Would Education Secretary William Bennett's proposed "leaner, meaner" high school curriculum help minority youngsters to close the achievement gap? Or would it merely raise an impossibly high standard, humiliating them and increasing their dropout rate?
In short, is it realistic to expect poor and disadvantaged inner-city high-schoolers to "learn what the smart kids learn"?
The temptation is to answer: Of course it is. Isn't the alternative to give up on these already hard-pressed children and to play into the hands of racists who insist on the genetic inferiority of blacks and Hispanics?
Here is a man, a lifetime educator, who resists the temptation.
Can poor kids learn what the smart kids learn?
"No," says my friend, "they can't. Not if the only difference between now and then is higher expectations, more rigorous standards and a tougher curriculum. No way."
I won't give you his name. His correspondence was personal, and I don't want to set him up as a target in a public controversy. I tell you only that he is white, liberal, and a seasoned executive of an enterprise that has been involved importantly in working for economic and educational justice. I ask you to listen to him.
"Why do so many of the kids of the very poor seem dumber than the kids of the middle and upper income families?" he asks. "Several things may be operating to 'dumb them down.'
"One is poor parenting by stressed and ignorant and often single young people, even adolescents -- parenting that not only fails to stimulate the babies and toddlers and children, but which actually stifles their natural curiosity.
"This is bad when it derives from overly protective instincts, which may be natural for parents raising children in poor or hazardous environments; it's worse than bad when it is combined with punitive attitudes, which are more common among poor than among middle-income parents, because it is an attitude that recycles itself in conditions of poverty.
"A youngster who grows up in that bleak environment is going to be no intellectual match for kids who grow up in stimulating, encouraging households filled with good talk, books, and reinforcement for all the stages of child development.
"In addition, some of those kids in poverty are in lead-laden environments where, after a few years, they are not just 'dumbed down,' they are brain-damaged as well. Plus, they are apt to have poor diets. The good eater will beat out the poor eater nearly every time.
"Moreover, when the kids get into the grades, they will be given homework to do -- something that requires parental encouragement (which requires at least one parent on the premises with energy left to cope with that problem) and a quiet spot to work. How many really poor households can provide that?"
Nor is that the end of a poor child's problems.
"Most teachers are poorly trained, with a very narrow repertoire of teaching skills. We have got to improve the skills of teachers so that they understand and know how to surmount the barriers to learning that those kids face. The knowledge to accomplish that is accumulating, but it is too rarely transmitted from research scholars to classroom teachers."
If we can be honest enough to admit the accuracy (in general) of that description, there's a good chance of getting these youngsters ready for Bennett's "lean, mean curriculum."
The logical approach, says my correspondent, is to "address the range of problems which are, after all, not mysteries, but already well known -- problems with solutions, starting with prenatal care and running through parenting skills, good nutrition, clean environments, early childhood 'educare' or Head Start experiences, and then into schools staffed by teachers who care and are well trained to provide that mixture of nurture and teaching that all youngsters require."
He makes one last point: high school is far too late to begin. Simply setting high standards for children who come to high school already years behind in academic achievement is to add insult to educational injury.
Are there realistic, non-budget-busting ways of intervening in the early grades?
There are. I'll look at one innovative proposal for doing so in a subsequent column.