Excerpt from “My journey to race realism”: Reformers’ search to close “the gap”

Ray Wolters

The following is the second of two excerpts from an article, “My journey to race realism,” to appear in the Summer issue of The Occidental Quarterly. Prof. Ray Wolters is Thomas Muncy Keith Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware.

First Excerpt: The Burden of Brown

Before 2010, I was aware of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology.  As mentioned, during the 1990s I began to read American Renaissance, and about the same time one of my chums from grade school and high school, a bank examiner named Gene Stelzer, bent my ear with comments about Darwinism.  Gene was also the first person to call my attention to The Occidental Quarterly, a journal I later came to regard as an indispensable guide to understanding White racial consciousness.  At the University of Delaware, education professor Bob Hampel kept me informed about some of the best recent books in his field, and social scientist Linda Gottfredson told me about gene-culture co-evolution.  But from mainstream historians I heard and read nothing about Darwinism or the interaction of culture and genes, and my own written work was still based primarily on archival research.  It was not until 2010, when I was laid low by lung failure and could no longer rummage through archives that I began to read deeply and to think seriously about evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology.  As it happened, at this time I was also thinking about the modern school reform movement, which since about 1990 had become, above all else, an effort to close the achievement gaps that show American Blacks and Latinos lagging behind Whites and Asians on standardized achievement tests.

In some ways, the reformers’ concern with test scores is surprising.  In recent international comparisons, African Americans have done better on standardized tests than Blacks in Africa or the Caribbean.  Hispanic Americans have done better than Hispanics in Latin America.  White Americans are doing better than students in other predominantly-White nations (except Finland).  And Asian-American students have done as well as most students in Asia — and better than those in Korea or Japan.  These results were achieved, moreover, at a time when an increasing proportion of American students were being reared in single-parent families and a growing proportion of parents did not speak English.

One might have expected much praise for America’s schools, but this was not the case. Instead of praising schools for America’s strong showing on international comparisons, school reformers blamed the schools for failing to eliminate differences in the average academic achievement of America’s different racial and ethnic groups.  Reformers lamented that on most tests the racial and ethnic achievement gaps were almost as large as they had been in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision on school desegregation, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.  Eighty-five percent of Black students, and 75 per cent of Latinos, still scored below the median for white students.  And because of this, reformers insisted that American schools and teachers had failed.[1]

To overcome this failure, reformers initially insisted that more money should be spent for public schools that enrolled large numbers of Black or Latino students.  But the gaps persisted despite the equalization of funding.  In fact, the gaps persisted even in areas where the expenditure for Black and Latino students was larger than the expenditure for White and Asian students.  In predominantly Black Kansas City, where the expenditure per student was increased spectacularly, scores on standard achievement tests actually declined.[2]

When that happened, reformers blamed teachers for the persistence of racial and ethnic achievement gaps.  Instead of acknowledging that even capable teachers would fail if students were not motivated or lacked an aptitude for school work, reformers insisted that things would be better if the American educational system were re-fashioned. Reformers maintained that racial and ethnic achievement gaps could be closed if there were better teachers, and the best way to get better teachers was to fire the teachers whose students made low scores on standardized tests, to hire replacements on probationary contracts, and to keep only those teachers who excel in raising the test scores of their students.[3]

As they moved from one proposal to another, school reformers insisted that there were no important racial differences.  They said race was “only skin deep.”  And when “better teachers” failed to close the gaps, reformers adjusted once again and demanded that more government funds be spent on child care, on early childhood education, on pre-Kindergarten programs.  They believed, as Professor Robert Weissberg has noted, that racial and ethnic achievement gaps could be closed, if only reformers could monitor the ways that Black and Latino parents interacted with their two-, three- and four-year olds.   Steve Sailer concluded that many reformers believed that Black children should be “kept away from their families and raised by Whites and middle-class Blacks.”[4]

Race realists and evolutionists, on the other hand, did not think that racial disparities in education could be eliminated.  They believed, rather, that the disparities were, as John Derbyshire put it, “facts in the natural world, like the orbits of planets.  They can’t be eliminated by social or political action.”[5]

