Walter E. Williams

What needs to be done to improve black education? Whether it's civil rights organizations, politicians or the education establishment, you'll get answers that cover the gamut from more money for teachers and smaller class sizes to school desegregation and racial preferences in higher education. Despite these claims, there's no evidence whatsoever that these are absolutely necessary requirements for black academic excellence. Let's look at it.

I don't believe anyone in his right mind would believe that what the "experts" say is necessary to improve black education were available in, say, 1899. But at Dunbar High School, a black public school in Washington, D.C., its students scored higher in citywide tests than any of the city's white schools. In fact, from its founding in 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went off to college. According to Dr. Thomas Sowell's study "Patterns of Black Excellence" in the Spring 1976 issue of Public Interest, 40-student classes were the norm, Dunbar never received equal financial support and during its first 40 years of existence it didn't even have a lunch room.

Sowell's study points to other islands of black academic excellence in earlier times, such as Atlanta's Booker T. Washington High School, Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School and a few others. Like Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School of today, these schools with far greater resources, modern facilities, smaller class sizes and more highly paid teachers are not even shadows of their former selves in terms of black academic achievement.

What about during the 1940s? Did black schools have all that the "experts" say is necessary for academic excellence? In "Assumptions Versus History in Ethnic Education," in Teachers College Record (1981), Sowell reports on academic achievement in some of New York city's public schools. He compares test scores for sixth-graders in Harlem schools with those in the predominantly white Lower East Side for April 1941 and December 1941. In paragraph and word meaning, Harlem students, compared to Lower East Side students, scored equally or higher. In 1947 and 1951, Harlem third-graders in paragraph and word meaning and arithmetic reasoning and computation scored about the same -- in some cases slightly higher and in others slightly lower -- than their Lower East Side counterparts.

Today, there are a few predominantly black public schools with fine achievement records, such as New York's Frederick Douglass Academy and private schools such as Marva Collins Preparatory School in Cincinnati, Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles and Ivy Leaf School in Philadelphia.

Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
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