Americans Left Behind: IQ, Education, Poverty, Race, & Ethnicity

Race realists like to use the example of No Child Left Behind.

They see it as proof that next to nothing can be done about the social problems in this country. In their minds, it is some combination of inferior genetics, inferior culture, inferior parenting, etc; just generally inferior people, individually and collectively.

Hence, we shouldn’t waste money and effort on people who don’t deserve it or, to the extent we do offer some assistance, we should at least not expect much from anything we do. Instead, we should expect failure and so there is no reason to try avoid failure, since it is inevitable, right?

My main focus here is No Child Left Behind, but I want to keep it within the larger context. Also, I want to make clear that this isn’t just a ‘black’ issue about ‘black’ problems. No, these are collective problems involving a society-wide failure.

In this light, I’ll begin with a passage from the perspective of a Scots-Irish white guy from Appalachia, Joe Bageant. He writes about poor whites and the oft-proclaimed ethic of taking personal responsibility and working harder. He only has one mention of No Left Behind, but the way he frames it all is a doozy!

After that passage, there several more passages from other books where No Child Left Behind, along with education in general, is discussed more fully.

* * * *

Meanwhile, the conservative Republicans ballyhoo “personal responsibility” to working-class employees like the guys and gals here at Royal Lunch. Most working people around here believe in the buzz phrase “personal responsibility.” Their daddies and mamas taught them to accept responsibility for their actions. They assume responsibility for their lives and don’t want a handout from the government. They see accepting public help as a sign of failure and moral weakness. Consequently, they don’t like social spending to give people a lift. But self-reliant as they are, what real chance do they have living on wages that do not allow them to accumulate savings? What chance do they have living from paycheck to paycheck, praying there will be no layoffs at J. C. Penney or Toll Brothers Homes or Home Depot?

According to Republican economic mythology, human beings are economic competitors; the marketplace is the new Olympia where “economic man” cavorts; the almighty market is rational and rewards efficiency, thrift, and hard work; and free competition “rationally” selects the more worthy competitor, and thus the wealthy are deserving of their elite status. According to the conservative canon, if you haven’t succeeded, it can only be because of your inferiority. Nearly everybody at Royal Lunch feels socially inferior. But in any case, they feel they can at least be self-reliant. They can accept personal responsibility.

We first started hearing about the average Joe needing to take complete responsibility for his condition in life, with no help from the government, during the seventies, when Cold War conservatives Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz dubbed themselves “neoconservatives.” In doing so, they gave a name to an ultrarightist political strain that passionately hated taxes and welfare of any kind, and that favored a national defense strong enough to dominate any part of the world—or the whole world—at any given time. Neoconservatives hated the counterculture and saw it as the beginning of everything that was wrong with America. And they saw plenty of evidence of a shift toward a welfare state, most notably Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which for the first time funded school districts, college loans, Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid, and cut poverty in half. America was close to being a Communist welfare state, and people had better start taking some personal responsibility, they thundered. We find neoconservatives today all but owning the Republican Party and attempting to axe Social Security and slash unemployment insurance in the name of “personal responsibility.”

But what sort of personal responsibility is possible in the neocon environment? A wage earner’s only asset is his willingness to give a day’s work for a day’s pay, the price of which he does not determine. So where does he get the wherewithal to improve his circumstances? He gets that wherewithal from the wages he earns. But in the new neocon environment, that wage does not support savings. It does not support higher education. It only allows the wage earner to survive from paycheck to paycheck, hoping he doesn’t lose his job and feeling like a loser down inside. Another beer, please.

Admittedly, a real blue-collar middle class still exists in some places, just as unions still exist. But both are on the ropes like some old pug boxer taking the facial cuts and popping eye capillaries with no referee to come in and stop the carnage. The American bootstrap myth is merely another strap that makes the working poor privately conclude that they must in some way be inferior, given that they cannot seem to apply that myth to their own lives. Hell, Pootie, if immigrants can put together successful businesses of their own, why can’t you keep up with your truck payments? Right now, even by the government’s spruced-up numbers, one-third of working Americans make less than $9 an hour. A decade from now, five of the ten fastest-growing jobs will be menial, dead-end jokes on the next generation—mainly retail clerks, cashiers, and janitors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some of us were born sons of a toiling god, with the full understanding that life was never meant to be easy and that it comes with more than enough opportunities for personal responsibility. But at least we could always believe that our kids had a chance for a better life. I certainly achieved a better life than my parents. These days, it’s harder to believe that. I am quite certain that if I were trying to get into college today with the mediocre grades I made back then, and no family college fund or family home to second-mortgage, I would not make it as far as I have. Years ago, there were college scholarships, loans, and programs out the yin-yang, and a high school education more or less prepared a person for college.

That is not to say the class divide was not a steep and ugly ditch back then. It was. But it is an absolute canyon now, and growing deeper. All you have to do is look back at the unfunded No Child Left Behind program or the scam of “teacher-based accountability.” When it became obvious that Johnny is now so dumb that he can’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions on the bottom—assuming he can even read the instructions—the elite regime in power was quick to get up a posse to lynch the school marm, then resume the theft of education funds on behalf of the rich. Conservative leaders understand quite well that education has a liberalizing effect on a society. Presently they are devising methods to smuggle resources to those American madrassas, the Christian fundamentalist schools, a sure way to make the masses even more stupid if ever there was one.

