Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Essential Dr. Sowell

One of the most interesting and controversial thinkers on the subject of Affirmative Action has been Thomas Sowell. His books on the subject are must reading. This speech on minority children and education illustrates Sowell’s willingness to go against easy assumptions. An excerpt:

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 equalling 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.

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