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'The Enemy Within': A Debate Over Failure's Sources

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The 30-point gap between the scores of black and white prospective teachers on some state certification exams has added new fuel to a long-simmering national debate over the root causes of poor minority performance on standardized tests.

And while, for many, arguments based on the standard themes of discrimination, deprivation, and test bias still hold power, for others--including a growing number of black intellectuals--such arguments do not fully address the problem.

More fundamental, say these theorists, are the injuries to motivation and self-esteem that are the legacy of decades in which minorities were told they must be helped in order to succeed.

"Too much of the political energy, talent, and imagination abounding in the emerging black middle class is being channeled into a struggle against an 'enemy without,"' writes the Harvard University political economist Glenn C. Loury, a leader in this new school of black social analysts, in a recent issue of The Public Interest. Meanwhile, he says, "the 'enemy within' goes relatively unchecked."

To the social psychologist Jeff Howard and his co-researcher Ray Hammond, who is a physician and minister, that "enemy within" is largely perceptual, a fear of engaging in an intellectual competition that blacks have been conditioned to believe they will fail.

Writing on the test-score gap in a controversial New Republic article this fall, the two say that traditional explanations based on cultural and educational disadvantage "ring hollow" in a post-civil-rights era of access and opportunity.

But equally discredited, the scholars say, are theories based on "laziness" or genetic inferiority that in their opinion have helped undermine the academic self-confidence of black youths.

"Inferior performance and inferior ability are not the same thing," they argue. "The performance gap is largely a behavorial problem."

Affirmative Action's Underside

Mr. Loury goes further, maintaining that affirmative action, with its underlying message that sub-par achievement is acceptable in the disadvantaged, has helped perpetuate poor minority performance in many spheres, including testing.

To defend affirmative-action programs, says Mr. Loury, "it becomes necessary to argue that almost no blacks would reach these heights without special favors." And that suggestion, he says, does an almost irreparable injury to blacks' self-esteem, depriving even those who succeed of a sense of earned reward.

But other educators express doubt that such theories add more than speculation to the current debate. Asa Hilliard 3rd, professor of urban education at Georgia State University, says the Howard-Hammond theory of a black fear of academic competition is "based on inference."

"It has no research support and is therefore without merit," says Mr. Hilliard, offering instead what he says is a proven proposition: that "ordinary good teaching alone can close the academic achievement gap."

But the prevailing opinion among educators is that poor minority test performance results precisely from the lack of such sound educational experiences. Longstanding inequities in the nation's public schools, they say, have deprived many economically disadvantaged students of the requisite background to perform well on standardized tests.

Teacher-compentency-test results, say some, simply illustrate the compounding of this deprivation through various stages of academic selection.

Some education-school officials note, for example, that traditionally black colleges, along with community and junior colleges, often give students who lack strong academic skills their only chance for a college education through open-admissions policies. Many of these students then gravitate to teacher-training programs, an arena largely bypassed in recent years by gifted minority students seeking newly accessible careers with greater rewards.

The culmination of this selection process, say educators, is predictable: Those most educationally disadvantaged in the minority population end up taking the certification exams--and they fail.

What the tests really measure,el10lsays Bernard R. Gifford, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley, is "differences in access to quality education."

The unequal test results, he said at a recent meeting of the Educational Testing Service, are simply an indication "that we are still neglecting the children of low-income families."

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, puts some of the blame for such children's academic deficiencies on public-school administrators, counselors, and teachers, who she says too often channel minority students out of the academically rigorous subject areas.

Concludes Mr. Gifford: "The test results show that those who enter our system with the most at their disposal are the ones who will get the most out of it."

Bias and Betterment

Though standardized tests may continue to suffer from unintended cultural bias, Mr. Gifford says, to dismiss the exams because they have a disparate impact would be "a great error." And to believe that the poor minority performance is solely the result of biased tests, he adds, would "take the heat off the schools."

But Mr. Hilliard, among others, remains a skeptic, calling the teacher tests "linguistically and culturally biased" in a recent Los Angeles Times article. They are tests of how much factual knowledge has been presented and absorbed, he suggests, not an effective guage of teaching potential.

If there is a bright side to the teacher-test-score gap, concludes Berkeley's Mr. Gifford, it is that the results "can provide clues on how we can repair inequities in our educational system."

In fact, say Professors Hammond and Howard, work with black high-school and college students in what they call "the psychology of performance" has produced "strong improvement very quickly."

Social-Class Distinctions

But Mr. Loury maintains that much of the performance lag is the product of social-class distinctions. Real, sustained progress in the overall achievement levels of minority groups, he suggests, will come about only through the elimination of such growth-stifling social problems in minority communities as high crime and illegitimacy rates, and welfare dependency.

"Poor minorities and poor whites grow up in a social environment that prevents them from performing as well as others will on standardized tests," says Jack L. Gant, former dean of education at Florida State University and a past president of the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education. "You can't take in people who are further behind, and then in the same amount of time expect them to measure up to everybody else. There is no way that can happen unless there are added resources. Someone has to believe this is important and add some resources."--br & msr

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