Rich, Black, Flunking 

Cal Professor John Ogbu thinks he knows why rich black kids are failing in school. Nobody wants to hear it.

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Ogbu, however, trains his eye elsewhere. "I am interested in what kids bring from home to school," he says. "And it seems to me there are different categories of students and they bring different things. I want to know what are those things."

The question of what students in Shaker Heights brought to school from their homes turned out to be profound. Black homes and the black community both nurtured failure, he concluded.

When Ogbu asked black students what it took to do well in the Shaker district, they had the right answers. They knew what to say about how to achieve academic success, but that knowledge wasn't enough. "In spite of the fact that the students knew and asserted that one had to work hard to succeed in Shaker schools, black students did not generally work hard," he wrote. "In fact, most appeared to be characterized by low-effort syndrome. The amount of time and effort they invested in academic pursuit was neither adequate nor impressive."

Ogbu found a near-consensus among black students of every grade level that they and their peers did not work hard in school. The effort these students put into their schoolwork also decreased markedly from elementary school to high school. Students gave many reasons for their disinterest. Some said they simply didn't want to do the work; others told Ogbu "it was not cool to be successful." Some kids blamed school for their failures and said teachers did not motivate them, while others said they wanted to do well but didn't know how to study. Some students evidently had internalized the belief that blacks are not as intelligent as whites, which gave rise to self-doubt and resignation. But almost all of the students admitted that they simply failed to put academic achievement before other pursuits such as TV, work, playing sports, or talking on the phone.

The anthropologist also looked at peer pressure among black students to determine just what effect that had on school performance. He concluded that there was a culture among black students to reject behaviors perceived to be "white," which included making good grades, speaking Standard English, being overly involved in class, and enrolling in honors or advanced-placement courses. The students told Ogbu that engaging in these behaviors suggested one was renouncing his or her black identity. Ogbu concluded that the African-American peer culture, by and large, put pressure on students not to do well in school, as if it were an affront to blackness.

The professor says he discovered this sentiment even in middle- and upper-class homes where the parents were college-educated. "Black parents mistrusted the school system as a white institution," he wrote. They did not supervise their children's homework, didn't show up at school events, and failed to motivate their children to engage in their work. This too was a cultural norm, Ogbu concluded. "They thought or believed, that it was the responsibility of teachers and the schools to make their children learn and perform successfully; that is, they held the teachers, rather than themselves, accountable for their children's academic success or failure," he wrote.

Why black parents who mistrusted the school district as a white institution would leave it up to that same system to educate their children confounded Ogbu. "I'm still trying to understand it," he conceded. "It's a system you don't trust, and yet you don't take the education of your own kids into your hands."


Ogbu's critics find much to argue with in his Shaker Heights work. They believe his methods were shoddy, his research incomplete, and his assumptions about Shaker Heights outdated or wrong. They say the black community is far less affluent than Ogbu portrayed it and add that many of the black parents are first-generation college graduates with fewer family resources than their white counterparts. By and large, they blame the district and outside forces such as discrimination, stereotyping, and poor job opportunities as the cause of its academic problems. Talk to these critics and you also get a sense that they see Ogbu as a bit heartless.

"I find it useless to argue with people like Ogbu," says Urban League educational fellow Ronald Ross, himself a former school superintendent. "We know what the major problems in this school system are: racism, lack of funding, and unqualified teachers." Although Shaker Heights is in fact an integrated, well-funded, and well-staffed school district, Ross is nonetheless convinced that it suffers from other problems that contribute to the achievement disparities between the races.

Ronald Ferguson, a senior research associate at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who also is studying Shaker Heights, believes the denial of equal educational and socioeconomic opportunities is at the root of the gap. He argues that Ogbu didn't pay enough attention to these essential differences, which he blames for the achievement disparities. The key to those differences is the amount of preparation students receive for academic challenges. "The differences in homework completion are not necessarily signs of lower-level academic disengagement," Ferguson says. "Instead, they're signs of skill differences, and in family-background supports."

Ferguson notes that even in affluent Shaker Heights, the rates of parental education are lower among African Americans than whites, and half the black students report living with one or no parent. "Ogbu writes as though the differences in family background are not very great, but in fact, they're substantial," he says.

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