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?
I happened to be in a room a few years ago with a researcher—a very good researcher—who had looked at similar kinds of work and had come to a similar kind of conclusion. While we were in the meeting, I made a list of words I knew many 3- and 4-year-old low-income, African-Americans kids would know—like “po po” [slang for “police”]—but it was unlikely she would know. I gave them to her, and she looked at me like, are these really words? It dawned on me then that one of the problems is that if you don’t know the culture, you may not know what words kids do know. Granted, they may not be words that would be validated in school, but it may be the case that children’s vocabularies are greater than we anticipate.
It is definitely true that children of non-college-educated parents are likely to have less school-based vocabulary. The issue is what do we do about it. Many researchers, in their attempt to get rid of the achievement gap, have said, Well, what we need to do is to make sure that the preschool and kindergarten teachers help kids learn a lot more vocabulary. But what they kept finding was there was a washout later on. It was hard to find a program you could put in preschool that would continue to have an effect in fourth or fifth grade. The point is, you can’t stop in preschool or kindergarten, because it’s not like the college-educated parents with cultural capital are stopping their education of their children at home. Schools have to continue intensive development.
[Some educators believe disadvantaged children] shouldn’t go on field trips and do music because they have to do basic skills. That is said without understanding that it is through all those experiences that kids develop the knowledge and background information kids of college-educated parents already have. You can’t just sit in the classroom and teach basic skills and assume kids are going to be developing the rich knowledge they need in order to read complex texts later on.
I love the example you write about and just mentioned, of the 5-year old girl who, when she sees a police car drive by her classroom, says she isn’t going to let the “po po” mess with her.
The problem is that it’s not viewed as intelligent but as evidence of deprivation. It should be looked at as the intelligence of a child learning from his or her environment in the same way a child from a college-educated family would.
You are critical of Teach for America, writing that too many of the program’s recruits are white, that they don’t stay in the classroom long enough to perfect their teaching skills, and that they are too often ignorant of the social contexts in which they teach. How would you reform TFA?
There’s a model from the 1970s called the Teacher Corps, which is one we need to look at again. They actually had teachers living with families in a community. We may not be able to do it as deeply as they did, but we certainly can have new teachers visiting houses of worship, community organizations, and spending time in afterschool and daycare programs so people can get a deeper knowledge of who it is they’re teaching.
In the last part of the book, you describe why college can be an alienating experience for disadvantaged kids. What is your advice to colleges that want to increase the graduation rates of their low-income, non-white students?
I would love to see some professional development in which university professors spend time looking at how to diversify whatever they’re teaching to include other cultures. One of the activities I sometimes bring audiences is, I ask them to think about an explorer, a famous writer and a famous mathematician. Then I go back and ask them to write down a famous Chinese explorer, a famous African mathematician and down the line. What you end up with is the first list is usually all white and male, and the second list has no answers in it.
You frequently reference your daughter’s educational experience. She attended nine schools in ten years in the search for a good fit. Is there something about education you learned through motherhood that you didn’t know before?
Everything! There is something very different about trying to move any system yourself, with your own child. I was blessed with a child who was not school-sensitive. She was also a kid who would have been diagnosed with ADHD. Just yesterday I was speaking with a teacher who said she had three kids who just looked blank all the time when she was talking with them. I knew that was something my child would do. In the early grades, every teacher would say to her, “Earth to Maya!”
Some kids are bright kids, but whatever’s going on in their mind is so interesting compared to what you’re doing, it may appear they have totally blanked out. That is something I was able to assess more readily by having understood how Maya’s mind works.