ecent history shows that black students' test scores can be raised -- if we set mandatory standards.
Here, in a paragraph, is the picture of black America that emerges from Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: As a group, black Americans are much less intelligent than white Americans. Their test scores -- IQ, SAT, you name it -- are about one standard deviation lower. That was true in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, and it' s true today. A forty-year national effort to raise black scores produced hardly any change. We tried everything we could think of -- everything from preschool- and infant-enrichment programs to affirmative-action quotas at Ivy League colleges -- and none of it worked. Black scores have barely budged, and the truth, however unpalatable, is that they aren't going to. The reason is probably partly genetic, but we're no better off if it's entirely environmental. We have no more of a clue about how to fix the one than the other. Intelligence matters, more and more as technology advances, and blacks just have a lot less of it. That handicaps them and us, but we have to face up to it, quit pretending we can change it, and learn to live with it.
That's Charles Murray's picture of black America, a picture of hopeless intellectual stasis, and a lot of white Americans are ready to buy it. Most still won't say it aloud and many will say the opposite, but millions look at black America today and feel discouraged. A lot of them had uncomfortable experiences, in college or at work, with the systematic mismatching of people and places that arbitrary affirmative-action quotas produce, and they are not optimistic. Race relations are tense, progress is hard to see, and stark images of deterioration dominate our TV screens.
Black Americans are discouraged too. Beyond the politics of rage and protest, under the anger, a lot of black Americans feel frightened and defensive. Increasingly, it's not just the black underclass that is isolated. More and more middle-class blacks are opting out of racially mixed neighborhoods, insulating themselves in all-black sanctuaries in the suburbs. They find whites condescending, feel they just can't relax around them and will never really feel respected and at home with them.
Discouragement is pervasive, even among Murray's critics. Nineteen of them had their say in the October 31 New Republic. Some damned the tests, some damned Murray; some did both, but none expressed any optimism about the possibility of raising black scores any time soon, or any ideas about what to do next (discounting the usual snake-oil salesmanship about how preschool programs will work like a vaccination, giving all black kids permanent protection against everything but adolescent acne). None of the 14 participants in National Review's December 5 symposium on The Bell Curve demonized Murray or dismissed his evidence by pretending that tests don't matter. But they, too, generally found the book and/or its reception deeply troubling.
I am a bull in this bear market, a tough-love optimist about the intellectual potential of American kids, across the board. I think black scores can be raised significantly, and white ones too, in less than a decade. An honest look at the past forty years shows us how to do it. It lets us see which social and educational policies produced solid bottom- line results, which ones were ineffectual, and which ones made things worse. Some really did work, and I think Murray and the silent legions who think none did are mistaken -- not bigoted, not politically incorrect, just genuinely and profoundly mistaken. But then, I think most of his critics are too.
My disagreement with Murray is not based on rejection of the solidly established facts about intelligence and its social correlates reviewed in The Bell Curve; I've been defending those facts in print for decades. I have no quarrel with Murray's opposition to affirmative-action quotas either; I opposed them from the start, convinced they would do great harm to Americans of all colors. And I certainly have no quarrel with his claim that we've been shortchanging our brightest students: in the 1980s, when egalitarian zealots tried to make achievement grouping unconstitutional, my testimony as an expert witness for the defense (in NAACP v. Georgia) helped convince the courts to rule against them.
I reject Murray's picture of black America because I see a different one. Where Murray sees forty years of hopeless intellectual stasis, I see significant changes in black test scores, up and down. And where Murray sees an unbroken forty-year national effort to boost black scores, I see three distinct eras, eras in which radically different social and educational movements held sway over black education.
The first era lasted from about 1950 to 1964. Equal opportunity was becoming a reality at last, and affirmative action didn't yet exist. The drive to desegregate all of America's schools was the dominant movement in American education then, and since the goal was equal access, not equal results, no one kept close tabs on black test scores. The company that produces the SAT, the Educational Testing Service, didn't begin to provide separate SAT averages for blacks and whites until 1976, so we don't have good data on how college-bound black students scored during this era, and we can't map year-to-year changes with any precision.
We do know there was a great surge in the number of black students who went to college in those years. And we know that those who got in got no special breaks. They got in because they met the same standards white students met. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, there was no other way. American educational standards were high for everybody (SAT scores were half a standard deviation higher than they are now), and increasing numbers of black students met those standards.
In the absence of SAT score data broken down by race, Murray and others assume black scores were the same in this era as they were in the next one. I assume they were higher in this period, just as white ones were. He assumes they were stationary. I assume they were rising. And I know from my own experience that black and white students and teachers were genuinely comfortable with one another at many universities in this era. The kind of self-segregation by race that is the first thing you see when you walk into a college cafeteria now was a rarity then. I and my academic friends and colleagues never worried about being condescending to the blacks among us; we had nothing to be condescending about. And the blacks we knew were not defensive with us; they had nothing to be defensive about. It's a world many of my younger colleagues today cannot imagine ever existed, but it did, in the same era as the sensational examples of bigoted resistance to desegregation that got all the attention and are the stuff of tod ay's history texts.
