Perspectives in Education- Part 7: More on Race
Reasons, Excuses and Victims
It is one thing to identify the achievement gap between blacks, whites and Hispanics and quite another to explain the reasons for that gap. There are no shortages of explanations and this article will address a few. The solution is the same theme that has been running through this series of articles and that solution is choice. In fact, there is one area where choice works to the greatest degree especially with black students, but it leads somewhere this country will never go except in rare cases. One alleged cause can best be defined as the concept of “institutional racism.” Under this theory, there are innate “racist” elements to American institutions like government, schools, and corporations. These things are so ingrained in the institution that unless you are an alleged victim of the racism, it is generally taken for granted, almost existing on an unconscious level. Naturally, the key word here is “victim” since this line of thinking inevitably involves some kind of victimization with the “victim” having no say in the matter. Being a true victim, they as individuals are then not responsible for the negative effects such as low academic achievement. In other words, it is a blame game that liberals fall for hook, line and sinker.
Howard University professor A.W. Boykin is probably the biggest proponent of this theory in the field of education. He and his ilk decry everything about the public school system from the use of standardized tests to curriculum to methods of grading to what books are read to children in kindergarten. Specifically, he argues that everything is geared towards white, middle class values and norms (as if that was a bad thing). Inevitably, it comes down to the argument that white America can never understand the mentality of the black person since the latter, after all, had to endure centuries of slavery and its aftermath. Black children today in the United States do not suffer the indignities suffered under Jim Crow or slavery. In 2008 during the presidential campaign in South Carolina, candidate Barack Obama was asked if he supported reparations for slavery. His answer about reparations, such that he believes in them, is that they should come in the form of increased educational spending to overcome the achievement gaps. At this point, billions of dollars later with no effect, I believe this promise and vision has been more than satisfied.
Ironically, this line of thinking takes us into a controversial area- namely, segregation. As many actual educators have noted, black graduation rates were considerably higher in the past than they are now. As early as 1959, academic studies noted that black students performed much better in all-black schools. Five years previous, the Supreme Court in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education opinion cited a number of studies (some from Sweden) noting the social advantages of integrated schools; mainly, eliminating feelings of inferiority. In effect, the Supreme Court in this case relied heavily upon sociological studies to play the role of Supreme Psychologist. There is no mention of an academic achievement gap in that decision. The primary function of a school is to turn out a socially functional, informed citizen and provide the tools for later success in life. And there is a very good reason why all-black schools turned out an academically superior students compared to today which will be discussed later. Suffice to say, that reason is even more important today than it was in 1959.
One need look at the some of the evidence for this. The Dunbar School is an all-black school in Washington DC that annually outperformed the best private, all-white schools in the area in academics. Urban Prep Academies in Chicago is another all-black school whose graduation rate is 100%. Even more important, all of their 167 senior graduates have gone on to four year colleges amassing over $6 million in academic scholarships along the way. Toronto looked at Urban Prep as a model and has proposed all-black schools on an experimental basis to help bridge the achievement gaps in that country (they are not unique to the United States). Meanwhile, in Leon County in Florida, which includes Tallahassee, it is the black community that is arguing for the establishment of an all-black charter school in the county. There are other success stories from places as disparate as Harlem to California. Most of these schools are private schools which are not under the strict mandates of integration from the federal government.
Because they are private schools and because teacher unions are against these entities, the teacher unions have come out against these programs. In an unholy alliance with the civil rights community, they have held steadfast to the belief that only an integrated public school system is THE only solution. They are ignorant of the reality surrounding them. Their argument is that charter schools, for example, are a backdoor method of re-segregating schools. Actually, it is an example of self-segregation that seems to work. Furthermore, chances are that one will not find a charter school in an affluent area because there is no need for one. Most charter schools are located and cater to urban areas or areas with higher than normal levels of poverty. That is by design. You don’t build a dry dock in the wheat fields of Kansas; charter schools are sited where they are most needed- in lieu of failing public schools. And unless we again resort to a system of forced busing of students- getting students from failing urban schools into better performing non-urban schools- or forced migration, it is de facto self-segregation. So why not go with the system of self-segregation that actually seems to work?
Staying with the Boykin line of thinking, they argue that since blacks are the victims of institutional racism, they come to mistrust all things white. Because they are operating in this white-centered culture based on white, European western thought, they basically sabotage themselves and become low performers which only creates a vicious cycle the academic world sees manifested as an achievement gap. Eventually, this leads to a resistance against white middle class norms, the most important of which may be the premium placed on educational outcomes. This is only reinforced by the high unemployment rates among blacks 18-24 which, again the racial theorists contend, is the product of institutional racism. By now, it should become clear that the entire theory is a circular logic with no end save for an elaborate excuse system where either way, the excuse becomes the solution.
