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Commentary By Jason L. Riley

Double Standards Won’t Close the Racial Learning Gap

Education, Culture Higher Ed, Race

And racial preferences set up bright students—who otherwise would be excelling at less-selective schools—to fail at elite colleges.

Amy Wax, a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was recently barred from teaching certain courses there. Her crime? During an interview in September with Glenn Loury, a black economist at Brown University, Ms. Wax remarked on the academic underperformance of black students at Penn Law.

“Here’s a very inconvenient fact, Glenn: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely, in the top half,” said Ms. Wax. “I can think of one or two students who scored in the top half of my required first-year course.”

In his announcement amending her teaching responsibilities, Penn Law School Dean Theodore Ruger accused Ms. Wax of speaking “disparagingly and inaccurately” about the performance of the school’s black students, whom he characterized as “extremely successful.” Like Ms. Wax, Mr. Ruger didn’t offer any empirical data to back up his claim; school administrators are known to guard such information as closely as the president guards his tax returns. But it’s an open secret that highly selective schools like Penn lower their standards significantly for black applicants to achieve a predetermined amount of racial diversity on campus. Harvard is currently being sued over this practice, and the plaintiffs have complained that getting demographic data on admissions from the school is like pulling teeth.

Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming that students (of any color) who do not meet the normal standards applied to other students at a school tend to have lower grades and graduation rates. That’s not because they are less intelligent or less capable, but because they have not been prepared for the pace and rigor of an Ivy League institution. Affirmative-action policies in higher education regularly set up bright students—students who otherwise would be excelling at less-selective schools—to fail at elite colleges, and the proponents of these policies become indignant when you point out the obvious.

The episode is also revealing in what it tells us about liberalism’s approach to addressing racial differences in academic achievement that have bedeviled educators for decades. In 1965, the reading and math skills of the average black 12th-grader resembled those of a white seventh-grader. Today, that gap is only slightly narrower, and Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has noted that “if we continue to close gaps at the same rate in the future, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.”

The question is whether to help more black students meet high standards or simply to water down requirements for all students. Racial-preference policies are clearly a vote for the latter approach. Even at the K-12 level, there is persistent pressure from the progressive left to stop standardized testing and make gifted-learning programs more accessible—all in the name of “diversity.” In New York City, a single exam determines admission to eight specialized public high schools, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat, wants to dilute that requirement.

At one of New York’s most famous elite public schools, Stuyvesant High, this September’s freshman class of 902 students will include only 10 blacks and 27 Hispanics, according to the New York Post. Blacks and Hispanics comprise 70% of all public-school students in the city, but they are less than 4% of those offered admission to the specialized schools. Critics like the mayor insist that the high-stakes exams are culturally biased or that black and Hispanic families lack the resources for test-preparation courses.

But these schools—the most competitive of which are Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science—aren’t overflowing with wealthy white kids. The New York Times reported last year that Asians are around 75% of the student body at Stuyvesant and more than 60% at Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech. What’s more, most of these overachieving Asian students hail from working-class immigrant neighborhoods in New York’s outer boroughs, and between 40% and 60% qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The founder of a test-prep company that serves these communities told the paper that many Asian families, despite limited means, simply prioritized education. “It’s more like a culture thing, you know?” he said. “They would rather not get expensive sneakers, but they will try to put their kids in a very expensive prep school.”

Cultural attitudes toward education can and do affect the black-white learning divide, but discussions of this reality often garner the same hysterical reaction as Ms. Wax’s musings about her classroom experience with black students. The other side doesn’t want to hear it, as if not talking about a problem that hasn’t gone away in 50 years will suddenly make it disappear. Ignoring the racial achievement gap, or trying to paper over it with racial double standards, isn’t helping blacks. It’s more like giving up on them.

The number of Hispanic students admitted to New York’s Stuyvesant High School for this September’s freshman class is 27. An earlier version of this column cited an incorrect figure.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal