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Education: then and now, Thomas Sowell

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Education: then and now
Jan 12, 2006
by Thomas Sowell

Recent news that school children in Charlotte, North Carolina, had the highest test scores among children in big cities across the country had a special impact on me. Back in the late 1930s, I went to school in Charlotte and, while I don't know what the test scores were then, I do know that we were far behind the children going to school in New York.

That became painfully clear when my family moved north and I enrolled in a school in Harlem in 1939. From being the top student in my class down in North Carolina I was suddenly the bottom student in my class in Harlem -- and struggling to try to catch up.

Decades later, my research turned up the fact that the kids I couldn't keep up with in that school back then had an average IQ of 84. Contrary to fashionable beliefs, it was not the racial segregation that made the education inferior in Charlotte, since the school in Harlem was also a black school.

It was common in those days for a kid from the South to be set back a full year when he entered school in New York. The difference in educational standards was that great.

I had somehow persuaded the principal to let me be an exception. It was a mistake on his part and mine. I was clearly a year behind the kids who had gone to school in Harlem.

Three years later, I had caught up and pulled ahead, and was now assigned to a class for advanced students, where the average IQ was over 120.

That does not mean that IQs don't matter. It means that I had a lot of work to do to get my act together in the meantime, in order to overcome the disadvantage of an inferior education in North Carolina.

Fast forward a few more years. I am now in the Marine Corps, going through boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. When the mental test results from my platoon were tabulated, the man in charge expressed amazement at how many high scores there were.

"Where are you guys from?" he asked. "New York? Pennsylvania?"

We were from New York -- and the high quality of our schools at that time was undoubtedly a factor in the high test scores we made.

No one in those days would have thought that Charlotte schools would end up turning out better educated students than the schools in New York. I don't know what has happened in Charlotte but I do know what has happened in New York.

Some years ago, when I looked at the math textbooks that my nieces in Harlem were using, I discovered that they were being taught in the 11th grade what I had been taught in the 9th grade. Even if they were the best students around, they would still be two years behind -- with their chances in life correspondingly reduced.

New York City has two kinds of high school diplomas -- its own locally recognized diploma, that is not recognized by the state or by many colleges, and the state's Regents' diploma for high school graduates who have scored above a given level on the Regents' exam.

The Regents diploma is for students who are serious about going on to a good college. Only 9 percent of black students and 10 percent of Latino students receive Regents diplomas.

That a Southern city's school children would now top the list of big city test scores may be due to the fact that the South has not jumped on the bandwagon of the latest fads in education to the same extent as avant garde places like New York City, where spending per pupil is about 50 percent above the national average.

These fads now include the dogma that racial "diversity" improves education, as does emphasis on racial "identity." In reality, a recent study shows that black students who perform well in racially integrated schools are unpopular with their black classmates. They are accused of "acting white," a charge that can bring anything from ostracism to outright violence.

The same is not true to the same extent among blacks attending all-black schools. Hispanic students' popularity likewise falls off sharply -- even more so than among blacks -- as their grade-point average rises.

Is it surprising that white and Asian American children do better without these self-inflicted handicaps to academic achievement? Is it surprising that New York City schools are now paying the price for avant garde educational dogmas?

Sowell is a Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow.
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