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Poor Parenting + Peer Pressure = Two Strikes Against Black Kids

Two Harvard economists have released a study supporting the notion that for black and Hispanic students, doing well in school has a major social cost. As reported in the Washington Post:

Among white teens, Fryer and Torelli found that better grades equaled greater popularity, with straight-A students having far more same-race friends than those who were B students, who in turn had more friends than C or D students. But among blacks and especially Hispanics who attend public schools with a mix of racial and ethnic groups, that pattern was reversed: The best and brightest academically were significantly less popular than classmates of their race or ethnic group with lower grade point averages.

(link to actual paper here)

To make things worse, these kids have often been raised in a way that harms them academically — so they don’t even get the chance to excel in school. From a recent article in City Journal:

Black kids enter school significantly below their white peers in everything from vocabulary to number awareness to self-control. According to a 1998 National Center for Education Statistics survey of kindergarten teachers, black children are much less likely to show persistence in school tasks, to pay close attention in class, or to seem eager to learn new things than are their white counterparts; Hispanic children fall midway in between. As a 2002 book from the liberal Economic Policy Institute, Inequality at the Starting Gate, puts it, “[Disadvantaged [disproportionately black] children start kindergarten with significantly lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts.” Dismayingly, the sentence might have come straight from a government commission on poverty, circa 1964—before the War on Poverty had spent a dime.

… So why have we been able to make so little headway in improving the life chances of poor black children? One reason towers over all others, and it’s the one (Bill) Cosby was alluding to, however crudely, in his town-hall meetings: poor black parents rear their children very differently from the way middle-class parents do, and even by the time the kids are four years old, the results are extremely hard to change.

The article goes on to review research that contends that child-rearing style, not poverty or lack of education, is the problem. Poor parents talk less to their children, and that talk is more often a command rather something intended to elicit feedback. The result? A Kansas City study reported that in the first years of life, the average number of words heard per hour was 2,150 for professors’ kids, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families. In fact, while the focus of the middle class family is the child’s education and development:

… (in contrast) Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods—perhaps the most extensive comparative ethnography of poor and middle-class parents of school-age children—describes the child-rearing philosophy among the poor and much of the working class as “natural growth.” Natural-growth believers are fatalists; they do not see their role as shaping the environment so that Little Princes or Princesses will develop their minds and talents, because they assume that these will unfold as they will. As long as a parent provides love, food, and safety, she is doing her job.

There are plenty of poor black parents who, despite the lack of resources, accomplish much of what middle class parents do:

DePaul University professor William A. Sampson sent trained observers into the homes of a number of poor black families in Evanston, Illinois—some with high-achieving children, some with low-achieving. Though the field workers didn’t go in knowing which children were which, they quickly found that the high achievers had parents who intuitively understood “the Mission” (of education).

So — when you combine the two, what’s pernicious is that even if a kid has parents who stress education, all that good work can be destroyed as they get older and feel the peer pressure described in the Post. Some portion of the high achievers will decide that it’s easier to fit in, and they’ll give up.

What to do?

First, for the older children, do everything possible to segregate the high achievers so that they are with other kids who value education. Provide vouchers and charter school alternatives. Within existing schools, re-establish tracking in as many subjects as possible — the movement toward sticking all kids in the same classes, where the smarter ones will supposedly help the ‘challenged,’ only hurts the kids who want to try hard.

For the younger kids, some parental education is in order. Let’s abandon the idea that all high school students should be prepared for college; for some, all we can ask is that they be prepared for life. Child development classes in high school? Sure. But that’s not enough.

We have to create incentives to channel behavior. Let’s use the most basic: cash. If a kid meets definition x of disadvantaged — say, is on a free lunch program — then for every percentage above the mean they score on annual standardized tests, they get $10. The 75th percentile gets the kid $250. Cash motivates bond traders and attorneys, so why not kids in school — and their parents? And start it as early as possible — Kindergarten would not be too soon.

Every American immigrant population for the last 125 years — the Irish, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Cubans, Vietnamese — came here believing that they could create a better life for their children. And, over two or three generations, they did, despite the fact that in a less tolerant time the earlier waves of immigrants were greatly discriminated against. The black experience in America begins at a different place. It could end with the same success as those other ethnic groups, but it will take more than just Bill Cosby castigating black parents and status quo programs.

[Hat tip: Marginal Revolution]

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