NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Trying To Boost Black Students' Performance

July 26, 1996

Educators and policy-makers have tried any number of programs over the years to better educate black youngsters. But the overall performance scores remain disappointing.

A U.S. Department of Education study compared the reading test scores of black 17-year-olds with those of white students going back to the 1979-80 school year, with these findings:

  • In the period 1979-80 through 1987-88, black students significantly improved their reading skills -- although they continued to trail white students.
  • From 1987-88 through 1991-92, black scores entered a decline -- while white's scores continued a modest increasing trend.

While for some in the educational bureaucracy the answer will always be more money, others point to the need for tough and involved administrators and teachers, as well as involved parents and guaranteed safety on school premises.

In a 1976 article, "Patterns of Black Excellence," Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, pointed to a tradition of black achievement dating to well before the civil rights era.

From the post-Civil War era to the 1950s, pupils at some leading all-black schools in Atlanta, New Orleans, Brooklyn and Washington, D. C., more than held their own against most white high school students.

At Dunbar High School in Washington, D. C., for example, black students had higher attendance records and better city-wide test scores than whites -- despite run-down facilities and fewer teachers.

Sowell credits these factors for the black students' performance:

  • Teachers were dedicated, qualified and demanding.
  • They would often personally appeal to and persuade financially-strapped parents to keep their children in school rather than sending them off to work.
  • Rather than excusing poor performance because of a student's background -- too often the case today -- teachers had high expectations of students.

Others also cite factors such as trust and cooperation among teachers, principals and parents, and safety in school halls. When those factors fade, trouble follows.

  • In the early 1990s, 3 million crimes were attempted or completed each year inside schools or on school property.
  • Nearly 300,000 high school students are attacked each month -- and one in every 20 teachers is assaulted each year.
  • A 1993 Harris poll revealed that 13 percent of students at some time had carried a knife or gun to school.

Not surprisingly, students who reported being crime victims at school tended to have lower grades. Moreover, the best teachers resist transfers to more dangerous schools.

Such conditions forced the U.S. Department of Education to spend $480 million in fiscal year 1995 on its new Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program.

Source: Carl Horowitz, "History 101 for Black Schools," Investor's Business Daily, July 26, 1996.


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