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'Multiplication is for White People': An Interview with Education Professor Lisa Delpit

In her new book, Delpit highlights 10 factors that foster excellence in urban schools, while exploring the connections between racism and special needs placement.

In the introduction to her new book, "Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People's Children, Lisa Delpit describes her response when Diane Ravitch asked her why she hasn't spoken out against the devastation of public schools in her home state of Louisiana and the efforts to make New Orleans the national model. She explained to Ravitch that she has been concentrating her efforts where she feels she can make a difference: working with teachers and children in an African American school. She says her "sense of futility in the battle for rational education policy for African American children had gone on for so long . . . that I needed to give my 'anger muscles' a rest."

But that interchange made her realize that she is still angry, and that anger fuels and defines Multiplication Is for White People. "I am angry," she begins, "that public schools, once a beacon of democracy, have been overrun by the antidemocratic forces of extreme wealth." As she continues to enumerate the sources of her anger, the introduction comprises a focused and comprehensive indictment of the neoliberal attack on public education.

Two themes drive "Multiplication Is for White People" : Delpit infuses the interplay between her role as a scholar/activist and as the mother of a child with a unique learning style. And she organizes her text around 10 factors she believes "foster excellence in urban classrooms."

Because children who don't fit the white middle-class norms, especially those with real and/or perceived learning differences, are among the most marginalized by the scourges of corporate education reform, I chose to start my interview with Delpit there.

Jody Sokolower for Rethinking Schools: You say in your new book that middle-class children come to school with different—although not more important—skills from children from low-income families. What do you mean? And is this a class difference or a cultural difference?

Lisa Delpit: It is difficult to disaggregate class and culture. Children who have to take on more responsibility in real life will know and be able to do those types of things earlier. The specific responsibilities they take on are cultural—that would be different for Alaskan children as opposed to African American children or Appalachian children. We in middle-class families tend to keep our children young longer, to infantilize them.

This difference has great significance when we think about schools. If we are going to ensure that all children learn to read, I believe we have to turn our notion of "basic skills" on its head. What we call basic literacy skills are typically the linguistic conventions of middle-class society—for example, punctuation, grammar, specialized subject vocabulary, and five-paragraph essays. All children need to know these things. Some learn them from being read to at home. What we call basic skills are only "basic" because they are one aspect of the cultural capital of the middle class.

What we call advanced or higher-order skills—analyzing new information, evaluating the relative merits of concepts and other problem-solving skills—are those that middle-class children learn later in life. But many children from low-income families learn them much earlier because their parents place a high value on independence and real-life problem-solving skills.

So children come to us having learned different things in their four-to-five years at home, prior to formal schooling. For those who come to us knowing how to count to 100 and to read, we need to teach them problem-solving and how to tie their shoes. And for those who already know how to clean up spilled paint, tie their shoes, prepare meals, and comfort a crying sibling, we need to make sure that we teach them the school knowledge that they haven't learned at home.