Is it any wonder the Gallup Poll tells us that 48 percent of Americans believe that God spit on his beefy paws and made the universe in seven days? Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution. It is no accident that number corresponds roughly to the percentage of Americans with college degrees. So intelligent liberals are advised to save their depression and the good booze for later, when things get worse.

Until those with power and access decide that it’s beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots. And that means educating everybody, not just the small-town valedictorian or the science nerds who are cherry-picked out of the schools in places like Winchester or more rural areas. These people end up in New York or Houston or Boston—places where they can buy boutique coffees or go to the art cinema—holding down jobs in broadcasting or research or economics.

But what about the rest of the class? What about this latest generation of kids left to suffer the same multigenerational cycle of anti-intellectualism and passivity? Right now there are millions who will be lucky if they are accepted by the military, and if they are extra lucky they will qualify for a vocational school before they are absorbed forever by America’s passive, ignorant labor pool culture. In Winchester, for example, even though we are getting an influx of Washington, D.C., suburbanites who feel differently, most native hometown kids are not concerned with upward mobility at all. They could give a rip about school, and they care even less about what educated upscale people think of them.

This is a terrible and silent crisis. Working-class passivity, antipathy to intellect, and belligerence toward the outside world start early. They begin at home and continue in grade school. Yet even if the entire working class in America suddenly got religion and wanted to send every child to college, and if all children made perfect grades and wanted to broaden their worlds, it would be financially impossible under the present system. They have no savings and nothing to borrow against. Many people reading this financed their children’s educations with second mortgages. These days, working-class people who own homes have no equity left due to refinancing to pay credit card debt or medical bills. And the working poor have even less of a chance. They rent until they die, with no hope of passing along to their children any accumulated wealth in the form of equity in a home. So over the generations they stay stuck or lose ground. And they stay dumb and drink beer at Royal Lunch and vote Republican because no real liberal voice, the kind that speaks the rock-bottom, undeniable truth, ever enters their lives. Hell, it doesn’t even enter liberals’ lives these days. But it can. I have on many occasions at this very tavern found an agreeing ear to all of the very arguments made above.

One of the few good things about growing older is that one can remember what appears to have been purposefully erased from the national memory. Fifty years ago, men and women of goodwill agreed that every citizen had the right to health care and to a free and credible education. Manifestation of one’s fullest potential was considered a national goal, even by Republicans. Ike wanted national health insurance and so did Nixon. Now both are labeled as unworkable ideas. (Maybe even downright com’nist, Pootie.)

Bageant, Joe (2008-06-24). Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (Kindle Locations 353-416). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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“Compensatory education has been tried, and it apparently has failed.”
—Arthur Jensen (1969)

“There is no evidence that school reform can substantially reduce the extent of cognitive inequality as measured by ability] tests.”
—Christopher Jencks and others (1972)

“There is no reason to believe that raising intelligence significantly and permanently is a current policy option, no matter how much money we are willing to spend.”
—Charles Murray (2007)

IN 2002 THE U.S. CONGRESS passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated that American schools eliminate the gap between the social classes and between minority groups and whites by 2014. I don’t know if most members of Congress actually believed that such accomplishments are possible. But if so, they are deeply ignorant of the forces that operate to produce high academic achievement.

Intellectual capital is the result of stimulation and support for exploration and achievement in the home, the neighborhood, and the schools. To think that this can be changed by mandate— operating only through the schools —is preposterous. Moreover , the schools attended by minorities and the poor are wanting in ways that cannot be drastically improved overnight. The problems include quality of teachers willing to work in these less rewarding schools, the caliber of school management, the disruptiveness produced by high levels of student turnover, and the nature of the schools’ clientele, whose homes and neighborhoods make it unlikely that they will be encouraged toward high academic achievement.

It should be clear from the previous chapter that there is no theoretical limit on the degree to which the achievement gap between blacks and whites can ultimately be closed. Though there is far less evidence on the native intellectual ability of the extremely broad and diverse group of cultures labeled as “Hispanic,” I see no reason why the gap cannot ultimately be bridged there as well.

On the other hand, it should be clear that unlike the black/ white and Hispanic/ white gaps in achievement and IQ, the social-class gap is never going to be closed. This is true, if for no other reason, because the well-off are always going to find ways to get a better education for their children and are always going to find ways to be ahead in terms of parenting skills and are always going to be able to provide superior neighborhood environments. In addition, there is always going to be at least some difference in the gene pools of the lower class and the middle class. Recall from Chapter 1 that within a given family the sibling with a substantially higher IQ achieves much higher socioeconomic status (SES) than less favored brothers and sisters. And since the higher IQ is attained in part by virtue of a better luck of the draw from the gene pool of the parents, higher SES is always going to be in part a result of better genes for intelligence. So higher-SES people are going to pass along better prospects for intelligence to their offspring by virtue of having, on average, better genes and by offering better environmental advantages to their offspring.

But these considerations should not be cause for pessimism about the degree to which the intellectual lot of lower-SES people can be improved. Recall from Chapter 2 (on heredity) that the effect of an upper-middle class upbringing on children born to lower-SES parents is to raise the IQ by 12 to 18 points. The theoretical ceiling for improvement of lower-SES intellectual capital is very high indeed.

