No Excuses

According to a Los Angeles Times story (March 17, 2000), written by education reporter Richard Lee Colvin, sixty percent of Los Angeles eighth-graders do not know their multiplication tables. Education rot like that is common in large cities across America, but it doesn't have to be that way.

The Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation has recently published a study by Samuel Casey Carter titled, "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing Poverty Schools." The study will knock your socks off. New York city's Frederick Douglas Academy teaches grades 7 through 12. Eighty percent of its students are from Harlem's low-income families. Seventy-nine percent of Frederick Douglas Academy students are black; 19 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian or white. Demographics like those spell education disaster in most schools, but not at Frederick Douglas. In 1998, 93 percent of its students passed the U.S. History Regents examination. In English and pre-calculus examinations, the passing rates were 88 and 87 percent respectively. In the Global History Regents examination, considered by many to be the state's most challenging, 95 percent passed compared to 54 percent citywide.

On the opposite side of the nation, in Los Angeles' sea of education squalor, sits Marcus Garvey School. Its black students routinely score two or three or more years above grade level in core subjects. Advanced mathematics is routine. Now get this: Marcus Garvey pre-schoolers add and subtract two-digit numbers, four-year-olds know their multiplication tables and 4th graders study elementary algebra. In 1999, three Marcus Garvey seventh graders began attending West Los Angeles Junior College after testing at the post-secondary level in all subjects.

What's the story? Nationwide, schools with 75 percent low-income black students typically score below the 35th percentile on national exams, while black students in the 21 schools in Samuel Carter's report score at least at the 65th percentile and most instances higher. Education experts produce all manner of excuses for the academic failure of black students. They talk about racial discrimination, poverty, crime, drugs, classes too large, too little money for education and sometimes the legacy of slavery. So, you might ask, how come black children at the twenty-one schools in the Carter report haven't fallen victim to the educational plague that's destroying career chances of so many other black children? Could it be that racists just couldn't locate these children and victimize them?

The reason why there's academic excellence in the schools is that the principals accept no excuses for failure. For example, Frederick Douglas Academy's, head master, Gregory Hodge, says, "If you're not interested in hard work, then Frederick Douglas is not for you." His school has "12 non-negotiables" that go from prohibition of chewing gum and candy to respect for oneself, one's associates and everyone's property. Non-compliance means immediate dismissal.

Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglas Academy are private schools but excellence is possible at public schools. P.S. 161 is a public school in Brooklyn, New York. When principal Irwin Kurz first came to P.S. 161 thirteen years ago, its test scores ranked in the bottom 25 percentile in Brooklyn's 17th District.

Today, P.S. 161 ranks as the best in the district and 40th out of 674 elementary schools in New York City. P.S. 161 packs 35 students to a classroom and 98 percent of its students are from low-income families, but the teachers make neither class size, poverty or anything else an excuse for poor performance. Its principal Irwin Kurz says, "It's a lot of garbage that poor kids can't succeed."

Education excellence is possible among black students. It's only the education establishment, civil rights groups and racists who challenge that fact.

Walter E. Williams
April 24, 2000
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