Black education

Walter E. Williams

1/21/2004 12:00:00 AM - 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.

If you simply walked around a failing school and then walked around one of these achieving schools, what would be some of the most notable characteristics? First, you wouldn't see students entering through metal detectors. You wouldn't see loitering in the hallways. You wouldn't hear foul language being spoken among the students and to the teachers and staff.

Upon further investigation, you'd learn that parents are supportive of the teachers and involved in their children's schooling -- making sure they do homework, get to school on time and behave once there. The teachers are competent and demanding. None of these ingredients are budget-busters, but if they're not present, no matter how high the budget, education won't occur.

The cruelest hoax of it all is the fraud perpetrated on black students and their parents. This was forcefully brought home to me over the holidays in a conversation with an in-law who boasted about how his son, a senior, was on his school's honor roll at one of Philadelphia's inner-city high schools.

While it was not thrilling, honesty compelled me to inform him that the average black high school graduate has an academic achievement level on par with that of an average white seventh-grader. His son's A's and B's would probably translate into C's, D's and F's at most other high schools.