By Ronald Chennault
For starters, the piece’s very title ("Making the Grade Isn't About Race. It's About Parents.") signals where Welsh is headed, as it confidently points out that the much-discussed racial achievement gap isn’t really about race at all, but can be addressed by good parenting. As if such a big problem could be solved so simply. Then comes the first sentence of the essay, as Welsh recalls a question he had posed to his class of predominantly Black 12th-graders: “Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?”
“ 'Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?' ”
I assume Welsh would defend his query borne out of “exasperation” by arguing that he knew his students well enough to believe that they would not be offended by it, but they—and all of us—should be insulted on many levels by such an action by a veteran teacher. And this, according to the Post’s education columnist Jay Mathews, is what passes for “provocative” and “brilliant.”
But does the title of the piece really tell us what’s inside?
Well, the essay does open with a discussion of parenting and its role in his students’ performance in school. Welsh’s students lament the absence of fathers in their households or in their lives at all. Those students have every right to cite that as a factor that influences their academic performance, and it’s a reasonable explanation. Welsh goes one step further, however: he stops quoting his students momentarily and instead begins revealing his mind-reading ability, claiming that the students “knew intuitively” that their failure to excel academically “had nothing to do with race.” So the kids didn’t actually say that race doesn’t matter, but Welsh expects the reader to trust that this is what they meant.
". . . [T]he kids didn’t actually say that race doesn’t matter, but Welsh expects the reader to trust that this is what they meant."
From there, the piece turns into a series of criticisms aimed at school administrators, a group Welch is obviously not very fond of. Yet, in the middle of this tangent, Welsh actually arrives at some important points: that the gap that exists between students who are served best by schools and those who are served the least by them cannot just be attributed to race; that familial support and involvement matter, but so does income inequality; and that academic achievement is affected by factors that school leaders have little control over (but which doesn’t keep Welsh from blaming them anyway).
So, given Welsh’s acknowledgement that multiple factors are at work, why does he insist on reducing all of that to the simple point of "it's about parents"? Why Welsh’s piece offers such a somewhat incoherent and ultimately unconvincing argument is not clear to me.
He does make one thing clear, however: getting rid of out-of-touch school administrators and recruiting involved parents would solve a lot of our problems.
If only it were that easy.
Prof. Ronald Chennault, Ph.D. is a professor of education at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. Prof. Chennault's research interests include cultural studies, educational theory and policy, media analysis and race and cultural pluralism.