A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Failing America

Writes Joe Klein, on today's news concerning the black-white achievement gap in reading, where 12% of black fourth-grade boys and 38% of white fourth-grade boys are designated as proficient:

[...] let's look at it another way: only 38% of white boys are "proficient" at reading, which is a level below true fluency with the printed word. What does that say about our educational system generally? It says, not to put too fine a point on it, that we are becoming a nation of ignoramuses. For more than 40 years, ever since the publication of the Coleman Report, the key variable when it comes to educational achievement is parental involvement; all other factors--money, class size, choice and competition--are peripheral. Over those same forty years, parents have had to work harder to get by--two, three jobs in many cases--as good paying manufacturing jobs vanished. And, over that same period of time, the impact of crap culture--the Jersey Shore-ization of American Society--has increased exponentially. Those effects hit hardest on the poorest families and those with a single-parent trying to do the job of two...but they are endemic across the culture.
It seems to me that these data demand a very serious national discussion, not about race, but about our culture, our values and ourselves.

Great idea. Let's just be sure not to ask any cable news anchors to moderate it.

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I wonder if there are any noticeable differences in results from charter, public, private & parochial schools. I leave out home-schooling because I doubt they exist too much in minority communities (just my speculation).

John,Would you be able to clarify something that is a little unclear in these numbers. Are we to read the 12 and 38 percent as indicating proficient or higher? If so, then the numbers are truly horrifying. If they only indicate a status of proficient as distinct from other categories like fluent, advanced, poor, etc. then the numbers themselves do not tell us anything very clearly.

JP, I assume it means the former: that is, "proficient" should be read as "proficient or better". If that's not right, then the Times article is highly misleading. But I haven't seen the report myself - and I'm not sure if it's out yet.

Notice what Klein doesn't want on his conversation list: the economy, even though he notes the correlation between the spread of "crap culture" and the elimination of the nation's manufacturing employment base. Easier to bloviate about "our culture, our values, and ourselves."

"the key variable when it comes to educational achievement is parental involvement; all other factorsmoney, class size, choice and competitionare peripheral."Can someone please inform the teacher's unions of this? Perhaps instead of spending $578 million of taxpayer's money to build a single high school, we can bribe parents to become involved.

"Over those same forty years, parents have had to work harder to get bytwo, three jobs in many casesas good paying manufacturing jobs vanished." Unquestionably, this is an important factor in this educational collapse. But an even bigger part of the problem is not only that mom may be working lots of hours, but that dad is not around at all. Deterioration in the institution of marriage - especially among African Americans - has meant that fathers frequently are simply not a daily part of many children's lives. And that hurts boys more than girls. And this goes right back to Klein's correct point about the supreme importance of parental involvement.

Here's a book recommendation for the national discussion about education and our values: "Quality Education As A Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement To Transform Public Schools", edited by Theresa Perry, Robert Moses, Joan Wynne, Ernesto Cortes and Lisa Delpit. It's a terrific new collection of essays by some of the top educators and organizers in the country (many of the Catholic, though that's not the focus of the book), that thoughtfully addresses the history and current state of public education in the US.

The proper interpretation is proficient or higher. Proficient means the following," Proficient represents solid academic performance for 4th-graders. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter"The only other two options are basic, which means lacking some achievement necessary for proficiency and advanced which means superior achievement.While I agree that this problem goes far being the race gap, I am rather bothered by Klein's willingness to dismiss the race issue. If we assume that a gap like this has been present for a long time, we must consider the cummulative effect of this kind of gap in achievement over time. The consequences for the communities within which the individuals on the losing side of this gap live are tremendous.The issue only becomes worse as our country moves toward a different paradigm for understanding racial inequality. Increasingly, whites and even some blacks are tired explanations for racial inequality that are external to the individuals who experience the worst effects of the inequality. Instead, more and more blame for racial inequality is placed on the bad choices of individuals. I have argued here this shift represents the "Triumph of White Supremacy."An Op-Ed that I wrote for the Balitmore Sun is a much shorter version of the argument:

Please, not another "national discussion." Really now, things like this have been talked to death already. The problem is that some folks don't want to listen.Perhaps instead of spending $578 million of taxpayers money to build a single high school, we can bribe parents to become involved.No. No they won't get involved. Why? Because they have instead been bribed to believe that government should be the provider of all things. To them, it is not a parent's job to educate, it is not even the job of Hillary's village, rather, it is "the government's" job to do it.Try to suggest a little personal responsibility, and you are sure to get someone to tell you how cold-hearted you are -- don't you know that some people are unable to take care of themselves?? They need the "experts" of government to do it.Even when it comes to the teachers' unions, especially those in the big cities, again, you have the mind-set that "the government" is responsible. It is not the actual teacher who is responsible for better teaching, but the government that is responsible for paying more and giving 100 percent job security, etc., which are supposed to somehow magically result in better student outcomes.

