Race Matters

Some years ago I served on the board of an international school that had students and teachers from all over the world. Some of our very best students were black -- especially those with African or Caribbean backgrounds. At the time there was a private scholarship fund in place for black college students heading off to college and our graduates regularly won them in proportions remarkable for the small size of our very rigorous school. One year at the banquet to honor the winners, there was a spare place at our school’s table and I was asked to attend to show the Board’s support for our students, an offer I gladly accepted.

I was seated next to a mother who was a recent immigrant from Ethiopia whose son had won a scholarship to MIT. (In case you don’t know it, Tiger Mom has nothing on Ethiopian and Nigerian Mom when it comes to pressuring her kid to do well in school.) Her son was a budding engineer with great grades, and a hard worker to boot. The banquet hall was large and the attendants largely black. My companion leaned over and whispered to me, “Are all these children from [our school]?” I said they weren’t. They represented schools throughout the area. “You mean,” she responded, clearly indignant, “these awards are only for black children?” Quite obviously she had gleaned that there was something demeaning now about these awards, which, by the way, have since ceased. She was visibly angered.

“MIT invited my son to a summer session before school starts,” she added as the evening wore on. “Is that just for minority students, too? Does he need to go to it?” I said the school -- which I think has now been forced to drop that program -- meant well, that many of these newly admitted students were coming to college from less demanding schools than ours, that MIT obviously felt they’d be more likely to succeed if they had some further preparation before school started. I added that it certainly wasn’t necessary for her son to attend because his high grades in such a school as ours proved he was ready for MIT, but if he did he’d probably be more familiar with the area and the routine before the opening of the academic year and that certainly might be an advantage. The choice, I noted, was an optional one, completely at their discretion.

I’ve had plenty of opportunity since to notice the general educational and attitudinal disparities between so many African and Caribbean blacks and native American blacks respecting school and academic achievement and family ties. Every single one of the many African-born cab drivers whom I’ve ridden with has offered up that he sends his children to private or parochial schools, no matter the squeeze on the family’s pocketbook, that he would not send his children to the neighborhood public schools.

And I wonder if I alone see the incongruity of those on the left who attack authors like Nicholas Wade (author of A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History) and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (The Bell Curve), who suggest ethnic and racial differences in academic performance and cognitive ability, and at the same time (while demanding equal outcomes in education) do everything possible to dumb down academic programs and measures in order to minimize any performance outcome differences  attributable to  students’ family and community environments, preparation, ability, or effort. Are they just hiding the ball a little longer? In what world do fatherless children living in dysfunctional homes and crime-ridden communities where there is no respect for hard academic work regularly succeed in school? 

Whether or not you agree with the program, No Child Left Behind was crafted under the apparent assumption that different groups in the U.S. do not have different traits which impact on learning, and all students can and should be able to achieve at the same rate if only the school will do its job. This seemed to me, at the time, a far more reasonable solution than the first affirmative action approach decades ago which merely credentialed people who seem not to have merited their degrees, like Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (B.A. Yale, J.D. U Va.) or President Obama, who has admitted his grades never warranted his admission to Harvard Law School, and Michelle Obama (who says she got into Princeton because of her basketball-playing brother), whose senior thesis is pathetic, and whose admission to Harvard Law School, like her husband’s, was surely the result of affirmative action. 

So it was shocking to read this week in the Chicago Tribune that: 

Under a dramatic new approach to rating public schools, Illinois students of different backgrounds no longer will be held to the same standards -- with Latinos and blacks, low-income children and other groups having lower targets than whites for passing state exams, the Tribune has found. In reading, for example, 85 percent of white third- through eighth-grade students statewide will be expected to pass state tests by 2019, compared with about 73 percent for Latinos and 70 percent for black students, an analysis of state and federal records shows.

The concept is part of a fundamental and, according to critics, troubling shift in how public schools and students will be judged after the federal government recently allowed Illinois to abandon unpopular requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.A key NCLB measure long considered unreachable -- that 100 percent of students must pass state exams -- will be eliminated. But the complex new approach of different standards for different groups is troubling to civil rights activists, who are not convinced that school districts will be held accountable for failing to educate minority students, and to some local educators, who say the lowered expectations will send a negative message to students.

Is the NCLB standard wrong? Should we no longer try to improve the education of the lowest-performing students? Are the schools being given an impossible task? Did the program place too great a burden on schools and not enough on the pupils’ families and community? Should we just hand out high school diplomas based on substantially disparate achievement? Is this better than the system elsewhere, where students are tracked into programs more appropriate for their interest and abilities and get no diploma unless they’ve met the standards for their program of study?

The author of the article says that because of different standards it will be harder for parents to evaluate the teaching at different schools, which under NCLB allowed them to transfer Indeed, the new program eliminates the transfer option. But, in support of those who argue the parents’ unconcern is a big part of the achievement gap, the article reveals, “Federal officials say that, for a variety of reasons, few students have switched schools during the NCLB years.” Illinois’ responses seem to be if parents don’t care enough to find out if their children are attending failing schools and move them, why are we bothering? If the children come to us with different abilities and levels of interest why do you expect the state to minimize the results? The state has set up different achievement goals for “each of the 4,000 schools as well as groups of students within those schools, plus a dizzying array of data points in several categories.”

I predict that no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, the “large gaps in performance between black and white students, as well as between low-income and more affluent students” observed at even one of the better schools in Illinois (Naperville’s Scott Elementary School)” will remain under the Illinois plan. At a minimum, it will make urban schools more segregated than ever, increase racial and ethnic tensions, and ensure that so many black and Hispanic students in public schools are no better prepared for college-level work than they now are. It will make the job of minority parents who do care even harder for how to motivate your children when the state says they just aren’t as good as others and don’t have to even try?

Alex Bensky, an online friend from Detroit who sometimes taught in such schools, has an equally harsh assessment:

“So much for multiculturalism. If black kids come from homes where basic patterns of conduct will lead to success are not instilled, all the more reason to instill these at school, But what these people are doing is embracing the basic cultural traits that lead to disaster, personal and social.”

It seems to me that we have to decide if we are going to continue to give credence to spurious claims that disparate outcomes are proof of discrimination .I think we shouldn't. Instead, we need to be realistic and set goals that schools can reach without sleight of hand even if that means acknowledging that there must be be different programs added to college preparatory work for all students, with the proviso that each student must meet the same standards in that program to be credentialed. Diplomas need to mean something.

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