Leaving black kids behind

Posted: Oct 09, 2003 12:00 AM

If there is any area in American public life where liberals hold nearly total sway, it is public education, which is sacred to them. Liberals are always able to win more "spending on education." And one of their key interest groups, the teachers unions, has a hammerlock on education policy and its implementation.

Consider, then, what Ted Kennedy and Co. have wrought:

--The typical black high-school graduate has, in effect, only an eighth-grade education.

--The typical black student scores below 80 percent of white students on tests. A majority of black students score in the lowest category -- Below Basic -- in five of the seven subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

--Seventy-seven percent of white students read at a higher level than the average black student. Only 23 percent of black students, on the other hand, read at a level equal to or better than the average white student.

--During the 1990s, average black math scores fell dramatically. Despite two decades of spending and "reforms," black students' achievement in math is at its 1978 level.

--The average black student knows less about science than 90 percent of white students.

If these numbers make you queasy, they should. America has an educational system worthy of David Duke. Its effect is to perpetuate and exacerbate the country's racial divide, disadvantaging blacks (and Hispanics) and blighting their prospects. The above figures are from Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's new book, "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," a damning account of how the public schools fail black students.

The Thernstroms explain one of the more vexing statistics in American life: Whites consistently earn more than blacks with equal years of schooling. This is taken as a sure-fire sign of racial discrimination. But the Thernstroms point out that the equal years of schooling are meaningless as long as blacks and whites have learned a different amount during those years. "A number of sophisticated studies," they write, "demonstrate clearly that whites and blacks who are truly equally educated are equal earners."

They bat away the easy explanations for the racial disparity in academic achievement. Socio-economic factors explain something, but far from all. Actually, the racial gap between black and white children of college-educated parents is worse than the gap at large. Nor can standardized tests be dismissed as racist. Black students at elite colleges actually get lower grades than their SAT scores had projected.

What, then, is to be done? The Thernstroms destroy the solutions advanced in popular cliches, such as "reducing class size." Class sizes are already relatively small in schools with a high proportion of black students, and class sizes have steadily shrunk since 1992 with no effect on black performance. The problem with reducing class sizes is that it means hiring more teachers, who will usually be less skilled than those already in the profession. California, for instance, gained almost nothing from a massive program to reduce class size in the mid-1990s.

Amid all the bleakness, the Thernstroms find hope in a few scattered schools across the country -- like the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx -- that work for black kids. The schools emphasize standards, testing, accountability and high expectations. They are invariably charter schools free of the numbing constraints imposed on the rest of the public school system by the teachers unions. They point the way forward, if only we have the political will to follow.

One cannot read the Thernstroms' book without wondering: Where are the civil-rights marches protesting the public schools? Where are Jesse Jackson's angry denunciations? Most black leaders have simply sold out the future of black kids to teachers unions. And most other people are happy to avert their eyes from the sort of ugly numbers mustered by the Thernstroms.

It's time to face the facts and find a way to make the universally held aspiration to "Leave no child behind" apply to black kids as well.