Education in the hands of parents

By Saúl Berríos-Thomas | Layout Editor

Every parent wants to believe that when they send little Timmy off to school he will learn everything he needs to know before he is whisked away on a magical train to Hogwarts. The fact is however, that not all schools are created equal.

I went to inner city public schools for most of my life and I can tell you that what I experienced there versus what I experienced at the two privates schools I attended were not the same. Beyond the exterior, that goes from a sprawling campus with state-of-the-art technology to an ugly building with tall fences surrounding the courtyard of dead grass, the inside of the classroom is where the biggest difference can be found.

I did have some great teachers at the public schools, especially in middle school (6th through 8th grades), but the most difficult part about the classroom experience was the other students. There was a culture of rebellion that spoke to kids saying that it is ok to talk in class and ignore the teacher’s reprimands. When I would try to participate in the class discussion I was mocked mercilessly; and while part of that may have been the shady characters I chose to surround myself with, the problem was that learning was not viewed as cool (in or out of school). I was more concerned with whether I had the right brand name on my shirt than whether I had the right answers in my notebook. The disgusting halls lined with insect carcasses and spilled soda cans was the place where I purchased my first illegal substance. Sure you can say some kids may have had better experiences at the same schools, and there were honors classes that made things easier, but I will point out that I wasn’t exactly in the heart of Compton either.

When people discuss this topic they will often point to teachers as the problem. The teacher review and testing system is not perfect.  However, as Tony Norman argues in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article “Biggest gap in black kids’ learning: parents,” getting better teachers isn’t exactly the end of the problem.

“You could transfer the most accomplished teachers from the region’s best schools in the North Hills and South Hills to Pittsburgh tomorrow and still face a painful reality — the bored and unmotivated African-American students counting down the minutes until the end of the school day,” Norman wrote.

Norman took a bolder racial stance, but because I’m not African-American and that many of my most successful classmates were, I would argue it is more of a socio-economic issue than anything else. All of the people who cannot afford the fancy, private institutions, or the schools in neighborhoods with fancy houses, go to these public schools, not just the African-American students. That topic is not the core of this issue, although it does deserve to be addressed.

So if teachers won’t fix the situation, then what will?

“This isn’t because there is some defect in the cognitive abilities of black students. Education isn’t racially coded to prevent minority kids from learning the material. The missing element isn’t the so-called ‘right teacher’ with the right evaluation standing at the blackboard. The missing element is something far more fundamental,” Norman argued. “What’s missing is the active, radical involvement of every parent.”

The ugly truth is those kids I was sitting beside in the back of the classroom, playing paper football with and shooting spitballs, didn’t know any better. When they got home, nobody asked them what they learned that day in school. Nobody sat them down and asked them what homework they had and if they needed help with it. A good friend of mine would come home from school to an empty apartment where he would be alone until his mom got home from work around 7 p.m. At this point dinner would be served and his mom would head right to the bedroom not to be heard from again for the rest of the night. There was no one to support learning. This goes deeper than attending school functions or talking to teachers. This is about building an environment that encourages learning and asking questions. I have heard countless times that my peers wanted to understand, but were too afraid to ask for clarification. Part of that is because of the other kids being mean. Let’s be honest: kids are brutal. But a bigger part was because when they got home, asking for clarification was seen only as a nuisance. Only 34 percent of low-income students in Pittsburgh can read at grade level and only 29 percent are proficient in math, as measured by 2003 PSSA scores according to RAND, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This is a never-ending cycle because the parents are distracted by their financial situation, which probably isn’t good if their kids are attending these schools. These homes are often one-parent households, in which this parent has to work twice as hard to support the family. About 67 percent of African-American households in America are single-parent households.  The cycle can be broken. The only hope for change is in the household.

A few sentences can change a child’s life. I used to hate it when I came home from school exhausted and the first question dad asked was, “How was school.” Now I understand that it was moments like that, which taught me it was ok to learn and that school was a good thing.

Radical changes in the school system may be necessary. The funding should be spread more equally and every one should have the same opportunity to get the same education. That, however, is not an excuse for the kids in inner city public schools to be getting less out of the classroom. That responsibility falls solely on the parents.

Saúl Berríos-Thomas is a junior political science major and can be reached at


  1. I cannot agree more with this column’s premise: families encourage academic success more so than strong academic programs. I was privileged to go to good schools my entire life but in reality, I worked hard for two reasons: a.) I knew my mom was going to ask me about my work and, more importantly, b.) I was scared of my mom (kidding, kinda). Throughout my education, I’ve had learning as a necessity instilled in me. And now as I work toward a Master’s degree, I find most of my learning is self-driven. And I have my parents to thank for that. Great column, Saul.

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