Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2003 / 25 Adar I 5763

Thomas Sowell

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Twin disasters | When critics point out the abysmal performances of schools in ghetto neighborhoods, teachers defend themselves by pointing out the disinterested, disruptive, and sometimes dangerous students they have to deal with. But teacher failure and student failure are not alternative explanations. They are twin disasters. There is plenty of blame to go around.

The painful story of educational disasters is analyzed in a recently published book on the teachers' union ( "The Worm in the Apple" by Peter Brimelow) and one on black students' counterproductive attitudes and behavior ( "Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb" by John U. Ogbu). Neither book is pleasure reading but both should be required reading for those who are serious about wanting to improve the education of American children in general and minority children in particular.

Peter Brimelow's book exposes the insidious, corrupt, and dirty tactics of those who control the country's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. It is a wholly different picture from that of cheery smiling union officials who appear on TV ads.

While "educators" are quick to seize upon the defects of students, parents and society, as if that automatically vindicates the schools, the fact is that if our public schools had perfect students, perfect parents, and a perfect society, these schools would still be failing because of the three R's that they do not teach -- and the politically correct propaganda that they teach instead.

Professor Ogbu's book is devastating in a different way. It is a study of the racial gap in students' school performances in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. Whether measured by grades, test scores, or the quality of courses taken, black students lagged consistently behind white students.

Why? Black teachers, white teachers, black students and white students all give essentially the same answer: Black students simply do not work as hard.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone who has taught black students, especially if they have also taught white students and Asian students. Nor should it be a surprise to anyone who has read John McWhorter's book "Losing the Race." Although Ogbu failed to mention either this book or its author, he is essentially testing the McWhorter thesis that black students do not put forth the efforts needed to succeed.

Why don't they? There are many reasons. McWhorter thinks that the availability of affirmative action reduces the incentives for black students to do their best. Ogbu finds other reasons: different priorities, such as more concern among black students for non-academic activities, such as sports, entertainment, and hanging out with friends in person or on the phone.

But behind the different priorities of black students -- and of their parents -- is a pervasive suspicion and hostility to the white school authorities and to the whole culture which they perceive as a white culture that they must resist as a threat to black "identity." At least, that is how Professor Ogbu sees it.

Unfortunately, the very same apathy can be found among black students and parents where the school authorities are black. I saw it when I taught at a black college -- Howard University -- in the early 1960s, when there was no affirmative action and no "white culture" or "white power structure" as distractions.

The cold fact is that there was never any reason in the first place to expect all groups to have the same interest or the same performance, whether in education or anywhere else. Whites do not do as well as Asian Americans in either educational institutions or in the economy. And they can't blame racism. Malays do not do nearly as well as the Chinese in Malaysia.

Sinhalese have not done nearly as well as Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Northerners have not done nearly as well as southerners in Nigeria.

None of this means that it is OK for black students to keep doing less than their best and to keep falling behind. It does mean that the time is long overdue for realism and honesty -- and for getting rid of racial hype and the claim that it is all whitey's fault. The issue is not protecting the image of blacks but keeping a whole generation from destroying their own future.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)


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