There's has been some interesting back and forth on Andrew Sullivan's blog recently about education and poor (primarily African American) communities. Some of his readers have come out strongly against the notion that teachers are to blame for under-performing students, claiming that the problem lies with families that don't care about school and rampant gang problems.
I'm not talking about single parent families, although that's an issue. (You've also got a lot of kids in group homes - that's worse than the single parent issue.) The real problem is that the “system” doesn't run the schools. Gangs do. I can't tell you the number of bright, upwardly mobile freshman who were determined to break the mold and get out of Compton but were waylaid by gangs. By junior year most of them are gone, afraid of being killed if they return to school, usually for some ridiculous breach of gang etiquette like looking the wrong way at a banger. I can see their faces now, lost in the miasma of the inner city. That's the real tragedy.
This is one of the reasons that when I think about how I would like to reform our education system, one of the things I would work on doing is breaking down the barriers between school and the rest of the community. Schools should be tightly integrated with the families of their students and the businesses in the area. Of course this isn't going to make gangs magically disappear, but I think it it's important for education to not stop at 3:00pm. This is also a great way to show students that learning is not limited to sitting in a classroom. Schools that are more integrated with the community at large can give students something to be a part of that isn't self-destructive like gangs and drugs are. It can help parents by giving their kids something to do while they are working.
This would require a major paradigm shift in how we think of education, but I think it is a necessary step (along with more individual curricula) in improving our schools and getting away from a model still based on medieval universities.
Of course, policies to deal with poverty would also help.