SU professor takes on education issues in Multiplication


Special to Magazine

August 29, 2012


“In a sense, then, this is a book about how learning can be made into practical fun while remaining sensitive to the cultural conditions of each community — because there is no one size fits all to an education.”


By Lisa Delpit

New Press, $26.95

If our nation is to continue thinking of itself as a provider of opportunities, education policies and practices must be acknowledged as critical. Lisa Delpit knows this. She is a native of Baton Rouge and a nationally recognized professor of education at Southern University. Her book, published this past spring, is frank, engaging, and unquestionably salient, with an argument that is easy to absorb. When you read Multiplication, you’ll see why it is wrong to assume that poverty insures poor academic performance; and why the much-touted charter school movement is too simple a solution. The book is, substantially, a study of race and culture, but Delpit’s argument goes well beyond the cruel irony of her title. Happily, it is more about what works than what doesn’t.

The first of her findings seems so self-evident that it’s a wonder policy makers haven’t shouted it from the rooftops: Teachers are most successful when they command students’ attention, when they are able to communicate with individual students in other than a disciplinary mode, and when they integrate students’ real life experiences into the curriculum. In urban Boston, students learned to plot trips along their subway routes with algebraic formulas.

A second major problem: Negative stereotypes are reinforced. As high-quality teachers (of any race) leave for other schools when the black population increases in theirs, the minority student will likely believe that his or her academic prospects are unavoidably reduced. The threat of educational stereotypes are very real: we all know that females were long dissuaded from majoring in math for no legitimate reason. Another core problem related to stereotyping is the acquisition of middle-class conventions. At the elementary level, success is immediately connected to a specialized vocabulary, punctuation rules, topic sentences, and the like. This is the “cultural capital” of the mainstream, but it does not come automatically to all, which makes the role of teacher that much more important in bridging the culture gap.

Delpit relates the experience of African-American students from an historically black high school in Baton Rouge. They collected an oral history and presented the findings at a conference in New York, receiving a standing ovation for their professionalism. During the Q&A that followed, they were asked about the racial composition of their class. They said they didn’t interact with their white peers, because those students were separated into their “gifted” classes. It was a magnet school with racially distinct resources.

Traditional assumptions are often pernicious, and not only in race-related matters. Students reading at grade level rarely learn the meaning of a word by memorization; instead, they learn it through “integration” (connecting to prior knowledge) and “meaningful use” (multiple opportunities to use new words in reading, writing, and discussion). Delpit came to recognize the problem when she asked her daughter what “writing sentences” meant to her, and young Maya said: “stuff you write, but never would say.”

Delpit keeps returning to the principle of making the classroom feel more like real life. Basic skills, she writes, “are best taught and learned within the context of meaningful engaging instruction.” Engagement is the key. In a sense, then, this is a book about how learning can be made into practical fun while remaining sensitive to the cultural conditions of each community — because there is no one size fits all to an education.

Some well-intentioned programs miss the point. Teach for America sends motivated college graduates to impoverished areas or under-performing schools, and asks them to give their first post-graduate years to teaching. To make room for these inexperienced teachers-of-the-moment, many veteran teachers (largely African-American) are let go; and it turns out that the newcomers’ cultural foreignness makes it unlikely than they, regardless of their level of commitment, will do any better. Mind you, Delpit is not saying a black student has to be taught by a black teacher; she cites a preppy young white teacher who enjoyed what he was doing, learned from the kids about their world, and inspired trust — to them he was a “reverse Oreo.” It just took time and commitment.

The fact is that economically well-off students can do well even with a bad teacher, because they are plugged in to middle-class culture in other ways. Students from impoverished communities are basically “school dependent” for the tools to succeed. The book makes clear that quality of teaching is by far the most crucial factor in any child’s educational destiny. Regardless of where in America he or she works, the best teacher is a take-charge type, in touch with the surrounding culture — an individual whom students respond to and fear disappointing. “We cannot allow an expectation gap to result in an achievement gap,” the author appeals. Multiplication is for everyone.

Andrew Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is:

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