The news hits like a series of bombshells as one suburban school district after another reveals that black children are significantly behind their white counterparts on standardized achievement tests.
What does it mean? Whose fault is it? What can be done about it?
The first thing to do is to stop acting so surprised. It really isn't news. If the reports had told us of a scoring gap between the children of affluence and those farther down the socioeconomic scale, it wouldn't have made the papers. And yet, to a substantial degree, that may be what we are looking at in this so-called racial gap. In addition,the reporting of averages provides no useful information on the achievement of individuals -- including high-scoring blacks and low-scoring whites.
But even supposing there is a racial gap in test scores, why are we all acting so surprised? Have we forgotten how recently it was that blacks were in the vanguard of the attempts to get rid of standardized tests? Have we forgotten "culture bias" and "truth-in- testing" and all the other assaults on achievement tests a few years back? To the extent that the black leaders were a part of that anti-testing effort, it was because they knew black children tended to get lower scores than whites.
Whose fault is it that blacks tend to get lower scores? I don't know all the answers to that one. Surely a part of it is the simple fact that those children who come to school already knowing a good deal of what the society deems important to know tend to find it easier to learn more of it. The mor you know, the more you can learn.
But there is something else that I suspect may be a part of the learning- gap problem, and that is the way too many black parents look at the whole learning enterprise. Perhaps because the black leadership has put so much emphasis on school integration, black parents often seem to think of learning as something that happens to children. And since, through some magic that escapes identification, it appears to happen more easily to white children, it seemed to make sense that we should get our children to where the white children were.
Integration worked best for those children who needed it least: the motivated, self-assured youngsters whose parents continually emphasized the importance of education. For some other children, it didn't work quite so well. And for those children whose parents encouraged them to see themselves as victims of racist teachers, it tended not to work at all.
I don't know why it should be so difficult a point to understand, but learning is not a passive enterprise. It is not something that happens to you if you can get yourself into the right place. It is work. It may be relatively pleasant work for those lucky enough to love learning, but it is still work.
I know parents who marvel at recently arrived Asian American youngsters who quickly rise to the top of their classes in everything from math and science to English and spelling. But these same parents seem to take no notice of the fact that these Oriental youngsters are regularly studying till midnight and skipping TV on weekdays and parties on weekends.
Am I putting too much of the burden on the home, blaming the victims for their own miseducation? Well, maybe, but look at the alternatives. Special classes for children who score below the norms? No, we already complain that schools are using special-ed as a racist way of resegregating the schools. Special resources for the youngsters who need them? But special resouces without special effort to use them won't change anything. Special programs to boost the children's self-esteem? But can this be done by teachers already suspected as racists?
Well how do we begin narrowing the achievement score gap?
We do it the old-fashioned way -- by watching the schools to see that our youngsters don't get shunted into the least-challenging courses; by watching our children to see that they invest adequate time and effort in their studies, and by watching ourselves to see that we set and enforce the appropriate priorities.