Monday, May 09, 2005

The Education of Minority Children

For those of us who are concerned about the achievement gap in America and the education of minority students, we should be open to hearing about any schools or programs that buck the trend and achieve success. In his essay The Education of Minority Children, Thomas Sowell writes:

The quest for esoteric methods of trying to educate these children proceeds as if such children had never been successfully educated before, when in fact there are concrete examples, both from history and from our own times, of schools that have been successful in educating children from low-income families and from minority families.

One such school was Dunbar High School, a low-income black school located in Washington, D.C. It was a stunning school that contradicts many theories about the education of minorities. In 1899, there were four academic high schools in D.C, and Dunbar’s students averaged better on their standardized tests that year than two of the three white high schools. From 1870 to 1955, Dunbar repeatedly equaled or excelled the national norms on standardized tests. In 1939, the average IQ for Dunbar students was 111. Dunbar students had less absenteeism and tardiness than the white high schools in D.C. From 1870 to 1955, most of its 12,000 graduates went on to higher education—unusual for either black or white high school graduates during this time.

But today Dunbar is a failing ghetto school. So two questions demand answers: Why did this school do so incredibly well for 85 years? And why did it suddenly stop its excellence and turn into a failing school? For a full analysis, you’ll have to read Sowell’s whole speech—or better yet, his essay on education in Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

As for the secret of success for Dunbar—and other schools like it—Sowell writes:

The biggest secret is that there are no secrets, unless work is a secret. . . . Aside from work and discipline, the various successful schools for minority children have had little in common with one another—and even less in common with the fashionable educational theories of our times.

Regarding its sudden demise, Sowell points directly to the landmark 1954 desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, the key thesis of which was that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The case of Dunbar and many schools like it prove that this simply is not true. In fact, it was the implementation of what Sowell calls the “judicial mythology” of Brown that caused Dunbar to go into an immediate tailspin, despite 85 years of stellar achievements.

In an article examining the consequences that Brown has wrought, Sowell writes:

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.

In yet another article on Brown, he makes this application:

Medical authorities have long recognized that a quack remedy that is harmless in itself can nevertheless be fatal in its effects, if it keeps sick people from getting the treatment that can cure them. Racial mixing and matching has been the great quack remedy for the educational lags of black school children that has substituted for higher standards and harder work.

By raising these issues, I am not trying to be merely provocative for provocation’s sake. Nor am I pretending to have simple solutions. My goal is much more modest than that. I am seeking simply to raise what I regard to be important—if not taboo—questions, and get them onto the table for consideration. The fact remains that “For those who are interested in schools that produce academic success for minority students, there is no lack of examples, past and present. Tragically, there is a lack of interest by the public school establishment in such examples.” My goal with this little blog is to perhaps spark a bit of interest in these examples, and to perhaps make a little dent in the prevailing consensus.

Some people may wonder why I have an interest in racial matters, and why I have entered the contentious race debates. I’m sure some of it is influenced by living in low-income Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis and by having a biracial daughter—but my deeper motivation is wanting to follow truth, no matter the cost, and wanting to help and love my neighbor (defined by Christ as those whom God puts onto my path). Everyone involved in this conversation has an analysis of the problem and a proposal for a solution—no matter how rudimentary at present. The question is whether the analysis of the problem is true, and whether the proposed solution will truly help. Truly helpful solutions will not be forthcoming apart from a true analysis of the problems. So let us commit to searching for and speaking truth, even if it politically incorrect and liable to be misunderstood.