But how much improvement can we realistically hope to produce for lower-SES individuals and for currently disadvantaged minorities?

Nisbett, Richard E. (2009-01-08). Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count (Kindle Locations 1840-1869). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Since school makes children smarter, there is no doubt that better schools can make them smarter still. Although vouchers, charter schools, whole-school interventions, and teacher certification or higher academic degrees do not reliably improve education, other factors do— and some matter a great deal. Teachers differ a lot in quality, and so finding ways to improve the quality of teaching could make a great difference. If we could replace the bottom 5 percent of teachers every year with average-quality teachers, the level of children’s academic performance would increase hugely in just a few years. Use of computer-assisted forms of teaching can produce huge gains in the rate of learning, and some types of cooperative learning are highly effective. And recall the Herrnstein demonstration with an intensive program in Venezuela that radically improved the problem-solving skills of ordinary junior high school students . It also raised their IQ scores by a nontrivial amount— 5 points on a typical test of multiple problem-solving skills.

The received opinion about the relationship between social class and intelligence is that intelligence, which is largely inherited, drives social class. Smarter people have better genes so they are destined to rise in society, whereas less smart people have worse genes so they are destined to fall. It is true that intelligence is partially heritable, and more intelligent people on average will be of a higher social class in virtue of their greater inherited intelligence. But I believe that the role of genetic inheritance in determining social class is fairly small. The difference between the average IQ of the children of the lower third of the socioeconomic status (SES) distribution and the average IQ of the children of the upper third is about 10 points. We know that some of this is due to biological but not genetic factors, including exercise, breast-feeding, and exposure to alcohol or cigarette smoke, as well as hazardous chemicals and pollution. And some of it is due to the disruption in schools of lower-SES children and to the fact that peers are pulling intelligence mostly in a down direction. We also know that socialization in lower-SES homes is not optimal for developing either IQ or school readiness. Moreover, a child born into roughly the bottom sixth of the SES distribution will have an IQ 12 to 18 points higher if raised by parents from roughly the top quarter of the SES distribution. All of this does not leave much room for genes in the social-class equation. I do not doubt that genes play a role, but I would be surprised to find that the differences in inherent genetic potential of the social classes are very great. Certainly much if not most of the 10 points separating the average of the children of the lower third and the average of the children of the upper third is environmental in origin.

For the race difference in IQ, we can be confident that genes play no role at all. Most of the evidence offered for a genetic component to the race difference is indirect and readily refuted. Virtually all of the direct evidence, which is due mostly to the natural experiment resulting from the fact that American “blacks” range from being completely African to largely European in heritage, indicates no genetic difference at all with respect to IQ. And the difference between the races in both IQ and academic achievement is being reduced at the rate of about one-third of a standard deviation per generation. The IQ of the average black is now greater than that of the average white in 1950.

The No Child Left Behind Act demands that the difference in academic achievement between the classes and between the races be erased in half a generation by the schools alone. This is absurd. It ignores the fact that class and race differences begin in early infancy and have as much to do with economic factors and neighborhood and cultural differences as with schools.

That is the bad news about gap reduction . The good news is that big improvements in IQ and academic achievement for lower-SES and minority children are possible. And we know at least the outlines of what those improvements look like. Half-measures have been tried and are not going to make a lot of difference. We need intensive early childhood education for the poor, and we need home visitation to teach parents how to encourage intellectual development. Such efforts can produce huge immediate gains in IQ and enormous long-term gains in academic achievement and occupational attainment . Highly ambitious elementary, junior high, and high school programs can also produce massive gains in academic achievement. And a variety of simple, cost-free interventions, including, most notably, simply convincing students that their intelligence is under their control to a substantial extent, can make a big difference to academic achievement.

Believing that intelligence is under your control— and having parents who demand achievement— can do wonders. At any rate that has been true for Asians and Jews. There is no reliable evidence of a genetic difference in intelligence between people of East Asian descent and people of European descent. In fact, there is little difference in intelligence between the two groups as measured by IQ tests. Some evidence indicates that East Asians start school with lower IQs than do white Americans. After a few years of school this difference seems to disappear. But the academic achievement of East Asians—especially in math and the sciences, where effort counts for a lot— is light-years beyond that of European Americans. Americans of East Asian extraction also differ little in IQ from European Americans. In any case, the academic achievement and occupational attainment of Asian Americans exceed by a great amount what they “should” be accomplishing given their IQs. The explanation for the Asian/ Western gap lies in hard work and persistence.

Jewish culture undoubtedly has similarly beneficial effects. Jewish values emphasize accomplishment in general and intellectual attainment in particular. Differences between Jews and non-Jews in intellectual accomplishment at the highest levels are very great. A genetic explanation for this is not required inasmuch as even greater differences have occurred for Arabs and Chinese versus Europeans in the Middle Ages, for differences between European countries at various points since the Middle Ages (with reversals occurring between Italy and England and with movement from savagery to sagacity in scarcely two centuries in Scotland), and for regional differences in the United States. We are left with an IQ difference of two-thirds to a standard deviation between Jews and non-Jews. At least some of this difference is surely cultural in origin.

Finally, there is much that we can do to increase the intelligence and academic achievement of ourselves and our children . Everything from the biological (exercise and avoidance of smoking and drinking for pregnant women, and breast-feeding for newborns) to the didactic (teaching categorization, following good tutoring principles) can make a difference to intelligence.

We can now shake off the yoke of hereditarianism in all of our thinking about intelligence. Believing that our intelligence is substantially under our control won’t make us smart by itself. But it’s a good start.

Nisbett, Richard E. (2009-01-08). Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count (Kindle Locations 2967-3018). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

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Although the premise of “No Child Left Behind” (the Bush administration’s signature education bill) is that racial achievement gaps should be closed completely within ten years, the legislation never came with the kind of resource supports needed to make that goal achievable. Although No Child Left Behind requires certain outcomes, it does not mandate that schools must equalize the resources available to all students in order to make those more equitable outcomes likely. Nor did the law—which has so far been continued under the Obama administration, with very little functional change in its specific policy formulations—seek to put an end to the pernicious tracking practices in our schools that all but guarantee the leaving behind of children. In fact, many states have adopted norm-referenced tests as determinants of their “annual yearly progress” (mandated by the law), failing to appreciate that norm-referenced tests by definition produce a distribution where half of all test-takers will fall below the 50-percentile mark and thus be considered below average.169 In other words, tests that mandate failure and inequity in achievement are being used under a law intended to promote success and reduce inequity! To advocate equity but maintain structures that, by definition, create inequity is the ultimate contradiction.

As a result of No Child Left Behind, schools have been under intense pressure to meet federal guidelines for test scores, so as not to be sanctioned by the Department of Education. This pressure has been especially intense for schools serving mostly students of color, causing many such schools to emphasize teaching to the test, simply to meet federal and even state standards, rather than teaching the kinds of high-level materials given to students in suburbs and private schools.170 High-stakes testing has also created incentives for schools to push lower-achieving students out, rather than keep them in the schools, attempt to educate them and suffer the possible penalty if they fail, in terms of meeting testing requirements.171 In Chicago, for instance, schools have been expelling low-achieving students even by the age of 16, under the pretense that their academic achievement or attendance records make it unlikely that they would graduate by the age of 21. Rather than resolve to educate such students—almost all of whom are students of color—the schools give up, remove the students and thus boost their test-score profile as a result, with blacks banished from the schools at three times the rate of whites or Latinos.172

In post-Katrina New Orleans, supposedly “open enrollment” charter schools—intended to inject competition into the city’s previously failing school system and lauded as having done so—have been pre-screening students to determine which of them are unlikely to pass a state required test the following year. Then the students who fail in the pre-test are pushed out, so as to protect the school’s test scores in line with state and federal mandates. Others have counseled parents of lower-achieving students, or those with inconsistent attendance, to voluntarily withdraw from charter schools or face expulsion. Once these students are removed, the charters are left with the supposedly “better” students, which allows them to meet federal and state standards by selecting their student bodies. Needless to say, virtually all students being pushed out are black.173

Also under No Child Left Behind, schools must demonstrate the elimination of performance gaps between those who have limited English proficiency (LEP) and those for whom English is their native language. Although this is an admirable goal, it cannot be met in most cases for one simple reason: namely, in most districts, once students demonstrate English proficiency, they are removed from the LEP group and their scores are no longer considered part of the LEP group averages. Thus, by definition, the only persons remaining in the LEP group will be those who are not proficient in the language of the test, and who therefore will not likely perform well on it.174

In addition to unequal instruction and regulations under No Child Left Behind that all but ensure disparate racial outcomes in schooling, there is also a substantial amount of evidence demonstrating profoundly unequal discipline meted out to students of color as compared to whites. Nationally, fourteen separate studies have found clear racial disparities in rates of suspension and expulsion from school. Black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites, even though they do not, contrary to popular belief, violate school rules disproportionately, relative to white students.175 Indeed, when it comes to some of the most serious school rule infractions, whites often lead the pack, and they certainly violate those rules at least as often as black and brown students do, from possession of drugs to drinking and smoking.176 Most of the infractions for which students of color are punished are vague, highly subjective offenses—far more given to interpretation and thus implicit bias on the part of teachers—such as “disrespect for authority,” “making excessive noise” or loitering.177

Significantly, the research suggests that unequal discipline is not due to mere class bias against lower-income students. In fact, even when comparing only blacks and whites of the same economic status, black students face disproportionate suspensions and expulsions relative to rates of misbehavior. As Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University, notes:

“Contrary to the socioeconomic hypothesis, the current investigation demonstrates that significant racial disparities in school discipline remain even after controlling for socio-economic status. In this sample, an index of socioeconomic status had virtually no effect when used as a covariate in a test of racial differences in office referrals and suspensions. Indeed, disciplinary disproportionality by socioeconomic status appears to be a somewhat less robust finding than gender or racial disparity.”178

As with so much of the evidence regarding racial inequity in the educational system, this suggests that colorblind universalism as a way to reduce racial disparities will prove inadequate. There is simply too much race-specific injury occurring to allow for post-racialism (at the level of ideology or policy) to suffice. Unfortunately, teachers often go out of their way to be colorblind— or what educational theorist Mica Pollock calls “colormute”—by failing to discuss race, or even to use basic and benign racial descriptors to describe their students. As a result, educators replicate inequities by failing to get to the bottom of their own biases or the structural impediments to equal opportunity within their schools.179

Wise, Tim (2010-06-01). Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 1544-1604). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition.

