Making the Grade
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Reviewed Jay Mathews  
Washington Post
March 23, 2003; Page T13

[See also A Closer—if One-Sided—Look at Teacher Unions, March 05, 2003 by Jay Mathews]

Young, Gifted, And Black Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students
By Theresa Perry, Claude Steele
And Asa G. Hilliard III
Beacon. 183 pp. $25

The American Dream And The Public Schools
By Jennifer Hochschild
And Nathan Scovronick
Oxford Univ. 301 pp. $35

The Worm In The Apple
How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education
By Peter Brimelow
HarperCollins. 296 pp. $24.95

When I was a young reporter at this newspaper about to begin my first assignment abroad, I very unwillingly spent several months on the foreign desk editing the stories sent in by overseas correspondents. I thought I was wasting time that I needed to prepare for my new reporting job. I was frightened and not certain I would measure up.

But the more I read of the raw copy coming from some of the nation's most distinguished journalists, the better I felt. They were all meticulous and energetic reporters, but many of their stories, just like mine, were full of non sequiturs and clichés and unanswered questions. By the time I got on the plane to Hong Kong, I had convinced myself I could write as well as at least half of them. That made it much easier to write my first story as a foreign correspondent, as well as the next, and the next.

In a remarkable essay in Young, Gifted, and Black, Stanford psychologist Claude Steele takes this very common coming-of-age experience and turns it into a hopeful solution to the failure of African-American and Hispanic students, even those from middle-class families, to match the academic achievements of whites and Asians as measured by standardized tests. In the 1990s, Steele, with colleagues Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer, introduced the concept of "stereotype threat." Their experiments showed that minority college students did less well academically when they knew their graders were conscious of the racial achievement gap. Steele says this feeling of mistrust and apprehension leads minorities to do less than their best when "being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype," just like my feeling that as the new kid on The Post's foreign staff I was the most likely to screw up.

Steele's earlier work stated the problem clearly enough. This essay, in just 22 pages, proposes several solutions, as do the other contributions by African-American thinkers in Young, Gifted, and Black. Theresa Perry provides insights into the educational power of the story of the African-American struggle for freedom. Asa Hilliard reflects on why certain schools, and not others, have raised minority achievement. But Steele's research, because it is beginning to be confirmed by other scholars, offers the most promising way to get more young Americans learning at their full capability.

Citing the results of one experiment, Steele advises teachers to "tell the students that you are using high standards (this signals that the criticism reflects standards rather than race), and that your reading of their essays leads you to believe that they can meet those standards (this signals that you do not view them stereotypically)." He says that "black students who got this kind of feedback saw it as unbiased and were motivated to take their essays home and work on them even though this was not a class for credit. They were more motivated than any other group of students in the study—as if this combination of high standards and assurance was like water on parched land, a much-needed but seldom-received balm."

The American Dream and the Public Schools also looks for ways to help under-performing minorities reach their academic potential, but the approach is both less original and much broader than that of the Perry-Steele-Hilliard book. Harvard professor of government and Afro-American studies Jennifer Hochschild and Princeton scholar Nathan Scovronick address nearly every educational policy issue of importance and bring a welcome balance and fairness to the debate. In their preface, they acknowledge that they began on opposite sides of several arguments. Their book, as a consequence, has helpful suggestions as to how those of us involved in educational issues can get past our fondness for beating up on anyone who disagrees with us on choice or testing or teaching styles. Among recent books on education, only Timothy Hacsi's Children As Pawns is as helpful to readers trying to maneuver their way through the current cafeteria food-fight of conflicting claims.

At the heart of the Hochschild-Scovronick argument is an underappreciated truth about Americans' contradictory feelings toward public education. "The American dream promises equality of opportunity to poor people and people of color and provides legitimacy to those who prefer to keep most of their resources to help their own children," Hochschild and Scovronick write. They show how hard it is to reconcile those desires and suggest a middle course that casts doubt on the potential of choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers, to help many students, but endorses the regular testing and accountability programs that are under such heavy attack from professional educators.

How those professionals organize themselves and the impact of their occupational approaches on their students concern Peter Brimelow in The Worm in the Apple. It is somewhat unfair to review this book alongside the other two, because it is not a sober assessment of ways to help poor children learn but an acid polemic, determined to show that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers constitute the evil empire of modern schooling.

As a drum-beating screed, in the tradition of Common Sense and Unsafe At Any Speed, The Worm in the Apple is not bad. Brimelow, a financial journalist, has attended NEA and AFT conferences, interviewed well-informed critics like Mike Antonucci, and collected every press clipping that might show teacher unions in a bad light. He has picked big and easy targets. He particularly enjoys exposing the inherent nuttiness of the NEA's annual Representative Assembly, where the members pass resolutions in favor of "sensitizing instructional staff to the needs of left-handed students" and opposing "the exploitation of women as mail-order brides" without much discussion of what that has to do with improving schools.

Brimelow leaves no doubt that the unions' paid organizers and political contributions give them far more influence over the conduct of local school business than parents have—one reason why conservatives calling for a breakup of monopoly government control of public schooling often find so much support. But he fails to show that the unions' excesses have had much effect on what is going on in classrooms, where teachers are struggling with pedagogical problems that have nothing to do with their union representation.

That is why I am so taken with the positive approach in Steele's Young, Gifted, and Black essay. He says things that can help teachers right now. He notes, for instance, encouraging research results when minority students are exposed to the notion that "one's intelligence is expandable through effort and experience" or when they are given regular opportunities to tackle challenging assignments. One particularly powerful method, he says, is to schedule weekly rap sessions for both black and white college freshmen. When the minorities see that the majorities are as scared and dumb as they are, the stereotype threat diminishes, just as it did when I was allowed to see that my new colleagues abroad were indeed human.

Jay Mathews is a Post education reporter and columnist.

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