Walter Williams’ Last Column

Walter Williams, economist, teacher and columnist, died yesterday. His long-time friend Thomas Sowell writes movingly about Williams here. Williams’ last column appeared the day before his death. The information it contains is so remarkable and so timely that I want to highlight it. The subject is education, specifically the education of urban blacks:

Several years ago, Project Baltimore began an investigation of Baltimore’s school system. What it found was an utter disgrace.

In 19 of Baltimore’s 39 high schools, out of 3,804 students, only 14 of them, or less than 1%, were proficient in math.

In 13 of Baltimore’s high schools, not a single student scored proficient in math.

In five Baltimore City high schools, not a single student scored proficient in math or reading.

These schools nevertheless have a 70% graduation rate. They are, as Williams writes, a fraud that is perpetrated on parents and taxpayers.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District scored the lowest in the nation compared to 26 other urban districts for reading and mathematics at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

A recent video captures some of this miseducation in Milwaukee high schools: In two city high schools, only one student tested proficient in math and none are proficient in English.

Is there any exception to the disgrace of urban public schools? Not that I know of. What many have forgotten is that it hasn’t always been this way:

Should we blame this education tragedy on racial discrimination or claim that it is a legacy of slavery? Thomas Sowell’s research in “Education: Assumptions Versus History” documents academic excellence at Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School and others. This academic excellence occurred during the late 1800s to mid-1900s, an era when blacks were much poorer than today and faced gross racial discrimination.
Also in Sowell’s “Education: Assumptions Versus History” is the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, a black public school in Washington, D.C. As early as 1899, its students scored higher on citywide tests than any of the city’s white schools. From its founding in 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went off to college.

Dunbar’s distinguished alumni include U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, physician Charles Drew, and, during World War II, nearly a score of majors, nine colonels and lieutenant colonels, and a brigadier general.

Today’s Paul Laurence Dunbar and Frederick Douglass high schools have material resources that would have been unimaginable to their predecessors. However, having those resources has meant absolutely nothing in terms of academic achievement.

Why do we put up with it? I don’t know. No doubt part of the answer is that the people who wield most authority in our society, of all races, have left the urban public schools far behind. They are content to pay taxes to support those schools, which far from being underfunded consume large amounts of money. But money, as Williams said, has nothing to do with it.

For those left behind in the public schools, the school environment has deteriorated alarmingly:

The school climate, seldom discussed, plays a very important role in education. During the 2017-18 school year, there were an estimated 962,300 violent incidents and 476,100 nonviolent incidents in U.S. public schools nationwide. Schools with 1,000 or more students had at least one sworn law enforcement officer. About 90% of those law enforcement officers carry firearms.

Aside from violence, there are many instances of outright disrespect for teachers. First- and second-graders telling teachers to “Shut the f— up” and calling teachers “b—h.”

Williams was a man of my era. His description of the role of the vice principal is exactly what we had in my youth in a South Dakota town:

Years ago, much of the behavior of young people that we see today would have never been tolerated. There was the vice principal’s office where corporal punishment would be administered for gross infractions. If the kid was unwise enough to tell his parents what happened, he might get more punishment at home.

The rot in our urban public schools is a disgrace, but it largely reflects, in concentrated form, the larger rot in our society. The incoming Biden administration will undoubtedly restore the Obama-era guidance that imposed racial quotas in school discipline, meaning that the urban public schools will become even more lawless and dangerous. For reasons that I assume have to do with the money and clout of the teachers’ unions, not a single Democrat seems to care.