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What’s Really Driving America’s Abysmal Inner-City Education Results?

Reading the recent column by fellow Blue State Conservative contributor John Eidson got me to thinking about educational experiences of my own. It’s always a good column when it makes one think.

Reading it, there was a vivid memory of when I was working at a regional campus of The Ohio State University as an academic advisor.

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I met with a just-admitted young black woman from Cleveland, OH. I was looking forward to meeting her after having reviewed her high school transcript. It was all A’s and B’s with other indicators of academic excellence. At least, that was what the transcript showed.

A regional campus at Ohio State, unlike the main campus in Columbus, was an open-admissions campus for any Ohio high school graduate.

Because it is open admissions, certain placement tests were used so incoming students would be in a course that would maximize their chances of successfully completing that course. You don’t want to sign a student up for chemistry, for example, if they don’t know algebra.

So, this young woman comes into my office and tells me she is pre-Med. That generally requires a first year of Biology, Chemistry, and perhaps Calculus if one can carry that load. I told her what courses would be required, then made a later appointment for the setting of her schedule.

In the intervening time, the results from her placement tests came in.  Having not yet taken the ACT exam, she did take it as part of her admissions process and received a score of 4.  Signing your name and randomly guessing all the answers can get you a score of 4.

On the Nelson-Denny Reading Test she scored out at an elementary school level. Her math test showed she needed remedial work in basic arithmetic. She had a similar result in her writing placement test.

Clearly, she was not ready for the typical first-semester line of courses required of a pre-Med student. She would have to do significant remedial work in math, reading and writing.

The first part of my meeting with her was spent explaining just where she was academically, and what would be required of her to pursue her dream. The second half of our meeting was mostly a cheerleading exercise on my part as I told her that, despite the challenge in front of her, this is precisely what we do at OSU.

I told her that the university had the resources to help her achieve her goal. Absolutely we did. If she would but put in the time and effort, we can partner with her and get her where she needs to be. And that’s where we left it, with a schedule that would begin the process of educating a young black woman. She left my office with a smile on her face.

At the end of the first day of classes she showed up at my office door asking to speak with me. She thereupon stood there and told me she went to all her classes, and that she didn’t understand a word that was said in any of them. She then turned and walked out of my office before I could say anything.

That was the last I saw of her. She withdrew from classes the next day.

After getting word she had withdrawn, I pulled her file again just to look at her transcript. According to the Cleveland Public Schools, she was earmarked for success.

It was all a lie.

How could this happen? The scenario that built itself up as I pondered her situation is that she was a willing and cooperative student in high school. She did her work as best she could and caused no trouble for teachers or staff. And she was rewarded for that.

But the rewards she was given, it is obvious, were rewards of self-esteem and not of accomplishment. She was given every reason in the world to think that she would one day be a doctor. And her high school teachers cheered her on. “You go, girl.”

But once she left the safe confines of her inner-city Cleveland high school with its low expectations, reality squashed her like a frog.

The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. What were those teachers doing? Are standards so low in Cleveland they actually thought she was doing great? She could neither read, write, nor do arithmetic at better than an elementary school level, but hey, she’s doing great.

In my anger I pounded on my desk. Another advisor came in wondering what all the fuss was about. All I could do was shout some inarticulate yawp. Were I to have formulated my thoughts it would have been something like: “They intellectually raped this young girl, and then sent her out damaged, to be brutalized by the outside world.”

God was I angry. And, as I recall this whole affair now, I am still angry.

To paraphrase from Barry Goldwater’s speech at the Republican Convention in 1964, “Low expectations in the pursuit of racial justice is no virtue.” Good intentions be damned. That young woman was abused because she wasn’t held to the highest of standards while in public school.

Which brings me to teachers. Many of them, God bless ‘em. For many others though, what the hell are they doing in a classroom?