Most people do not see it as cost-effective to educate native labor. It's much cheaper to import educated labor on an as-needed basis. Imported labor is younger, cheaper, and more docile. As long as that basic truth holds up, nothing is going to change.

Bender said: "Try to suggest a little personal responsibility, and you are sure to get someone to tell you how cold-hearted you are dont you know that some people are unable to take care of themselves?? They need the experts of government to do it."Sounds simple and seems to fit in with what the statisticians say they are seeing.So by this logic, the children of conservatives, who are the people claiming to most value this personal responsibility, must be the best educated people in America, right?

The report mentioned by the NYT and then Klein cites NAEP numbers, which were explained a bit in a recent NYRB article (p2 6). Which is not to dismiss the CGCS paper, just to explain what it means by proficiency.

Education. Just say that word and everyone has an opinion. The problem is more complex than lack of parental involvement, race, cultural decline, lack of money, etc. School has become more like a daycare center and less of an educational center. How should we solve this problem? I don't know, but I wish with all my heart I did! p.27: "proficient" means "at or above proficient"NAEP:Fourth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to integrate and interpret texts and apply their understanding of the text to draw conclusions and make evaluations. 238 Proficient 234 Use an example to support opinion about a poem229 Recognize main problem faced by historical figure221 Interpret character's statement to provide character trait220 Recognize reason for action by a historical figure220 Use information across text to infer and recognize character trait219 Recognize main idea not explicitly stated in article216 Provide a relevant fact from an article211 Recognize main purpose of informational science text... (the list goes on to more and more basic criteria)...Unfortunately this is much too abstract for me to be able to tell whether the results are reason for worry or not.

As Eugene notes above the emphasis is not where it should be on the lack of a manufacturing base and the outsourcing of highly skilled jobs, I would add. Further, when one calls for assistance, especially a technical expert in India, it takes 15 minutes or more for the person to just get your name and address straight. There are so many skilled computer programmers and other skilled technicians without jobs. This is a result of greed. The most motivated workers cannot find work when there is none. What good does the eduation do when greed takes over? That extra 3% that the super rich got just emboldens them to buy more candidates who will enhance their greed.

Craig,The NYRB article was great. Among other things, it does offer a clearer explanation of what the terms mean:

The highest level of performance, advanced, is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, proficient, is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is basic, which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is below grade level. But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are below basic, who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.

Given the above, I am now further convinced that the real story line out of the research is the race gap.Bender: As I try to argue in the probably too long discussion of the "Triumph of White Supremacy," one should assume that individuals are 100 percent responsible for the choices they make. The mistake is to assume that responsibility for individual choices and responsibility for racial inequality overlap. I try to argue that, first glance appearances notwithstanding, there is NO overlap between these two issues. They are not only distinct questions, they are separate problems.

I must repeat this yet again: my fine emedial English teacher friend, who is herself black, says that if parents aren't seen to read their children won't read. Unfortunately, many,many parents are functionally illiterate and need to be taught to read themselves. I don't hear anyone talking about this problem.In New Orleans now experiment is still the order of the day, and most schools are charter schools. Some are doing extremely well -- and, yes, those have a lot of parental involvement, plus some other advantages most schools don't have, like particularly good principals, many volunteer tutors, and, money. A few have help from the likes of Harvard, etc. Even if the parents of the children don't read well, their children are seeing them involved in the planning and execution of ebuilding their schools. Very encouraging, and though many schools continue to fail, a lot of progress has been made. So don't despair.

P. S. Another extremely important factor seems to be that the teachers show confidence in the kids. At some schools, for instance, they talk about when the kids will go to college, not just if they go. At some schools with really disadvantaed students teachers have penants of the highly selective colleges decorating their classrooms. It's the "Yes, we can" factor, and it's extremely important.

OK, so I can't spell "pennant".

The A/B and the Archdiocese of New York is closing 32 schools mostly in the Bronx. 'Not enough kids' ???? ha ha ha.. [let's blame unions.. ] real reason... not enough money from the fleeing Catholics in the burbs..The good news ...Bronx kids transferring to public schools will bring the reading level up from 12% to 13.5 % for at least one year. Hooray

I read recently in one of those "best-countries-in-which-to-live" articles that Finland, Norway, and Sweden were the top three countries. (If I remember correctly, the U.S. placed ninth.) Many factors were used in the evaluations, including quality of educational systems, and all three of these Scandinavian countries were cited for their strong emphasis on education. High school graduation rates are quite high in all three, for example, and perhaps the determining factor for the rates is that in each country, but especially in Finland, there is very early intervention (at age 3 or 4, for example) that is ongoing and substantial, even to the degree of assigning paraeducators to a particular child for years at a time so that there is both consistency and continuity in the educational assistance a particular child might need.All of this comes at a financial cost, however, and tax rates in all three of these countries are higher than the tax rates in the U.S. There are also obvious differences in the population sizes and diversity in these countries when they are compared to the U.S., so maybe their intervention models could not be applied as is. Still, there seems to be a societal commitment to recognizing the value of education that may provide some lessons for building a better educational system in the U.S.

