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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 $350 million.
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 class African-Americans.
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:
"Overwhelmingly, the 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."
Of course, Phelps also pointed out that there are numerous good African-American students, especially those from two-parent families.
As Phelps wrote in defending himself against hyperventilating school administrators:
"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 Angeles Times:
"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."
He's right. 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:
"[D]istrict officials 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.
Incredibly, 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 should be taken as seriously as making racist comments in a school setting,' he said."
Hmm. Isn't 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 second article:
"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 expansion of "high stakes" testing in schools over the last decade.
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 this problem.
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 schools.
Bottom line: Policies built on self-evidently wrong ideas about humanity end up hurting the children they were supposed to help. And their teachers.
No surprise – except to school administrators and other politicians.
October 27, 2002