It's with distressing frequency that we read about how black students are suspended at a rate more than twice that of white students (recently in Montgomery County) or how blacks and Hispanics score significantly lower on some standardized tests than white students (recently in Arlington). Why these continued disparities?
The explanation lies partly in attitudes, economic inequity and the expectations of teachers, both black and white. The high cost of the failure is shared by many--taxpayers, government, society and the young people who are stunted in their dreams of realizing their potential. And the evidence of failure abounds.
A National Science Foundation commission recently warned us that unless the declining state of the nation's science and math education is reversed, the United States faces the frightening prospect of becoming an "industrial dinosaur." In this atmosphere of crisis, discipline problems and subpar performance sadly destine some children to the human scrapheap, rather than to making the kind of contribution to growth and productivity that will assure the nation's survival and dominance.
Many well-meaning school systems fall prey to the attitude and economic problems that contribute to placing black children at a disadvantage. Take the issue of what is expected of children. What's in the minds of men and women who teach black children? How do they treat them? The lowered expectations that many teachers have of poor and minority students is a major factor in the problem of discipline.
For example, some Montgomery County teachers are afraid of black students, according to persons familiar with the system, and this fearfulness makes them see any offense, no matter how minor, as a major infraction. This mentality, doubtless not unique to Montgomery, produces overreaction, and as a consequence, the same problem that might earn a white child a mild reprimand might earn a black child a suspension.
The oversensitivity of some black parents exacerbates this mind-set. These parents, rubbed raw by their own brushes with discrimination, quickly rush to the defense of their children whenever they are involved in a disciplinary dispute with administrators.
This cycle of lowered expectations applies to some black teachers as well. District school officials long have had to deal with middle-class black teachers who thought poor children couldn't perform, and thus treated them with a disdain that sent the children the message that they weren't expected to achieve. This mind-set trapped children on the lowest "track" systems and relegated others to vocational rather than academic schools.
Superintendent Floretta McKenzie is working hard at changing this attitude of lowered expectation, but it hangs on tenaciously at some schools, especially where poor parents don't exert social and political leverage. But the city's forward leap in standardized test scores is evidence that McKenzie's effort to project love and caring stirs confidence and competence in children.
But it is not just attitude problems that feed into black suspension and test score gaps. Economic problems count heavily too. For example, children of the poor will be further behind than the affluent children whose parents can afford to buy them computers. In some cases, entire school systems that serve poor children are so strapped for cash that they cannot afford the advanced equipment, such as computers, that would give the children a fighting chance.
The problem with many poor children is that they must go to class where the entire school cannot afford a computer, an inequity further fed by Reaganomics, which has heightened the income gap between blacks and whites.
These and other intervening factors fall under the heading of institutional racism, and its effect is to limit opportunity and pronounce for young people--and their own children a generation later--a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and underachievement. This is unacceptable not only because of the human waste, but it also threatens the country's future and security.
Yet I don't see our society attacking these problems. A lot of hostility has built up on all sides, hostility that urgently needs to be aired and talked about. There's a big job ahead if we are to overturn the patterns of institutional racism that betray, rather than educate, many black children--if we are to change adult attitudes as we change school curricula.