Conservative Scholars Ponder K-12 Education
Conference highlights include discussions of public school reform, closing racial achievement gap
By Ronald Roach
During the week the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, more than 200 conservative scholars and education officials gathered in New York City to consider the responsibility American higher education has toward helping improve the nation’s K-12 public education system.
Meeting at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan May 21-23, the scholars and education officials convened for the 11th national conference of the Princeton, N.J.-based National Association of Scholars (NAS). Scholars and education officials explored the conference theme “What Our Universities and Schools Owe Each Other,” a topic conference organizers say was not chosen because of the anniversary of the Brown decision, but merely reflected the NAS’ interest in examining the relationship between higher and K-12 education.
“We’ve been interested in looking at K-12 education for some time,” said Dr. Bradford Wilson, executive director of the NAS.
With an estimated membership of 4,000, the NAS describes itself as “an organization of professors, graduate students, college administrators and trustees, and independent scholars committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free and democratic society.” The group and its local affiliates are best known for their opposition of the multiculturalism that seeks to supplant the primacy of the Western intellectual tradition; opposition to campus speech codes and political correctness; and opposition to race-conscious affirmative action in academic admissions.
With many Brown commemorations, public discussions and media attention focusing on the contention that American public schools are resegregating, the NAS panel speakers largely framed their critiques of K-12 and higher education, and of school reform ideas with little or no reference to the racial and ethnic demography of public schools. In fact, two speakers, referring to the Brown anniversary, took exception to the characterization that resegregation was taking place and touted the decision as an undiminished success.
Dr. Stephen Balch, president of the NAS, told a reporter that “the great triumph of Brown was that it said the American people are to be treated as individuals.”
“That’s what America is all about,” he said.
Dr. Diane Ravitch, the well-known New York University education researcher, gave a keynote talk that explored K-12 and higher education developments since the 1960s. The highlight panel discussion of the conference titled “Closing the Racial Gap in American Education” included Dr. Abigail Thernstrom and her Harvard University historian husband and No Excuses co-author, Dr. Stephan Thernstrom; Vanderbilt University political scientist Dr. Carol Swain; University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax; and public policy expert Dr. David J. Armor of George Mason University.
“Schooling has become the key to racial equality,” proclaimed Abigail Thernstrom in her talk. “This is not an IQ story, but one of students needlessly left behind.”
She told the NAS audience that the academic achievement gap between Blacks/Latinos and Whites/Asians represented “an American tragedy” and Americans should have a “sense of outrage” about its existence. Thernstrom referred to the U.S. Department of Education statistics cited in her recent book showing that Black and Latino high school seniors on average graduate with achievement scores equal to that of White eighth-graders. She said that while socioeconomic status accounts for a third of the learning gap between Blacks/Latinos and Whites/Asians, cultural factors explained two-thirds of the gap.
The only non-White person to speak at the conference, Dr. Carol Swain, who is African American, offered a highly personal perspective about the racial achievement gap. She told the audience about having grown up poor, being a school dropout, marrying at age 16, and later struggling as a single mother. Swain said she agreed with Abigail Thernstrom about the racial achievement gap stemming largely from cultural reasons, and credited the exposure to teachers and others for encouraging her to continue her education and pursue a doctorate.
Swain said that when considering the racial achievement gap it is important to distinguish between the position of middle- and upper-middle-class Blacks and that of poor Blacks. “When it comes to middle-class minorities, they don’t exert themselves as they should … I’ve encountered minority students who say they have to let us in,” due to affirmative action programs, according to Swain.
Swain said she opposes race-conscious affirmative action because it benefits middle-class Blacks and Latinos, who have the family resources to be more academically competitive than they currently are. “We have to hold middle-class minority students to the same standards as Whites,” she argued.
Swain said students from low-income backgrounds deserve intervention that can bring them quality education. “The situation for the poor like myself must depend upon others,” providing guidance and steering them to quality schools, she said.
Armor of George Mason University argued that the chief focus of eliminating the achievement gap should be in the early childhood years. He contended that after a child began his or her formal schooling “the gap may not be reversible.”
“Until we solve the early (childhood development issues), I don’t think we’re going to close the gap,” Armor told the audience.
The answer to the dilemma, according to Armor, is to strengthen families through social policies and to counteract negative cultural influences “that devalue the family.” “This American (popular) culture has impacted Black families more than it has Whites,” he noted.
School reforms, such as embodied in the No Child Left Behind act, “work at the margins,” Armor said.
Abigail Thernstrom took issue with Armor’s assessment that improving schools won’t make a significant dent in closing the racial gap in learning. “We really believe that schools matter,” she countered and cited examples of schools where she has seen Black and Latino students make tremendous strides.
In a session titled “Bad Education: What Can Be Done?,” Dr. Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, outlined three major routes of school reform, which he labeled “more of the same,” the “standards” movement, and the “school choice” movement. Finn defined “more of the same” as the conventional approach advocated by the education establishment as one of spending money in school districts to hire more teachers, create smaller classes and other steps believed to bring about more quality education.
“The strategy has not worked very well,” Finn said, recounting the approach as one that’s been unfolding over the past two decades.
In contrast, the standards-based movement is best represented by the No Child Left Behind legislation. With standards, schools are held accountable for the academic performance of their students as demonstrated on standardized tests, according to Finn. “I’m still bullish about standards-based reform. We’re a long way from perfecting it,” he said.
And Finn touted school choice as a promising basis for school reform. “It provides immediate relief to those who can move their children from bad to good schools,” he explained. Charter schools represent a type of school that is part of the school choice movement but is subject to the accountability of having to meet standards-based performance, Finn said.
“Don’t sign up for more of the same. Do sign up for standards-based reform and do sign up for choice,” he concluded.
Dr. E. D. Hirsch Jr. argued that without curriculum reform in favor of the core knowledge approach, the standards-based and school choice approaches to K-12 reform won’t get very far. The founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch, contended using research data that core knowledge schools show the best results of student performance because they incorporate a “specific, shared core curriculum in order to help children establish strong foundations of knowledge.”
The core knowledge approach is “at least as important as standards and choice,” Hirsch said.
Other panel discussion speakers not directly addressing higher education’s relationship with K-12 education sounded dire notes about the current state of the American academy. Said Dr. Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania during the “Doing Justice to the Past” panel discussion, “We live in an academic age that lacks humility and discipline.”
In a talk titled “Civility and Diversity,” Dr. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, made a plea for academic integrity. “Why bother with the warped historicism of cultural studies, the sophomoric epistemology of critical theory, the politics-is-everything cynicism of adversarial critics, and the liberal guilt of admissions offices? Why not just affirm erudition, aesthetic experience, religious traditions, the historical sense, scientific method, high culture and other elements of an enlightened education?” he asked.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com