Culture of Achievement
By William Raspberry, Washington Post, September 23, 2002
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Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, has been
following public education for a long time. He's now written a
book on what he thinks it will take to fix America's schools.
Early on in "Achievement Matters," he tells of his first
experience with the New Haven, Conn., school his children
attended. "Parents . . . were really into the school," he
recalls. "They flocked to meetings, meet-the-teacher nights,
bake sales and assemblies." The school was far more successful
than its geographical and socioeconomic neighbors.
Then the Prices moved from New Haven to New Rochelle, N.Y.,
and Price attended a meet-the-teacher night at his children's
new junior high. "So many parents were there that night that
the school had to hire off-duty policemen to direct traffic."
Needless to say the school was terrific.
Price's conclusion: You can't expect to have a good school
unless you have committed and active parents. Or as he told me
in an interview: "The more we do as parents and as a
community, including stressing to our children the importance
of academic achievement, the easier the job of the educators.
The more we do what we are uniquely situated to do, the more
educators can do what they are uniquely situated to do. The
less we do what we're supposed to do, the more we ask them to
do what they're really not well equipped to do."
Price similarly taps his experience as civil rights leader,
journalist, church-goer and "retired kid" to draw lessons for
improving public education. His vantage point as head of the
Urban League, he said, has sharpened his focus on two trends
-- the increasing academic and critical-thinking demands of
the job market and the persistent academic underachievement of
black children. "I call it the 'preparation gap,' " he said.
"Frankly, I'm a little less interested in the near term in how
we're doing compared with white kids than I am in comparing
how we're doing compared with what we need to be able to do. .
"While we have to continue to press the schools to improve, we
as a people have to have a frontal-lobe obsession with making
sure our children are well educated. That's our obligation as
parents, as caregivers and as a people. That's the first big
message in the book. The second is, 'Folks, we can do
something about this.' "
Price has tried to make his book a how-to manual for involved
parents. He recounts his own experience but, as important, has
sought out people whose background is vastly different from
his to ferret out their analyses, their secrets. "There's a
lot we can do whether we're well educated or not, whether
we're working hard on our jobs or not, whether we live in the
inner city or not. We have to get busy doing what we need to
do even as we look to the schools to do what they're supposed
Perhaps the most important thing black America can do, Price
believes, is to reawaken the earnest desire for learning. Too
many adults -- he cites examples -- make negative assumptions
regarding the academic potential of black children. Too many
black youngsters assume that academic excellence isn't a black
thing. And too many black parents sit helplessly by as their
children succumb to negative peer pressure.
The counter, he said, is an "achievement culture."
"I mean, if the pastors would get up in the pulpit and say
'we're going to make sure that every child in this church
reads; we ain't having no nonreaders in this congregation,'
you've got enough retirees who can read, and probably some
retired schoolteachers, and so forth, so you could organize a
real effort and then honor the children who excel
Finally, he says, we need to do what he did in preparation for
his book: Learn from the experience of others. "Some children
have learned to blow off peer pressure; they can tell us how
they did it. Some uneducated parents have learned to use
mother wit to steer their children academically; they can tell
us how they did it. And those of us who grasp the importance
of the things I'm talking about need to reach out and help
bring along those who don't."
Getting our children the education they manifestly will need
won't be easy. But Hugh Price's book is an excellent place to