Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb

Article excerpt

Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb John U. Ogbu Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003 ISBN: 0805845151

Shaker Heights, Ohio seems like the perfect place to live. The neighborhood is highly affluent and the public schools send about 85% of its graduates to college, which makes it one of the better public educational institutions in the nation. Moreover, the community takes special pride in maintaining a high quality educational establishment, as evidenced by its motto: A community is known by the school it keeps. Yet, despite an almost ideal environment, the Black-White achievement gap, prevalent in so many schools across America, is also evident in the schools of Shaker Heights. Being a concerned populace, the Shaker Heights community wanted to understand this reasons why their schools had this unwanted academic fissure. Enter Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu. His task was to investigate this school district and find out why the achievement gap existed, and his book represents the major crux of his findings.

Ogbu begins his book by briefly reviewing Shaker Heights' history and current demographics, and then he compares the many excuses Black students gave for why they did not achieve at the level of their White counterparts. Ogbu dismisses most of the teacher-centered (e.g., racist pedagogy) or school-centered (e.g., an Eurocentric curriculum) excuses, and, instead, puts the onus for the achievement gap on the Black parents arid students, bluntly stating, "Black students in the Shaker Heights school system did not work as hard as they should and could" (p. 32). Next, Ogbu tackles many of the common explanations for the achievement gap seen in popular educational, psychological, and anthropological writings. Because Shaker Heights is a select neighborhood though (i.e., relatively expensive housing and high property taxes), Ogbu points out that most of the traditional explanations do not apply. The students, both Black and White, come from relatively affluent households that hold education as a high priority, and from neighborhoods that have been integrated for over 40 years. Further, neither the students nor the parents systematically complained of cultural racism or hegemonic educational practices, arid the students seemed able to switch from speaking "Black English" at home to speaking proper English at school with relative ease.

Unfortunately, in his sweeping dismissal of popular theories, he also writes that an inadequate IQ hypothesis is not tenable, but his reasoning for dismissing it is contradictory. Specifically, he writes:

....although Black students in the school district scored lower than White students on the Otis-Lennon School Abilities Tests, they performed considerably lower on the SAT than predicted by their performance on the IQ test. Neither did their performance on IQ tests predict their failure rate on the state proficiency examination or their share of the D and F grades in high school (p. 34).

The Black students have lower IQ scores, lower SAT scores, lower proficiency scores, and more Ds and Fs than their White counterparts, yet the inadequate-IQ explanation doesn't hold? Perhaps IQ is not as big of a factor in this particular school district (after all, in an institution where most eventually go to college, there is probably a restricted range of IQs), but to summarily dismiss it as having no explanatory power is one of the book's gravest errors.

Having dismissed other theories, Ogbu then elaborates a cultural-ecological theory that posits the achievement gap is caused by (a) the system (i.e., educational policies, mistreatment of minorities, how minorities are rewarded for academic achievement), arid (b) community forces (i.e., frames of comparison of minorities, minorities educational beliefs, educational strategies). Embedded in this theory is the notion that the proposed environmental factors act differently for different minorities, or, to use Ogbu's terminology, they act differently for immigrant minorities (e. …