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If one compiled a list of massive cultural engineering projects, America’s effort to close race-related academic achievement gaps would be the most ambitious. For over a half century we have spent tens of billions, devised scores of remediation schemes, and pursued legal solutions galore, all to no avail. Even conservatives normally hostile to social engineering have joined the quest.
What makes this enterprise remarkable is that every single putative nostrum entails zero effort by the students themselves as if those targeted lacked any agency for academic uplift. To use bizarre phraseology, this is passivity on steroids. This is not to suggest that if math-challenged junior got religion and buckled down he could master stochastic calculus; rather, in places like Baltimore where schools spend an average of $16,000 per student and barely any can meet minimal English and math standards, room exists for improvement .
The menu of these “solutions” is enormous. Here’s just a quick compilation beginning with liberal-favored schemes:
- employ culturally competent teachers
- adopt instruction in Ebonics
- use “relevant” textbooks (i.e., photographs of blacks doing important things)
- insert more blacks into AP and gifted classes regardless of ability
- employ a Black “learning style” pedagogy
- hire additional black principals and administrators, especially males (role models)
- drop zero tolerance discipline polices to increase graduation rates
- impose classroom and school integration
- offer pre-kindergarten/Head Start programs to build vocabulary and cognitive skills
- supply free school breakfasts and lunches (can’t learn on an empty stomach)
- follow Afrocentric curriculums, provide computerized instruction including video games to make learning fun
- build schools with state-of-the-art facilities (can’t learn with peeling ceiling paint)
- offer free after-school tutoring (mimic Asians), encourage spontaneity and eliminate pedagogical formulism (no inflexible grammar)
- purge textbooks and exams of hidden racism, training teachers to avoid racial stereotypes
- hire teacher/parent coordinators to energize parents
- re-name schools after celebrated African Americans
- eliminate schools named after slave owners
- heighten self-esteem as a precursor to learning (shower students with gratuitous praise)
- add yet more specialized staff, e.g., math and reading coaches
The Right has similarly joined the crusade. Foremost are a plethora of “free-market” solutions as if economic incentives can work miracles. The business-like term “accountability” is the tip-off. Proposed solutions include vouchers, charter schools, transparency of outcomes (publically available test scores and graduation rates), and merit pay for heroic teachers who improve test scores. Other “conservative” favorites include de-certifying teachers’ unions, abolishing teacher tenure and shuttering “failing schools” as if they were A&P grocery stores. Then there are the champions of restoring “basics” such as replacing whole word spelling with phonics, returning to the classics of Western Civilization, ridding schools of needless frills and, occasionally, develop mental discipline by having kids play chess or learning Latin.
Remarkably, these alleged solutions linger on despite repeated failures and their obvious stupidity. When it comes to their own field, most education “experts” suffer from learning disorders. This inattention to past failure was illustrated by two recent (May 31, 2017) letters to the Editor in the New York Times. One claimed that the dreadful academic performance of New York City’s minority students could be reversed by helping the parents of under-performing youngsters get junior enrolled in a top-flight school. A second proposed awarding extra money (“combat pay”) to stellar teachers who ply their craft at “bad” schools. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio is working on a new plan to de-segregate the City’s schools. All these “solutions” have repeatedly been tried in varied settings and the record of failure is unambiguous.
What drives this infatuation with guaranteed-to-fail solutions? Most obviously, every single one involves expanded government spending to hire experts to invent new curriculums, design coercive integration plans, concoct tests to assure accountability, and otherwise facilitate myriad top-down solutions. Right now, for example, there are 15 openings for “education consultant” in the New York areas. Hard to argue with the sacrosanct “investing in the children” when this investing puts bread on one’s own table.
Less obvious but perhaps more compelling is that demanding nothing of students avoids the Mother of All Taboos: group-related genetic differences in cognitive ability. Experts, not students fail while one or two “successes” among dozens of failures can keep hope alive for decades.
Happily, an alternative exists to the billion dollar “don’t blame kids” approach, one that has historically proven itself and will cost far less than $16,000 per pupil to impart adequate academic skills. It is simple: pressure laggards to shape up and punish those who disrupt the learning of classmates. Just return to an earlier era when students themselves were held responsible for learning their lessons.
Junk the Rousseauian fantasy that children naturally have a thirst for acquiring knowledge so “educators” need only let nature take its course. Yes, Homo sapiens relish learning, but youngsters are not innately disposed to sit quietly for long periods and dutifully suffer failure. Learning may be natural; schooling is not. The corollary is that school for the cognitively weak will be the most painful. Thus, for many African Americans cultivating self-esteem is anathema to academic achievement.
Fortunately, the repertoire to impose this necessary discipline is well-known and requires only modest skill to implement. High-priced rocket science it is not. This is almost forgotten educational world of shame, stigma, humiliation, dunce caps, browbeating even corporal punishment where teachers forcefully exert authority over the little savages who refuse to learn while impeding the progress of others. Further require teachers to impose clear, grammatically correct English to those with slurred speech and reflexively use profanity. If the teacher’s efforts fail, the little miscreants can immediately be sent out for discipline to be monitored by a wicked witch. Conceivably, some retired discipline-skilled Nuns from Catholic schools or a retired Marine drill sergeant could offer three-day workshops on how to manage the classroom
Students can practice sitting still and being quiet for longer and longer times, marching in step when changing classes, mastering polite conversation when addressing authority figures (“Thank you Mr. Smith” not ‘hey teach’”) memorizing famous orations, and build the habits of punctuality, restraint and patience.
Alas, such measures are unthinkable save in a few educational backwaters that cater to education-obsessed parents and outliers like New York City’s small discipline, test-oriented oriented charter school, Success Academy. It is particularly taboo in inner-cities with predominantly black students that currently lead the nation in per-pupil education expenditures. Not only would such an “old-fashioned” school be an economic catastrophe for scores of local residents economically dependent on disorder-fueled failure, but its coercive philosophy would be viewed as (white) cultural imperialism. And, to be frank, such critics are correct –teaching the King’s English and suppressing classroom “vibrancy” would be judged “too white.” Between the slashed payrolls and all the now unhappy students (and their self-esteem preoccupied parents) community activists would have a field day marching and chanting.
The economic carnage would only get worse as countless education experts of all ideological stripes were no longer required to draft useless reports about revitalizing Detroit’s schools. Further add the bureaucrats who survive by implementing the latest Department of Education re-working of past unsuccessful reforms.
Left unsaid about today’s “no-pain, all gain” is that this approach only deepen the dependency endemic among many (if not most) academically troubled African Americans. Imagine a fourth-grader struggling with long division being told that his tribulations are the result of his being trapped in a unionized, failing school built in 1975, living in the wrong zip-code, having a lily-white math book, attending school lacking math coaches, and on and on. Such a youngster might reasonably decide to pray for the Messiah Benefactor who would solve everything with a wave of her magic wallet. But, then again, perhaps inculcating passivity is the real aim for those who prosper from failure.