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Last Updated: 02/23/2018

 Article of Interest - Education

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 watching.
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." Dream on.

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 systems.

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 do fine.

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 our politics.

Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on

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