Failure Starts Young
A school is for: a) diversity; b) learning to read?
by Daniel Henninger, January 24, 2003, The Wall Street
Journal Opinion Page
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The Spanish teacher, Mr. Miller, I don't feel was qualified to
teach Spanish at all because he didn't seem to know too much
Spanish hisself. He was also absent from class. And when I say
absent, I mean I would see him there, but he wouldn't come to
my actual period . . . . We had a numerous amount of
substitutes in that classroom for a while. And during those
times we had those substitutes we watched movies in class. We
played games in class. We basically had a free period where we
did whatever we wanted to. We had different substitutes almost
every day. And then we had a final at the end of that. And I
don't understand how they could have gave us a final in
Spanish when we did not learn a lick of Spanish. I think they
really should have tested me on the movies I was sitting there
That account of a former student at Balboa High School in San
Francisco, quoted in a recent issue of Education Week, is
taken from a class-action lawsuit filed against the State of
California to ensure "the minimum tools necessary to learn."
Three years ago in New York, the percentage of black students
who did not graduate from high school was 54%. In California,
41%. In Tennessee, 54% didn't graduate. And in Wisconsin,
which is thought of as a fairly normal place, the percentage
of black kids who didn't make it out of high school in the
class of 2000 was a mind-boggling 59%.
This data appears in Education Week's annual report, "Quality
Counts." Across the nation, the average non-graduation rate
for black students is 45%. These numbers are surely the same
year in and year out, which means that every June in America,
largely unnoticed and unremarked upon, almost half the
nation's black kids wash over the falls of our urban school
So it strikes me as more than a little ironic that this
country's political leadership, which bears some
responsibility for this human ruin, has entertained us over
the past week or so by arguing over affirmative action and
"diversity" in the admissions policies of such exquisitely
selective, upper-atmosphere places as the University of
Michigan, Harvard, Berkeley, Yale and the other Ivies.
What we know and have known for a very long time is that
nearly half of America's black teenagers haven't a hope of
attending even the least-known two-year community college
anywhere. What is the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson doing about this
scandal? He is calling George W. Bush "the most anti-civil
rights president in 50 years." Given those shameful graduation
rates, one wonders what the "pro-civil rights" presidents were
doing the past 50 years.
Nominally, the issue here is whether there is a quota system
for minority admissions to the University of Michigan,
arguably one of the top 25 schools in the country. It is
remarkable how often the combatants in the debate over college
affirmative-action default to the notion that nothing proves
one's commitment to "diversity" more than one's willingness to
adjust the entry requirements to a Harvard, Yale or Michigan.
For instance, New Jersey Rep. Robert Menendez ripped into Mr.
Bush last week over his legacy admission "into the Ivy
League." Yale? The average black child attending high school
in Newark, Camden, Paterson or Jersey City can barely hope of
getting into, say, Rutgers.
Below the level of the most selective institutions what
affirmative action in college admissions has come to mean in
large part is providing remedial, high-school-level English
and math classes to inner-city freshmen. In 1990, Baruch
College in New York City lost its accreditation from the
Middle States Association for what Middle States called low
student retention rates, meaning that ill-prepared minority
students were dropping or flunking out. In a meeting at our
offices, the head of Middle States said explicitly that
colleges were obligated to provide remedial classes to teach
black students what they hadn't learned in their high schools.
She argued, and it is an interesting argument, that because
the high schools were an admitted wasteland, colleges had a
moral obligation to help minority children get a real
secondary education. If so, where's the outrage over the
wasted billions spent in America on unionized teachers'
salaries in inner-city schools? Senator Lieberman?
This is the real affirmative-action status quo: The Harvards,
Princetons, Amhersts, Michigans and Georgetowns fight like
dogs over the same small pool of high-achieving black and
Hispanic 18-year-olds. Normal middle-class black kids go to
normal colleges like everyone else. And the inner-city kids
with college aspirations but no decent education become fodder
for politicians whose interest above all else is turning the
desperation of minority parents into a Democratic vote.
There was more damning data in the Education Week report. In
the year 2000's standardized NAEP test for math achievement,
this is the percentage of black eighth graders who passed
respectively in some famous states: New York, 8%; California,
6%; Michigan, 6%; Tennessee, 6%; Texas, 7%; Arkansas, 2%.
Indeed the national average for black eighth graders is 6%
compared to 40% for white students, a 34% achievement gap.
George W. Bush has not been in charge of all those failed
schools for 50 years. Who has?
The relationship between a standard college education and a
better lifetime income is well established. But with those
preposterously low achievement and graduation numbers making
college admission on the merits a pipedream, it's no wonder
that the college affirmative-action issue is bitter. The
stakes are high.
There are thousands of two- and four-year colleges in the
United States, and one of the wonders of our country is that
most of them are fine schools. If Detroit's high schools were
as good now as they were 50 years ago, there'd be no need for
the University of Michigan's pious paint-by-numbers admissions
policies. Detroit's high-school seniors could qualify to
attend Lake Superior State or Eastern Michigan, where they'd
If indeed affirmative action for college admissions is still
necessary 40 years after that famous speech on the steps of
the Lincoln Memorial, it is not for reasons of racial
prejudice but because of the disgraceful, 40-year failures of
Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's
editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and