Sorting Children Into 'Cannots' and 'Cans' Is Just Racism in Disguise

Principal Sarah Hayes in the cafeteria at KIPP's Key Academy in the District, where banners listing the year students will enter college hang. The banners cement the idea of college in the minds of the children, many of whom are poor.
Principal Sarah Hayes in the cafeteria at KIPP's Key Academy in the District, where banners listing the year students will enter college hang. The banners cement the idea of college in the minds of the children, many of whom are poor. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Jay Mathews
Monday, January 19, 2009

Tomorrow marks a turning point in the history of our schools as well as our country. Note how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom we honor today, had to confront the cold, hard, in-your-face prejudice of a legally segregated system, while the next president, Barack Obama, speaks of a softer negligence, illuminated by the frequently heard phrase, "These kids can't learn."

These days, those of us interested in schools -- parents, students, educators, researchers, journalists -- are not sure if we believe in teaching or sorting. Is it best to strain ourselves and our children trying to raise everyone to a higher academic level, or does it make more sense to prepare each child for a life in which he or she will be comfortable? The people I admire in our schools want to be teachers. Sorting, they say, is a new form of the old racism but subtler and in some ways harder to resist.

It took me a long time to understand this. My parents were socially conservative but politically and religiously liberal, and they raised me in the United Church of Christ, the same denomination that Obama and his family joined in Chicago. There were few black people in our pews in San Mateo, Calif., however. My public high school had only two black students, my private college not many more. The first African Americans I got to know well were in my Army basic training company. They teased me, the only college graduate in the barracks, about my utter lack of street smarts. They had not done well in school, but they were shrewd, energetic and learned quickly, once subjected to the Army's refusal to tolerate inattention. Many went to college when they finished their service.

Years later, when I began writing about urban public schools' failure to do the same for the clever students in their classrooms, some readers objected. Those minority children, they said, were permanently handicapped by a cultural and genetic heritage that would always hold them back. These critical calls and e-mails became more frequent after "The Bell Curve," a 1994 bestseller that alleged racial differences in intelligence. Readers asked why I was ignoring these insights.

Because I had been with The Washington Post almost my entire working life, the answer seemed obvious. Every day, I encountered literate, wise and productive journalists who happened to trace their ancestry back to Africa. It was, and still is, a newspaper full of Barack and Michelle Obamas. As editors, they made my stories much better. As writers, they showed me how much I could achieve if I emulated their love of depth and detail. We had lots of fine journalists of other races, too, but the black ones were my best arguments for rejecting the notion that academic success was tied to race.

What practical use, I asked my critics, is the idea that black people on average might not have IQ scores as high as white people? Intelligence tests had been shown to be very flawed measures, particularly of children. A child who learned could raise his IQ. How was a teacher to know if a black third-grader with a reading problem was going to grow up to be a security guard or a Pulitzer Prize winner? The educator's job was not to make assumptions about what lives they would have, but help them improve their skills as much as possible.

I didn't convince many people. The sorting instinct seems part of our DNA, that tribal primate urge to know where everyone is in the pecking order. I find it in every school I visit. It lives on in my friends, my family and myself. Selective colleges, prestigious law firms, grant funders -- they all sort. When demand is greater than supply, there is not much else you can do in those situations. But that fact is too often adopted by educational gatekeepers as an excuse for not doing their jobs, which is to teach.

Most American high schools (except in the Washington area, thank goodness) admit only A or strong B students to Advanced Placement classes, when many less-advanced or later-maturing students would benefit from exercising their intellectual muscles in a challenging course. Gifted programs, magnet programs, even student clubs sometimes screen applicants more than is healthy for the mission of giving everyone the educations they deserve. Some of our best teachers measure themselves by how many top students they have in their classes, not how many struggling students they help become better.

Most of us, for humane reasons, think it is best that people choose lives that fit. That is why the sons and daughters of housecleaners are advised to take vocational courses and why impoverished children are less often encouraged to take the SAT than are affluent children. This notion of a place for everyone was used by defenders of slavery before the Civil War and of Jim Crow after it, but we never think of it that way. We say we don't want to put unneeded stress on children who can't handle it.

In this new era, which will win: teaching or sorting?

I am not sure. I have written a book, coming out this week, about two of the most successful teaching advocates I know, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Their story is full of obstacles, setbacks and heartbreaks. They had to break many rules, and a few laws, to create the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of 66 schools, mostly public charters, in 19 states and the District. Eighty percent of the students in these schools come from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies, and 95 percent are black or Hispanic.

The results are impressive. A sample of 1,000 eighth-graders who attended KIPP schools for four years on average went from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd in math. Gains that great for that many impoverished children in one program have never happened before. They are part of an informal movement including many veterans of the Teach for America program who have made similar progress with such organizations as Achievement First, Aspire, Edison, Green Dot, IDEA, Imagine Schools, Noble Street and Uncommon Schools. But their numbers are small, and their critics large and powerful.

Barack Obama the community organizer was one of their models, but Obama the 44th president will have other responsibilities and is unlikely to help them much. That leaves it up to the rest of us, at a point in history so full of unrealized potential, to urge all of our children to try harder rather than pat them on the head and say they are fine where they are.

"Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America" is the new Jay Mathews book to be released tomorrow.

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