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Jewish World Review April 14, 2000 / 9 Nissan, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Wasting minds: II -- MENLO-ATHERTON HIGH SCHOOL in an affluent California community is considered to be very good academically, at least by current standards, in an era of dumbed-down education. Yet its problems are all too typical of what is wrong with American education today.

A gushing account of the free breakfast program and other giveaways to lower-income students who attend this high school recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, while the Wall Street Journal presented a sympathetic account of the school's attempt to teach science to students of very disparate abilities in the same classroom.

Even more revealing, the villains in this story -- as seen by both the educators and by the reporter for the Wall Street Journal -- are those parents who want their children to get the best education they can, instead of being used as guinea pigs for social and educational experiments.

Creating a science class that included students of very different levels of ability and motivation was one of these experiments. These disparities were especially great in this particular school, since its students come from both highly-educated, high-income families in Silicon Valley and low-income Hispanic and other minority families from the wrong side of the local freeway. Moreover, they were fed into the high school from their respective neighborhood schools with very different standards.

The science class turned out to be a disaster. While the principal admired the good intentions behind it, he also admitted "it was almost impossible to pull off in real life. The disparity was too great." Yet the science teacher blamed the ending of this experiment on affluent parents who "really didn't give it a chance" and the principal spoke of the "heat" he got from such parents, who "thought their kids were being held back by the other kids, that their children's chances for MIT or Stanford were being hampered."

This was seen as a public relations problem, rather than as a perfectly legitimate complaint from parents who took their responsibilities for their children's education seriously -- more seriously than the "educators" who tried to be social workers or world savers.

In a school where 40 percent of the children are Hispanic and 38 percent are white, sharp income and cultural divisions translate into racial or ethnic divisions plainly visible to the naked eye. This also arouses the ideological juices and emotional expressions of resentment, both inside and outside the school.

Stanford University's school of education is reluctant to send its graduates to teach at Menlo-Atherton High School because the latter doesn't make enough effort to overcome "inequalities" and uses politically incorrect "tracking" by ability "to keep affluent kids protected from the other kids."

In other words, a school that takes in fifteen-year-olds from radically different backgrounds is supposed to come up with some miracle that can make them all equal in ability, despite fifteen years of prior inequality in education and upbringing. Somehow, there are always magic solutions out there, just waiting to be found, like eggs at an Easter egg hunt.

Make-believe equality at the high school level fools nobody, least of all the kids. White kids at Menlo-Atherton refer to the non-honors courses as "ghetto courses," while a black kid who enrolled in honors courses had his friends demand to know why he was taking "that white-boy course."

If you are serious about education, then you need to start a lot earlier than fifteen years old to give each child a decent shot at life in the real world, as distinguished from make-believe equality while in school. Ability grouping or "tracking" -- so hated by the ideological egalitarians -- is one of the best ways of doing that.

If you were a black kid in a Harlem school back in the 1940s, and you had both the desire and the ability to get a first-rate education, it was there for you in the top-ability class. The kids who were not interested in education, or who preferred to spend their time fighting or clowning around, were in other classes and did not hold back the ones who were ready to learn.

Our egalitarian dogmas prevent that today, destroying low-income and minority youngsters' opportunities for real equality. A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste, especially when it is the only avenue to a better life.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate