Thursday, July 6, 2006

Let’s look at the recent “Nation’s Report Card,” published annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Nationally, in reading, only 13 percent of black fourth graders, and 11 percent of black eighth graders score as proficient. Twenty-nine percent achieve a score of “basic,” defined as a partial knowledge and skills needed to be proficient in the grade. Fifty-nine percent score below basic, lacking necessary knowledge and skills. It’s the same story for black eighth graders, with 40 percent scoring basic and 49 percent below basic.

In math, it’s roughly the same story. For black fourth graders, 12 percent score proficient, 47 percent score basic and 40 percent below basic. For black eighth graders, 8 percent score proficient, while 33 percent score basic and 59 percent score below basic; however, 1 percent of black fourth graders and eighth graders achieved an advanced score in math.

Teachers and politicians respond to this tragic state of affairs by saying more money is needed. The Washington, D.C., school budget is about the nation’s highest with about $15,000 per pupil. Its student/teacher ratio, at 15.2 to 1, is lower than the nation’s average. Despite this, black academic achievement in D.C. is the lowest in the nation. Reading scores for D.C.’s fourth-grade black students are: 7 percent proficient, 21 percent basic and 71 percent below basic. For eighth-graders, it’s 6 percent proficient, 33 percent basic and 58 percent below basic.

It’s the same sad tale in math. For fourth-graders, it’s 5 percent proficient, 35 percent basic and 59 percent below basic. For eighth-graders, it’s 3 percent proficient, 23 percent basic and 73 percent below basic.

With these achievement levels, one shouldn’t be surprised that the average black high school graduate, depending on the subject, has the academic achievement of the average white sixth, seventh or eighth grader.

Racial discrimination has nothing to do with no less than an education meltdown within the black community. Where black education is the very worst, often the city mayor is black, the city council is black-dominated and often the school superintendent is black, as well as most of the principals and teachers. And Democrats have run the cities for decades. I’m not saying there’s a causal connection, just that one would be hard put to chalk up the rotten education to racial discrimination.

There’s enough blame for this sorry state of affairs for all participants to share: students who are hostile and alien to the education process, parents who don’t care, teachers who are incompetent or have been beaten down by the system, and administrators who sanction unwarranted promotions and fraudulent diplomas that attest a student has mastered 12th-grade material when in fact he hasn’t mastered sixth- or seventh-grade material.

No one can solve the educational problems that black people confront except black people themselves. First, it’s foolhardy, and black people cannot afford to buy into the idea that no black child should be saved from the education morass until all black children can be saved. That means we must find a way to permit the escape from rotten schools for as many black children who want to be educated and have supportive parents as we can. Educational vouchers or tuition tax credits would provide such a mechanism.

At one time in black history, a high value was placed on education, so much so that blacks risked punishment to acquire education in areas of our country where black education was prohibited. Being 70 years old, I know there was a time when schools and black parents cooperated with one another to see to it children behaved in school and did their work.

In principle, the solution to black education problems is not rocket science. The problem is summoning the will.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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