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"How Things Work - Commentary by Joseph C. Phillips"

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In a 2007 interview with the editorial board of Washington Post, Senator Joseph Biden offered these thoughts on the racial achievement gap in education, "There's less than one percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than four or five percent that are minorities. What is in Washington [DC]? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you're dealing with."

Certainly, the senator did not mean to imply that black students were inherently academically inferior to their white and Asian counterparts. Or did he?

Biden sought to clarify his remarks in a statement: "This was not a race-based distinction, but a discussion of the problems kids face who don't have the same socio-economic support system.”

It wasn’t a race based distinction at all. No doubt that is why he used as a comparison a town known as “chocolate city” and a state perceived as the whitest state in the union. It will come as quite a shock to parents in Iowa that their children are not underprivileged because they are white. It will come as more of a shock to Senator Biden that according to revised data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Iowa ranks 29th in per capita income behind Washington D.C which oddly enough has one of the highest in the country. More shocking is that “Education trust Iowa” reports that 88% of black Iowa fourth graders are reading below grade level. By the eighth grade only eight percent of black eighth graders are rated proficient in math. It is a sad commentary that I don’t even have to post the scores of the two percent of the Asian population in Iowa as their scores are almost directly in opposite of those of black Iowa students. Economics may explain some of the gap but it will not explain the fact that here in California, for example, disadvantaged white and Asian students (defined as students that qualify for the federal school lunch program) continue to outscore non-disadvantaged black students on the English and math portions of the STAR test.

Most shocking is that the senator may have actually been correct. That is to say he may have been correct before he became politically correct.

The public has been aware of the gap in academic achievement among racial groups for some time. The primary focus of much of our public policy has been on how to fix the bureaucracy. If kids are failing, it must be the schools. One of the central aims of the legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” was to erase this gap.

We seem content to posit that black students are the victims of the subtle racism of mostly white teachers or that this is the inevitable result of a system built out of a white power structure (sigh). We are certain that if only our kids sat next to the rich kids, or we paid our teachers a million dollars a year, all our kids would become little Einstein’s, reading and factoring like crazy. We don’t dare wonder out loud if perhaps the issue may have less to do with teachers and schools than it does with the obvious truth Senator Biden dared utter initially to whit: “It goes back to what you start with.”

There is a limit to what schools can do and what we should expect them to do. Parents prepare their children for success and good parenting as it relates to that preparation ought not be defined by race or economics.

Yes, schools in better neighborhoods have the advantage of parents with enough disposable income to pool their money to provide special programs. But we are not talking about having the local Shakespeare theatre come to the school to perform. The tests our kids are failing reflect basic skills –reading and arithmetic. What those neighborhoods have that is of most value is parents completely and utterly immersed in their children’s education.

After a teacher tells you why he or she should be getting paid as much as a first round draft pick for the NFL, they will concede that the first key to academic achievement is involved parenting. Parents with a vision for a successful future, that are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it and determined to instill this discipline in their children will present to educators students prepared to achieve. None of these characteristics are purchased with money and parents in both Washington D.C. and Iowa can pass them along to their children.

Joseph C. Phillips is the author of “He Talk Like A White Boy” available wherever books are sold.


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