And finally, authorize a substantial amount of money, as part of the No Child Left Behind educational reform package, to train teachers nationwide on the various ways that racism and discrimination—both explicit and implicit—can indeed leave children behind, despite the best of teacher intentions. Although No Child Left Behind is problematic in any number of ways, one of its biggest weaknesses is having a mandate for the closing of racial achievement gaps without the resources necessary to actually close them. Those resources, however, are not just material supplies—as is often believed—but also the resources of teacher preparation and an understanding of the specific dynamics that are contributing to the racial achievement gap in the first place. Unless teachers are trained, and consistently so, to recognize the social determiners of the achievement gap, even their best efforts at instruction may not help close those gaps. If the federal government is going to place mandates on local schools and school districts, it should see to it that teachers receive the kinds of preparation needed to make their efforts successful. These trainings should be developed in conjunction with educators in the nation’s teaching colleges, utilizing the best practices known to them for preparing teachers to reduce racial achievement gaps.

Wise, Tim (2010-06-01). Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 2700-2709). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition.

170. Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 78.
171. Linda Darling-Hammond, “From‘Separate but Equal’ to ‘No Child Left Behind’: The Collision of New Standards and Old Inequalities,” in Many Children Left Behind, eds. Deborah Meier and George Wood (Boston: Beacon Press, (2004), p. 4.
172. Street (2005), p. 81.
173. Sarah Goff, “When Education Ceases to Be Public: The Privatization of the New Orleans School System, Post–Hurricane Katrina,” submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master’s of Science in Urban Studies, University of New Orleans (May, 2009).
174. Darling-Hammond (2004), 10.
175. Russell J. Skiba et al., The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment (Indiana Education Policy Center, Research Report SRS1, June 2000), pp. 6, 13.
176. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: Youth 2003 Online, Comprehensive Results (2004),
177. Skiba et al. (2000), p. 4.
178. Russell Skiba, Robert S. Michael, Abra Carroll Nardo and Reece L. Peterson, “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment,” The Urban Review 34:4 (December 2002), p. 333.
179. Mica Pollock, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

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Education experts are keeping an eye on the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus (ACECC) in Kansas City, Missouri . The 40-acre campus, which opened in 2007, serves mostly black pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students . Teachers stress cultural pride and “expected greatness” as students strive for academic excellence. In 2007, all the schools on the campus met the Average Yearly Progress (AYP) standard mandated by the national “No Child Left Behind” Act.

The schools are the brainchild of educator Audrey Bullard, who worked as a teacher in Liberia for 18 months more than 30 years ago. In 1991, Bullard led a grassroots effort with other educators and parents to transform J.S. Chick Elementary in Kansas City into a school with an African-centered curriculum. The school has consistently scored as one of the top schools in the school district, with 48 percent of its students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels on the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) fourth -grade math test in 2005 . Comparatively, only 24 percent of black students and 36 percent of white students statewide scored as high that year. Although the approach relies heavily on parental involvement and an innovative curriculum, it offers another important component: students are taught to see themselves as contributors, leaders, potential entrepreneurs, and valuable parts of their communities.

The Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago, founded by Madhubuti and his wife Safisha, is an institution that teaches black children that they control their lives and futures. It’s a crucial factor, Madhubuti said:

“You can’t minimize the importance of cultural knowledge… you cannot build a healthy child— most certainly, he or she will not have a healthy world view—if he or she does not see himself or herself involved creatively in the development of civilization, culture, industry, science.”

In 2006, the school ranked first in composite test scores among 10 public schools in the Greater Grand Crossing area, where Shabazz is the only charter. Sixty-seven percent of the school’s students met the state’s educational standards. When teaching science, for example, Makita Kheperu, principal at Shabazz, explained how the school makes the subject relevant to a student’s environment: “In science, they examine what kinds of decisions scientists make… and they learn the scientific method by exploring culturally relevant questions like: Why is diabetes more prevalent among African Americans than the general population?”

According to Illinois State data, Shabazz and Woodlawn Community School— another African-centered Chicago school— outperformed several neighboring schools on the 2006 Illinois Standard Achievement Test, with about 68 percent of Woodland’s students meeting the state’s standards.

These schools reflect the unfinished business of educational experiments started after Emancipation with the likes of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the dreamers who sought to establish independent black schools before they were sidetracked by the promise of better education in white schools. These institutions offer templates for educational reform that can reprogram parents and students to help close the achievement gap, and open bold new pathways to unlimited possibility.

Burrell, Tom (2010-02-01). Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority (Kindle Locations 2877-2902). SmileyBooks. Kindle Edition.

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Test score gaps between minorities and majorities are real, and they measure something that matters for performance in economic and social life. However, they do not estimate all that is important.

Gaps in Soft Skills.

