--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.
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[Find out The Truth about "Acting White".]
[This is the first part of a second open letter to John McWhorter, author of Winning the Race.]
Thanks for your response to my first letter. As I mentioned, I had three major issues/reactions to Winning the Race. The first letter addresses my first issue. This letter addresses the second.
It’s good to know that we are diametrically opposed on the “acting white” issue. Consistency is comforting. I think the “acting white” discussion has distracted America from far more important policy reforms needed to address the black-white achievement gap.
Blacks Value Education as Much, If Not, More Than Whites: The Attitudinal Survey Evidence
You too quickly dismiss the research of James Ainsworth-Darnell and Douglas Downey (“Assessing the Oppositional Culture Explanation for Racial/Ethnic Differences in School Performance,” American Sociological Review 63, 1998: 536-553). As you state in Winning the Race, “Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey find that on the average, black students report more positive attitudes toward school than whites and that black students who report being popular also tend to do well in school” (p.271).
It’s important to realize that one finds this consistently in survey after survey, year after year. In the 1986, the year Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu study was published, the Monitoring the Future survey found that 74 percent of black high school seniors thought that getting good grades was of “great” or “very great importance.” Only 41 percent of white seniors felt the same. Half of black seniors indicated that “knowing a lot about intellectual matters” was of “great” or “very great importance.” Only one-fifth of white seniors felt the same.
In the 1987, the General Social Survey of adults of all ages finds that 90 percent of blacks believed that education is “very important” or “essential” to getting ahead in life. Eighty-three percent of whites felt the same. Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey showed that in the 1990 National Educational Longitudinal Study black students report more pro-school attitudes than white students.
More recent surveys show similar results. A 2006 survey by Public Agenda (see p. 12 of the report), found that 67 percent of black students believed that more math and science courses would improve high school education. Fifty-four percent of white students felt the same. The 2006 Higher Education Research Institute College Freshman Survey finds that 26 percent of the majority-black students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities aspire to obtain a Ph.D., but only 17 percent of freshmen at colleges generally say the same.
When asked, black students also regularly report having lower grades than white students. And, as you also note, they will also admit to spending less time on homework, if asked.
You believe their statements about having lower grades and doing less homework but disbelieve their statements about their pro-school attitudes. Why would black students be deceptive, consciously or unconsciously, about liking school and valuing education but then be generally accurate and straightforward about having relatively low grades? This does not make sense to me. Low grades should be as, if not more, embarrassing than not feeling positive about school. I find black students’ responses convincing precisely because they readily admit details that could be viewed in a negative light.
What we need to realize is, as the song goes, “you can’t always get what you want.” Wanting to do well in school does not guarantee that one has had the necessary preparation and school resources to do well. Current research shows that there is a significant black-white achievement gap way before middle-school when you argue the “acting white” problem begins (Winning the Race, p. 275). We know that black children on average receive less academic preparation, formally and informally, than white students in the pre-kindergarten years. Improving the quantity and quality of black pre-kindergarten education is one of the things that we should be talking about.
The Commission on No Child Left Behind’s report Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children states the following about the importance of teacher quality:
teacher quality is the single most important school factor in student success. There is ample research to show just how critical teachers are. For example, studies in Tennessee, Dallas and elsewhere have shown that good teachers can improve student achievement by as much as a grade level more than less effective teachers over the course of a year. (p.30)They add:
Research also shows that teacher quality is unevenly distributed in schools, and the students with the greatest needs tend to have access to the least qualified and least effective teachers. A study by The Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to making schools and colleges work for all students, examined the distribution of teachers in three states and found that children in high-poverty schools are much more likely than their more advantaged peers to be assigned to novice teachers, to teachers who lack subject matter knowledge and to teachers with lower academic skills (Peske and Haycock 2006). (p.31)I hope that one day the leading black public intellectuals would show interest in discussing the black-white teacher-quality gap—from pre-kindergarten through high school.
Why We Should Believe Black Students’ Pro-Education Survey Responses
What you skip over in your discussion of Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey is that they showed that black responses had similar statistically-measured correlations among answers as white responses. This is quite powerful evidence. If all black students merely responded randomly there would be no correlation. If all black students simply choose very positive responses to education/school questions, there would be no correlation. It is pretty much impossible for a survey like the National Education Longitudinal Study to yield similar statistical correlations without there being a truly similar relationship among the answers black students give as among the answers white students give. If you think the white students are presenting accurate information then, from a statistical standpoint, you are also endorsing the black student responses.
I can provide a simple example of this idea and test your hypothesis that 1960s black nationalism caused blacks to devalue or detach themselves from the educational endeavor. Since the General Social Survey is a nationally-representative survey of adults, we can do analyses of black adults of different ages on their views on how important education is for success.
If we compare blacks who were 18 years old or younger in 1965—40 years old in 1987—with blacks who were 19 or older in 1965, your hypothesis receives no support. Forty-five percent of the younger blacks, who you argue are disengaged from education, believe that education is “essential”—the extreme positive choice—for success. Only 30 percent of older blacks, who you argue highly value education, felt the same.
Now if we examine whites in these two age categories, we see the same pattern of the younger group valuing education more than the older group. Thirty-nine percent of the younger whites see education as “essential” but only 31 percent of older whites do. The only difference between the results of the blacks and the whites is that younger blacks, once again, may possibly value education a bit more than younger whites. It does not seem reasonable for one to accept the findings among whites and then turn around and declare the similar findings among blacks to be the result of deception by the black respondents.
And Finally, the Homework Issue
You make a big deal about black students doing less homework and Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey’s failure to explain how this finding fits in with valuing education. Ronald Ferguson’s research (see “A Diagnostic Analysis of Black-White GPA Disparities in Shaker Heights, Ohio,” in Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2001, ed. Diane Ravitch (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001), 347-414), I think, provides the answer. In Ferguson’s Shaker Heights study (he found no support for John Ogbu’s academic disengagement argument, by the way), he does not find that black students spend less time on homework than white students.
Ferguson’s analysis differs from Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey’s, in that Ferguson controls for or takes into account whether students are taking honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses or not. So, when Ferguson compares blacks not in honors/AP classes with whites who are also not in honors/AP classes, they spend similar amounts of time on homework. When he compares blacks and whites in honors/AP classes with each other, they spend similar amounts of time on homework.
It is important to control for honors/AP classes, because students in these classes spend more time on homework than other students, most likely because they are assigned more homework. If one does not control for these classes, it will look like blacks students spend less time on homework than white students because blacks are less likely to be in honors/AP classes. So, it appears that black students’ homework responses do not support your argument that they devalue education, but it does support the view that they are providing fairly accurate answers to survey questions. In an indirect fashion, black students are accurately indicating that they are less likely to be in honors/AP courses which we know to be true.
Next week: More Problems for McWhorter: The educational proof is in the achievement pudding.
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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.
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