Harvard Educational Review
  1. “Multiplication Is for White People”

    Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children

    Lisa Delpit

    New York: New Press, 2012. 211 pp. $26.95.

    Contemporary educational reforms often focus on the persistent Black/White achievement gap in America’s public schools. In “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit reflects on these reforms while reminding educators that no achievement gap exists at birth. The MacArthur Award–winning education reformer and scholar weaves years of classroom experience with empirical research and personal anecdotes as a mother through a narrative that outlines key principles and strategies for raising expectations for minority children, particularly Black youth. Filled with thoughtful curricular examples and stories from successful practitioners from elementary school to university, Multiplication Is for White People serves as a guidebook for educators working in urban schools and with culturally diverse students.

    In part 1, Delpit vehemently refutes flawed but common assumptions about the racial achievement gap. Citing empirical studies in the United States and abroad, she shows that Black infants perform on par or better than White infants on measures of early cognitive ability. Disparities in achievement that do emerge in school are generally linked to poverty, but Depit argues that poor and minority children are often not taught in urban classrooms. Instead, many receive a thin curriculum of menial worksheets (sometimes coloring) and seatwork predicated on low expectations that are disconnected from the students’ lives. Delpit contends that reversing these trends starts with teachers’ beliefs in all children’s infinite capacities, acknowledging their brilliance rather than focusing on deficiency and reminding them of their rich intellectual and cultural legacies.

    Having laid out some key principles to raising expectations, Delpit turns to what these principles may look like in practice. Parts 2 and 3 focus on educating children in early elementary school and adolescents in middle and high school. Here, the text is interspersed with short but illustrative cases of classroom instruction that incorporate African and African American literature and history, connect math concepts with community issues, and relate to the home culture of students. Although the examples are grade specific, the distinction between parts 2 and 3 is sometimes unclear and maybe unnecessary. The chapters within each part separately cover issues such as teaching students basic versus critical thinking skills, demanding high expectations with support, accommodating learning differences, integrating the community, and understanding student assessment that would seem to apply across grade levels.

    Delpit examines university life in part 4 but focuses less on raising expectations and more on issues of invisibility and “dis-identification” with the academy that many Black and minority students experience on campuses. Delpit connects the theme of invisibility to the institutional racism in American society that devalues and stigmatizes Blacks using the vivid example of the disastrous rescue efforts during Hurricane Katrina. She uses this connection to Black students on college campuses to support the claim that invisibility and racial microagressions—seemingly mundane and innocuous insults directed at minorities—contribute to the disparity in graduation rates between Black and White students. While these experiences are well documented, the connection to graduation rates could be more robust with a discussion of how they relate to other factors, including financial issues and family problems related to poverty. The remaining section provides thoughtful solutions to invisibility and dis-identification, including making students of color feel more valued as individuals (as opposed to representatives of a race) and replacing remedial programs with challenging curricula and appropriate supports.

    Throughout Multiplication Is for White People, Delpit complements discussions of curricula that promote critical thinking and of what it means to raise expectations for children with searing critiques of recent education reforms. One of her main targets in her commentary on urban education today is the trend of replacing experienced Black teachers with inexperienced and young teachers from programs like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. Delpit acknowledges that these programs have the potential to be effective, provided that participants behave less like “tourists” and more like committed educators willing to stay in their positions longer and learn about the local community and culture. She points out that the recent dismissal of many Black teachers in urban areas like Washington, D.C., is disturbing in terms of what it means to communities and the message it may send to Black students. This discussion, however, is somewhat one-sided, as it glosses over issues of persistent student underperformance and particularly low teacher quality in many of these schools, the same issues critiqued throughout the book.

    Delpit writes as an educator and reformer, but she provides another lens onto these issues as a parent. Her anecdotes about raising Maya are especially moving, and many readers may relate to the dilemmas Delpit faced as a Black mother. In one poignant and painful scene, Delpit describes visiting Maya’s first-grade classroom (after many mornings of hearing Maya cry about school) to find her daughter sitting by herself, facing the window in the back, and completing a worksheet. She is stunned even more when the teacher incorrectly explains whole language instruction. In another particularly memorable passage of the book, she describes an unusually warm welcome from an admissions director during a college tour with Maya at a historically black college. This welcome sealed the deal for mother and daughter.

    Although the core sections of Multiplication Is for White People are geared toward educators, all readers can appreciate this thought-provoking book as former students. Many readers may reflect (as I did) on their own missed learning opportunities in class due to time spent on worksheets, movie curriculum, and, unfortunately, experiences with teachers who simply did not teach. The book focuses on urban schools, but the same lessons can be applied to hold wealthy and high-performing schools accountable for actual teaching (or lack thereof). Ultimately, the quality of education that Delpit advocates for Black children is a high but necessary bar, one that all children need and deserve.
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    Book Notes

    Changing on the Job
    Jennifer Garvey Berger

    “Multiplication Is for White People”
    Lisa Delpit

    American Teacher
    Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn (Directors)