One of the most frequent refrains emanating from the current debate about urban education, repeated by everyone from President Clinton on down, is that we know “what works” and it’s simply a matter of putting that knowledge to use. Would that it were true. If nothing else, this collection of scholarly articles on the disparity between blacks and whites on test scores shows how remarkably little we really know. And since the federal education bureaucrats have made it quite clear that they would rather have toothpicks hammered under their fingernails than apply a research agenda to this sensitive topic, the task is likely to fall largely to private philanthropy.
The book, which is a response to The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, disputes the contention that intelligence is largely inherited, but it also clears away much of the intellectual debris that has built up around the test score gap. That gap, the book makes clear, is real, it is large, and it matters. The opening chapter, written by the volume’s editors Christopher Jencks of Harvard and Meredith Phillips of UCLA, begins with a summary of the undisputed facts:
“African Americans currently score lower than European-Americans on vocabulary, reading, and mathematics tests, as well as tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. The gap appears before children enter kindergarten and persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests. On some tests the typical American black scores below more than 85 percent of whites.”
Moreover, the discrepancy is not the result of “cultural bias.” Jencks personally takes this urban myth out back and puts it out of its misery in the second chapter, where he summarizes research showing that blacks actually score somewhat better on questions that test critics have alleged are culturally biased.
A chapter by Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan neatly summarizes the evidence casting doubt on the contention of Murray and Herrnstein that intelligence is largely genetic. Readers inclined to this point of view will find Nisbett’s evidence overwhelming. Those inclined to be skeptical will probably not. (This writer found that he emerged with his uncertainty intact.) Either way, pursuing the question of whether intelligence is congenital has come to seem a fool’s errand. Genetic research should soon settle the matter one way or the other, and unless the answer is that environment has no influence whatsoever (which would surprise even Murray) we will still have the task of finding ways to improve the scores of black children.
It won’t be easy, because the answers lie hidden below the surface of readily accessible social and economic indicators. Family income does not appear to make much of a difference, everyone now seems to agree, and differences in educational attainment between black and white parents are already approaching the vanishing point, at least as measured by years of school attended.
Jencks and Phillips write that their “best guess” is that “instead of trying to trace the black-white test score gap to economic or demographic influences, successful theories will probably have to pay more attention to psychological and cultural differences that are harder to describe accurately . . . .” If there is greater significance to socioeconomic background, for instance, it will require delving into such matters as the quality of the education received. Or if it turns out that pulling up children’s scores is a process that takes several generations, it will become important for researchers to factor in the educational attainment of grandparents.
The fifteen separate articles that make up the book’s chapters suggest that there are a number of parenting and educational strategies that offer promise, ranging from smaller class size (which appears to benefit blacks more than whites) to Marva Collins’s “Great Expectations” program, which celebrates the achievements of students at all levels.
This is the rare program that appears to work equally well for black kids in inner-city Chicago and white kids in rural Oklahoma, but final proof, it’s conceded, isn’t there yet for either Great Expectations or most of the other solutions that glimmer on the book’s pages. In fact, nearly every chapter concludes with a sentence like: “The full story [on the effect of teacher expectations] is quite complicated and parts of it hang by thin threads of evidence;” or, “Despite strong opinions on both sides of the debate, the available research yields no general prescription about separating children by ability.” One chapter even goes on for 40 pages exploring possible reasons that black scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests rose faster than white scores during the 1970s and 1980s, before stopping cold in 1988, only to acknowledge at the end that there is no coherent explanation at present.
Jencks and Phillips complain in their summary that the most encouraging piece of educational research done in the past generation, the Tennessee class size experiment, was undertaken not by the federal government, but the Tennessee legislature. (“The same body that brought us the Scopes Trial,” Jencks noted during a discussion of the book at Brookings.) “The United States,” he and Phillips write, “ought to be conducting large-scale experiments aimed at reducing the uncertainty about the effects of schools racial mix, class size, teacher selection systems, ability grouping, and many other policies. . . . But the U.S. Department of Education has shown almost no interest in this approach to advancing knowledge about education.”
In some cases, the reluctance is understandable. One of the few areas where there is a firm underpinning of research, according to chapter “Can Schools Narrow the Gap?” by Ronald Ferguson of the Kennedy School at Harvard, is the finding that the surest way to raise the scores of students is to have teachers who themselves received high test scores. Yet one knows that any attempt to remove low-scoring teachers and replace them with high-scoring ones will have to move forward over the cold, dead bodies of teacher union leaders. And to the extent that such an effort curtails the job prospects of African American teachers, it would also have to overpower mainstream civil rights groups, which invariably take the side of black adults over black children.
This will indeed be a dirty job, but somebody has to try it.
One final note is perhaps in order. This book is unlikely to supplant The Bell Curve in part because it’s not as well written, with most articles left untranslated from the original social science-ese. Where Murray and Herrnstein took a chapter to explain what a “standard deviation” is, readers of this book must be prepared to deal with not just standard deviations, but bivariate regressions, coefficients, and t-statistics.
And while Jencks and Phillips try to summarize the common ground shared by the two dozen authors, there’s no getting around the fact that the book represents a somewhat uneasy confederation. The whole question of whether black male students are inhibited by fear of being accused of “acting white,” for example, is presented as an unresolved debate.
What does hold the book together is an apparent shared desire—uncommon in much educational research—to deal with the facts as they are, rather than as the researchers might like them to be. And when they don’t have the answers they would like, the authors are honest enough to admit it.
David Boldt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.