Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Problem of Minority Education

Ziba, I need your input here! Speak up!
by Charlie Leck

In the last several days, in an attempt to write something really significant about educating minorities in America, I have read hundreds and hundreds of pages of opinion and hundreds of reports and statistics about current results. My mind is in a blur and I wonder if there is a way out of this overwhelming and complex problem.

Today I want to recognize one of the responses to my blog of 22 June 2008, Whatsoever a man soweth… It's written by a fellow who calls himself Ziba. I can't learn anything more about him, though I would certainly like to know and understand a great deal more because I think he has something solid to offer me (us). After reading my blog about injustice in Mississippi, he advises me to get "the stick" out of my own eye before trying to remove the "speck" from my neighbor's eye. Touché et voila!

"Minnesota's racial achievement gap is wide and persistent. By junior high nearly half of the state's minority students are testing well below their white counterparts in reading, writing, and math. Poverty, experts say, is one of the most reliable indicators of who will fall into the achievement gap, and minorities are disproportionately represented among the state's poor. They and society pay a high cost for their not doing well in school.

"Seems a case of getting the stick out of your own eye first."

Ziba, if you're out there – alert and willing – I'm prepared for some dialog on this subject because your comments about the education of minority students in Minnesota are absolutely correct. The problem is that the same statistics, or worse, can be ticked off about virtually any state in the nation. The fact that the problem is so universal in America and so persistent seems to indicate something very clearly; we have a problem here and there seems no readily apparent solution.

Whether Ziba knows it or not, Minnesota is the kind of state where a strategy to solve this problem could be and would be applied if we could come up with such a concept. I'm not just blowin' crap here! I mean it! If there is an idea out there that would work, Minnesota would apply it. Believe me, it's been trying. It has thrown enormous money at the problem. As
Education Trust points out, Minnesota is one of the states that have been willing to spend a disproportionately greater amount of money on minority education and in minority schools. As we'll begin to see below, money might not, amazingly, be the solution.

Ziba is absolutely correct in what he says in commenting on my blog. Here's an embarrassing statement by Tim Pugmire that comes from a
2004 report on "the achievement gap" by Minnesota Public Radio.

"Minnesota students are traditionally among the nation's top performers on key standardized tests. Unfortunately, the statewide averages mask an embarrassing reality. Students of color consistently score far below their white classmates. This disparity in academic performance between groups of students is known as the achievement gap. It's a national problem. But Minnesota's gap is particularly wide."

Unfortunately, things haven't improved since 2004, but it hasn't been for a lack of trying. Educators and academics in the field of education are at a loss for explaining what can be done. In that broadcast report, Brandt Williams says:

"Low performance by African American students is not new. There have always been educational barriers for African Americans. You need only look back at generations of school segregation and racial discrimination. But others say some of the barriers are often imposed by the students themselves." (09/27/2004)

Here's something that needs to be kept in mind as we have this conversation. Methods of testing student success varies greatly between states. We don't have a common tool that is used to test kids in Mississippi and in Minnesota. As a NY Times story, by Tamar Lewin, pointed out last year,…

"Academic standards vary so drastically from state to state that a fourth grader judged proficient in reading in Mississippi or Tennessee would fall far short of that mark in Massachusetts and South Carolina, the United States Department of Education said yesterday in a report that, for the first time, measured the extent of the differences."

"No Child Left Behind" appears to be the result of this gaping need. It's clear that this is a shaky approach to improving our schools and I can't find a solid educator who likes it.

One thing I don't want to do is establish some sort of competitive bias in this blog. It doesn't do any good to say that Michigan's kids who are grading out poorly in reading are still doing far better than Tennessee's kids who are grading out quite well.

What we need to recognize is that our attempts to educate low income minorities is failing and failing miserably from Minnesota to Mississippi and beyond.

We simply haven't figured out how to overcome the problems and get the job done. I'm not blaming anyone, because I wouldn't have the slightest idea who to blame.

