November 21, 2005

Expert Criticizes Education System

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The achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and their white middle- class counterparts is a problematic fixture of American education. How to close it is up for debate. Yesterday Freeman Hrabowski, a leading expert on improving academic performance of African-American students in math and science, addressed the issue in a lecture entitled “Education for the 21st Century: Creating a Climate of Success for All Students.”

Hrabowski, who is president of University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), has been credited with turning UMBC into a leading source of African-American Ph.D.s in math and the sciences.

According to Hrabowski, by the time many minorities reach the 12th grade, they lag four years behind their white middle class peers in reading and math. But the problem, he said, stems more from lower socioeconomic status than race in and of itself.

“It’s a national phenomenon for poor children and a lot of children of color,” Hrabowski said. What can really make the difference: after school initiatives and programs that provide supplemental work and extra support.

Hrabowski has visited numerous inner city classrooms, where he’s often seen half the class dozing off. When he asked one elementary school girl why she looked so tired, she told him she’d been up until 11:30 p.m. watching television with her mother.

That’s why Hrabowski so vigorously advocates after school initiatives and extra help for underprivileged children – because they’re often not getting opportunities at home. Many aren’t doing their homework. They may come from a single-parent home, they may have a parent on drugs or working late, Hrabowski explained.

“Who doesn’t want their child to do well?” he asked. “But they [poorer parents] don’t know what it takes. … It takes much more to educate a child from a family who doesn’t know what it takes.” “If you’re in a home where people are reading all the time, where there’s respect for learning, of course you’re going to do well,” he said.

An example, Hrabowski said, was Thomas Jefferson High School in northern Virginia, where Hrabowski once spoke. The school has a mean SAT score of 1450. Students take a special test to get in, for which many wealthier parents often begin preparing their children as early as seventh grade through after school initiatives.

Poorer students don’t tend to have that, Hrabowski said. “Children who do not come from families where someone who knows how to help them out” need extra help, according to Hrabowski. They’re often not getting it.

The American educational system as a whole is ridden with problems that go beyond this, according to Hrabowski. “At the heart of the challenge we face is teaching reading and thinking skills.” Harbowski is dismayed with the rift the education system creates between math and English. Strong mathematical skills rely on a high level of verbal reasoning that’s often ignored, Hrabowski stressed.

“Kids in school don’t realize that the best math students should be good readers. It’s [math] really about language and thinking skills,” Hrabowski said.

He also disagreed with the idea that students should learn things so quickly. “In America we are fascinated by speed – but some times it takes someone longer to get concepts,” although they are often able to retain the information for a longer period, Hrabowski said.

Hrabowski wishes that schools would focus on math problems that are more about reasoning than, say, just algebra. “That would get students thinking more.”

Hrabowski, who was born in Birmingham in 1950 and grew up with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Angela Davis, remembers the “old-fashioned attitude” that prevailed among the minority community: adults took shared responsibility for each others’ children.

“Today, people are more individually oriented,” Hrabowski said. But it is important, he later stressed, that community leaders come together and reach out from many directions. Church leaders in particular could ally with educational leaders.

Graduating from the Hampton Institute at age 19, with highest honors in mathematics, Hrabowski went on to earn his M.A. in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and four years later, his Ph.D. in higher education administration and statistics. During his time at UMBC, he helped create the tremendously successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1988 for high-achieving minority students in sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

“We need a culture of commitment in our community,” Cal Walker said after Hrabowski spoke.

Walker is founder of Village at Ithaca, which works at developing community relationships to ensure that minority students consistently meet or exceed district and state standards of achievement. “It takes a village to raise a child … to raise, to educate … to inspire a child. You can’t say it’s the superintendent’s fault or it’s the math teacher’s fault … there is shared responsibility.”

Kate Ofikuru ’05, who is volunteering with Village at Ithaca this year before earning a masters in education, agreed. “There’s a need for commitment within the community-otherwise you can’t do anything.

Archived article by aya Rao
Sun Staff Writer