and poor has continued to grow, with the greatest adverse impact on nonwhites.
The educational plight of many non-English-speaking immigrants entering the United States, of whatever ethnic group, is not much different. Their parents often have little formal education and lack the resources to provide academic stimulation and an appropriate diet at home.
The findings of noted University of Chicago neurologist Peter Huttenlocher emphasize the importance of mental stimulation in the home environment and the positive impact of a high-protein diet. His research over the past two decades proved that most of the brain is "built" after birth. The fact is that young people who have well-educated parents, an academically stimulating home environment, and high protein diets tend to do much better in school than youngsters without these benefits.
More than a decade ago, M. Donald Thomas, a highly respected former superintendent in Salt Lake City, was making a presentation to the joint session of the South Carolina Legislature. He explained to the policy-makers that school-district goals should be based on the performance of "mean-matched" schools. He explained that schools should be compared with those that have similar demographic populations. "we want to compare apples with apples," he said.
Although humans are born with very similar ranges of intelligence, the different nurturing process that takes place in the formative years has a tremendous impact on a child’s ability to learn, he added.
Yet most studies that compare school districts unfairly use data such as total corporate and individual tax base per pupil, which researchers have shown to have virtually no relationship to student learning outcomes. The fact is that students from higher-income homes have great advantages in doing schoolwork and are more likely to have access to computers and other learning devices in their many hours away from school.
While there are many examples of highly successful people who grew up in poverty and found mental stimulation and protein by good fortune, our research continues to indicate a direct correlation between the education level of the people in the home and the amount of protein in the diet and student success in school.
We should join in shunning the tendency among education writers and researchers to link the failings of a society to factors such as the race and ethnicity of the children in our schools.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data