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Book Review

“Multiplication Is for White People.”

From the introduction: “…I am angry at the racism that, despite having a president who is half white and half black, still permeates America. In my earlier days, I wrote about the problem of cultural conflict—that one of the reasons that having teachers and children of different cultural groups led to difficulties in teaching and learning was a lack of understanding about the other group’s culture. I now have a slightly different perspective. I still believe that the problem is cultural, but it is larger than the children or their teachers. The problem is that the cultural framework of our country has, almost since its inception, dictated that ‘black’ is bad and less than and in all arenas ‘white’ is good and superior. This perspective is so ingrained and so normalized that we stumble through our days with eyes closed to avoid seeing it. We miss the pain in our children’s eyes when they have internalized the societal belief that they are dumb, unmotivated, and dispensable.”

Delpit’s Other People’s Children focused on cultural slippage in the classroom between white teachers and students of color. In this book, the MacArthur “genius” award winner reflects on two decades of reform efforts—including No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, the creation of alternative teacher certification paths, and the charter school movement—that have still left a generation of poor children of color feeling that higher educational achievement isn’t for them.

There is no culture of poverty, she asserts. Rather, she writes, by attributing poor performance to factors like the number of parents in the household, the educational background of the mother, and the level of poverty in the community, teachers are more likely to engage in deficit thinking and blame students for their shortcomings rather than change their lesson plans.

Delpit shows the damage we inflict when we assume that certain children are less than brilliant; we teach less, teach down to, and teach for remediation. As a result, she argues, African American students do not achieve at levels commensurate with their ability. Targeting some of the sacred cows of education, including Teach for America and the charter school system, Delpit makes an impassioned case for helping African American students overcome the stereotypes about themselves and their communities that permeate our culture.

In chapters covering primary, middle, and high school, as well as college, Delpit concludes that it is not difficult to explain the persistence of the achievement gap. Through classroom anecdotes garnered from time spent at dozens of schools across the country, she outlines a blueprint that she believes will raise expectations for other people’s children, based on the simple premise that multiplication, and every aspect of advanced education is for everyone.