- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

My son learned fractions and decimals when he was in the first grade. He learned them from me as I drove him to school on the Los Angeles freeways, where he became curious about the signs that said things like “Wilshire Boulevard 2 miles.”

At the private school he attended, he never went near a math class because that was optional and he found the math they taught too boring. Yet, if test scores for that school were collected, his would have helped the school look impressive in math and some might conclude they did a great job of teaching the subject.

It is a completely different ballgame for some kid in the ghetto attending a public school. If his teachers don’t do a decent job of teaching math, chances are he won’t know much math.

One of the many misleading statistics on education are test scores comparing results from affluent suburban schools and poorer schools in the inner city. The results may well be valid in the sense there really is a huge difference in educational achievement. But they may be very misleading as to why.

Schools in both places may be wasting vast amounts of time on nonacademic fads and activities. But the children from homes with educated and affluent parents will learn a lot before going to school and outside of school. That will show up on the tests.

The schools in poorer neighborhoods may not be that much worse, in themselves, but they are the only places where many poor children with poorly educated parents have any opportunity to get an education. When these particular schools waste time, they are dooming most of their students to a life of poverty.

Homes matter — and they matter especially when the schools are not doing their job of educating the children.

Too many suburban parents may be too easily satisfied that their schools are doing a good job because the students there score in the top 10 percent or 20 percent on standardized tests. Suburban schools may look good compared to inner-city schools, but both look bad compared to their counterparts in other countries.

The fact that schools in high-income areas get better results than schools in low-income areas has allowed the education establishment to escape responsibility for their own failings by saying it all depends on the economic and educational levels of the home. It does not.

With all the abysmal results in ghetto schools in general, there are nevertheless particular schools serving low-income minority students with test results well above the national average. What is the difference?

The biggest difference is that successful schools teach in ways directly opposite from the fashionable in public schools generally. Successful schools spend their time on the three R’s: They teach reading with phonics. They memorize multiplication tables. And, above all, they have discipline; a few disruptive students cannot prevent all the others from being educated.

Despite the self-serving claims of teachers unions that successful schools for minorities skim the cream from public schools, often these charter or other private schools admit students by lottery. So those they take in are no better than those they don’t.

The students they admit are just much better after they have been educated where education is the top priority.

One of the schools I researched years ago that impressed me the most — in fact, moved me to the verge of tears — was a ghetto school in a run-down building. It was in a neighborhood that caused a friend to say I was “brave” — he probably meant foolhardy — to park a car on the street there.

The children in that school scored above the national average on tests. In their classrooms, they spoke the queen’s English, behaved like little ladies and gentlemen, and offered thoughtful answers to questions they were asked. Yet these kids came from poor homes, often broken homes — many on welfare.

You can’t buy that quality of education for any amount of money. It has to be created by people who have their priorities straight. Don’t tell me it can’t be done when I have seen otherwise.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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