Are Black and Hispanic college educated parents doing all that they should to help their children learn?  Ask Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Harvard professor and director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, and he will point to Table A8 in his book Towards Excellence With Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap (Harvard Education Press, 2007), which justifies the question.   This table organizes the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading, math and science scores for 12th graders by race/ ethnicity and parental educational level.  Not surprisingly, children of every racial group do better on average when their parents have more education.  What is surprising is that in all subjects, Black and Hispanic students with the most highly educated parents (16 or more years of schooling) scored considerably lower on average than the white students in the same category.  In fact, the Black students’ scores correlated more closely with white students whose parents are only high school graduates, and in some instances with white students whose parents are high school dropouts.

Dr. Ferguson, an MIT trained economist who is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, has been traveling around the country visiting racially mixed public high schools, collecting data on the students and the school districts, and determining ways to close the racial achievement gap.  He has determined that closing the gap in U.S. schools involves skillful parenting along with transformative school reform.  While a large part of effective parenting is tied to the availability of resources to the parents, Ferguson’s research has shown that learning-at-home gaps appear at all socio-economic levels.  It further indicates that college educated Black parents seem on average to be less focused on having an academic environment at home (e.g., they have fewer books at home, spend less time reading, doing science projects and playing games with their children) than their white counterparts.  Why is this and what can we do about it?

“Parents are busy, it is hard to summon the mental energy to focus on this when you get home,” Dr. Ferguson suggested.  He believes to some extent it is also a lifestyle decision.  Parents are settled into routine ways of allocating time, effort, attention, and resources to activities, and “we don’t always know what it looks like to do things differently,” he notes.  What does it involve?  Dr. Ferguson explains, “ It is creating a rich intellectual lifestyle at home for your child from birth.  It includes reading to your child, talking about what you are reading, focusing on how much talking and interacting you are doing with your children.  It also includes paying attention to what you celebrate in terms of achievement, celebrating those ‘a-ha’ moments of intellectual discovery with your children.”

Dr. Ferguson acknowledges that the statistics showing a persistent achievement gap for Black and Hispanic students across socio-economic and parents’ education levels are disturbing, but believes that we cannot improve what we fear and refuse to confront.  He included the NAEP score chart in his book at the urging of Black and Hispanic parents, many of them college graduates, who heard about these statistics during his presentations across the country.  They were concerned about these findings and believed that their inclusion in the book would motivate others, as it did them, to find ways of responding. Dr. Ferguson does not suggest that enriching the intellectual life at home will instantly close the gap.  But he does believe there are things parents can do to make a difference.

He offers an example: “Most parents read to their three and four year old children.  But there are different ways to read to them.   Rather than read the book from cover to cover without stopping, you should have a mixture of reading and discussion during the reading session.  Asking questions like ‘What would you have done here?’ and ‘What do you think will happen next?’ engages the imagination and encourages higher order thinking.  Reading with a mix of easier questions (prompting your child to recall something you’ve already read) and the more engaging and challenging ones build comprehensive skills.”

Dr. Ferguson has compiled a list of “Research Based Tips for High Achievement Parenting” which he often distributes when talking to groups of parents.   The list, which can be downloaded here, should be required reading for all of us.  Ferguson warns, however, that a focus on the list must be preceded by the fundamental question: What is the goal for your child?  “Every child is not born to be a straight A student. Different kinds of children have different skills,” he notes.  “Life is a project, and a parent has to help each child figure out what his or her project will be.  If they have no project, and can’t come up with one, parents have to help them find one.”  The tips on his list are designed to help parents help their children become engaged, life long learners, as opposed to just helping them do well in school.

Dr. Ferguson and his wife have raised three boys, and he understands the special challenges Black boys face. “Along with their race and gender identity comes a certain expectation of swagger, a level of cool and dangerousness, a demeanor that ensures no disrespect. In addition to focusing on their schoolwork, Black boys in school are trying to figure out ‘How do I become a Black man?’  ‘How do I signal my authenticity?’  It is a lot for a young man to figure out.”

At the end of the day, Ferguson opines, “Kids learn from all the things they experience in life. They will be well prepared if they can spend high quality time on task across lots of different experiences”.  While he warns there is no magic bullet, his research has indicated that there are combinations of simple and more complex suggestions for parents to follow.  The conclusion of his chapter on “The Role of Parenting and School Reform” says it best: “In the end, developing and sustaining the collective will, skill and discipline of adults to effectively prioritize learning by children, including other people’s children, is the central challenge we face in a long-term, nationwide movement for building excellence with equity.”