If students are misbehaving, they are not engaged in their lessons. Behavior management is, unfortunately, a priority focus at Springfield Gardens, to the detriment of instruction. This is the point that the three interviewees continued to stress. None of them blamed the teachers for failing to engage students; the fault, as they see it, lies squarely with the students whose families apparently do not place a high value on education. The students, as Gordon, Benton and Johnson see it, are products of the culture in which their parents live.
The three frequently compared and contrasted the students of today with students of generations past. Students in "the good old days" did not misbehave the way students do "these days." That point was made clear, particularly in interviews with Benton and Gordon. Benton recalled a childhood outside the United States where school, he implied, was much more rigorous. It would appear that, in his mind, an American education is a bit below par compared to that which he was able to avail himself. He also referenced poor behavior and drew comparisons between "then" and "now." There is a superiority implied in Benton's comments. Although his interview was, for the most part, positive, upbeat, and laden with accolades for Springfield Gardens' principal and teachers, one is left with the distinct impression that Benton feels today's students do not quite measure up. He never mentions race or socio-economic status; student behavior and achievement is linked to place and culture. Students in his day, in the old country, did as they were told and participated in more rigorous academics.
Like Benton, Principal Gordon recalls fondly the "good old days" when he was a student, noting that most teachers were white, parents were involved, and discipline issues were minimal. Gordon could have been reciting three separate observations and yet because they come all in one breath, one is left with the distinct impression that Gordon is finding causality: white teachers, involved parents = few discipline problems. Gordon's comment is the single mention of race in the three interviews, but in many ways it set the tone for the discussion about negligent parents and the negative impact on students' school performance. White becomes equated with "involved" and "supportive," whereas minorities become equated with sending children to school ill-prepared to learn.
The expectations for students at Springfield Gardens do not seem to be particularly high, although the school's mission statement would have one believe otherwise. As McNeal (1999) points out, "One of the most persistent findings in stratification research is that an offspring's subsequent attainment is highly correlated with the education of offspring's parents." At Springfield Gardens, there is limited parental involvement, which the interviewees perceived as lack of interest in the educational process. The Springfield Gardens community is comprised of working class people for whom high educational achievement was either not a priority or not attainable. Gordon, Benton and Johnson seem to feel that there is a culture in which expectations are not high, and without support from the parents there will be another generation of people who do not rise above working class status.
Benton believes that students only need to come to Springfield Gardens ready to learn: Gordon believes he is providing strong leadership and that all children have an equal opportunity to learn at his school. He once again referred to the demographics of his student population when discussing education as "the great equalizer." He is realistic enough to recognize that discrimination still takes place. His own achievement against the odds had nothing to do with race or socioeconomic status, as least as he tells his story. Gordon recalled that he was at the bottom of his high school class but eventually graduated from Fordham University because he decided to apply himself to his studies. He said he uses himself as an example to illustrate to his students that anything is possible.
It is impossible to know how much race is a factor in the limited success of Springfield Gardens' students. Principal Gordon seems to suggest that students did better in school in the old (white) days, when parents had the "luxury" of working regular hours so they could spend more time being involved in the education of their children. The solution to the problem of what some writers call the "achievement gap" between white and Black students could certainly start with administrators like Gordon, who need to do more than give lip service to high standards for all students. Administrators, teachers and school communities must have high expectations for everyone. They must stop focusing blame on poor parenting and low socio-economic status. It is not that these factors do not adversely affect students; of course they do. Schools can continue to encourage parent involvement but must seek ways to boost student achievement whether or not parents are actively supportive. Community organizations such as the YMCA will, hopefully, continue to offer meaningful after-school and summer activities to foster the kind of culture that supports school success. It is not productive to assign blame. Schools and community organizations can work together to support students' academic achievement by having high expectations for both academics and behavior. They must strive to create an atmosphere in which education is valued and in which they truly believe students can succeed. Only then can the culture begin to change and pave the way to success for future generations.
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