Ziba did me an extraordinary favor. His comment on my blog sent me scurrying to read all I could get my hands on about educating minorities – both the successes and the failures. Some of the things I learned shocked me. Minnesota, for instance, has the highest high school graduation rate in the nation; yet, even so, it has one of the poorest graduation rates in America for African-American children. The state's success for Hispanic children is only slightly better. Mississippi has nearly an equal rate of graduation for both its white and black children; however, both rates are miserably low. New York has the lowest high school graduation rate in America for black children.

Like Minnesota, I think Mississippi is willing to try any idea that shows the possibility of working! So is New York!

While in Mississippi last week, I was privileged to be close enough to a couple of incredible conversations about this subject. My daughter, who teaches 8th grade in a school in Harlem, was in on both of these exasperating discussions. I call them exasperating because they presented only the tiny, experimental seeds of a solution. They've not been planted and tested. Who knows if they'll work.

One black gentlemen, who has taught at both the collegiate and high school level, had some interesting things to say about why it may be so difficult to educate black children. I'm not going to use his name here since I've not gotten his approval.

"Do you really want me to tell you why I think it is so difficult to educate black kids?" His voice sounded challenging when he asked me. I could hear Jack Nicolson screaming, "You don't want the truth!"

In hind-sight, he told me, the desegregation of the schools may not have been a good thing. The cultures, he explained, are very different and it makes it extremely difficult for black kids to succeed. He explained that black kids have their own language and manner of communicating. The food is different. Their clothing is different. Their manner of relating to each other is different. They are being asked to make too many adjustments in behavior in order to succeed in school.

Sound crazy?

It didn't to me. I was remembering something I had read years ago about a high school in Washington, D.C. that had been extremely successful at educating black kids – that is, until the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown versus Board of Education that established the constitutional requirement for segregated schools. Dunbar School was essentially finished as a successful educational institution when this Supreme Court decision was handed down. With integration, 85 years of stunning success came to an end. It took me awhile to find the information about Dunbar that stirred around in the back of my head. In the search process, I discovered Thomas Sowell. He's worth knowing about. He's black and he's a conservative – by which I mean a real, thinking man's conservative and not one of those silly politicians who dance around way over on the right. He's a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.
Check out his web page!

Thomas Sowell, in an essay called
The Education of Minority Children, sounds an awful lot like the school teacher I met in Meridian, Mississippi:

"The key fallacy underlying the civil rights vision was that all black economic lags were due to racial discrimination… No amount of factual evidence can make a dent in that assumption…. Racial mixing and matching has been the great quack remedy for the educational lags of black school children that has substituted for high standards and harder work."

Is it possible that black kids in Mississippi could really do better in the classroom if they were not forced to adapt to, what for them is, an artificial set of cultural and social standards – and even language – in order to attend school?

A dozen times in my reading, I came across phrases such as, "…the fear of acting white" and "…ain't gonna be white for nobody!" These words make the topic of integrated schools an interesting one to consider. Is it always the non-white kid who is asked to fit in? Is it the non-white kid who is asked to alter his language and his cultural perspective? We're tempted to think that this may be true among the lowest income classes of black children, but not among the true middle classes. Sowell has something interesting to say to that.

"Back in 1899, in Washington, D.C., there were four academic public high schools – one black and three white. In standardized tests given that year, students in the black high school averaged higher test scores than student in two of the three white high schools.

"This was not a fluke. It so happens that I have followed 85 years of the history of this black high school – from 1870 to 1955 – and found it repeatedly equaling or exceeding national norms on standardized tests. In the 1890s, it was called The M Street School and after 1916 it was renamed Dunbar High School but its academic performances on standardized tests remained good on into the mid-1950s.

"When I first published this information in 1974, those few educators who responded at all dismissed the relevance of these findings by saying that these were "middle class" children and therefore their experience was not "relevant" to the education of low-income minority children. Those who said this had no factual data on the incomes or occupations of the parents of these children – and I did.

One of the problems with quoting Sowell is that it is difficult not to take things out of context. His mind is rapid fire and every paragraph and thought builds to the next one with spectacular logic. He builds cases block by block. For instance, from the quotation above he goes on to document that the children of Dunbar H.S. were not middle class. They came from working class families. Sowell documents the extraordinary success of the children who graduated from Dunbar, Most of its 12,000 graduates went on to higher education – including Harvard, Yale, the Naval Academy, West Point, most all of the Ivy League schools, Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan. Many went on to become Phi Beta Kappas and many went on for advance degrees.