Most discussions of racial and ethnic achievement gaps focus on measures of scholastic ability. Indeed, many analysts measure the achievement gap exclusively by differences in scores on standardized academic tests. This emphasis reflects a broad consensus in American society about the value of achievement tests that are used to monitor the success and failure of schools and students. The No Child Left Behind Act has pushed this focus to what some have described as a mania. The program has created a culture of “teaching to the test” in schools, with consequent neglect of the subjects and by-products of schooling that are not tested.[25]

Success in life requires more than book learning or high scores on achievement tests.[26] As filmmaker Woody Allen put it, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”[27] While the cognitive skills measured by achievement tests are powerful predictors of life success, so are socio-emotional skills. Sometimes called “soft skills” or character traits, these include motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self-regulation, self-esteem, and the ability to defer gratification. Good schools and functional families foster soft skills as well as cognitive skills.[28] Soft skills are as predictive, if not more predictive, of educational success, wages earned, and participation in crime or in healthy behaviors as are cognitive skills.[29] Disadvantaged children of all race groups possess lower levels of soft skills.[30]

Klarman, Michael J.; Sabbaugh, Daniel; Lee, Taeku; Young Jr., Alford A.; Massey, Douglas S.; Wilson, William Julius; Heckman, James J.; Nisbett, Richard E.; Bobo, Lawrence D. (2011-07-14). Daedalus 140:2 (Spring 2011) – Race, Inequality & Culture, Vol. 2 (Kindle Locations 1703-1717). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

25 Daniel M. Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008); Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (New York: Economic Policy Institute and Teachers College Press, 2008).
26 Mathilde Almlund, Angela L. Duckworth, James J. Heckman, and Tim Kautz, “Personality Psychology and Economics,” Handbook of the Economics of Education, ed. Eric A. Hanushek, S. Machin, and L. Wößmann (Amsterdam: Elsevier, forthcoming 2011).
27 William Safire, “On Language; the Elision Fields,” The New York Times, August 13, 1989.
28 See the evidence summarized in Almlund, Duckworth, Heckman, and Kautz, “Personality Psychology and Economics.”
29 Ibid.
30 See the evidence cited in Pedro Carneiro and James J. Heckman, “Human Capital Policy,” in Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policies? ed. James J. Heckman, Alan B. Krueger, and Benjamin M. Friedman (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003); Flavio Cunha, James J. Heckman, Lance J. Lochner, and Dimitriy V. Masterov, “Interpreting the Evidence on Life Cycle Skill Formation,” in Handbook of the Economics of Education, ed. Eric A. Hanushek and Frank Welch, vol. 1 (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 2006).





Cultures and Determinism

Culture isn’t deterministic in an absolutely predictable way. We can measure certain factors within a culture that can probabilistically predict outcomes, but a culture as a whole is constantly shifting even as patterns of collective identity are maintained. Cultures aren’t just limits, but also potentialities. A cultural worldview is a reality tunnel that, while closing down particular possibilities, opens up other possibilities.

This became clear to me in reading Colin Woodards American Nations. He described the development of California. It seemed like a perfect example of how cultures interact to with unforeseen consequences.

California (and the Ecotopia Northwest) is a unique area, very different from the Eastern part of the country. Americans normally identify the Scots-Irish with the Appalachian South, but Scots-Irish are concentrated in many different areas. Scots-Irish immigrants mostly entered through Pennsylvania where there still are many and they have assimilated to the Quaker Midlands culture there. Extending from Pennsylvania, there are many Scots-Irish in the Lower Midwest border area, although interestingly there are fewer Scots-Irish in the Upper Midwest than in New England. The largest concentration of Scots-Irish is actually in the region around the Northwest, including Northern California and the Northern Far West.

It’s equally interesting to consider all the areas the Scots-Irish have intentionally or unintentionally avoided for the most part. As I pointed out, the Upper Midwest is almost entirely devoid of Scots-Irish. The population of the Upper Midwest is a combination of Germans and Scandinavians, and it is the area of the US known for having one of the strongest traditions of socialism and communitarianism, certainly the only area that had a city run by a socialist majority political leadership for about a half century. The only other areas with comparatively low percentage of Scots-Irish are Florida and the Lower Southwest, both Hispanic areas of the former Spanish Empire and once part of Mexico.

California, specifically Northern California, has a connection to New England Yankeedom. It seems strange to see how many Scots-Irish chose to move to both of these areas heavily influenced by Yankee culture and politics. I’m not sure if the Scots-Irish assimilated in New England, but in Northern California it wasn’t a perfect assimilation for anyone involved. Mexicans had settled in Southern California more and they maintained their culture there while New Englanders came after to Northern California where they had a majority in government while also operating the first churches, schools, and newspapers. Following the New Englanders settling the mostly coastal areas which became urbanized, the Scots-Irish spread out mostly in the rural areas. Yankee dominance was never complete for New Englanders were outnumbered by those of other ethnicities.

This created a weird amalgam in California not found anywhere else. The New Englanders brought the Puritan tradition of industriousness and utopian social reform. The Scots-Irish brought their love of independence and grassroots populism. The two cultures conflicted at first which lessened certain aspects of both cultures while magnifying other aspects. Strangely, the Scots-Irish undermined the Puritan religious impulses and helped secularize California which is completely the opposite of how the Scots-Irish embraced evangelical fundamentalism in Appalachia. Also, the Scots-Irish population in the Northwest shows less gun violence than in Appalachia.

