Perspectives in Education- Part 6: The Racial Achievement Gap

Race and Ethnicity- the Elephant in the Room

When discussing education reform, let alone any domestic issue, when that discussion turns to the issue of race and ethnicity, one enters the forum with trepidation. Anyone risks being branded a racist for pointing out actual statistical facts. If not attacking the messenger, they make excuses for the discrepancies. But, facts are facts and we can argue about the reasons until the cows come home. Political correctness has done more to stifle true research in this area. So at the risk of being branded a racist at some point, this series of articles would be incomplete without a discussion of the issue no matter where that discussion leads.

So, let me concede some things up front. I will concede that your average black student starts at a disadvantage and that perhaps this is because of a history of discrimination and poverty. I will also concede that Hispanics have also had to overcome poverty and language barriers and that they too start at a disadvantage. However, both groups have to concede that 50 years of financial favoritism has done little to bridge the gap between whites and non-whites in educational achievement. As I hope to prove, this is not something inherent in ones genes or the pigment of one’s skin, but the differences are more of a cultural nature. Again, starting from a belief in the inherent equality of humans despite one’s color, within the American system, the “cultural” difference has little to do with one’s blackness and much to do with the culture which the federal government has created for blacks- starting with Johnson’s Great Society- and which is being perpetuated today. It is a culture of entitlement by virtue of one’s skin color and increasingly by one’s native tongue.

This entry is a broad brush stroke attempt to look at the differences in educational performance before looking at the phenomena in deeper detail in the next entry. Before we get there we must overcome yet another obstacle- that of standards and testing. In yet another attempt to get their way, the more radical of the liberals, particularly black liberals, often assert that tests used to gauge academic achievement are biased against blacks. This is pure and utter nonsense and nothing more than a really bad excuse for an even worse performance. First, it fails to explain why a certain percentage of blacks perform perfectly satisfactory or above on the tests given. Secondly, when one looks at a test question, they are rather benign gauges of general knowledge. For example, to the best of my understanding in math, 2+2 will always equal 4 whether you are black, white, Hispanic or Chinese. A noun is a person, place, thing or idea for every ethnic group and identifying something called a “noun” on a test question should hold no ethnic significance. Yet to hear people like Cornell West speak, requiring someone to know that 2+2 is 4 or the definition of a noun is akin to racial genocide.

Regardless, for better or worse, English is and rightfully should be the official language of the United States. Language is the glue that holds a nation together. Other countries which are more ethnically homogeneous than the US have no problems with standardized tests. It is only in this country that you hear an outcry from the minority community about the alleged ethnic bias on standardized tests. To illustrate this phenomena, a 2010 study found some interesting results that need some explaining. Using a statistical technique called differential item functioning (DIF), the study examined the SAT questions in both math and the verbal sections of the test. The DIF looks at the differences in answers holding everything constant with respect to respondents except race. Not surprisingly, they found no DIFs in the math section because, quite frankly, math is rather cut and dry.

However, in the verbal section they found that the easier the question, when there was a significant difference between blacks and whites in the correct answer given, whites performed better than blacks. Yet, when the DIF existed on the harder questions, blacks actually performed better than whites. How, one can logically ask, is this an example of racial bias in testing? Their explanation is that the easier questions are things that are taken for granted and more or less absorbed by white students from the white culture in which they live. Meanwhile, the harder questions are things that need to be learned. In other words, whites have a built-in advantage with the “easy” questions. So when a black outperforms a white on a hard question on the SAT, this is now an example of racial bias in testing. Of course, if the white also outperformed the black on the hard questions, it would be racial bias to the second degree I guess. But what if blacks outperformed whites on the easy questions also? Would this be reverse racism or proof that blacks were better than whites; that is, black intellectual superiority?

