Professor Matthew Delmont of Scripps College is giving a talk about how television is to blame for efforts to use busing to affect social policy at Pitzer College. It's hard to know where to even begin with this one, but let's give it a shot with a simple question: Why is busing good?
When we ask that question we are hard pressed to come up with an answer. Most people live in ethnically homogenized neighborhoods. One of the paradoxes of globalization, it seems, as the more choices you seem to afford people, the more they choose to self-segregate.
Anyways, white liberals often make the argument that there are supposedly huge deficiencies in inner-city (read: black or Hispanic) schools and that that necessitates moving, en masse, large numbers of blacks into the suburban school system. This is because they seem to believe in this nebulous nation of "diversity," which, in their view holds that the numbers of racial groups together is in and of itself a good thing. At times it seems this diversity is above the goal of educating all students. If it weren't, liberals would fight for things like school vouchers. In fairness, this seems to be changing in recent years as more liberals favor at least some form of school choice, despite their teachers' union political backers.
Of course, integrated schools suffer from their own problems as Stuart Buck's fascinating book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of De-Segregation. You can read a review of it here.
But few, if anyone, has looked at successful black schools to see if there might be something to be gathered from those schools. Instead of busing, we could use the techniques that worked there. As always, the immortal Thomas Sowell leads the way in his essay, "The Education of Minority Children." I'll give Sowell the final word on the way out.
The quest for esoteric methods of trying to educate these children proceeds as if such children had never been successfully educated before, when in fact there are concrete examples, both from history and from our own times, of schools that have been successful in educating children from low-income families and from minority families. Yet the educational dogma of the day is that you simply cannot expect children who are not middle-class to do well on standardized tests, for all sorts of sociological and psychological reasons.
Those who think this way are undeterred by the fact that there are schools where low-income and minority students do in fact score well on standardized tests. These students are like the bumblebees who supposedly should not be able to fly, according to the theories of aerodynamics, but who fly anyway, in disregard of those theories.
While there are examples of schools where this happens in our own time-- both public and private, secular and religious-- we can also go back nearly a hundred years and find the same phenomenon. Back in 1899, in Washington, D. C., there were four academic public high schools-- one black and three white.1 In standardized tests given that year, students in the black high school averaged higher test scores than students in two of the three white high schools.2
This was not a fluke. It so happens that I have followed 85 years of the history of this black high school-- from 1870 to 1955 --and found it repeatedly equaling or exceeding national norms on standardized tests.3 In the 1890s, it was called The M Street School and after 1916 it was renamed Dunbar High School but its academic performances on standardized tests remained good on into the mid-1950s.
When I first published this information in 1974, those few educators who responded at all dismissed the relevance of these findings by saying that these were "middle class" children and therefore their experience was not "relevant" to the education of low-income minority children. Those who said this had no factual data on the incomes or occupations of the parents of these children-- and I did.
The problem, however, was not that these dismissive educators did not have evidence. The more fundamental problem was that they saw no need for evidence. According to their dogmas, children who did well on standardized tests were middle class. These children did well on such tests, therefore they were middle class.
Lack of evidence is not the problem. There was evidence on the occupations of the parents of the children at this school as far back in the early 1890s. As of academic year 1892-93, there were 83 known occupations of the parents of the children attending The M Street School. Of these occupations, 51 were laborers and one was a doctor.4 That doesn't sound very middle class to me.
Over the years, a significant black middle class did develop in Washington and no doubt most of them sent their children to the M Street School or to Dunbar High School, as it was later called. But that is wholly different from saying that most of the children at that school came from middle-class homes.
During the later period, for which I collected data, there were far more children whose mothers were maids than there were whose fathers were doctors. For many years, there was only one academic high school for blacks in the District of Columbia and, as late as 1948, one-third of all black youngsters attending high school in Washington attended Dunbar High School. So this was not a "selective" school in the sense in which we normally use that term-- there were no tests to take to get in, for example-- even though there was undoubtedly self-selection in the sense that students who were serious went to Dunbar and those who were not had other places where they could while away their time, without having to meet high academic standards. (A vocational high school for blacks was opened in Washington in 1902).5