Different social conditions lead to entirely different results.

Democracy & Literacy

Here is a particularly insightful passage from an insightful book. It’s about the sad relationship between illiteracy and a dysfunctional democracy.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War
by Joe Bageant
Chapter 8, American Hologram: The Apocalypse will be Televized
pp. 249-251

“[ . . . ] of the 89 million to 94 million American adults—nearly half of the U.S. adult population—who are functionally illiterate. According to the National Institute for Literacy, they “lack a sufficient foundation of basic [literacy] skills to function successfully in our society.” Of these, 17 percent to 20 percent can read just a little. That means that they cannot fill out job applications, understand food labels, or read simple stories to their children. Another 25 percent can read, but not well enough to follow five consecutive paragraphs of text or dense documents such as sales contracts.

[ . . . ]

“Of course there is more to literacy than reading words. In our culture it helps to be able to contextualize an infomercial, not to mention Tom DeLay’s crimes. Almost none of the Royal Lunch crowd, however, even knows who Tom Delay is. They do not watch the national news unless the United States attacks somebody or there is a flood in New Orleans. Even if they took the trouble to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, none of them would see it as anything other than a story about animals.

“In our culture there is also the need to interpret legions of symbols and acronyms (IBM, CBS, GM, FBI, CIA, OBM, MCI, FEMA, HUD…) that turn up every day in advertising, product packaging, corporate brochures, government pamphlets, and news stories. Functional illiterates, however, cannot separate industry from government, or the news from an advertisement or an infomercial. Hence the inability of Carolyn (the old flame I bumped into in the Food Lion parking lot) to tell a nonprofit charity from a quick-buck manufacturer of magnetic yellow ribbons. From inside the American hologram an eagle is an eagle and a yellow ribbon is a yellow ribbon. Uneducated and trapped within the hologram, people like Carolyn and Bobby will never be capable of participating in a free society, much less making the kinds of choices that preserve and protect one, unless the importance of full literacy can somehow be made clear to them.”

Appalachia Meets Midlands: My Kentucky & Indiana Family History

I spent this past week with my parents in Southern Indiana doing genealogy research on my mom’s side of the family. We were staying at Spring Mill State Park and doing some research in nearby Mitchell at the courthouse and the historical museum. Most of my time was spent in Lawrence County, although some of the cemeteries we visited were in Orange County as well.

This was the second genealogical trip I took with my parents. The last visit to Southern Indiana was just a year ago. I knew very little about my family at that time and now I know a lot. I find it fascinating, but I realize talking about family history is not dissimilar to telling someone about your dreams. Most people aren’t interested.

Anyway, let me explain why it fascinates me. I’ve been reading a lot of history in recent years. Most of it has been focused on the colonial and revolutionary eras of North America, but I’ve been studying all the history that led up to that and the larger context of events. On a smaller scale, I’m curious about my mom side of the family that is a mix of early immigrants who were mostly poor ethnic types (Germans, Scottish, Scots-Irish, etc). They weren’t English. They weren’t landed aristocracy. They were the desperate poor (mostly farmers, distillers, and laborers) who sought freedom and opportunity on the frontier as the frontier moved into Kentucky and then into Indiana.

Of course, someone of Native American ancestry or even of French ancestry would describe this very differently. My forefathers and foremothers took possession of land that was formerly occupied. And Indiana where my parents come from was the location of the last great battle where Native Americans tried to hold their ground. It’s a sad history all around, sad and fascinating.

My exploration of family history has been an exploration of my feelings about what it means to be an American. I’ve always identified as a Midwesterner which to me feels like ‘normal’, simply what America means. It’s the freaking Heartland. However, when I moved to South Carolina in 8th grade, I was sometimes jokingly referred to as a Yankee. I had no concept of what a Yankee was at that time. Even now living back in the Midwest for many years, I don’t think of myself as a Yankee. I’m a Midwesterner from the lower Midwest. This is the Midlands, the extension of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. This isn’t Yankiedom of Puritan origins.

Many of the lower Midwestern states are split between Midlands and Appalachia, the two regions immigrants traveled to at great risk in order to escape the competing powers of Yankiedom and the Deep South. My mom’s maiden name is Clouse which is Germanic and most German immigrants found Midlands to be the most hospitable, but the Clouses on my mom’s side instead first came to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana (Sarah Sally Walters who married William Jr. Fain, the grandfather of William Edward Clouse who was the second generation born in Kentucky, and Sarah Sally Walters was born in Kentucky in 1801; in that family line, the Clouses, Walters, Fains, Hawks, Stogsdills, Randalls, Waddles, Ashy’s, Welchs, and Hansfords were all in Kentucky in the early 1800s and some going back to the 1700; also, some of them were already in Southern Indiana before the War of 1812). My mom’s family has largely adopted the Scots-Irish culture and mentality of Appalachia. Both of my parents, however, grew up in Northern Indiana where Midlands culture is strong. I only knew of the Scots-Irish aspects of my mom’s family from visiting them since I was a child.

