Saturday, December 27, 2014

An academic experiment

Lancaster school's same-race mentoring effort could prove worthwhile.

Math teacher Michael Mitchell in his same-race homeroom class at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster.
Math teacher Michael Mitchell in his same-race homeroom class at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster. RICHARD HERTZLER / Lancaster Newspapers

I'm thinking the Tiger Mother would approve of the mentoring experiment at McCaskey East High School in Lancaster. Both Amy Chua, the so-called Tiger Mother, and the high school now dividing homerooms by race are on to something positive: the role of parenting in education success.

Chua has caused quite the kerfuffle since her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published this year. In it, she explains that her two daughters were initially "never allowed" to: watch TV or play video games, participate in sleepovers or play dates, act in a school play (or complain about their inability to do so), or pick up an instrument aside from piano or violin (both of which they were forced to play). Chua also insisted that her daughters not only get straight A's, but also become the No. 1 students in "every subject except gym and drama."

After an excerpt of her book was published in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 8 under the headline "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," she told me in an interview that she'd softened the parenting approach used in her upbringing because she found herself unable or unwilling to raise her children with the same restrictions. She said that I'd missed the joke and that the book was actually "self-mocking."

"I was raised by extremely strict, but also extremely loving Chinese immigrant parents," the Yale Law School professor told me. "To this day, they are having high expectations for me coupled with love, which is the greatest gift they could have given me."

I was already familiar with the Asian parenting model. In 2005, two Philadelphia-area sisters, Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim, wrote a much more thoughtful, less severe version of the same book: Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers - and How You Can Too. Theirs was a marvelous read and it would have created similar controversy if it had been released with Tiger Mother's less-than-forthright publicity.

What Chua highlights is the importance of parenting in the educational success of children, which I suspect is what's at the root of the Lancaster controversy.

Literacy instructor Angela Tilghman initiated an optional program whereby homeroom assignments now pair minority students with faculty of the same race and gender. The goal is to provide mentors for minority students who are lagging behind white peers in standardized testing. About a third of McCaskey's black students are proficient or advanced in reading, compared with 60 percent of white students.

"It isn't that we're anti-anything," Tilghman told The Inquirer last week. "We're just trying to promote the idea of African American students as successful academic individuals."

This is one of those great watercooler issues in Philadelphia and across the nation. Some see mentoring. Others cry segregation. I see it as pseudoparenting, reminiscent of the lessons from the Tiger Mother.

From my perch, it seems the critics of McCaskey who cry "segregation" tend to be white. I've yet to hear from a single African American who objects to the program. And if anyone had a valid objection, it would be blacks concerned about the stigmatizing of students who are now sitting together for no reason other than that as a group, they are performing poorly.

So what's the beef among whites? Some nondescript complaints from callers to my radio show say this is a return to "separate but equal." Only "separate but equal" really wasn't, and, in this case, the motivation seems to be giving a boost to African Americans, albeit only for six minutes a day and 20 minutes twice a month.

I applaud McCaskey's willingness to wade into the waters of political correctness to try something outside the box, and I find it refreshing that the African American students seem willing to participate, even at the risk of being stigmatized. McCaskey is attempting to implement a tenet that the Tiger Mother would no doubt support: Students should not accept less than stellar academic performance, and achievement comes about only when adults are heavily involved in students' lives.

Unfortunately, some communities are disproportionately affected by unstable home lives. There are often no Tiger Parents supplementing the structure we hope is being provided by teachers. So, at McCaskey, the teachers themselves are forced to motivate the students into academic and personal improvement.

There is one thing about which we can all agree: The status quo is not working. Let's see the results from McCaskey before we wage the segregation-vs.-mentoring fight.

 


Read all of his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish. Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.

 

Michael Smerconish Inquirer Columnist
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected