The Case Of The Truth-Telling (But Racially-Incorrect) Teacher
You seldom find
Caltech grads teaching at tough urban high schools. But
for twelve years, Scott Phelps has fought the good fight
at Muir High in Pasadena, California, where only
20% of eleventh graders score above the national
average on the SAT-9 science test. "He is one of the few
teachers I believe went to school every day for
something other than a paycheck," said Aundre Mathews, a
recent graduate who took science from Phelps.
Today, though, Scott Phelps is suspended and in danger
of losing his job. His crime: distributing—to his
fellow-teachers—a closely-reasoned analysis of why
Muir`s SAT-9 test scores were likely to fall next year.
That matters to the teachers because it could cost them
the bonuses California gives when public schools meet
goals for rising scores. In 2001, the state handed out
Phelps later explained to Marie Leech of the Pasadena
Star-News (October 22 2002) that Muir`s scores
will decline next year because the ninth and 11th
grade classes consist primarily of low socio-economic
Apparently, the racial mix of Muir`s incoming students
changes from year to year. Currently, whites and
Asians make up 10%; African-Americans half; the rest is
Hispanic. Phelps later recounted to an LA radio station
that he was sick of bureaucrats from the Pasadena
Unified School District "bashing" teachers for the low
scores of Muir`s African-American half. They lack
academic focus, he says, and historically haven`t done
well on tests. He argued that ignoring the obvious
wasn`t going to help these students.
Phelps told the talk show host that he didn`t believe in
genetic explanations for poor black performance. He felt
the cause was cultural.
"Different cultures have different
behaviors, but if we`re going to be holding all kids
responsible [for meeting the same standard], then
we need to be talking about their cultural behavior."
In his analysis for
his fellow teachers, Phelps vividly described what he`s
seen over the last dozen years at Muir:
students whose behavior makes the hallways deafening,
who yell out for the teacher and demand immediate
attention in class, who cannot seem to stop chatting and
are fascinated by each other and relationships but not
with academics … are African-American. Class is
something they do between the passing periods, lunch or
nutrition break, when they chase each other in the
hallways, into classrooms, yelling at the top of their
lungs… Eventually, someone in power will have the
courage to say this publicly."
Phelps also pointed out that there are numerous good
African-American students, especially those from
As Phelps wrote in
defending himself against hyperventilating school
"I notice that our
African-American and, alternately, our low
socio-economic groups at Muir, scores right around the
30th percentile. Our white kids score near the 70th
percentile. Now I am a racist because I notice this and
have the audacity to also notice the vastly different
behaviors of these two groups?"
He told the Los
"My intent was to get
the district to stop blaming teachers or holding them
solely responsible for performance…Different ethnicities
are radically different…. I`m saying the behaviors are
radically different, so we need to look at that. Nothing
I said is false."
Absolutely none of this should come as any surprise to
anybody. It`s standard even in liberal journals.
Here, for instance, is an article from Teacher
Magazine about the huge behavioral gaps at
ultra-liberal Berkeley H.S. between whites and Asians on
the one hand and, on the other, blacks and (to a
slightly lesser extent) Hispanics.
But the powers that
be in Pasadena were shocked, shocked by Phelps`
observations. As the Star-News reported:
say Phelps` comments have created a hostile environment
on the Muir campus and now they want a community meeting
dealing with race issues. `We need a public dialogue
about diversity,` said Superintendent Percy Clark. `We
must be tolerant and understanding of our differences.
Diversity should be our asset."
Phelps agrees about
dialogue. He says "We need to talk about why the
behavior [of different groups] are so different." Of
course, true open inquiry is exactly the opposite of
what Superintendent Clark has in mind. He`s thinking
more along the lines of a
Cultural Revolution-style "self-criticism"
brow-beating session to insure that nobody ever
speaks up again.
according to the Star-News, Pasadena civil rights
attorney Bert Voorhees, a former NAACP leader, said
Phelps should be fired from the district:
"`There are few things short of molesting a child that
taken as seriously as making racist comments in a
school setting,` he said."
freedom of speech something "civil rights attorneys"
are supposed to support?
As always, Phelps is
getting popular support. He says his telephone answering
machine is full of calls from teachers thanking him for
saying out loud what they`d always wanted to say but
never had the courage.
Reporter Leech found
some killer quotes in support of Phelps in her excellent
"Former educator Wilma
Thomas-Simon, 72, said Phelps only told the truth.
African American herself, Thomas-Simon knows first-hand
how disruptive black students are, she said. `A white
man took a stand and told the truth,` she said. `And I`d
like to see a community meeting called and see how many
people come out for it—they won`t come. I`m glad he said
what he said, I`m just sorry I didn`t say it.`"
Young Aundre Mathews,
who is black, told the Star-News,
"`What he is saying is
the truth, it`s just that nobody wants to hear it. Most
of the students at the school care more about fashion
and relationships than they do about academics, making
it difficult for the few students who actually take
school seriously and want an education,` Mathews said.
`Walking down the hallway is like being on Romper Room.
[Administrators] didn`t hear the message [Phelps] was
trying to make, instead they took it at face value and
played the race card.`"
This brouhaha is an
outcome of two contradictory trends in American society:
2) The enormous
"high stakes" testing in schools over the last
As school test
results have become abundant, the race gap analyzed by
The Bell Curve
has become ever more visible. I`ve read at least a dozen
almost identical newspaper articles each trying to
grapple with why black and Hispanic students in
super-sensitive elite communities such as
Berkeley, CA and
Shaker Heights, OH (here`s
a second article on that Cleveland suburb) lag behind
their white and Asian classmates.
Indeed, these two
towns and thirteen other wealthy liberal communities
such as Cambridge, MA, Madison, WI, and Ann Arbor, MI
have formed the
Minority Student Achievement Network to investigate
I wish them luck.
Politicians have been
devising test-reward-punish systems that are often
based, not only on the assumption that there are no race
differences in intelligence, but also that there are no
important individual differences in intelligence
at all. As in
Lake Wobegon, all students are assumed to be
above-average performers—if only they didn`t have bad
teachers dragging them down.
This has led to some
unintended comedy. States are just now waking up to the
realization that, under the laws they passed in the late
1990s, they must deny high school diplomas to the 10% or
20% or 30% of their students who faithfully come to
school for four years but who are simply too
unintelligent to master what the median student learns.
Obviously, in this
enlightened society, the states aren`t going to do that.
Education Week reported last December,
"As states edge toward
their deadlines for denying students diplomas based on
state tests, many have blinked, either postponing the
day of reckoning or modifying their original plans."
Phelps is right on
this too: Building bonus and penalty systems for
teachers that assume complete equality of talent
unfairly victimizes good teachers with bad students.
Teachers should be
evaluated on how much value they add to their students`
native ability. But these policies encourage bright
teachers to get the heck out of schools with dumb kids
and into schools with bright kids, so they can cash in.
This exacerbates the
inevitable tendency for kids at inner city schools
to be taught by teachers who are there only because
they themselves are too dumb to get jobs at suburban
Bottom line: Policies
built on self-evidently wrong ideas about humanity end
up hurting the children they were supposed to help. And
No surprise – except
to school administrators and other politicians.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and
October 27, 2002