My time spent in South Carolina and North Carolina has given me some understanding of Scots-Irish culture. In SC, my high school best friend was a typical Scots-Irish redneck. In NC, a summer girlfriend was from a typical Scots-Irish fundamentalist hillbilly family, actually living in a trailer on a lonely country road nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My SC friend had Goff as his last name. I noticed that in early Kentucky records that there were many Goffs there. For what it is worth, the Scots-Irish are part of my family history and also part of my personal experience. I could judge that culture for all of its problems, but I do have a fondness for it that became most clear to me while living in NC. Besides, Appalachia is beautiful country, ticks aside.

In some ways, that culture is the complete opposite of Midlands culture and hence opposite of my Midwestern identity. On the other hand, there has been much mixing between the two cultures and they have shared the distinction of being the main battlegrounds of the American soul. I was thinking about this recently in terms of a radio show such as Coast to Coast AM which used to be hosted by Art Bell. You can hear all kinds of views on that show. Both my uncle Bob (my mom’s brother) and I have listened to it since the 1990s, yet we otherwise have little in common. He is a fundamentalist of Appalachian culture and I’m an agnostic of Midlands culture, but an interest in conspiracy theories and aliens creates a common ground. Coast to Coast AM is a show about alternative culture. The Midlands and Appalachia have always been regions of alternative culture. It is in these places that alternative religious and political communities often settled. That is what I loved about NC, the hidden pockets of odd alternative culture.

Visiting Southern Indiana brings all of this into focus. It is where my family shifted from Appalachia into the Midlands, always following where land and work could be found, generation after generation restlessly moving on in a drift Westward. All of my mom’s lines of family converged in Lawrence County (and the counties right around it, specifically Orange County and Dubois County). The Clouses and Hawks came separately and soon married, two of those marriages ending up in the Mitchell area right around or in Spring Mill back when it was still an operational mill, an infant of one of those marriages buried in the Hamer cemetery there (the Hamers being one of the rich families that moved into the area). At that time, Southern Indiana was attractive to alternative communities and many intellectuals, New Harmony being the most famous example (radical intellectuals from New Harmony would visit the pub at Spring Mill where some of my family lived and worked). It was this radical tradition of Southern Indiana that helped form the mind of Abraham Lincoln, specifically Lincoln’s being influenced by the alternative religion and politics (socialism, feminism, abolitionism, spiritualism, etc) being promoted by people such as the Owens family of New Harmony.

This was the frontier, but not the frontier as you learned about in school. People came to frontier communities for all kinds of reasons. My family would have lived amidst great cultural, ethnic, religious and political diversity.

My mom’s paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born at Spring Mill. The family was still poor and at that time they were squatters. The water mill slowly died because of engine-driven mills made them obsolete. Willie married Inez Rosemary Edwards.

On that other side of the family, two lines of Edwards married and there was also another line of Edwards a few generations back from that point. Inez’s maternal great grandmother was a Toliver who lived more than a century after having come to Mitchel as a young child as part of one of the first families to settle there. She was interviewed a few years before her death and she still remembered her childhood.

It was interesting to read about that era. The Edwards and Tolivers (along with the Way and Evans families), unlike the Clouses and Hawks, went straight from North Carolina to Indiana (some of the family on both sides — Henry Sr Waddle, Elizabeth Morris, William Fain jr, Elizabeth Whicker, Catherine Cox, and Benjamin Hansford — came from Virginia instead, although some of these families were moving back and forth between North Carolina and Virginia, and a few lines came from elsewhere — Sampson Hawk from New Jersey and one line, the Cox family as I recall, can be followed back to South Carolina; my mom’s maternal side of the family is similar, but there are several lines that in the early-to-mid 1800s went straight from the ship docks to Kentucky and Indiana).

All of this research has made history more tangible to me. Spring Mill, the home of my family that is of my mom’s maiden name, is now a preserved historical site. It’s strange to visit my great grandfather’s birth place as a visitor to a park; my mom also visited it as a child and had her grandfather point out the building he claimed to be born in. History gets turned into a theme park. The mill has been fixed back up and they grind corn as a demonstration. They even have an old lady working on a loom and a blacksmith doing his thing. To be truly accurate they’d need people to represent my family as distillers and squatters.

After a few generations of industrial growth, Southern Indiana has returned to its origin in poverty. The difference is that early pioneers had land and many opportunities to better themselves, but the poor people there now are simply getting by or trying to. Southern Indiana once was a place that attracted intellectuals and industry. People like the Owens family sought to create a better world. Later on, many famous socialists and labor organizers came out of Indiana. The tide, however, has turned. No one seems to remember Indiana for the hopes and dreams people living there had for generations. You can’t understand the conservatism and fundamentalism of places like Southern Indiana without understanding this history.

Indiana makes for a useful case history. It is a place where the effects of the past are still visible. It is a place that has been in between, split between Midlands and Appalachia. It is one of the main states where the Midwest first took form as a separate culture from the East Coast states.

Like the ancestors of both my mother’s and father’s families, my parents moved on from Indiana, although their movement no longer coincided with a Westward movement. As a kid, I was forced to move around; but as an adult, I’ve chosen to stay put here in the same Midwestern town I grew to love as a child. Most of my mom’s family, unlike her, chose also to stay in the area in which they grew up in. In this age of globalization, a sense of place is taking on new meaning in context of community and family. For the average person, there no longer is a better life to be sought elsewhere. There is no new frontier land to be settled.