No Excuses

During his State of the Union address, Clinton said he wants $22 billion in additional funds to improve public education. The President's code words suggest that a good portion of these funds will be targeted to schools serving minority children. Let's look at a sample of what really needs to be done.

Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School serves the violent, drug-infested, single-parent Acres Homes section of Houston. All of its 93 percent black and six percent American-Mexican student body qualify for Title I money for disadvantaged children and Wesley meets all of the conditions for the standard education establishment set of excuses for why minority children can't learn. But educational rot is not the story at Wesley. Tyce Palmaffy tells us why in "No Excuses," in Policy Review (February 1998), a journal of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

When Mr. Thaddeus Lott became Wesley's principal in 1975, only 18 percent of third-graders scored at or above grade level in reading comprehension. By 1980, 85 percent were achieving at or above grade level. In 1996, 100 percent of Wesley's third-graders passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) in reading. Wesley's student's test scores are higher than some suburban schools. This success was a result of a solid curriculum, rigorous teacher training, strict discipline, high expectations of teachers and students, a fervent belief that any child can learn and lastly a determined principal. Thaddeus Lott says, "It's a myth that if you're born poor in a poor community and your skin is a certain color that you can't achieve on a higher level." Parents agree, so much so that many falsify addresses so their children can attend Wesley.

Wesley has the kind of "oppressive" rules I experienced fifty-some years ago when I was in elementary school: no disruptions are tolerated, kids must walk through the halls quietly, single file, with hands folded. Fighting is forbidden. Foul language to teachers and other students is a no-no. New teachers are told that if they want to interpret their contracts literally Wesley is not the place for them. They're told, "You're going to work through lunch, past 5 P.M. and on Saturdays but you're also going to get disciplinary support, the materials you need, and all

the training you require. Palmaffy's article doesn't mention it but it sounds as though Wesley's kids can be subjected to the "oppression" I suffered - being kept after school.

Lott's philosophy was an anathema to Houston's superintendent of schools. His success prompted school administrators to question the validity of Wesley's test scores. Lott says, "They assumed that if minority kids were doing well on tests, they had to be cheating." The district sent a pair of investigators to Wesley to look for foul play, but they came away empty-handed.

Lott's success, now at three other schools operating under a charter arrangement, proves that commonsense and courage, not education experts, research and loads of money, can produce an environment where kids can achieve. The Wesley story proves what I have always said: minority kids can be educated. It can be done without astronomical budgets - it's $2,500 per child at Wesley.

The few principals like Lott have proven that being poor, being from female-headed households and rotten neighborhoods doesn't mean a kid can't be educated. Here's my question for black parents. How long are we going to listen to education establishment excuses and how many generations of black kids are we willing to sacrifice before we demand accountability? We've listened to the more-money nonsense of politicians and educators for decades. Only the Ku Klux Klan can be happy with the results.

Walter E. Williams


February 2, 1998