Amen to Bill Collier on the importance of funding early childhood ed8cation and , I would add, that schools be funded properly.Yes, we need parental involvement and real valuation of learning; yes, we need teachers who are acclountable, but not based solely on multiple(overused) standardized tests.Ed Gleason noted that the NY archdiocese is closing a number of schools,and, from the NY News report I read, Ed's point tha money not "excellence" as the Abp. proclaimed previously is driving that.I think the Church has a real service example, if it wants to evangelize, in education of the poor.In NY, does anyone really know how well off or poorly off the Archdiocese is?NYC is getting a new schools honcho, a mamager not an educator.What about that choice and its impact?I just think we need to beware of simple answers and ask more of all the players, including our Church.

Re: Finland/Norway/Sweden: I suppose it could be argued that the US education system is a rousing success if you visit the right suburbs or Catholic schools or gentrified urban enclaves. A lot of kids do get good educations in the US. But the same approach to education fails a lot of other kids here. Why does it work in some places and not work in others?

Public school teachers are required to have credentials based on education courses rather than on coursework in what they will actually teach. People planning to major in education get the lowest scores on the GRE test. But with the explosion of media, there's no need for even well-prepared teachers to try to keep their classes interested or to keep up with the latest developments in their fields. Instead of lectures from a teacher on the war in the Pacific, show the students "The Pacific" from HBO. (It's going to be on again this weekend.) Or, instead of lame textbook accounts of the Civil War, show the Ken Burns series. (PBS provides classroom materials to accompany viewing.) of growing bread mold in "science", let little kids watch the Nova show about dogs that was on last night and try to interpret barks.

I find it a little interesting that no one on this thread is touching the race issue. Is this part of our problem in the United States? We have massive racial inequalities, but no one is comfortable talking about them.

Amen also to Joe.The writings of Jonathan Kozol underscore the inequalities minorities suffer in public education.It strikes me that as balancing the books continues to superced service, a decline in the black Catholic comunity is a sad inevitability and one that is not very Christ like.

Joe,Two things. We do have many blacks who are very wealthy. What is their record in helping to overcome this equality? Second, while I agree that the race issue is ignore. At the same time many middle class people in this country are undergoing hardship. Six out of ten are living paycheck to paycheck. While we must continue to work against racial inequalities, we should not overlook the severe plight of the middle class.

"the children of conservatives, who are the people claiming to most value this personal responsibility, must be the best educated people in America, right?"The best educated kids in America today tend to be those who are home to the extent that those homeschooling parents are conservative...

"We have massive racial inequalities, but no one is comfortable talking about them."Jaw-Dropping Data on Black Male Student Achievement. According to the report, poverty levels are only part of the equation because poor white boys (defined by eligibility for subsidized school lunches) are doing as well as black boys who do not live in poverty. Its about the culture.

P Flanagan: What do you think accounts for the persistent presence of what you call "the culture" in black communities? I have know idea what your thoughts are, but here is where I think most of white America, and even some of black America, is on this question:I think the conclusion is that blacks are assumed to be broken in some fundamental way until proven otherwise, and that general brokennes explains the persistence of the culture. This position allows whites to think that some blacks are not broken, and so seems to absolve them of any kind of universal racism. But, it only replaces one form of racism with another. A stigma that affects all blacks still exists. While not longer thought of as inferior as such, they remain suspect as such. Even those who are deemed not broken live under a level of scrutiny that no white has to endure. While tentatively accepted into white culture, that same culture is always on the lookout for signs of underlying brokenness.

Ah, that should read "I have no idea" in the second line above.

Alright. I know that multiple consecutive posts are a no-no, but I forgot to respond to Bill. Bill, you comment is interesting on multiple levels. I am not clear on the relevance of wealthy black people to racial inequality. If racial inequality is a problem for "we the people," then their responsibility is no different than ours.As for the middle class, social concern is not a zero sum game. However, I do think your comment hints at a very real dynamic. As the middle and lower economic classes get hit harder, their sympathy for any public and political response to racial inequality will be even lower than before precisely because they will want to know why their needs are not being met, instead. It is a rather tragic situation.The longer we get from the end of most publicly sanctioned forms of racial discrimination, ever more people will conclude that the only real cause of racial inequality lies with the inferiority of those who experience the worst consequences of that inequality.The more it is concluded that poor black people are simply inferior, the less people will be willing to support efforts to eliminate racial inequality. Why try to change what is simply the natural outcome of broken lives?

