How Black Public Intellectuals Are Failing Black Students

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--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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For the past 20 years or so, the leading black public intellectuals have used their command of the national media to condemn black students for supposedly not valuing education. For example, the NPR and Fox News correspondent, Juan Williams’ recent book claims that there is a “culture of failure” among black students.

There are two tragedies here. First, black students are being falsely condemned. The attitudinal data, the test-score trends and the college enrollment trends all show black students to value education at least as much—if not more than—white students. The second tragedy is that all of the energy the black public intellectuals have expended beating up on black students has not been used to help black students cope with the many educational disadvantages that they face.

Generally, black students do worse in school than white students because they are raised in families and communities that are socioeconomically disadvantaged relative to white students. Additionally, these disadvantaged students are then sent to schools that are of lower quality than the schools white students attend.

Thankfully, there are educational leaders and policy makers who don’t bother to listen to the misinformation about black students. Maryland, for example, has recognized that teacher quality matters and has made investments in recent years with the goal of improving teacher quality. There appears to have been a big payoff to black students. For example, in 2004, 53.2 percent of black six-graders were proficient on the state reading test. By 2008, the proficiency rate had increased to 72.4 percent. In math, the 2004 proficiency rate was 30.2 percent. By 2008, it had increased to 61.2 percent. These are very large gains in a short period of time.

I have not seen a very careful analysis of the data, so it is possible that factors other than the increased spending on teachers may have led to these increases. The academic research, however, generally does show a strong positive relationship between teacher quality and student achievement.

Although, black students have posted big test-score gains in a short period of time in Maryland, they are still the lowest scoring student group. It appears that all students have benefited from better teaching. Blacks were the lowest scoring racial group in 2004, and all groups increased their test scores—not just blacks. The reforms were statewide; they were not targeted to black students. Because all groups advanced, black students were not able to close the achievement gaps. Even with better schools, black students still come from families and communities that are disadvantaged.

People like Juan Williams should be drawing attention to the very impressive increases in test scores among black students in Maryland. They should be using their media power to move the other 49 states and the District of Columbia to improve teacher quality for black students in those states. Additionally, Williams should be pointing out that not only do black students need better schools, they also need other programs to reduce the socioeconomic disparities between black and white families and communities.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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