As a retired university professor, I know how Education schools are viewed by most academics. It’s why we roll our eyes and chuckle when Dr. Jill insists on being called “Doctor” with her Education degree.

It’s also why Education types come up with all these grandiose and cockamamie theories, all very high-minded and abstract to demonstrate their intellectual acumen.

Take Whole Word vs. Phonics. All indicators are that phonics gives the best results when teaching kids how to read. Yet still education theorists insist on afflicting Whole Word approaches on students, often with dire consequences.

Another example is Common Core Math vs. the Old-Fashioned Way. For a humorous take on the difference, see this video.

In short, education theories appear to be exercises among educators to somehow justify their existence as intellectuals on college campuses. Hate to break it to them, but they aren’t.

True story. When I was working on my doctorate, I held a graduate assistantship as an academic advisor for undergraduate majors before they were admitted by the department of their major, usually the beginning of their third year. One student came in and said he wanted to be a Biology major with an ultimate goal of teaching it at the secondary level. Based on his high school record and tests, I signed him up for the needed courses, including first-year Biology and Chemistry.

Later in the semester, meeting with him, it was clear he was unable to meet the rigorous requirements of a Biology major. So, he announced to me he wanted to change his major to Education with a Science emphasis, which essentially is the materials and methods of teaching science. This would allow him to still teach Biology at the secondary level without having to take the science classes required of a Biology major.

I helped him change his schedule the following semester because that was my job. But I never felt good about it. That’s not who I would want for a high school Biology teacher for my children. I want the one who successfully completes the rigors of a Biology major and then takes a fifth year to get a Master’s in Education with certification.

It’s the willingness to accept mediocrity that is killing education. And our kids are the ones who suffer.

Another story has to do with Thomas Sowell and his extensive writing on education, particularly on the education of black children. He highlights the story of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

Dunbar was the first public high school for blacks in the nation. It also has one of the most distinguished records of educational achievement on record.

From 1870 to 1955 most of its graduates, upwards of 80 per cent, went to college, which was rare for graduates, white or black, at the time. From 1918 to 1923 Dunbar graduates earned 15 degrees from Ivy League schools, as well as having other graduates from top-notch schools like Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan.

During World War II, Dunbar provided “nearly a score of Majors, nine Colonels and Lieutenant colonels, and a Brigadier General.” Edward Brooke, a Republican senator from Massachusetts, was the first popularly elected African-American Senator. He was also a graduate of Dunbar.

The quality of the faculty was outstanding, with most having graduate degrees and many with Ph.Ds.. The academic standards were extraordinarily high. Latin and Greek were required during most of its history. And clearly the students met those standards. No dumbing down for them.

But that all changed in 1954 after the Brown v Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court. To implement the decision, Dunbar was transformed from an elite school creating amazing opportunities for young black men and women to a neighborhood school. And Dunbar is not in the best of neighborhoods.

In the words of Sowell from a later article: “Dunbar, which had been accepting outstanding black students from anywhere in the city, could now accept only students from the rough ghetto neighborhood in which it was located. Virtually overnight, Dunbar became a typical ghetto school. As unmotivated, unruly, and disruptive students flooded in, Dunbar teachers began moving out and many retired. 

More than 80 years of academic excellence simply vanished into thin air.”

One more vignette. Many years ago, I applied for and was accepted to interview for a position as an academic advisor at a regional campus of Indiana University. I was between academic gigs after a move to Indiana, so my wife, a physician, could look after her elderly and ailing parents. I was simply looking for a job.

At a certain point, being interviewed by the search committee, I was asked what I would do with a black student who was struggling in their classes.

My response was I would treat a black student exactly as I would any other student who was struggling, that I would make sure they were afforded the needed resources to address remedially their shortcomings and get them on their way toward completing a degree.

I then used a line made popular by George Bush and echoed in Goldwater’s convention speech. I said that we do no good for a black student when we allow the soft bigotry of low expectations to dictate how we teach.

