How much are children learning?

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The people who run them would prefer you didn't notice how little our children learn in public schools, despite all the money we spend on them. But if you do notice, they point their fingers at parents. There have been, they say, demographic changes which have reduced the interest parents have in their children's education, the supervision they give them, and the support they provide to teachers.

What they mean is this: In 1970, when our schools were the best in the world, our population was 88 percent white, 11 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic. (This adds up to more than 100 percent because "Hispanic" includes both whites and blacks.) Today, we're 72 percent white, 13 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic.

In 1970, only 10.7 percent of births were to unmarried women. That's risen nearly fourfold, to 41 percent.

I was blessed to have two married parents who loved each other, loved their kids and loved knowledge. Their discipline was strict. Their standards were high. (In the Kelly household, A was for average, B was for bad.)

This matters a lot. But it matters less than those who make excuses for the current system would like you to believe.

There are significant differences in the median incomes of households headed by whites ($51,861), blacks ($32,584) and Hispanics ($38,039). The median income of single-parent households ($16,500) is only a fourth that of two-parent households. But there is little reason to believe black and Hispanic parents love their children less than do white parents, or that single parents are less interested in having their children acquire the knowledge they need to succeed.

Evidence also is sparse for the notion black and Hispanic children have more difficulty learning than white children do. Marva Collins in Chicago and Jaime Escalante in East Los Angeles have demonstrated the opposite.

The economic disparity between whites and blacks was greater during segregation than it is today. But back then, the racial disparity in student performance was smaller. Washington, D.C. was segregated by liberal hero Woodrow Wilson. As you might imagine, far more resources went to the three white high schools than to the one set aside for blacks. But well into the 1950s, students at Dunbar, the black school, often performed better on standardized tests than did the students at the white schools.

The racial disparity in student achievement today can't be explained by a disparity in resources. Per pupil spending in the urban districts where minority children cluster is higher than the national average.

IQ scores for all ethnic groups in America have risen in the last 50 years, but more so for blacks. The gap between whites and blacks is narrower now than it was when there was less difference between them in student achievement. There is dispute over why IQ scores have risen and how accurately IQ tests measure intelligence. Still, the evidence suggests children today should be more capable of learning than were their parents and grandparents.

But they learn much less. The culprits are easy to identify. Back when our schools were the best in the world, students were taught English, history, geography, civics, math and science by teachers who knew these subjects. Students were expected to learn what was presented to them. Those who didn't got failing grades. Their parents got stern notes. Discipline was strictly enforced. Disruptive students were removed from classrooms.

All that's changed, with predictable results. If their teachers don't value knowledge, neither will the kids. Students don't learn what they aren't taught. If a high bar is set for them, most children will strive to reach it. If the bar is set low, most will descend to the level of expectations. Even the best require a kick in the pants from time to time.

jackkelly

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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