Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Lisa Deplit: "Multiplication is for White People"

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We are bombarded with statistics about how African American children drop out of school at higher rates than white kids, and score worse on standardized tests, and end up in "failing" schools more often. We are told this stuff so much that, like it or not, believe it or not, we start to believe it. Whether we are white or black, progressive or conservative, we believe it. Don't think you believe it? Read this and ask yourself honestly if you're surprised.
In 1956, French researcher Marcelle Geber, under a research grant from the United Nations Children's Fund, traveled to Africa in order to study the effects of malnutrition on infant and child development. Geber concentrated on Kenya and Uganda, where she made a momentous discovery: despite the expectation that malnutrition would cause lower rates of infant development, the developmental rate of native Ugandan infants was so much higher than the established norm that these babies were able to outperform European children twice or three times their age.
Geber found, in her words, the most precocious and advanced infants ever observed anywhere in the world. She saw four-day-old infant who smiled continuously. She published photographs of a forty-eight-hour-old child bolt upright, supported only by his forearms, head in perfect balance, and eyes focused.... The Ugandan infants were months head of children of European descent n any intelligence scale utilized. Geber showed infants between six and seven months old a toy, then walked across the room and put the toy into a tall toy box. The African children would leap up, walk quietly across the room, reach into the basket, and retrieve the toy... the test shows that "object permanency" had occurred in the child's developing mind- the first great shift of logical processing.
 Lisa Delpit explains that she introduces this and other studies "because what we need to know at a very deep level is that African American children do not come into this world at a deficit." And it's hard to remember this, given that society tells us that black kids can't learn, or won't learn, or come from a "culture of poverty" or are just inferior to white kids (not to mention adults).  This leads to a vicious cycle in eduction: when we assume that African American students are intrinsically inferior white students, "Our tendency is to teach less, to teach down, to teach for remediation. Without having any intention of discriminating, we can do harm to children who are viewed within a stereotype of 'less than...'"

Delpit's short and sweet book is full of convincing (if you know someone who needs convincing) studies and anecdotes about what's wrong with how we teach African American students, and remarkable solutions. Delpit doesn't pretend that any of this will be easy, but she chides readers in the manner of her model "warm demander" that a better way is possible. The solutions in themselves aren't radical, except that the way most districts and teachers are educating students is so profoundly uninspiring that the model examples seem deeply (in a good way) unusual. Curricular content, for example, may have to change. (I'm realizing, as I write, that I'm only addressing things that Delpit addresses in Chapter 1: This book is so good, and so thorough on concepts of racial disparity in education, that this as far as I'm going to get).  Curriculum, Delpit says, "is doomed to failure," if it "does not connect in positive ways to the culture young people bring to school." So whereas white middle class kids- (Chapter 3 popping up here) might come to school knowing their letters and numbers because their parents consider this "basic skills" for a child under 5. Delpit reminds us that these children might not have skills that others have, but aren't as valued in school: "how to clean up spilled paint, tie their shoes, prepare meals, and comfort a crying sibling." These kids have knowledge, but it's not the "right" knowledge, and for schools to teach effectively, *all knowledge must be valued.

I can't do this book justice in a short write-up. I've been struggling to get this one out, because it's so full of knowledge for a lay person like me. What's broken in the schools is so much more than "teaching to the test"- though that's certainly broken- and reading Delpit's book makes you believe that the problem is not just a lack of resources (though clearly that's a problem, too), it's a lack of imagination. The way we see kids, specifically black kids, is so backwards that throwing money at the problem won't fix things. We almost need a reboot, or at least an attitude adjustment. At the very least, we need to read this book.


Anonymous said...

I remember in Kenya as a kid, on my one very short visit, that was what impressed me.

We visited a school and the kids were covering material 2 or 3 years ahead of what I'd done at the same age, in a small building with not many books or writing materials, and in a very rural area.

mamagotcha said...

I believe it. Children learn so many things so quickly, and unfortunately one of the things we're really good at teaching them is that they cannot learn without rules, tests, curriculum, bells, teachers, etc. Black kids are bombarded with messages about how behind black kids are... a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Argh! Now I'm even sorrier I didn't get to meet you earlier this month! We'll fix that this fall; I'll be back in August or September, for a longer visit.