By the end of the twentieth century, a gulf separated race realists, evolutionary theorists, and most genomic scientists from school reformers, mainstream historians, the major media, and most social scientists and public leaders.  Leading evolutionists and genomic scientists believed in the biological reality of race and also thought that racial and ethnic achievement gaps were inevitable products of evolutionary adaptations.  These evolutionists and genomic scientists were, in John Derbyshire’s phrase, “Biologians.”  On the other hand, most school reformers, public leaders, and mainstream writers were “Culturists.”  They said human evolution stopped when our species emerged from Africa to populate the rest of the world.  They maintained that the accidents of history and climate, culture and geography, account for any variation in the distribution of human characteristics.  They said that, with the right sort of social reforms, ethnic and racial achievement gaps could be abolished.[6]

I lack the scientific expertise to decide definitively in favor of either the Biologians or the Culturists, but I think the weight of the evidence favors the Biologians.  One decisive factor for me is that Culturists insist that environmental factors — not just the above mentioned accidents of history and climate, culture and geography, but also poverty, family traditions, marital instability, discrimination, and White and Asian privilege — are entirely responsible for the racial and ethnic gaps in academic achievement. Culturists reject the idea of gene-culture co-evolution.  They say that IQ and other inherent qualities are not in any way responsible for the gaps.  Culturists are absolutists.  Biologians, on the other hand, are “50-50 people.”  Culturists think that culture is “everything.”    Biologians concede that culture matters but insist that evolution and heredity also count.

The Biologian approach impresses me as more sensible, although as noted I do not have the scientific knowledge to decide this question.  What I do have is an interest in telling stories that are based on research.  With that in mind, I have written a history of school reform, The Long Crusade: Profiles in Education Reform (2015).  Three of my chapters describe leading progressive reformers: Jonathan Kozol, Howard Gardner, and Theodore Sizer; three more chapters describe the work of educators who favor “back-to-basics” approaches: Chris Whittle, Robert Slavin, and E. D. Hirsch; another three chapters focus on reformers who are associated with Teach for America and its progeny; and the final chapters describe three critics of school reform, Diane Ravitch, John Derbyshire, and Robert Weissberg.  Without exception, the reformers are Culturists, while one of the three critics (Derbyshire) is a Biologian and another (Weissbeg) leans that way[7]

The reformers have differed with one another in many respects.  For all their differences, however, the progressive, traditional, and new-wave school reformers have one thing in common.  They have failed to close, or even to significantly narrow, the racial and ethnic achievement gaps.  As noted, at the time of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), about 85 per cent of Black students, and 75 percent of Hispanics, scored below the median for White and Asian students.  And in the twenty-first century, the disparities are just as great.  The one exception is among Black and Hispanic students who attend highly structured elementary and middle schools operated by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and some KIPP clones.  I believe this outstanding achievement is due, at least in part, to the fact that KIPP and the KIPP clones enroll students who are not representative of the generality of students in their neighborhoods.  In general, the story of school reform is a story of many failures.  One is reminded of Thomas Edison’s unsuccessful efforts to make synthetic rubber in his laboratory.  After many, many botched efforts, Edison refused to admit he had failed.  Instead, Edison said he had discovered “99 ways not to make synthetic rubber.”  Eventually, synthetic rubber was produced, and it’s possible that our desperate gap closers will also succeed someday.  But I doubt it.[8]


[1] The best known of the many tests are the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).  For discussion of these tests, see Paul E. Peterson Saving Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 271 and passim; and Raymond Wolters, The Long Crusade: Profiles in Education Reform (Arlington, VA: Washington Summit Publishers, 2015) 428–437 and passim.

[2] Joshua M. Dunn, Complex Justice: The Case of Missouri v. Jenkins (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[3] For extended discussion of this point, see my new book, The Long Crusade: Profiles in Education Reform, 1967-2014 (Arlington: Washington Summit Publishers, 2015).

[4] Ibid.; Robert Weissberg, “Why Biology is a Friend of Liberty,” Vdare.com, January 27, 2011; Steve Sailer, “Obama’s Universal Preschool Push,” iSteve.blogspot.com (May 11, 2009); Sailer, “The Test Score Gap,” Vdare.com, 7 October 2012.

[5] Raymond Wolters, The Long Crusade, passim; John Derbyshire, “Remarks at a Panel Discussion.”

[6] For more on “biologians” and “culturists,” see John Derbyshire, We Are Doomed (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), Chapter 7.

[7] Raymond Wolters, The Long Crusade: Profiles in Educational Reform (Arlington, VA: Washington Summit Publishers, 2015).

[8] Statement of Thomas Edison, quoted by Jack Perkins in his documentary film, Thomas Edison: Father of Invention (released August 5, 1996).

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