Wake Up and Smell the Culture


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Everyone is aware of the gap between the achievement scores of different groups in America, but to be completely thorough we need a “gap analysis. ” In addition to the achievement gap, there is a lifestyle gap, a money gap, an incarceration gap, a drug use gap, an employment gap, a teen pregnancy gap, a parent gap, a domestic violence gap, a dropout gap, a suicide gap, and an expectation gap. Isn’t it odd that the same populations on the low end of the now famous achievement gap are on the short end of all these gaps as well?

Some would argue that all these gaps are due to the achievement gap. I argue the opposite; that the achievement gap is in fact caused by all these other gaps and that the presence of all these gaps, and there are many more, are the result of a culture of poverty—having absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity.

Having spent many years in rural Alaska working with Yupik and Inupiaq Eskimos, I am intimately familiar with the significance of the effects of culture on education. After reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne, I realized that the factors affecting education in rural Alaska are almost identical to those affecting education in inner-city Houston.

In the Northwest Arctic, I had the great privilege to know and work with an Inupiaq elder named Levi Cleveland. Levi understands culture. One day we were having an “Inupiaq Day” in school to celebrate the local culture. Most of the school and several local elders were gathered in the gym for lunch, which that day consisted of caribou soup, beavertail, muktuk (whale blubber), seal oil, dried whitefish, dried salmon, and many other local delicacies of mysterious origin. There was a freshly skinned caribou on a tarp on the gym floor, part of which had gone for the soup. The gym was pungent with the aroma of all these native foods, and when Levi walked in, he stopped, took a deep breath and with a big smile said, “Ahhh-Now this smells like an Inupiaq school”. That statement tells you what culture is. It is how our life smells. The nose knows. Levi Cleveland could walk into my house blindfolded and with one whiff know instantly that he was in a different culture. He would also agree that if a child is intimately familiar with the sour aroma of long overdue laundry, or the acrid sent of burning weed, or the sickening smell of a hung-over parent, or if he can smell fear on his parents whenever the police are near; he is most likely having trouble in school.

Culture is the intricately woven fabric of our lives, including tastes, smells, sounds, dress, language, history, religion, what our family does for a living, our family’s outlook on the world, and most significantly to the issue at hand—our family’s view of education and employment beyond school. Poverty creates a culture of low expectations, and low expectations from family are the most insidiously debilitating force that a child can possibly experience. Rare is the child who can overcome it.

Ask any parent if they want their child to do well in school, or if they think education is important, and they will respond quite honestly that they do. The problem is that verbal support does not overcome the subterranean (cultural) lack of support. The child always knows what the real story is and almost always lives up to the real, hidden, and unstated expectations of the parent.

Typical middle income children know from the cradle that they are expected to do well in school and maybe even go to college and then to work to support themselves after they complete school. The typical inner-city child of poverty or the typical Native American child grows up with quite the opposite set of unstated expectations. Life and educational expectations are an integral part of any culture and the absolute key to success or failure in education.

Almost miraculously, some children overcome these circumstances, usually as a result of the work of a great teacher, or a single but influential role model in the family or community who refuses to accept poor circumstances as defeat. Unfortunately there are not enough of these miracles to support the broad vision of high test scores set up by The No Child Left Behind Act.

NCLB is destined for failure because it is not even playing the right ballgame. Public education had a nice polite game of baseball going on and NCLB showed up to play looking like an angry 900 pound gorilla, dressed in a football uniform and carrying a big hockey stick. Admittedly the game is a little slow in some areas and culls a lot of players, but to attack it with a hockey stick is out of bounds. What we need is a new system—not a federal attack. We can move all the children we want to a new school, fire all the teachers and administrators we like, test the children until there is an epidemic of Assessment Induced Narcolepsy; as long as the culture remains unchanged, student achievement will show only marginal improvement.

We need to wake up and smell the culture!

Sherman Minter
The Principal’s Office, LLC

Sherman Minter is an educator and a parent. He has seen first hand what “education" can do to a child who does not fit in. It took years of parenting and educational experience for him to recognize how dramatically children are affected by the words and actions of teachers and parents and by children's own successes or failures. He writes today primarily in an attempt to inject some common sense into parenting and schooling. He advocates for drastic education reform to a system which provides for all children rather than just the linguistic and mathematic achievers. He also advocates for the supreme importance of parent involvement in children's lives and education. He believes that school improvement is impossible without genuine parent involvement.

He is the author of a book entitled, The Schooling Game-A Parents Survival Guide to Public Schools, which is unpublished at this time.

He is president of The Principal's Office, LLC, a company founded to provide information and service to parents and children. His website is http://www.principalsoffice.com


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