The next era, roughly from the mid 1960s to 1980, was very different. Angered at last by the slow pace of desegregation in parts of the South, and egged on by a change in elite opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court moved away from the equal-opportunity approach, adopting a proportional-representation standard instead and applying it all over the nation. The Court wanted equal results, especially in education, and it wanted them right away. Experts in education, social science, and civil rights told the courts they could have them, but insisted that removing external barriers was not enough. They pointed to a presumed internal barrier, low self-esteem, arguing that high self-esteem is the critical variable for intellectual development -- the master key to learning. Black self-esteem was lower, they said, because discrimination damaged it, creating a barrier that had to be overcome before blacks could learn, and expert help was needed to overcome it.
From the beginning, the evidence contradicted this theory at every turn. The self-esteem of black kids was not lower than that of white kids; children' s self-esteem was not and is not a mirror of the attitudes of the larger society around them. It is primarily a reflection of the love their parents show them, and it does not rise in integrated schools or fall in homogeneous ones. That's what the evidence shows, but evidence that contradicted the self-esteem theory was ignored by the experts and was not presented in court.
The self-esteem theory of educational development had already been incorporated into the fabric of constitutional law by the Court in Brown. But desegregation aside, educational policies did not really change until the late Sixties and the Seventies. In that era, federal judges gave the experts unprecedented power to change American schools to make them conform to the self-esteem theory of how we learn. The changes were profound because, in the experts' eyes, it wasn't just discrimination that damaged self-esteem. High academic and disciplinary standards and consequences for not meeting them were also seen as damaging to self-esteem, no matter how fairly applied, and were trashed with equal ferocity. Social promotion, tolerance of disruptive and violent behavior, and affirmative-action quotas became the order of the day.
The result was that the schools a new generation of black kids got equal access to were very different from the schools of the Fifties and the early Sixties -- as different as American schools today are from those in Japan, Hong Kong, and other places where kids have often outscored ours by one and sometimes two standard deviations in recent decades. Black self-esteem, high to begin with, rose in these new American schools; black scores did not. I think they fell sharply, especially in later grades. But without information about black scores on tests like the SAT in the prior era, it is impossible to be certain about the size of the black decline. We do know that although white self-esteem also rose in this era -- often to grandiose heights -- the scores of white kids fell, so hard and so fast that the absolute number (not just the percentage) of very high-scoring American kids was lower in 1980 than it had been in 1964. Over all, our kids' scores ended up half a standard deviation lower than they were in th e first era. Their behavior grew increasingly disruptive and violent, in school and out. The violence in and around mainly or all-black schools in the inner cities increased even more.
The black - white score gap, however, stayed about the same, Murray tells us. But if black scores really hadn't changed, shouldn't that gap have narrowed dramatically in this era? Shouldn't it have been cut roughly in half? The fact that this did not happen tells me that black scores fell too, and that lowering standards hurt all our kids, not just white ones.
The harm done to black kids was even more severe. In a 1991 article in Commentary, I likened it to an iatrogenic condition -- an illness or deformity caused by treatment. Thalidomide is probably the best-known example, but such illnesses are all too familiar in the clinical world where I cut my professional teeth. In the educational world, they go unrecognized, but they are at least as prevalent and serious there. The great trashing of academic and disciplinary standards in American schools in the 1970s had a thalidomide-like effect on American kids. I argued in Commentary, National Review, and elsewhere that it made them dumber and more prone to violence, that it made all our kids fail, and made black kids fail spectacularly.
The experts who transformed our schools do not see things that way. Blinded by their own good intentions, they cannot see how bad their medicine was and is. They think we've done nothing but confer benefits on black kids, all these years, to no avail. Not enough ``benefits,'' certainly, but benefits nonetheless -- nothing but benefits for forty years.
Some of the experts who transformed our schools did finally notice, though, that these same benefits were bad for white kids. Elite attitudes began changing in 1983, when President Reagan's Commission on Excellence publicized my analysis from the Fall 1982 Public Interest of how far behind our European and Asian competitors our kids' scores had fallen. At that point, many experts began to grasp the fact that lowering standards was harmful, but only for white kids.
Murray continues to insist that giving self-esteem primacy over standards is good for black kids, and he recommends that we do more of it. So, by and large, do his critics, especially his liberal Democratic critics. Initially, they thought that doing more of that would raise black scores. Few still do. They haven't given up on their methods, however. Like Murray, they gave up on black kids instead. That's why they champion affirmative action, now and forever. They may not say it aloud as Murray does, but they think black Americans have to rely on body counts, permanently, because they'll never be able to make it on brains.
The evidence from the third era, the period from 1980 to the present, shows they are mistaken, and here we do not have to rely on indirect evidence. We have SAT scores for black students alone from 1976 on, and the pattern is clear: black scores began to rise in 1980 and continued to rise throughout the decade, ending up a quarter of a standard deviation higher. Black scores on formal IQ tests rose too, by about a fifth of a standard deviation.
