A Heart for Learning in Harlem

Lucas Morel

October 1, 2003

Leave it to a Florida newspaper columnist to publicize a story about Harlem that should have been treated to a week-long series by the New York Times. Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times reports on “cram schools” in Harlem—that’s close to New York, isn’t it?—that are changing the lives of students through old-fashioned notions of what it takes to get good grades and, more importantly, instill a love of learning in youth.

In “Black Families Open Up, Cram Education In” (Oct. 22), Maxwell reports that his cousin, despite being a single mom raising two boys in tough circumstances, is devoting hard-earned dollars to provide an education for her boys that is somehow not being provided by the tax-dollar-supported local school. Here’s an excerpt:

“One tangible payoff is the improvement of the boys’ grades. They went from earning C’s and the occasional B to making all A’s and B’s. The grades are important, but Shirley says she cares more about the boys’ new love of learning: ‘Up here in Harlem, they don’t have a lot of role models their own age. A lot of these kids don’t open a book after they get off the subway. My kids just don’t fit in because they love to study. That makes me feel bad.’

“‘The cram school is different. Those Korean kids study very hard. My boys are the only blacks in the school, but they fit in. I mean, it’s normal to work hard. Nobody says they’re acting white. When they see all these other kids studying, my kids don’t feel weird. The peer pressure is positive. Studying has become a habit—second nature.’”

“The boys’ new love of learning”? “Normal to work hard”? “Studying has become a habit”? Where’s the talk about more money, lower student-teacher ratios, and multicultural learning being the key to bridging “the digital divide”? Instead, her boys take the subway each afternoon to a storefront school, and with 45 other kids study math, English, and science for three hours. On Saturdays they go at it for four more hours. When relatives told her she was pushing her kids too hard, she told them to get lost.

While others have been blathering about finding new ways to teach America’s untouchables—the so-called unteachable kids of the inner city—more and more parents have decided not to wait for the next “solution” by the education “experts.” They are realizing that the most precious gift they can give their children is a proper education, and that this responsibility begins at home with their own decision to ensure that real learning actually take place.

This is not just an American success story in the making. Apparently the majority of children in India are now getting their education from private sources offering the same type of “cram schools” cropping up in Harlem and other American cities. In both cases, parents of little means and making huge sacrifices to get their children a quality (read: real) education.

Not only do these stories shed light on what it takes to teach children, it gives the lie to what is typically referred to as diversity: namely, one’s race or sex as opposed to one’s individuality. Instead of being made to feel their “otherness” due to race, black kids in New York’s Korean and Chinese cram schools are given the opportunity to fit in simply as students and to stand out by their own individual effort. This is what President Bush meant when he said he wanted “to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart.” When it came to education, Bush argued that “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was a losing proposition for the least in our education system.

With the recent publication of Bill and Carol Allen’s Habits of Mind: Fostering Access and Excellence in Higher Education and Stephan and Abigail Thernstroms’ No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, the so-called “racial” gap in American education (better referred to as an “achievement gap”) is beginning to receive a long overdue examination. Our obsession with preserving affirmative action in higher education has obscured the disaster that K-12 public schools have produced for the least among us. What Abraham Lincoln called “blab schools,” the only formal education he ever got, are making a comeback both here and abroad. Now that’s a story worth blabbing about.

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.