By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
You can see the reaction in politicians and clergymen, parents and educators, even in white students talking about their minority classmates: Whenever the difference in performance between blacks and whites and Asians on standardized tests comes up for discussion, middle-class whites tend to fidget a bit and look for a way to change the topic. It is not hard to understand why. There is a pattern: People are labeled as racists if they take note of the low scores of blacks and Hispanics on these tests as part of the explanation for the underperformance of these groups in class rankings and graduation rates.
The black writer Thomas Sowell has come to the rescue of the browbeaten whites. In a recent column he provided data that makes clear that some racial and ethnic groups do underperform in comparison to others — but that there is nothing racist about taking note of that reality. It turns out it is not always the same racial groups that underperform. It depends on the time and the country, and the educational system in place. He also provides solid evidence that the stock accusation of the liberal education establishment and civil rights activists — that institutionalized racism accounts for the discrepancies — makes little sense.
Sowell examines reports from England to make his case, where the evidence is clear that race is not the key determinant for the underperformance of certain ethnic and racial groups. It turns out that black students from Africa and students from Bangladesh and Pakistan, now living in England, “meet the standards of school tests nearly 60 percent of the time,” whereas “children from the Caribbean meet the standards less than 50 per cent of the time.” All of these children are non-white.
Moreover, “in one borough of London, white students scored lower than black students of every other London borough.” Sowell observes that this confirms “the observations in a book titled Life at the Bottom by British physician Theodore Dalrymple.” Dalrymple found that “among the patients he treated in a hospital near a low-income housing project, he could not recall any white 16-year-old who could multiply nine by seven. Some could not even do three times seven.” These children are of the “same race that produced Shakespeare and the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton” but are now “barely literate and have trouble with simple arithmetic.”
Sowell’s point? The “low-income whites in England and ghetto blacks in the United States” have something in common. It is not race. What they have in common is a “generations-long-indoctrination in victimhood. The political Left in both countries has, for more than half a century, maintained a steady and loud drumbeat of claims that the deck is stacked against those at the bottom.”
And in both countries, immigrant groups, from former British colonies in the case of England, and from Asia in the United States, not exposed to this “ideology of blind resentment,” enter a “supposedly closed society that refuses to let anyone rise — and they nevertheless rise, while the native-born at the bottom remain at the bottom.”
Sowell concedes that those “who promote an ideology of victimhood may imagine that they are helping those at the bottom” by making excuses for their failures, but argues “in fact they are harming them.” He points to the schools in black neighborhoods that he attended as a boy “in the 1940s, before the vast expansion of the welfare state and the ideology of victimhood used to justify it.” There was no “gap on test scores between black schools in Harlem and white, working-class schools on New York’s Lower East Side.”
On another topic: the ongoing question of whether American children spend too long a period of time away from their studies during their summer vacations. I say no. I have always felt that the experiences of my children and my grandchildren during the summer months are valuable parts of their education. I am not talking about the kind of expensive enrichment that only wealthy children have access to: travel to museums around the world, private music and art lessons, seminars and workshops at prestige universities. I mean the experiences almost any child with a stable family can enjoy: travel by car to local areas of the country, sports, dance, and theater summer programs, Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, fishing trips with family members, and extended visits with grandparents and cousins. Most of these things would not be possible without the extended summer vacations that American children enjoy.
I realize, of course, that many children living in poverty and in unstable family situations go through far different experiences during their two months away from school each summer. An article in Forbes magazine by Anne Field in early December focused on what some educators call the “summer slide,” the drop in academic achievement that can be seen when some children return to school in the fall after a long summer of doing little more than watching television and hanging around with their friends. Those who believe in the summer slide see it as a central cause of the achievement gap between upper and lower income students.
The Forbes article focused on Practice Makes Perfect, a New York organization founded by Karim Abouelnaga, the son of Egyptian immigrants who grew up in a rough area of New York City. Abouelnaga, writes Field, “attended a high school that was part of a program which paid high school students who took Advanced Placement courses and scored at least a 3 out of 5 on the AP exam. He passed 5 tests by the time he graduated from high school.”
Abouelnaga came up with the idea that the same approach might work to remedy the summer slide. His plan was to pair “kids with high-achieving students older — but not too much older — who could serve as mentors.” The six-week Practice Makes Perfect program he devised focused on schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Harlem and included several key components. Pairing kids with role models in grades 5 to 12, with 24 kids to a class, it would serve students in grades one through eight. Aside from SAT prep, student mentors would receive a small stipend. Supervised by a certified teacher, college students would teach the classes. Fifteen minutes of instruction would be included in each hour; the rest of the time would be spent working with mentors or in small groups.” Abouelnaga told the Forbes interviewer that his goal is “to make an impact on the New York City public school system I went through.”
Will Practice Makes Perfect make a dent in the summer slide? Is it a program suitable only for high-poverty areas of the country? Should it be made mandatory if it does work? We await our readers’ reactions.
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