Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Further Symptoms of the Failure of the Public School System

Via Niraj, I discovered this interesting piece in the New York Times, about the emerging trend - African immigrants to the United States are sending their children back home to complete their secondary educations. Not only are private schools in African countries an order of magnitude cheaper than their American counterparts, but the quality of the education they offer is far superior to what can be had in the typical inner-city public school - a fact that may come as a surprise to the "we need more money" school of liberal thought, but which is hardly astonishing to me; after all, I am in part a product of African schools myself, and I don't think I've turned out too badly for being so.

September 4, 2003
For Schooling, a Reverse Emigration to Africa

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 — Najima and Nayaba Bawa were despondent when their parents first raised the subject of sending them home to Ghana. It was three years ago, one evening as their mother was braiding Nayaba's hair. Najima, then in junior high, had lost focus in school. Hanging out with friends had become more important than studying. She had even brought home a few C's on her report card.

They had reached a decision, the girls' parents calmly informed them. They were sending them to the Akosombo International School, a boarding school in the eastern Ghananian town of Akosombo, northeast of the capital, Accra.

"We tried everything to get out of it," said Najima, 16, now preparing, along with her sister, to begin her third year there.

Nayaba, 14, who like her sister grew up in Washington, said, "We wondered what we had done to be sent away."

When they arrived at the Ghananian school and met the children of other Africans from the United States, they realized that their parents' decision was not uncommon. The Bawas, and other African families like them, have opted for a temporary reverse emigration for their children. In part it is an effort to help them maintain links to their African heritage. But it is also, many say, a conscious, protective response to adolescence in the United States.

American teenagers have more opportunity to get into trouble than those in Africa, where high levels of independence and materialism are less common, these families say. And the negative consequences of slipping through the cracks in the United States, they say they have observed, often disproportionately affect black children.

For their children to realize the American dream, many immigrant parents have decided, it may be best for them to leave the United States for a few years.

"During those tender years when so many African-American children are lost, it is seen as a beneficial absence," said Sulayman S. Nyang, a professor of African studies at Howard University. "Parents worry that the negative values of self-denigration that some children fall into here will hamper the quest for social mobility that is part of the immigrant experience."

According to the latest census, the African-born population in the United States totals nearly one million. There are no figures on the numbers of African families who choose to school their children in their home countries, but Professor Nyang and other academics and families interviewed said the cultural timeouts had been practiced since the African population in the United States began to swell in the late 1970's and 1980's.

Though schooling back in Africa is impossible for refugees from the most unstable parts of the continent, it is a popular option for immigrants from African countries with relatively stable political and economic systems like Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya and South Africa.

Though some schools in Africa do not take girls, others, like Akosombo International, are co-ed, and require the girls to take rigorous academic programs with more language and science courses than are required in many schools in the United States. Some schools, which cater to families who want their children to attend college in the United States or England, offer international baccalaureate programs. About 20 percent of students enrolled in Akosombo International are from Ghanaian families living outside Ghana.

Some families bring their children back to the United States in 12th grade, so they can take their SAT examinations and make sure they have all the necessary credits to apply to American colleges.

"We want to teach them that they can pick and choose from different parts of the American experience, like a buffet," said Mahama Bawa, the girls' father, who came to Washington from Ghana in 1983, and who owns an African clothing store in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood infused with African and Hispanic culture. "But to do that they need to be able to step back from it, to develop a broader perspective."

The Bawa sisters, who say they cannot wait to return to school in mid-September, say boarding school in Ghana is not devoid of normal teenage pressures. Though students wear uniforms, they still assess one another's coolness — or lack thereof — based on things like sneakers and backpacks.

But the girls said that the strict discipline imposed at their school — dormitory and classroom inspections, mandatory 4 a.m. jogs on Saturdays, rigidly enforced study and play times — relieved them of some of the pressure of having too many choices.

"Here a lot of people are just focused on what party to go to," said Nayaba, who will soon have to cut off the fashionable braided hair extensions she got this summer and return to the close-cropped natural look, required of all the girls in her school. "In boarding school the goal is just learning, not to be average but to be at the top of the class. You feel out of place if you're not trying; that's sometimes not the case here."

For many families, the relative affordability of boarding schools abroad is also a plus. One of the better private schools in Ghana, Akosombo International is far too expensive for the average Ghanaian. But tuition and board for a three-term school year totals about $750 for each child.

The Bawas, who are Muslim, said they would probably have enrolled their daughters in a Roman Catholic school had they stayed here, but even the least expensive private schools in the Washington area would have cost around $5,000 for each child.

When one considers that the District of Columbia currently spends more than $10,000 per child to deliver the atrocious public schooling on offer, it seems all the more malicious and insane that so many liberals keep insisting that vouchers will do nothing to improve the quality of education. Could there be a more damning indictment of the failure of the public school system than that parents are sending their children back to an Africa they must have struggled mightily to leave behind?