A couple members of the committee looked at each other and rolled their eyes. I knew then that I was not going to get the job.

I also know that I was right.

By Ron Nutter

Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.

Photo by Maccablo Inc at Flickr

22 thoughts on “What’s Really Driving America’s Abysmal Inner-City Education Results?”

  1. I’m sure that if you were to secure copies of the contracts you will find that there was a majority of affirmative action hires “So call minority owned business hires” that are responsible for this mess with the grift running all through the contract awards process. The 13 percent rarely if ever meet their contract obligations. And why should they??? They’re never held accountable.

  2. The education establishment has no answer for poor urban performance. They are never held accountable and furthermore, they don’t care.

  3. “It’s the willingness to accept mediocrity that is killing education. And our kids are the ones who suffer.”
    What is most troubling is that there is a sizable student population who have little idea of why they are in school? What happened to their parents helping pre[are them to read, write and do math? Sitting in class is never easy, there is am unspoken contract to fulfill: the teacher will provide you with the course lessons. And the books and support.
    School is not a be-all end all. There are very good options for “students” who are not able to continued: many trade schools are good options, as are any of a variety of apprenticeships could be offered.
    No magic here, so pandering never helps.

  4. Blame woke white liberals who hide their own racism by always lowering the bar to give minorities a diploma or degree for Simply showing up in class. Deep inside they don’t think black students can do it on their own so they cave and lower the bar so they can keep them in school and give them a high school diploma.
    Everything the left touches turns to sh-t.

  5. This headline immediately hearkened me back to Project Veritas’s first video exposing ACORN in the Baltimore office. At one point one of the ACORN workers tells Hannah, “if you educate them, they won’t need you.“ I think that pretty much sums it up.

  6. in the big cities, if you mark a student of color as slow or not prepped for your class level then you get bad marks and eventually fired. It’s the corruption of race mongering and quota queen managers ordering the meeting of unrealistic goals based strictly on how the feel about it.

  7. i encountered a teacher that i didnt think could read above the level she was teaching. yes, one of the 13 percenters. more than likely math, as well. eventually pulled my kids from school. i was an early adopter of homeschooling. it was illegal.

  8. Yes, in first grade (in 1954) we learned the Dick and Jane (Look, look, look) books. By third grade, my teacher taught us phonics, and everybody (not just the best students) learned to read very well. I taught my two children to read at age three. My oldest’s first grade teacher taught her separately, she was so far ahead of the rest of the students. Parents make all the difference. If inner city parents don’t participate, nothing will improve there.

  9. I taught my two children to read at age three. They both got full scholarships to college (oldest scored 30 on ACT) and always had an easy time in school.

  10. Spot-on, but I would add an entire section to this commentary; the corrosive, anti-success, utterly smothering influence of unions in the State and education industry. I took a gig as an organizational development consultant for the Detroit Public School District, a role that took me into many of the schools, and what I saw shocked me (although in hindsight I should have expected it.)

    I should first say that the teachers with whom I interacted were all truly wonderful; dedicated, passionate, skilled educators with a love for teaching and a willingness to go ‘above-and-beyond’ for their students. They are generally NOT the problem in DPS, however clearing up the enormous pile of corruption, incompetence and apathy in from of them may shed light on teachers who maybe need to go.

    I have numerous stories from by brief 22 month stint there, but here are a couple:

    Using federal grant funding, Detroit built several all-new high schools with the best of everything. All of the schools have professional-grade theaters, including professional grade sound and audio systems, $35,000+ digital projection systems, full arbor systems (the ropes and pulls backstage that raise and lower curtains, lighting rigs and set pieces, and even hydraulically-operated sections at the front of the stage to create an orchestra pit. Here’s what I found:

    None of the sound systems worked due to lack of maintenance, each with a pronounced BUZZING sound when switched on. All that was required was annual inspection and some routine maintenance.
    None of the Profesional theater-class digital projectors worked because the bulbs had burned out. (Note: These are not regular projector bulbs. The entire bulb housing has to be sent away every 3 years to have new software uploaded, a new bulb installed and various inspections and maintenance performed to ensure reliability.) The cost is around $1500. This is apparently an enormous sum, even for a building that cost nearly $400 million to build. The real issue is their purchasing system, which prohibits accruing expenses across fiscal years, essentially ‘spending’ 1/3 of the cost each year unit the service is required. Instead these schools use $200 Dell tabletop projectors, and their unlimited supply of inexpensive bulbs, at the foot of the stage, pointing up onto a portable screen because the large screen doesn’t roll down from the ceiling. This, and a portable amplifier, is how they do assemblies for hundreds of students in a theater that could host Broadway productions. Even worse, the schools’ arbor system, which requires an annual inspection in any other setting, are NEVER inspected. This is a time bomb waiting to explode; someone is going to get killed or seriously injured. And the final insult? One of the schools has the mechanism for the ‘elevator’ section of their stage, but none of the hydraulics were installed, so it doesn’t work. A school ‘administrator’ told me they had seen the invoice for the hydraulics – over $300,000 – but it was never installed. That same school also never had the correct flooring material installed on the stage, so theater students have to check the floor at the beginning of class and tape down any sections of the cheap luan flooring material that was installed instead of real boards.
    One of the high schools actually had trees growing from the gutters above the main entrance to the school, with roots hanging down, reminiscent of the mangrove roots seen in pirate movies. These weren’t saplings; they were 3-5 ft tall trees! I was at this school on opening day to help parents with registrations when I noticed the roots. Part of my job was to evaluate the readiness of the school facility, so this went into my report. My manager told me to ‘take care of it.’ I called the school and asked to speak to the building maintenance supervisor. I explained the situation and he said that this was the responsibility of the group who maintains the exterior of the building. I spoke to THAT supervisor, who informed me it was the other guy’s responsibility.

    Being a consultant, I had no dog in this fight, so I got both supervisors on a conference call and basically told them “I don’t give a Schiff who’s responsibility this is; your students don’t deserve to see that every day when they come to school. So either the 2 of you work it out, or I’m going to show up at 5:00 tomorrow morning with a tall ladder, pair of work gloves, a trowel, and a camera crew and reporter from all 4 of the local TV networks. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

    Both of them grumbled something about their contract, to which I replied that none of that mattered a lick to me.

    I went there the next morning and the trees were gone.

    Yes the issues presented in Mr. Nutter’s article are very real, but corruption (including outright theft), incompetence, and apathy nourished by unions having far too much power is also a primary driver of the results Nutter saw.

  11. Let’s not pretend a reasonable portion of the responsibility for this travesty begins IN THE HOME.

    Yes, the Cleveland public school system is “failure factory”, but families who deliver their children to be educated, after rarely if ever reading to them, and failing to nurture their intellectual development bear an equal share of responsibility.

    Until blaqs cease rejecting TRUE academic excellence as “acting white” – it really isn’t worth bothering.

    The author loses credibility when he fails to include this. Government schools are truly lousy, but sending unprepared students to them seals the deal.

  12. Try this one on for size: phonics is essential for learning how to make friends with unfamiliar words, and whole word is the best way to learn to read familiar words rapidly.

    (I don’t remember learning to read because I was already reading at 3-1/2. I was firstborn and only child at the time and my mother read to me all day long. Eventually I got it. So I got to watch my classmates deal with their respective degrees of ease and difficulty as they learned to read, and I’ve been thinking about the topic of learning to read for over 70 years now – now you know my qualifications for the conclusion presented in the first paragraph.)

  13. This does not surprise me! We have seen it coming! Children are being pushed out of elementary school without learning to read, and without basic math. My fear is that this will continue through high school, college, and god forbid, medical school. Will there be a tendency to just pass these students along.

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