The Crushing Racism of Low Expectations

Why won't America's public schools and teachers' unions raise the bar for African American students?

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The Fiscal Times
September 11, 2013

One of the lesser-broadcast features of the most recent jobs report is that unemployment for African-Americans actually ticked higher, to 13 percent, even as the rest of the country held even at 7.3 percent. Unemployment for Hispanics was 9.3 percent and for Asians 5.1 percent. Also worrisome, the number of African-American adults who held jobs actually declined last month, and fewer than 61 percent of blacks are working--the lowest participation rate since 1982. 

While New York’s Mayor Bloomberg sees racism in the campaign of Bill deBlasio and Jay Z finds racism in the Trayvon Martin decision, I perceive racism in these jobs figures.    Blacks are increasingly left behind, at least in part because their leaders do not demand better schools. The greatest source of “disparate impact” in this country, to borrow a phrase currently popular with the Justice Department, is that most black kids can’t read or write. Upward mobility for the African-American community, tenuous at best, is squashed the minute they enter kindergarten.

Too harsh? Not by half. Consider the results from the recent Common Core testing in New York, one of the first to measure how students meet the new nation-wide standards. Statewide, 31 percent of public school students in grades 3 through 8 were considered proficient in English; only 16 percent of blacks met that test, compared to 50 percent of Asians and 40 percent of whites – results which the state’s education department says reveals “the persistence of the achievement gap.”

Only 15 percent of black kids were deemed proficient in math, while 60 percent of Asians and 38 percent of whites made the cut. It begs saying that results across the board are appalling; but that less than one in five black kids can read or write with any fluency is truly criminal.

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The shocking outcome of New York’s tests immediately sparked criticism – mostly directed at the test, as opposed to the teachers or schools that are presumably preparing our children. UFT head Michael Mulgrew actually blamed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose agenda early on included taking control of New York’s dysfunctional public schools, for the city’s dismal results. (It wasn’t clear whom he held responsible for the rest of the state’s miserable showing.) Mulgrew charged that New York teachers were not given enough time to prepare for the tests. But wasn’t that the complaint about No Child Left Behind – that too much time was spent “teaching to the test”? 

Public school teachers and administrators are always quick to find another culprit when their students come up short. For poor black children, they blame the collapse of the African-American family, pervasive poverty, inadequate school funding – the list goes on and on. The only problem with this finger pointing is that some educators are able to break through those very real barriers.

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Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academies in Harlem and the South Bronx, left every other public school in the dust in the recent testing. SuccessAcademyBronx 2, with an 85 percent poverty rate and not one white or Asian student in the test pool, outperformed every other city school; 97 percent of the kids achieved “proficiency” in math and 77 percent in English.

Early on, President Obama tackled our schools issue by appointing reformer Arne Duncan as Education Secretary, noting that the “inferior education” provided by predominantly black schools “helps explain the pervasive achievement gap.” Duncan started strong, launching his Race to the Top program, which demanded greater teacher accountability.  Unfortunately, the minute President Obama needed a boost to his then-wobbly reelection campaign, he back-burnered Duncan’s reform efforts, appeasing the country’s huge teachers unions. In exchange, he won an important endorsement from the NEA, our country’s largest union, a full year ahead of schedule.  

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To their shame, the leaders of the African-American community tolerate the educational status quo. In New York City’s mayoral contest, candidate Bill Thompson – the only black in the race--has won backing from the UFT, one of the nation’s largest union locals.  

Union leaders stated that Thompson would “address the needs of teachers,” according to The New York Times, including “reducing standardized testing and ending the city’s practice of closing low-performing schools.” Why would anyone want to preserve our worst schools? To keep teachers on the payroll; it’s all about the money.

Money talks and the teachers’ unions have plenty to throw around. In New York, the UFT has about $2.5 million in the kitty, as well as some 200,000 members to help turn out voters on Election Day. No wonder Thompson has vowed to “raise teacher pay” as soon as he’s elected.

It’s quite a turnaround from the last time he ran for mayor when he objected to a proposed 4 percent pay hikes for teachers, saying the city couldn’t afford the extra payout. Shame on Bill Thompson – he’s the candidate that should most strenuously confront the unions, not pander to them.

Until our African-American leaders target the terrible bigotry of allowing black children to grow up ignorant and often illiterate, their community will continue to suffer.  

Perhaps Newark Mayor Cory Booker will provide some leadership. Mr. Booker, now running for the Senate, has supported the school reform efforts of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, including expanding the number of charter schools and demanding greater teacher accountability.  He is something of a celebrity, and a maverick.  If he becomes an outspoken champion of school reform, despite inevitable political fall-out, he could also become a model. Let us hope so.

After more than two decades on Wall Street as a top-ranked research analyst, Liz Peek became a columnist and political analyst. Aside from The Fiscal Times, she writes for FoxNews.com, The New York Sun and Women on the Web.