Law in Contemporary Society

Unearthing Myths about Urban Education, Unveiling The Power of the Family

-- By AbiolaFasehun - 13 June 2012


There is a myth surrounding urban education- through self-reliance and determination all children can grow up to be successful in this nation. The myth allows the social injustice of inequality to perpetuate and inhibit social progress. To improve education we must improve the home; a concept that can be applied to all communities regardless of race, wealth, or status, but is most needed in urban America.

The Myth of American Success

The power of a myth is that it lays dormant within individuals, groups, and societies. A myth addresses societies unconscious fears, while helping individuals to ignore what is going on in the world around them. When Forbes Online ran an article about how to educate poor black children, the author's notions illustrated a pervasive problem in America- the fallacy that if anyone puts forth enough effort they too can grow up to be Horatio Alger. The article provided an interesting perspective in which to view technology as a source of empowerment, but fell prey to the idea that receiving a quality education is simple and accessible to all Americans.

The failure of the urban education myth is that it masks a social failure, a form of hereditary determinism that lays dormant in the minds of the educated and elite. There are some who believe urban education has failed because blacks have failed. Through this myth we can choose to remain ignorant of the world we live in by not acknowledging that issues of social injustice, politics, and policy have furthered, if not endorsed the failure of urban communities, the failure of being black.

Newark as a Case Study

When I was a child my mother owned a soul food restaurant in Newark, NJ. I often spent days and nights at the restaurant, hiding under tables and observing my mother's patrons. The city served as an interesting contrast to the town where I grew up. About twenty minutes north of Newark, my family occupied a one story dwelling on a tree lined street. Like a space on a checkerboard, each tidy aluminum sided home was confined on either side. At an early age I learned a great lesson, that no two communities are treated equally. In my hometown I was often the only African-American among my peers. In high school that number increased to five. Black kids attended the black schools in communities like Newark, East Orange, and Irvington- cities and towns that were only mentioned in whispered conversations.

After graduating from college, I chose to return to Newark to teach and try to remain engaged in a community that once provided a refuge. I accepted my teaching position creating my own notions of what problems impeded progress in Newark's education system. Lack of funding and little opportunity were at the top of my list. I soon learned that as an Abbott district, Newark Public Schools spent around $20,000 annually per student. Even as a mismanagement of funds prevailed in Newark's education bureaucracy, in my school there was no want of money or supplies from the teachers. I learned that what was happening in my students' homes stood at the root of many of their learning difficulties. I took my time in recognizing this truth, eyelids heavy, partly afraid of the task that laid ahead.

It Takes Community

By the age of ten, my students dealt with problems that most adults in America will never face. Don't you know? Henry's father was shot dead in front of him when he was seven. Didn't you hear? Amanda's mother made her sleep on the front porch last night. This information would rarely be found in a file, rather, a new teacher would learn from pressing previous instructors as to why a child refused to engage in class, why a child could only read and write at a kindergarten level, or why a child was always asleep in class.

Urban families in America are in need of help. According to statistics from Newark Kids Count? , child poverty in Newark continues to rise. The number of families on food assistance has increased to 33% and nearly half of Newark children grow up in families that do not make enough income to meet their basic needs. When families are worried about making enough to simply survive, a hardened culture can be created. There are systems at play which have created a perfect storm to trap individuals into a defeatist position. The prison system, zoning laws, and community planning have contributed to the disruption that urban communities face. Children are force fed defeat from the moment they are born.

These are the problems that face urban education. Problems that have bled into the fibers of a community, taking their time to become an evolutionary product of our nations tragic past. But will there ever be a solution?

The idea that it takes a village is nothing new, but more than one village, I would argue that it takes a collective of villages, a community working together to protect the best interests of children. A village of educators, a village of advocates, but most importantly, a village of family. By allowing parents and guardians to be disengaged in the process, a great disservice is done to a child. Although a child may spend the day at school, at the end of the day and at the end of the academic year that child returns home. Our society has become sick with the concept that teachers can and should be expected to do it all. Until we acknowledge the flaws that exist at the most basic levels of society, no meaningful change can ever come. A teacher can provide an education, but we are setting generations up for failure when we expect educators to provide the love and attentiveness of a parent. Parents need to regain their position of power in the home by providing a stable environment from which a child can build their foundation. (997) -- AbiolaFasehun - 10 Jul 2012


Thank you for this personal and insightful piece. I am curious as to your thoughts regarding the role of community in not only child development, but in parenting itself. As i discuss with colleagues and friends about children and ideas for improving the social bonds that form the basis of communities, I regularly come across a mentality that parenting is a "natural right," and that the best thing that society can do is provide basic support and step back to allow parents to "fulfill their role" as the guides of their children's lives. For me, this idea that every person (or couple) is naturally born with the all skills required to parent is as equally flawed as the idea that children can be lifted out of their conditions by education alone. But how can we expect parents to reach out an ask for help when they need it if society is simultaneously telling them that good parents should be able to do it without any help? When state child services only become involved in cases of abuse and neglect, what incentive does any parent have to reach out for help to any public system? The fear of being labelled "negligent" or losing one's child after reporting an problem at home is hardly unjustified when ACS and/or DHS devote their services almost exclusively to responding to allegations of poor parenting, rather than developing an ongoing dialogue with parents of all demographics and competencies.