If you are interested in this subject, which we'll just be able to skim in this blog, be sure to read the entirety of Sowell's column, referenced above. But, in the meantime, here's what Sowell was building to: "…it may be useful to consider how this 85-year history of unusual success was abruptly turned into typical failure, almost overnight, by the politics of education."

Brown versus Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court in 1954. As with most all black schools in America, Dunbar became "a neighborhood school." It changed dramatically and so did its heart.

Sowell admits to thinking with some hind-sight. Everyone seemed to think the decision was what was called for. "Integration was the battle cry of the hour," said Doctor Margaret Just Butcher, a distinguished black educator of the time.

Lack of funds, lack of proper facilities, class size, proper nutrition are NOT the problems that cause a failure in the education of black children. Dunbar had all those problems. Public School 91, in Brooklyn, was another school that Sowell looked at. It had all the problems listed at the beginning of this paragraph; yet, it was a school showing great success with black kids and it ran a year or more ahead of grade level studies with virtually every student.

Sowell's point is that a "middle-class background" is not necessary for academic success.

What then is the secret?

"The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret. Work seems to be the only four-letter word that cannot be used in public today."

Along with other civil rights issues of the 60s came an attempt to revolutionize the education of black children. The concepts of the movement were brought into many of the black schools. Sowell does not see any situations where such approaches improved minority education at all and there appear to be many situations where the process was damaged. "There is not time to do both well," said one successful educator of black children in New Orleans.

Sowell came out of the Harlem schools in the 1940s. These schools, and many other similar schools around the nation, "did far better in the past – both absolutely and relative to their white contemporaries – than is the case today."

"The test scores in ordinary Harlem schools in the 1940s were quite comparable to the test scores in white working-class neighborhoods on New York's lower east side.

"Sometimes the Harlem schools scored a little higher and sometimes the lower east side schools scored a little higher but there were no such glaring racial disparities as we have become used to in urban schools in recent years. In April, 1941, for example, some lower east side schools scored slightly higher on tests of word meaning and paragraph meaning than some schools in Harlem but, in test given in December of that same year, several Harlem schools scored higher than the lower east side schools. Neither set of schools scored as high as the city-wide average, though neither was hopelessly below it.

"While the lower east side of New York is justly known for the many people who were born in poverty there and rose to middle-class levels-- and some to national prominence-- very little attention is paid to a very similar history in Harlem."

One must understand that Sowell doesn't make such statements just off the cuff. In his essay, all such comments are carefully documented and supported by actual test scores.

A few years ago, I was chatting with a golfing companion of mine about the problems of education in some of the low-income regions of our community. I contended they needed more money and better equipment to get the job done. He became visibly angry and he went after me verbally for being such an idiot. He contended that the lack of money is not the problem. If there is a problem, he told me, it is that people think money can solve the problem.

We were not in the best place to carry on that conversation. I told him I'd like to hear his ideas another time. Unfortunately, due to my own bad memory, we never did get together. Now, as I write this, I remember his passion and his words. Was he following the same line of thinking as Thomas Sowell?

I've been indoctrinated by organizations like
The Education Trust (ET). Better funding of problem schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods is that organization's constant theme. Am I missing something here? We'll look at ET in another blog and compare it to what Sowell and my golfing friend are saying. For now, however, let me just point out that ET sites Minnesota as one of those states that does spend more money on schools serving concentrations of poor children; yet, as statistics I pointed to earlier in this blog show, Minnesota's results are rated among the biggest failures in the country.

If lack of hard work is the problem, how to we reinstitute that value in our schools – in our students and in our teachers? That's a question I don't feel capable of addressing here, but it is a question that must be addressed – and soon!

Of course, that Mississippi conversation got around to the question of cooperative, understanding and participatory parents. Whether white, black or turquoise, cooperative and understanding parents are a teacher's greatest asset. Yet, this is a factor that is generally outside the control of both the teacher and the school system.