All of this begs the larger question of assimilation. Contracts, newspaper articles and other important things are not written in the language of the street, the ghetto, or the black community in general, just as they are not written in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bengali, Farsi or any other minority language in the this country. If there is this alleged racial bias in the test question, what explains the performance of other minority groups on these easy questions? The difference is that, as a group, they are more amenable to assimilation and overcoming these biases, if they exist at all. Honestly: give the same questions which are allegedly racially biased and I guarantee the Vietnamese kid will give a more accurate answer than the black kid. Not wishing to indict an entire minority segment because the Cornell Wests of the world are in the (excuse the expression) minority, but foreign born students, including Hispanics, are more willing to adapt and assimilate into society as a whole.

With the idiocy of attacks on the tests themselves out of the way, it is time to look at that broad brush stroke picture of the ethnic differences and academic performance. Basically, I created three broad categories- black states, Hispanic states, and white states. For black and Hispanic states, those groups had to be at least 15% of the state’s population. New York and Florida fell into both the Hispanic and black state groupings. Regarding poverty, the Hispanic states actually had the highest household median income while the white states exceeded the black states by only 5% in household income. White states did academically outperform the black states in all metrics studied. However, the differences exceeded greater than a 7% difference in the percentage of students testing as basic or proficient at 4th and 8th grade in both reading and math scores. The same held true when white states were compared against Hispanic states except in the case of the percentage of students testing basic in 4th grade on the math test. The test in question is the NEAP or its state equivalent. In terms of graduation rates, white states perform better than both Hispanic and black states, but not considerably so. In fact, as a total of the population having a college degree, surprisingly the white states lag behind both the black and the Hispanic states.

Per pupil spending between white and black states is not that great either and although better than Hispanics, the white states do not considerably outspend their Hispanic state counterparts. The starting salary of a teacher in a white state is less than that of either a black or Hispanic state. And although white state average teacher salary is 3% higher than black states, it is 7% LOWER than the average teacher salary in Hispanic states. Where white states outperform black and Hispanic states by a fairly large degree is in the current graduation rates. Although black and Hispanic states may have a larger percentage of their overall population holding a high school degree or college degree, that is for people age 25-74. Therefore, given the lagging graduation rates in black and Hispanic states compared to white states, the lack of a high school degree is a rather recent phenomena among minorities in these states. Naturally, if they lack a high school degree, they will lack a college degree later on in life. In short, schools are putting out fewer minority high school graduates today than in the past. In short, one can conclude by extension that the overall national increase in high school graduation rates is being fueled by the white graduation rate.

Another interesting fact occurs regarding the cultural phenomena of educational African-American entitlement. Contrary to popular belief, blacks are not the only minority group in the United States. Just looking at a random sampling of 16 school districts in New Jersey, 15 had sizable Hispanic populations while only 11 had sizable black populations (8 had sizable Asian populations). These statistics show that in language arts and math, Asians outperform whites, blacks, and Hispanics with whites finishing second against all groups. Blacks consistently score the lowest compared to the other three groups. That then begs the question: If everything else is held constant (like SES, per pupil spending, teacher to student ratios, percentage Title I students, percentage ESL, etc.) why do Asians not have a problem learning, doing well on standardized tests, and assimilating despite having the additional burden of language barriers? In fact, Hispanics score better than blacks on these tests and they too experience language barriers. It has nothing to do with anything inherent in the test or any of the other things the apologists and excuse makers in the African-American community suggest. It has a lot to do with the culture from which the black student comes, a culture perpetuated by the federal government where the simple solution is to “take the easy way out” knowing the government will be there to backstop you.

If this is true, then perhaps the scores that we see as either stagnating or falling are attributable to declines among blacks and, now, Hispanics. That will be the subject of the next article- the more finely tuned detailed examination of the phenomena. The federal government entered the realm of K-12 education in 1965 with the passage of ESEA at the insistence of Lyndon Johnson. The law was passed to bridge the gap between white and black student achievement, although poverty was the deciding factor, not the color of one’s skin. At the beginning of this entry, I made a concession. It is is now time for the minority community to concede that 50 years of federal spending to bridge these gaps have, at best, made no difference and, at worst, have exacerbated the problem by creating an educational welfare state that instills a sense of entitlement. The teacher unions have willingly gone along with this increased spending which has doubled down on the failure of the Johnson/Carter paradigm approach to the problem: spend more money.

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