The black student has two choices when confronted with this white middle class-dominated educational system. They can resist or they can conform. Often, Boykin argues, they resist and we see the results in low academic achievement. Those that do conform often over-conform and become the exceptions to the rule- the people often mentioned as “well Barack Obama overcame this to become president.” Of course, we can substitute any name and any occupation in that sentence for well-known blacks who overcame alleged racism and adversity. In this line of thinking, high performing blacks are not “truly black.” That is, they have conformed and to these liberals, conformity is something to be frowned upon. As mentioned earlier, blacks also fail to see the connection between education- especially getting a high school degree- and their future success in life. Again, the Boykins of the world will argue this is because the opportunities usually afforded whites are not extended to blacks whether or not they have a high school degree. There may be any number of reasons for the high black unemployment rate, most of which have nothing to do with skin pigment. Maybe they are not looking in the right place for employment or maybe they don’t want to look in the right places. Maybe they find that the African Studies degree from college does not translate into a job.
There is a more likely explanation for the achievement gap and one where you will usually find the civil rights community silent when they are not placing blame elsewhere. Across any number of studies regarding education, there is one determinant and dominant factor which enhances success and that is parental involvement. Considering that 63% of the nation’s black students hail from a single-parent family, this is perhaps the primary reason for the achievement gap. Short of forced marriage, there is absolutely nothing any educational system can do about that. The “more money” paradigm as a solution to the problems with schools is that they attempt to make schools the forced de facto second parent to the child. One of the reasons schools like Dunbar or Urban Prep Academy is so successful is the fact that a parent or parents obviously were involved in their child’s education. It is also why private schools generally do better academically than public schools. The parents, because of tuition and by merely acting on a choice, have a vested interest in the educational outcome and are more involved. It is recognized that being a single parent often has competing concerns when it comes to education. It is not that ALL single black parents do not value education; it means, however, that it competes with other factors like work, rent, transportation and other things including denial of the opportunity for choice in schools in the first place. In my personal experience, although there are few blacks at the school where I teach, there is a discernible difference in the work ethics between blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians with, quite frankly, Asians at the top. Perhaps this is the reason why Asians generally outperform whites in most cases and blacks in all cases. Perhaps, it is because Asians have not taken the easy way out through entitlements and a “You owe me” attitude. Chances are if you survey the black students in a failing school, education will not be their highest priority and they will probably know more about the nightly line up on BET than what they were supposed to do for homework.
Of course, areas high in poverty levels usually, but not always, have high minority populations. There will be the ancillary problems of drug abuse and street crime. There is no denying that bad neighborhoods beget bad schools and a bad learning environment. In the district where I teach, one school is near public housing and the associated crime and drug abuse. Lock down drills are a regular function at that school and with good reason. But, it is not the role of the educational establishment to rush in and clean up these neighborhoods. That is a larger societal problem that needs other answers. However, an involved parent, despite their environment, should be given the opportunity to CHOOSE their child’s educational outcome. For example, within my district there was a student- YT- a young black girl whose mother felt she was being short-changed in her predominantly black elementary school. She transferred into my school (which is primarily Hispanic) because there was available space. Every morning her grandmother dropped her off and picked her up. YT came to the new school full of urban attitude. YT left the school headed to high school (a private Catholic one, I might add) with honors having the third highest GPA in the eighth grade. All of this was accomplished because the district allowed transfers out of neighborhood schools because Chris Christie made cross-district and intra-district transfers easier. This met the concept of choice a quarter of the way. Imagine if it went all the way.
Before finishing, it needs to be mentioned that another reason for the success of previously segregated schools and today’s self-segregated schools is the presence of a high number of black teachers teaching black children. There is a reason they respond more to a black teacher and it was the same reason in the Stanford study in 1959- the teacher becomes a parental figure. With the increase in the number of black students coming from single parent households today, it makes perfect intuitive sense that an all black faculty at an all black student school fills that parental role more so today than it did in 1959. If that is the choice and if that choice works, what is so wrong with that choice?
Nothing in this article should be construed as wishing to return us to the days before Brown v. Board of Education and re-segregating schools. However, self-segregation as one of a possible series of choices should not be dismissed out of hand amid charges of racism. If it works, as the evidence seems to suggest, then it should be studied and looked into not as psychologists or sociologists, but as educators dedicated to doing whatever it takes to honestly bridge that achievement gap in academics. My guess is that if any state took out the lowest scoring districts in their state which would mean taking out a large number of black, or in some instances Hispanic, students, a state’s overall academic performance would statistically improve. But I also argue that that state would be the lesser for it. The best solution and possibly lowest cost solution would be to provide those students and their parents with a true choice in schooling and at least give that child a fighting chance. The real institutional racism is that practiced by teacher unions and the civil rights community who are denying the very people they seek to protect the choices that affluent, white parents take for granted by virtue of their zip code.