Sowell does not get excited by this concept. Parents, he feels, can sometimes be helpful and they can frequently be distractions and harmful.

The conversation also touched on the quality of teachers. It's clear that low-income neighborhood schools get very few applications for open teaching positions. Fancy, wealthy suburban schools get dozens of applications for each open position. My daughter pointed out that, in her Harlem school, there is "a whole group of new teachers who need to get use to each other every autumn."

Again, Sowell's sentiment appears to be: "So what?" If a particular school begins to shine as an unusual beacon of success, the teachers will come. However, the success of failure is also somewhat evident and Sowell explains it:

"Put bluntly, failure attracts more money than success. Politically, failure becomes a reason to demand more money, smaller classes, and more trendy courses and programs, ranging from 'black English' to bilingualism and 'self-esteem.' Politicians who want to look compassionate and concerned know that voting money for such projects accomplishes that purpose for them and voting against such programs risks charges of mean-spiritedness, if not implications of racism."

Sowell contends that there is no lack of examples of "schools that produce academic success for minority students."

"Tragically, there is a lack of interest by the public school establishment in such examples. Again, I think this goes back to the politics of education."

I think I've thrown my lot in with Sowell here. The next step would be to look at specific examples of those schools that have been successful in educating minority students. The numbers may be slim, but we need to take a look in order to understand what is working and how much "hard work" is a factor in that success.

Look for Part II of this essay in the next week, after I've done more research. In the meantime, I've given you something to chew on! And, I've introduced you to the extraordinary mind of Thomas Sowell.


  1. This is definitely a brain teaser. I am at my lunch break and I have been continuing to throw ideas around in my mind for the last hour after reading this. I think that the understanding of a difference in cultures between minority Americans and majority Americans is important in formulating a solution. I do not consider myself wise enough to formulate the solution to this problem, but I do think embracing differences instead of hiding or ignoring them is one of many keys to the long term success of such an endeavor.

  2. Thanks, Robert. I'm becoming more and more convinced that we need a new breed of teachers in these school in point here. I'll talk about that in my next blog, which I am polishing now.
    Chas Leck

  3. John Gibson sent me a long response to this blog. It was scatter-shot and completely off the top of his head, but it certainly gives me plenty to think about.

    One of John's key points is that this might be more a problem of poverty than race. Perhaps so, but remember that Sowell points out that the students in Dunbar High School situation in Washington D.C. were not middle class -- at least not all the students - and many of the kids out of poverty situations succeeded at very high levels.

    Nevertheless, in a future blog we'll look at poverty as a root cause of minority education failure.

    Here are Gibson's comments to me...