These positive changes perplex the experts because they do not coincide with any new initiatives in the black community by our recognized social engineers, the elite change agents who were so prominent and so hyperactive in the second era. These changes came after the experts and engineers had largely given up on black kids, and the experts have no ready explanation for them. Like Murray, most policy mavens mention them only in passing, if at all, downplaying or dismissing them. But changes of this magnitude are significant by every statistical standard in common use today. And it didn't take forty years to achieve them, or even fourteen. It happened in less than a decade.
Why did black kids who failed to make any progress in the second era suddenly surge forward in the third? The rise in black test scores in the Eighties was a result of a grass-roots protest movement that had a major impact on the schools poor kids went to in that decade. It was called the Minimum Competence Testing Movement, and its banner was literacy and numeracy as a minimum standard for high-school graduation.
Liberals and experts condemned this movement as a cruel, stupid assault on student self-esteem, certain to have especially devastating effects on black kids. The ordinary Americans who championed it -- parents, mostly, black and white -- ignored the experts for once. Appalled by the number of illiterate high-school graduates, they insisted that no more of their kids be allowed to graduate without passing a simple test of reading and arithmetic.
The experts argued, unsuccessfully, that this requirement was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, calling it an unfair burden on black kids that would perpetuate the results of past discrimination. My 1983 testimony in Debra P. v. Turlington convinced the courts that, far from being a burden, academic standards and sanctions for enforcing them were benefits, essential precisely to get rid of the effects of past discrimination. On that basis, U.S. District Court Judge George C. Carr let the requirement stand, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld his ruling.
Florida, site of the test case, was one of many states to adopt a minimum-competence requirement. Here are the results, the results that Murray and so many other experts ignore. On the first few tries, 80 to 90 per cent of Florida's black high-school students failed, but the state gave them five in-school chances to pass, and on the fifth try, more than 90 per cent did. The same thing happened across the country -- the movement had spread with the speed of a prairie fire. And everywhere, black scores rose, not just on simple tests, but on advanced ones like the SAT. The gap between black and white students began to narrow at last, even in the face of all the social and familial devastation caused by the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
White students, too, have finally recovered some of the intellectual ground they lost in the second era, but only on the math section of the SAT, not in verbal reasoning ability. Girls have lost much ground in the verbal section particularly. And lately, it looks as if all our kids' scores have stopped rising and are beginning to plateau again, stuck on a ledge that is still too low. The grass-roots reform fires seem burnt out. And while there is a lot of political talk about raising standards, there is little understanding of what made the minimum-competence standard work: the willingness to back it up with powerful sanctions. Kids knew that they could not graduate without it.
Most politicians and a lot of other Americans don't accept that lesson yet. They are for raising standards, of course -- everybody is today -- but they also want to maximize self-esteem. The experts may have invented the self-esteem-uber-alles rationale out of whole cloth -- the facts may contradict it, and its effects may have been devastating -- but millions of Americans embraced it. In many places today, self-esteem ideology is like a secular religion, an ersatz doctrine of salvation that people cling to, afraid to let go.
Yet to raise academic and disciplinary standards, you have to give them primacy over self-esteem. You can't keep saying ``wonderful, wonderful' ' to all the kids all the time, as long as they stay in school, whether they are working or not. You have to be willing to tell kids, ``That's not good enough.'' You have to be willing to let them fail, many times, and you have to teach them that, however much failure may temporarily deflate their self-esteem, it's not the end of the world. It just means they have to get back up, try again harder, and keep on trying until they get it right, just as they did when they learned to ride a two-wheeler bike or shoot a basket. Shielding kids from failure shields them from growth. Our job is to teach kids how to deal with failure and, ultimately, to triumph over it. When enough of us are ready to accept that lesson and act on it, the evidence shows that all our kids can and will do better.
For years my plea has been to make minimum competence -- basic literacy and numeracy -- the standard for grade-school graduation. Then we could set an appropriate standard for high-school graduation -- a minimum score on an SAT-like test, showing that our graduates have taken the next giant intellectual step after literacy and numeracy: learning to solve problems by reasoning abstractly with words and numbers. I'm convinced that if we did that, quickly, without waiting for a resolution of the curriculum wars that will occupy us for at least the next decade, black kids would surge ahead again, as they did in the Eighties. And this time, the new standards would be high enough to lift many white kids' scores too, high enough to lift our national bell curve. It has happened before, many times in many places, in the years since World War II, and there is no reason we can't make it happen here, now.
Many Americans of good will would like me to end now by saying that all this proves that there are no genetic differences in intelligence between races. I'd like to say that too, but I can't, because there may be. Asian kids may have a genetic edge over white kids; I'm not sure. No honest scientist can be. I am sure that the gap doesn't have to be anywhere near as wide as it has been in recent decades, and I'm sure that's true for black kids too. If we move decisively to throw out failed social and educational policies and implement successful ones, who knows how far any of our kids can go? We can't know; we can only give them all the chance to find out.