Acton Commentary

Modern Myths about Race and School Performance


Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the debate about race and academic performance has in many places gone terribly off the mark. The remarkable achievement of the Supreme Court ruling, which declared the legal segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional, was the foundation set for equality of opportunity. Today, the focus has shifted from equality of opportunity to equality of academic result and — even further from the point — to issues only indirectly related to schooling. Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, for example, perceives freely chosen residential patterns in America as a basis for “resegregation” hysteria. When used to attack issues such as residential patterns, the real legacy of Brown is misunderstood.

The Brown decision guarantees that no student will be turned away from attending a public school in his neighborhood because of race. However, freedom to integrate may not result in the integration many of us hope for — as we learned through failed forced busing programs. If a neighborhood is racially integrated, then the neighborhood school will reflect that integration for those residents choosing public education. When neighborhood demographics change, or when parents choose other education options, public school demographics will change accordingly. This is a separate issue from legal racial segregation prohibited by Brown . The Harvard Project’s 2004 study, “ Brown at 50: King’s Dream or Plessy’s Nightmare?,” falsely implies that the aim of Brown was to “remedy” segregation in general. The ruling was not intended to contain an implicit, far more extensive, and ultimately impracticable requirement that every neighborhood be integrated. Residential segregation by choice is constitutional. When we find it we should not lament that we are “turning back the clock.”

Exaggerations concerning the desired results of racial integration, moreover, often cause us to rely on racially contrived data to gauge America’s social progress. Misusing race in this way has led us to widespread belief in several myths.

Myth No. 1: Race is a helpful measure of academic achievement disparities.

Racial comparisons in education actually reveal very little. What’s more, the achievement of white students as a group is not a very good standard. A more valuable analysis of American education makes comparisons to students in other developed countries. No race in America should represent the standard for evaluation because American students, collectively, lag behind students in other countries. For example, a 2003 Department of Education study found eighth-grade American students lagging behind Canadian, Russian, and Japanese students in math. They also trailed Canadian and Japanese students in science. We should focus on raising academic performance for all American students, not just select racial and ethnic groups.

Myth No. 2: Students at predominantly minority schools cannot succeed.

Thomas Sowell tells of an all black high school that, from 1870 to 1955, repeatedly equaled or exceeded national norms on standardized tests. During the entire 85-year history of Washington’s M Street/Dunbar High School, most of its 12,000 graduates went on to higher education, an unusual achievement for any school—white or black—during this era. Some M Street/Dunbar School graduates attended Harvard and other elite colleges in the early twentieth century. Sowell reports, “As of 1916, there were nine black students, from the entire country, attending Amherst College. Six were from the M Street/Dunbar School. During the period from 1918 to 1923, graduates of this school went on to earn 25 degrees from Ivy League colleges, Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan. The first blacks to graduate from West Point and Annapolis also came from this school. So did the first black full professor at a major university (Allison Davis at the University of Chicago). So did the first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member, the first black elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction, and the discoverer of a method for storing blood plasma. During World War II, when black military officers were rare, there were more than two dozen graduates of M Street or Dunbar High School holding ranks ranging from major to brigadier general.” Segregated schools also produced such notables as Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshal, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The belief that racial diversity is a key to academic success has no empirical basis. If this myth were true, then it would be difficult to explain racial success in more mono-racial societies such as Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands. One study in San Diego found that Vietnamese and Asian immigrant children had a median grade point average 0.9 points higher than Mexican immigrants, and 0.8 points higher than students overall in San Diego. Membership in a racial minority does not cause sub-standard academic achievement.

Myth No. 3: Increased funding will remove the achievement gap between minority and white students.

Since 1980, we have increased federal education spending by 81 percent to the tune $147.9 billion in fiscal year 2002, and the disparities continue. More money does not automatically lead to improved academic performance. If it did, American students would be among the highest achieving students in the world. Instead, we continue to lag behind Japan, Germany, and France in high school graduation rates. In Chicago, for example, 20 percent of public school students drop out before graduation.

Myth No. 4: Student performance has nothing to do with hard work.

We have forgotten that student achievement actually involves hard-working students and talented teachers. Students who work hard and are challenged have the best chance of success. Perhaps this last myth is the most damaging of all. Hard work will cure a lot of the problems that are commonly attributed to a lack of funding or lack of diversity. Racial diversity, and the presence of white kids specifically, do not result in minority students achieving more—intense studying every day does. The human person was created with an innate desire to know and the potential to use acquired knowledge. Fostering this God-given desire and potential leads to personal fulfillment and academic success.

In the final analysis, natural ability and a strong work ethic on the part of teachers and students have more to do with student success than any other factors. Recognition of that fact would put the responsibility for achievement on individual students and teachers. Blaming the unquantifiable scapegoats of “race” and “class” would no longer be convenient in a climate of individual irresponsibility. Respect for the dignity of every student demands that educators, parents, and students themselves take an honest look at their efforts and judge how well they are fulfilling their own responsibilities.