    RESPONSE from John Gibson to my blog on Education of Minorities
    and his comments
    July 3, 2008
    Hello Charlie,
    Had a chance to read your excellent blog on "The Problem of Minority Education." It was a good read as has been all of your blogs that I have had a chance to read.
    Here are some quick, rough reactions, some of which are really the same concepts said in different ways.
    • To a high degree the past predicts the future
    • The experts are right, poverty is one of the most reliable indicators of who will fall into the achievement gap, and minorities are disproportionately represented among the state's poor.
    • What is one of the best predictors of educational achievement, socioeconomic status, net worth, home ownership, and a lot of other things? The parents status on those variables.
    • What is another very good predictor? The grandparent status on those variables.
    • Money, quality of teachers, and other factors have limited impact on the achievement level of a school.
    • The students themselves have a huge impact on the achievement level of a school.
    • And the preceding conditions for the students to have a huge impact on the achievement level of a school are parents and grandparents education achievement and socioeconomic status.
    • Grandparents make the parents; parents make the children; parents nurture children; children become the students; and students make the school.
    • Poverty levels for African Americans relative to whites has increased in recent decades.
    • Why? Maybe because as sharecropping finally totally disappeared in the South, the deceleration in the growth and then actual decline of manufacturing in the North and elsewhere in the country began. Outcome: relatively more poverty, less SES, then less educational achievement.
    • Some people think we have figured out how to overcome the problems, but it is too revolutionary to the class and caste power structure, so it has been and will be resisted by the power structure.
    • It is well documented that monies spent on early childhood development/education is money very well spent as compared to spending more and more millions on prisons as Mississippi continues to do. Mississippi has never up to the present moment spent one state government dollar directly supporting pre-kindergarten education.
    • It is well known what are many of the typical antecedents to educational achievement. Some are open to manipulation. Others are more difficult.
    • When A.C. Wharton, the first African-American mayor of Shelby County (Memphis) ran for the office, he had a vision. Part of the vision was to build a safety net for children of dysfunctional familes, so the children could have a better chance in life. Unfortunately, the budget crunch wiped out vision.
    • There are big causal factors here.
    • I wonder if some more in depth analysis of the data Sowell uses would wash out his conclusions. For example, was Dunbar originally a "magnet" school and then the good students who were systematically drawn to the magnet school were dispersed when desegregation occurred? Another possible example of washing out his conclusions, were the Harlem and the lower eastside schools similar in educational achievement perhaps because SES of the students and of the parents of the student were similar?
    • Might be useful not to talk simply of hard work, but to ask ourselves what are the precursors to a hard work orientation? How is it instilled, developed? How does it result in educational achievement? How can our society through public policy implementation, better facilitate the instilling and developing of a strong work orientation.
    • In the case of Mississippi, unqualified teachers are often teaching in the poor schools. It is difficult to learn a lot of math or English in high school from an elementary or physical education major college graduate.
    • And let's not forget how minorities are disproportionately poisoned by the our polluted environment; that has to have a big impact on many outcomes.
    Charlie, I forewarned you it was quick and rough. Best I can do for now.
    Keep up the good work.
    July 4, 2008
    Here are some more thoughts on education, particularly public education, of a more personal nature.
    I attended a 12 grade consolidated country school in eastern Arkansas. It was small, 435 students. Twenty-one in my 1964 graduating class. It was segregated.
    There many children of extreme poverty in the classes in the early years of my twelve year experience.
    But by the end of my junior year the only truly poor child by relative standards left dropped out.
    Now it appears to me that in the case of my old school, the children of poverty do not drop out as early or as frequently as they did back then. The school is attempting to educate many more children who come from difficult circumstances. Some might say my old school is doing much better now, because although they are having less absolute success in average educational achievement among students attending, they are faced with a much greater challenge than in the past.
    By the way, the last poor dropout in my class was named Jackie. He was a nice guy and smart. I wish I had been a better friend to him. I think he dropped out mainly from being the last poor kid and all the caste and class oppression that went with it.
    Another by the way, my family was just above being poor. We had a country store in the middle of nowhere. My father was a dear soul, but perhaps because of his years as a hobo, he was miserly. This resulted in our day to day living being similar to the local truly poor folks.

  4. Below are my beliefs on the subject and don't reference any tangible facts.

    I believe that there are two key issues that relate to the poor education of black students.

    The first is parenting. I am not saying all black parents are bad. However, the highest and most condensed populations of blacks are in impoverished areas. Because of this subject density these areas tend to be where most of the studies are done. Back to the parenting. People in impoverished areas are in many cases, and again not all, poor because they did not take schooling seriously as children. In addition many are involved in crime or drug use.

    This bad example is passed down to the children who behave in the same way. Relating to a point in the article, the upstanding black children are now stuck in a school having to choose between black culture and white culture. The problem is with the overwhelming amount of poorly raised black children the choice is not one to relish. Because the loudest and most forceful smaller group typicaly dominates a larger group the entire "black population" of the school is now in jepordy of being corrupted. Kids are left with the choice of being in the bad crowd or trying to be white. Not an easy choice and one that drives many children in the wrong direction.

    Sorry I have more to say but I have to cut this short.

  5. Thanks, Michael. I'm glad you came to read this piece.

    I agree with your comments and I don't think you should have apologized about saying those obvious things. Did you catch Sowell's feelings, however, that bad parenting can really be overcome by a kid and teacher (in combo) who want to work hard?

    Tell me a little about yourself if you return to read this. What part of the country... age bracket... your interests and hobbies... you can find out all that about me in my profile.

    Hope you'll keep reading.
    Chas Leck