You raised interesting questions regarding the complexity of the issue. Talking about what happens in the home or how one culture raises their children verses another remains taboo. But I wonder how much of the idea, that it is a parent's natural right to raise a child, has been hijacked by American idealism? There are some things that a decent human being (let alone a parent) should never allow another to go through (for example, the reference I made above to a student that was forced to sleep outside). As your comment alludes to, there is no excuse for this type of parenting. I believe that a cultural change needs to happen in homes and can occur without taking the right to parent away, but could work to enhance parenting. For example, if a parent is not able to be at home when a child arrives from school, what kind of mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that the child is completing his or her homework? When a teacher attempts to create a plan to get a student back on track, how can a parent support a teacher as opposed to challenging why any help is needed? Such ideas may sound so simple (I dare say even silly to some), but so many of the kids that I worked with were unsupervised at home and would come to school everyday having completed none of their assignments. If this ritual occurs for a majority of the school year, for most children, no academic growth can be achieved. For a cultural change to happen members of the community can and should get involved in helping others where they may fall short, while encouraging parents to take ownership.

A few years ago Bill Cosby publicly addressed what he viewed to be the ills of education in black America. His words were greeted with a backlash. Many African-Americans believed he was a traitor and unqualified to speak of a type of life he knew nothing about, others believed his comments were an example of a double standard. Bill Cosby's ultimate message was that African-Americans needed to "take the neighborhood back", an interesting concept that extends to your point. Bill Cosby's call for action was a call to a collective, not to individuals. I believe we begin a dangerous game when a community remains silent and allows parents to feign ignorance. Although so much of parenting and a communities culture is learned behavior (i.e. fear in the system), at what point does the cycle end? Thank you for reading and commenting!

Hi Abiola,

I really like this idea: "For a cultural change to happen members of the community can and should get involved in helping others where they may fall short, while encouraging parents to take ownership." - I think this perfectly sums up the right approach, however I'm not sure you can resolve it with your earlier point that "There are some things that a decent human being (let alone a parent) should never allow another to go through" without stepping outside the realm of inherent and unconditional rights (which is probably a more accurate phrasing of what I meant by "natural rights"). The messy question at the bottom of this, in my view, is whether we should assume parents are absolutely competent until they prove otherwise, or initially approach them as participants in a team of child-raisers who are entitled to take the dominant decision-making role whenever they are able to. I think the rhetorical similarity between the first position and the criminal law doctrine of "innocent until proven guilty" explains much of social resistance to the latter position - we tend to view an assumption of weakness or finite competence as equivalent to an assumption of fault, when as every educator knows it's really the start of a dialogue rather than the end.

I envisage a policy similar to drivers licenses, albeit with a "bundle of sticks" approach to defining competency rather than the more binary system of license/no-license. We set the starting position at assumption of incompetence, but simultaneously acknowledge the desirability of self-autonomy and construct a supportive (rather than judgmental) educational-licensing scheme that strives to ensure everyone who wants to and is able achieves competence. This is the very essence of paternalism ("maternalism," perhaps?), but most accept its wisdom in the context of restricting access to public roads to those who have already passed minimum competency standards. Presumably, this is due to the high levels of risk involved in driving, to others as well as one's self. But why is this risk greater than in the case of child-rearing? One ton metal boxes that can move at 100mph can be dangerous, but hardly more so than eighteen years of neglectful parenting. I fail to see why we protect victims of the latter less than the former simply because the victim and perpetrator come from the same bloodline.



Who left the above comment? I believe that when you left your comment I was editing my paper and that is why your name does not appear. Thank you for reading and commenting. Personally, I prefer a hybrid of your point of view. I believe that parents should be viewed as dominant participants in a team of child-raisers, but I would not adopt the idea that parents can assume such a role "whenever they are able to" without further clarification. Who decides when a parent is able to participate? To decide this question, I would then adopt the idea that there should be some assumption that a parent is competent until proven otherwise, but this assumption should be carefully observed (i.e. your bundle of sticks approach with the level set to a mid level of competence). I agree that society should not have to wait to step in, offer encouragement, advice, or support only after something terrible has happened to a child. But I also think that while it shouldn't be easy for parents to pass ownership/responsibility, by setting the starting position to an assumption of incompetence, there is a possibility of creating a further demoralized culture. -- AbiolaFasehun - 10 Jul 2012

Hi Abolia,

You're probably right about the demoralizing effects of an assumption of incompetence - i wasn't entirely happy with my earlier characterization, but i'm also not happy with your alternative assumption of competence. Perhaps it would be clearer if the word incompetence was replaced with the concept of "neutrality" or something to that effect. There is no assumption of incompetence prior to the taking of a driving license, since the diagnostic has not yet been administered. Perhaps a similar mentality would work with parenting? For the record, I use this analogy only for ease of visualization, not because I believe the nuances and emotional processes associated with raising children are comparable to those associated with the act of driving a car.

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