In her groundbreaking 1988 essay “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” the elementary school teacher cum theorist Lisa Delpit dismantled some of the pieties of progressive education. Deliberately unstructured teaching strategies like “whole language,” “open classrooms,” and “process, not product” were putting poor, non-white children at an even greater disadvantage in school and beyond, Delpit argued. Instead, she suggested teachers should explicitly “decode” white, middle-class culture for their low-income students, teaching them Standard English almost as if it were a foreign language, for example, and introducing math concepts through problems with cultural resonance for disadvantaged kids, such as calculating the probability that the police will stop-and-frisk a black male, as compared to a white male.
In the years since the publication of “Silenced Dialogue” and the 1995 book it inspired, Other People’s Children, the standards-and-accountability school reform movement rose to prominence. Its focus on closing the achievement gap through skills building echoed many of Delpit’s commitments, but she found herself troubled by the movement’s discontents. Many low-income schools canceled field trips and classes in the arts, sciences and social studies, for example, in order to focus on raising math and reading standardized test scores. Now Delpit is responding in a new book, “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. (The title quote comes from an African-American boy who, bored and discouraged by the difficulty of his math assignment, proclaimed the subject out-of-reach for kids like himself.) “I am angry that the conversation about educating our children has become so restricted,” Delpit writes in the introduction. “What has happened to the societal desire to instill character? To develop creativity? To cultivate courage and kindness?”
Here, in an interview with The Nation, Delpit discusses the intelligence of poor children, how she would reform Teach for America, and why college professors should be as focused on closing the achievement gap as K-12 educators are. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
In your new book, you write that since Other People’s Children, some of your ideas have been misinterpreted and used to argue in support of a drill-and-kill type pedagogy. But if skills are important, what’s wrong with a “basic skills” curriculum?
One cannot divorce the teaching of basic skills from the demands of critical thinking; having kids question what is in newspaper articles, even question what is in textbooks. One of the things I talk about in Multiplication is that I once visited with some students who were at an Afrocentric school. I asked them what the difference was between their school and regular public schools. These middle-schoolers told me they couldn’t just accept what was in books, they could argue any point if they gave sufficient and clear arguments supporting their position. That, I believe, is what we need to aim for, that children bring their minds to school and not just their ability to regurgitate facts.
You are critical of researchers who focus on the deficits low-income children bring from home into the classroom; for example, there is the frequently cited finding that poor children hear only 3 million words annually at home, compared to the 11 million words children of white-collar professionals hear. These findings are considered uncontroversial. Why do you find this research problematic?