Cal Professor John Ogbu thinks he knows why rich black kids are failing in school. Nobody wants to hear it.
By Susan Goldsmith
The black parents wanted an explanation. Doctors, lawyers, judges, and insurance brokers, many had come to the upscale Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights specifically because of its stellar school district. They expected their children to succeed academically, but most were performing poorly. African-American students were lagging far behind their white classmates in every measure of academic success: grade-point average, standardized test scores, and enrollment in advanced-placement courses. On average, black students earned a 1.9 GPA while their white counterparts held down an average of 3.45. Other indicators were equally dismal. It made no sense.
When these depressing statistics were published in a high school newspaper in mid-1997, black parents were troubled by the news and upset that the newspaper had exposed the problem in such a public way. Seeking guidance, one parent called a prominent authority on minority academic achievement.
UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu had spent decades studying how the members of different ethnic groups perform academically. He'd studied student coping strategies at inner-city schools in Washington, DC. He'd looked at African Americans and Latinos in Oakland and Stockton and examined how they compare to racial and ethnic minorities in India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Britain. His research often focused on why some groups are more successful than others.
But Ogbu couldn't help his caller. He explained that he was a researcher -- not an educator -- and that he had no ideas about how to increase the academic performance of students in a district he hadn't yet studied. A few weeks later, he got his chance. A group of parents hungry for solutions convinced the school district to join with them and formally invite the black anthropologist to visit Shaker Heights. Their discussions prompted Ogbu to propose a research project to figure out just what was happening. The district agreed to finance the study, and parents offered him unlimited access to their children and their homes.
The professor and his research assistant moved to Shaker Heights for nine months in mid-1997. They reviewed data and test scores. The team observed 110 different classes, from kindergarten all the way through high school. They conducted exhaustive interviews with school personnel, black parents, and students. Their project yielded an unexpected conclusion: It wasn't socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students' poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.