Trapped in Bad Schools


“I have a 10-year-old, and they said he has a problem–attention deficit disorder.Well, my son went through a battery of tests which found he was normal. It was just boredom.”

–A black parent in Raleigh, North Carolina

On his way to Khallid Muhammad’s Million Youth March, a teenage resident of Harlem was asked why he was going. “I’m looking for a message,” he said.

He got some messages, all right. The mayor told him that it takes an army of cops, with helicopters overhead, to make sure black folks don’t turn a rally into a riot.

And, as Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the weekly Forward, a speaker billed as a health expert informed the crowd that whites created AIDS, and therefore black parents should be “very careful when you take your kids for their polio vaccine . . . because they [the white health establishment] are seeding the vaccines with germs to reduce our population.”

So if a parent decides not to take a chance, and the kid doesn’t get a polio shot, who’s to blame? The Jews, of course.

The Khallid Muhammad mindset can be dangerous. It substitutes a spider’s web of stories about evil conspiracies for real action that can make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve heard such siren songs before. In my neighborhood, when I was a boy, there were spellbinders who said: “The goyim [the gentiles] hate Jews. All Jews. They are determined to keep us in our ghettoes.”

Some of my neighbors believed that, and they stayed in their ghettoes because there they felt safe from the evil ones.

Meanwhile, a man who is a leader–not a braying performer–is trying to call urgent attention to a rising crisis in this nation.

In his annual report this year, Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, asked: “What destiny awaits us if nearly 80 percent of our [black] youngsters in Denver fail the fourth-grade reading test, as they did last year?”

The nation has been deluged with polls all year. Snapshots, they quickly fade away, to be replaced by more scattered “information.” By contrast, there is the research from Public Agenda, which conducts substantive surveys of opinion–and knows what questions to ask.

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan public opinion research firm in New York, and its recent account of what black and white parents want in their children’s schools amounts to a manifesto by those parents.

In-depth telephone interviews were held with 800 black and 800 white parents from March 26 to April 17 this year. There were also eight focus groups, with follow-up individual interviews.

Most important to both groups of parents are academic standards and student achievement. Eighty-two percent of the black parents set those as their fundamental criteria.

Three-quarters of both black and white parents agreed with the statement that: “Too often, the schools work so hard to achieve integration that they neglect their most important goal–teaching kids.”

Integration is valued by black parents, but what most concerns them now is that the problem of low achievement for black children is “at a crisis point.”

Accordingly, three-quarters of the black parents in the survey say that race should not determine who is chosen to teach or be a superintendent in a predominantly black school. “As long as he or she is doing the job,” said one black parent, “I don’t care if they’re green.”

That comment reminded me of the heat Miles Davis took from some black musicians when he hired Bill Evans, who was white, for his band.

“I don’t care,” Miles told me, “if a musician is purple or green, so long as he can play!”

But, according to the Public Agenda survey, “68 percent of black parents thought there was some truth to the statement that teachers and principals, because of racial stereotypes, had lower expectations for black students.”

On the other hand, “three-fourths of black parents also said that a mostly black district should hire the best teachers possible, regardless of race.”

This raises the grave question of the qualifications of teachers, black and white, in mostly black schools. In his Washington Post column, E. J. Dionne recently quoted this alarming finding by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips in American Prospect magazine:

“The most important resource difference between black and white schools seems to be that both black and white teachers in black schools have lower test scores [of their own] than their counterparts in white schools.” (Emphasis added.)

Test scores don’t tell everything about a teacher. You can have high scores and not be able to relate to kids. But the claim by Jencks and Phillips ought to be followed up by a good deal more research. How often do poorly prepared, low-skilled teachers get assigned to predominantly black schools?

In the Public Agenda survey, one of the most telling responses to the crisis in black children’s education came from Beth Dilley, executive director of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, Public Education Fund:

“Everybody wants a really good future for their kids. It is unfortunate that so many people make judgments about parents of color wanting less for their kids, when they’re trapped in a system they can’t control.”

Our shallow president recently chaired a Public Broadcasting System dialogue on race. Clinton, as usual, was fixed on the need for affirmative action in college admissions. He asked Richard Rodriguez of Pacific News Service: “If you were president of a university, wouldn’t you want a racially diverse student body and faculty?”

Rodriguez, ignoring the president’s question and knowing how many children never get near a college application, answered: “You would start at the bottom of the social ladder. You would start in the first grade to decide which ones of us get into law school. You would make sure America has a system of education that saves children in the first grade–because we lose them there.”