On Racial Disparities in Educational Achievement

Our first awareness of a racial disparity in educational achievement came on our first day of junior high school, when an English teacher required each student in our diverse class to take a turn reading aloud a paragraph from the first page of the textbook. Some of the black students handled the assignment with ease, while some of the white students struggled with the longer words and more complex sentences, but it was glaringly obvious to our seventh-grade eyes and ears that most of the white students could read markedly better than most of the black students. Several of the black students stammered through three-lettered words and the most simple declarative sentences, all but the best one or two or three of thm were no better than what seemed the white average, and as one of the more illiterate readers grumbled in a loud and angry sotto voce that it was a racist exercise intended to make the black students feel bad we realized that everyone else in the room had also noticed.
The realization surprised us, as at that point we couldn’t imagine how the mostly-black elementary school our new classmates had attended could have possibly been worse than the mostly-white one we had suffered through, and even in the early ’70s and even in such Republican terrain as our middle-of-America school district we had already been diligently taught by our social studies classes and the evening news and all those Sidney Poitier movies to believe that racial equality prevailed everywhere except perhaps basketball, but it was quickly corroborated as a widespread fact by both the voluminous educational testing data we precociously read and our own experiences in every other class we attended through junior high and high school. By the first mugging of our junior high career, which also occurred on that first day, we also noticed a similar racial disparity in the school’s disciplinary problems that would persist through our high school graduation.
Even at that young age we were engrossed and dismayed by the apparently nationwide phenomenon, and since then we’ve avidly kept abreast of the late efforts to rectify this unfortunate disparity, but the latest data and the anecdotal tales we hear from our parent and teacher friends suggest the unfortunate situation has not at all improved since our long-ago schooldays. Our continued interest in the subject led us to the internet site of the City Pages publication in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, where they recount all-too-familiar school day tales of teachers being assaulted, students being bullied, general mayhem occurring in school hallways, and glaring racial disparities showing up in the educational testing data. The same sad tale was noticed by a writer at the EAGnews.org site, who added the interesting fact that the Minneapolis school school district has paid nearly $3 million over the past five years to a consulting company called Pacific Educational Group which has advised that problem is an educational system built on “white privilege,” and that the solution is greater sensitivity and worry about “white privilege” and less disciplinary action and less emphasis on all that Eurocentric “verbal” and “intellectual” and “task-oriented” stuff. The multi-million dollar price tag for such dubious advice is allegedly explained by its cutting-edge trendiness, and exquisite political correctness, but it sounds very much like the same sort of pedagogical theory that made junior high so hellish for us and so disparately un-educational for the vast majority of our black classmates.
That kid in our English class who griped about the humiliation of by being asked to read aloud from a textbook turned out to be one of the more troublesome muggers at our school, and even our ill-educated seventh-grade eyes and ears soon noticed a similar correlation between educational achievement and troublesomeness throughout the school, but the experts at the Pacific Educational Group have reached different conclusions than we did about the cause and effect. Judging by the advanced educational levels of our relatively docile white peers versus that of the more defiant black students we assumed that an increased adherence to the rules of the educational system resulted in a greater benefit from its offerings, but the Pacific Educational Group has apparently concluded that punishing defiance of those rules is the cause of black students’ lesser achievement. They no doubt have some nuanced theory to back up this absurd claim, but it is not verified by our years in racially-diverse public schools.
We were further bemused to note that the Pacific Educational Group’s efforts on behalf of oppressed minority students is further complicated by a large minority of Hmong students. We didn’t have any Hmong in that seventh-grade English class of ours, but we fared well enough in our reading lessons to have since learned that they are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Cambodia who fled that country’s killing fields to re-settle in post-Cold War fashion in America, mostly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, and that like people from such mountainous regions as the Himalayas and Andes and Appalachians they are widely regarded by their countrymen as the hillbillies of their broader culture. Suffice to say that all those stellar statistics you see about the educational achievements of Asian-Americans, who presumably enjoy no white privilege, are vastly understated by the underachieving averages of the Hmong, yet the Pacific Educational Group’s recommendations are rendered strictly in black-and-white. The only change we have noticed since our long-ago school days that America’s educational problems are now all the more diverse, despite the same old disparities, and we’d like to think that the nuance arguments of those multi-million dollar consultants on the cutting-edge have at least caught up to that.
Even after so many years since our school days we can’t offer any definitive solutions to the continuing inequality of our public schools, despite our near-certainty that more tax money spent on such obvious scams as the Pacific Educational Group and the Justice Department’s insistence on racial quota systems for disciplinary actions and some obviously racist notion about “verbal” and “intellectual” and “task-oriented” being uniquely Caucasian attributes isn’t the answer, but we’d hazard a guess that starting to reach the black and brown and Hmong white kids to read standard English at an early age, and insisting that they refrain from mugging their fellow students or assaulting their teacher in between lessons, is a good start. The main reason we were reading above grade-level by the time of that seventh-grade teacher called on us was the tutelage of two parents who were avid readers and determined to inculcate the habit in their children, although we’d like to thank that our docile habit of refraining from committing mayhem on fellow students or assaulting teachers also had something to do with it, so reversing so many years of inequality will therefore take some time and doing, but we can’t start by assuming, as the Pacific Educational Group does, that those black kids we sat with are simply too “emotional” and “colorful” to keep up.
The issue continues to engross us because it is all-important. Since we our school days we have noticed that the disparities in intellectual achievement eerily predict future disparities, with the kids who were too cool for school faring poorly in life while the nerds who followed all the rules and did all the assignments and aced all the tests are enjoying their middle-aged lives, and that the the correlations cross all colors. Those one or two or three black students who handed a paragraph of a textbook with ease are better off than those white students who struggled with the longer words and more complex sentences, the majority of the white students who read better than the majority of black students are making more money, and all those racial income disparities that the guilt-stricken white folks worry about are clearly a result of the educational achievement disparities that they’re exacerbating by handing over $3 million to the likes of the Pacific Educational Group and similarly addle-brained educators. Start by insisting that first-graders everywhere learn how to read English at a first-grade level, and enforcing certain rules that have proved essential to that goal throughout the history of education, no matter how “emotional” or “colorful” you imagine their culture to be, continue the process right through high school graduation, and we believe it might take an important first step.

— Bud Norman