Ed:here is the list of possible school closings/consolidations in the NY Archdiocese. half of the closings are in NYC, the other half in the suburbs; there are five each in Manhattan and the Bronx and four in Staten Island. And one Bronx high school.A form letter went home to parents with kids in all of the Catholic Schools saying they are considering closing schools and they are having meetings/discussions with the stakeholders of the schools in question to figure out a sustainability plan. Our school is not on the list; the form letter said we should all be prepared to embrace new students from schools that might close. I'm actually impressed by the current process (the fact that there even is a process and that it has some transparency and involves the parents, staff and leadership of the schools).Race and class is of course in play. The schools in the Bronx that are closing are in poor neighborhoods and, so, mostly Hispanic. I can't speak to the rest, but one school in Manhattan, Good Shepherd in Inwood, is in a rapidly gentrifying community. I think the students are mostly low- and moderate-income Latinos, the newcomers with money aren't sending their kids to parochial school in the neighborhood. I'm a little curious how this all turns out, because our Archbishop wrote a heated blog post a few months ago complaining that the Archdiocese is unfairly blamed for school closings and similar actions, which were, he said decided by the parishes/local leadership. He emphasized subsidiarity; it will be interesting to see whether, in these coming discussions, the parents and parishes will actually have a real voice in determining whether their schools stay open. I guess the experts will have to figure out how to address the race and class inequalities in the system overall, but anyone who wants to do their small part to help, there is a tuition assistance fund to help low-income inner city kids attend Catholic School. You can contribute at this link.

Joe - you do a great job highlighting the dimensions of racial disparity.What's the solution?

Jim: Ha! Why the solution is...way more complicated than can be discussed in a brief blog post. However, the following may be thought of as suggestions.The single greatest structure creating and maintaining racial inequality is the intertwining of two realities: 1) the segregation of "opportunity" housing by race and income, combined with 2) the connection between public education and where one lives. The effects of this structural denial of opportunity to many blacks has been going on for decades and has been intensifying in its effects within the last decade. This structural problem can be broken by the creation of lower-income housing in higher opportunity neighborhoods. This is not a return to projects in any way. One very easy way to do it is "inclusionary zoning" where new housing construction projects are required to make a certain percentage of their units affordable to lower income and public housing residents. It has worked wonderfully in places like Montgomery County Maryland for more than 20 years. A second important change would be to decouple public education funding from a reliance on local property tax revenue. Finally, increasing the number of higher value rental vouchers enabling more low income households to rent in higher opportunity neighborhoods would help.The single greatest obstacle to improving poor black neighborhoods is the presence of illegal drug markets. I have discussed this problem more here:, a dramatic expansion of childcare vouchers would both increase the job opportunities for low income households and increase the educational attention that it so crucially important for the very young, and young children in these households. There is research showing the benefits of these vouchers, just not enough of them.Fourth, bringing higher education back to prisons and improving the job training in prisons would help.Fifth, a massive investment in after school and weekend programs for young people in poor neighborhoods.So, problem solved, right?

Jim, I should add to the above the necessity of a paradigm shift in our public understanding of racial inequality. The presence of massive racial inequality needs to be understood as OUR problem, not THEIR problem (them being poor black people). Allowing massive racial inequality to endure should be understood to indicate a problem with and a failing by US, not by THEM. And remember, I say all this while affirming that individuals are 100 percent responsible for the choices they make in their lives (and that include the responsibility of those who choose to do nothing about racial injustice).Lest anyone doubt the persistence of massive racial inequality, these numbers should put those doubts to rest:

A note on school closings in Y: some of the"Burbs" are quite poor and black -cf. Mt. Vernon and parts of Yonkers. I think the closing of St. Anne's in Ossining is inexsplicable recallin from our visits there how the Church had well integrated the various latino groups arriving.It sounds to me like straight black and whit emoney guides the picture (under the rubric of"excellence") and that underscores Joe's point on how race is tremendously important even in Holy Mother.

Hi, Joe, just want to acknowledge that I saw your solutions post, and don't have anything intelligent or otherwise to comment on them. I'm for trying all of 'em.Regarding their problem vs. our problem - it seems that US history in the 20th century was that 'their' problem became 'our' problem only when riots broke out and 'our' well-being and property was at risk. The metropolitan area I live in was infamous thirty years ago for being the most racially segregated city in America, and I'd have to say that most of the basic geographic patterns haven't changed very much. 'They' are out-of-sight, out-of-mind for most of 'us'. (By the way, the same is true of the poor in suburbia). In the city, 'they' ride the same trains and buses that 'we' do, but that may be the extent of interaction. My work life when I lived in the city was that once I left the subway, I proceeded to an office tower that was almost entirely 'us'.

Joe Pettit --Excellent post on how to help the black disadvantaged. There *are* ways that do work. They also work for white disadvantaged people.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment