What if Bill Cosby Is Right?

Black students are failing at alarming rates in Lower Merion, one of the country's richest, highest-achieving school systems. The author of The End of Blackness came to the Main Line to figure out why

Last January, some two dozen angry black residents jammed a school board meeting in Lower Merion High School's library. They were members of Concerned Black Parents, a 12-year-old organization that advocates for the district's 500 black students (out of 6,684 total), and were galvanized by the No Child Left Behind statistics released earlier that month. Most of the district's black children were failing by NCLB standards, so the parents decided it was time to deliver a manifesto. “Educational inequity is not a new problem,” CBP president Morris Mosley declared. “It's been going on for generations in a manner that has pushed our children farther and farther behind their peers.” The white Main Line learned what blacks had always felt–that they've been eaten alive by the Lower Merion School District, one of the best public school systems in the country. A stunned silence greeted Mosley's remarks; the meeting adjourned shortly thereafter without one word of acknowledgement of the gauntlet which had just been thrown down. For once, the Main Line had some catching up to do. The numbers don't lie.

With an average household income of $86,373, LMSD can spend $19,392 per pupil annually, more than twice as much as the majority of Philadelphia's schools and more than nearly every other American public school district. Lower Merion High School, one of the district's two high schools, was one of the Wall Street Journal's top 60 high schools in April 2004, public or private, and given that the median Lower Merion home costs $334,500, it is unsurprising that 94 percent of graduates attend college. District schools routinely win some of the most prestigious state and national competitions, such as the National Science Olympiad. Eighty percent of the district's students are proficient or better in math and reading on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). But what the white Main Line sees as a source of pride infuriates South Ardmore, where most of LMSD's few blacks live. Only 27 of LMSD's 500 black students are identified as gifted; for whites, 790 out of about 6,000 make the cut. (That's five vs. 13 percent.) One in four blacks is in special ed.

Most alarming, 60 percent of black students are not grade-level proficient in reading and math in a school district flush enough to provide many staffers with snazzy digital organizers and to test-drive a global positioning system to track its school buses. Which is why, at that highly charged January meeting, Mosley also said, “We are particularly enraged that this district dares to take credit for being one of the top school districts in the state, even the nation, at the same time that it allows ourAfrican-American students to stagnate!”

One district, two very different realities–that much is clear. What we don't know is whose fault it is that Main Line children are doing so poorly–whether the school district is to blame, or whether, as Bill Cosby has pointedly suggested in recent remarks, much of the fault may lie with black parents and students themselves.

In a nation used to discussing the achievement gap in terms of crumbling, all-black war-zone schools vs. suburban high-tech white ones, this conversation can seem surreal as one wanders the bucolic Main Line avenues and the increasingly diverse, very stable Ardmore neighborhood. It helps to remember that the achievement gap is both a statewide and a national problem and appears very early in life. In 1998 and 1999, the National Center for Education Statistics has reported, “A third to half of black and Latino students enrolled in kindergarten with test scores in the bottom quarter in math, reading and general knowledge, while only a sixth of whites scored as low.” Nationally, some studies suggest that the average white eighth-grader is about as proficient as the average black 12th-grader. If there is an upside to the Main Line's problem, it's that the situation allows us to remove the lack of resources from the equation and reduce the analysis of the achievement gap to its most basic terms. If it's not money, if it's not segregation, what is it? There are two schools of thought: Either the school district's racism and classism create and maintain the achievement gap, or it results from black pathologies like unwed parenthood, chaotic households and unchecked TV-watching. (A third school of thought–black intellectual inferiority–is the elephant in the room that no one is brave enough to publicly invoke.) The school district thinks the problem is … well, it proved impossible to get a direct answer to that question, but the district seems at least to be paying attention.

Is the lack of black teachers both racist and a cause of black underachievement? The district responds by laying out its minority outreach blitz and the intensified recruiting of black staff, resulting in 10 new black hires last year. Are its majority white teachers racist, culturally ignorant, incompetent, or so devoted to turning out stars that salvageable underachievers are ignored and stigmatized? The district answers by describing its teacher “in service” days, credential requirements, and reformulated special-ed-determination protocols; it talks about the several committees and activities aimed at minorities and race relations, including a robust new sensitivity-training regimen intended to awaken teachers to their subconscious attitudes on race and class. “Eighty percent of the teacher population is white females from the suburbs,” points out black math teacher Gary Plummer, who was heavily recruited from a Philadelphia school. “That puts the fate of African-American kids in the hands of white women who don't understand their culture.” To combat that problem, facilitators use pervasive media like TV news and magazine photos to illuminate to teachers how their views are often formed through loaded images of blacks as rappers, athletes or criminals.

Teachers are taught to examine another subconscious assumption–that black parents' lower visibility in overseeing their children's educations indicates lesser concern. “We don't see enough of the black parents coming in to affect what happens to their kids,” acknowledges Bernice Green, a school social worker in the district, a black Ardmore native, and an LMSD alum. What white teachers might not understand is that for black parents, a trip to the old school can be not nostalgic but “intimidating. There's transference: 'They're not talking about my child. It's about me,'” Green explains. “Third- and fourth-generation parents feel estranged from the district because they had a bad experience as students here.”

Plummer disagrees with Green. “It's not the intimidation factor that keeps them away,” he says, noting that black parents were also largely absent from the black Philadelphia school he came from. “African-American parents are very trusting of institutions.” Trusting and demanding. Raise the notion of the parents' and students' role in black education, and in reply come a troubling number of excuses, evasions, rationalizations and tutoring schemes most charitably described as ad hoc. No tabbed handouts or media training here. They tend to leave it to the schools to educate their children, even in light of their deep feelings of victimization at the district's hands. It is curious to witness Ardmore's focus on an institution it believes to be intrinsically racist and classist as the very instrument of its children's educational deliverance. The district at least tacitly acknowledges that it must engage in self-criticism and evolution. Does Ardmore?

More surprising than the very existence of a middle-to-lower-middle-class black enclave on the Main Line is the strange duality of the black Main Line personality. When she learned this article's subject, Linda Jackson, the Ardmore Avenue Community Center's director, spat, “I hate the district!” She said both she and her brother were told they weren't college material. Both have degrees now. “But,” she offered, “they helped my son in amazing ways. I had to put him in every school in the district, but … ” She shook her head wonderingly. Loraine Carter, mother of a child placed by LMSD in a special-ed class she calls “a dumping ground” where his problems worsened because he wasn't easy to teach, nonetheless offers that her other two children “are doing great. One is one of the only all-honors black kids in the district.” A recent district arrival and perhaps the most pragmatic CBP member interviewed, Carter (who resigned from the CBP after being interviewed) stays on message nearly as well as district officials. Complacency, not racism, she states, is the Main Line's main problem, and it's important not to demonize the district and especially the teachers. She talks of making alliances with the parents of white students who are failing. But, she says, at a mother-daughter breakfast at the school, she was “invisible,” not even given the handouts every other mom received. “It didn't upset me, though,” she says, and almost pulls off looking as if it had not.

Yet Carter's view of not pitting one side against the other seems unique among Ardmore's black community. Concerned Black Parents head Mosley acknowledges that many black children start school “with lower reading readiness skills, the basics, and they never catch up.” He blames the district's grudging responses to the black students' special needs for this. According to assistant superintendent Thomas Tobin, there has been a full-time certified reading specialist in each of the district's six elementary schools for many years. Additionally, there were Title I reading paraprofessionals who taught students requiring additional support in reading. Two years ago, the district placed an additional certified reading specialist in each elementary school and eliminated the Title I paraprofessionals.

But the CBP feels these steps should have been taken long ago. “The white kids, they're upper-upper-class,” Mosley says. “They get daycare, Montessori, college-educated parents. Our parents tend to be young; many are products of the LMSD, which did them no good. By high school, our kids are angry and totally reject school.” The eight black parents and adults interviewed also tend to agree that black children need to be taught differently from white ones. “Instead of teaching them in a different way, they're labeled special-ed, they're separated out, and they continue to fall behind,” says Diana Robertson, Philadelphia resident and head of the Main Line NAACP. Math teacher Plummer agrees that blacks respond better to different methods of teaching and says scholars have shown that those “differences, not deficiencies,” trace back to Africa. “Blacks tend to be right-brain. They're looking for the teacher's approval, for interaction. They learn if they sense that the teacher expects them to. Ask a black child, 'Why did you fail?' They'll say, 'Teacher doesn't like me.'”

By reflexively invoking the specter of racism, it may be that Ardmore blacks miss an opportunity for dÈtente and face-saving on both sides. Whether the problem is poor teaching or kids who don't test well, Robertson says, much of “the responsibility is on the district to say why” a black child fails. “Any school district has the power to close the achievement gap if they'll conquer their subconscious racism.” The black parents' job is to keep the pressure on the district. The problem, Ardmore seems to feel, is a lack of parental agitation. But might these black parents be on the wrong track? Because racism has always been the problem, must it always be? And in a post-civil rights movement environment, even if racism is the culprit, race war need not be the answer. Not, at least, if black educational success is the true goal, as opposed to proving how racist whites remain. What is it that Ardmore's blacks really want?

When asked their opinions of education writers like Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom (white conservatives who locate the problems in black education within the black community and family) and John Ogbu (a black professor who found a “culture of disengagement” among blacks in affluent Shaker Heights, Ohio, who face a similar achievement gap), CBP members look blank. They seem equally unaware of movement veteran Robert Moses's Algebra Project (which combines grassroots organizing with phenomenal success in raising rural Mississippi blacks' math fluency), or Claude Steele's work in identifying and combating “stereotype threat” (the idea that racial and gender stereotypes can affect concrete things like grades, test scores and academic identity). Instead, they enthuse about consultants brought in to train them in protest and political strategy. When informed that nationally, at six years old, lower-income children have about half the vocabulary of more affluent children because their parents neither speak nor read to them enough, CBP members return to the demand for more reading specialists in the schools. The only homeschooling one hears of, and one hears this repeatedly, is how the parents have had to teach their children black history themselves. Not fractions. Not reading. The glories of Africa. There are no systemized programs of home- or community-schooling to help close the achievement gap.

Mosley's now-deceased older brother Frank was a leader of a cataclysmic student sit-in in 1969 to protest racism in the LMSD. “I was there that day, but they made me go back to junior high,” Mosley remembers proudly. The black Main Line has always been an outpost in America's race wars. Arriving during Reconstruction, blacks have lived in Ardmore for more than a century, largely working for their rich white neighbors. Segregation reigned, including at schools; one of the few outposts of educational integration was the nearby Tredyffrin/Easton School District. Then, in 1932, the whites announced that the district's 212 black students would occupy two crumbling buildings, while the new, taxpayer-funded school would be white-only. Come the start of school in September, blacks refused to send their children to Jim Crow classrooms. They were fined exorbitantly for each day of missed school, and jailed for nonpayment, but they stood fast, and two years later, school segregation was dead in Pennsylvania. In the '60s, the NAACP spearheaded the closure of Ardmore's black-neighborhood school, well ahead of most of America.

But, says Mosley forcefully, “Integration was a major mistake. Across the country. They only did it because they didn't want to be forced to integrate with Philadelphia. It destroyed our neighborhood, our self-esteem, our community.” Bernice Green at least partly agrees. “There were lots of activities; everybody tried to get good grades. Every adult was a parent; everyone disciplined you. The parents were involved when it was a neighborhood school, but the community was destroyed. They divided the black kids up.” Most important, “We never had that sense of welcome in the new schools. You found out that you weren't at the top of the class anymore; we had a lot of catching up to do because we weren't as academically prepared.” Notice the disconnect between “we didn't feel welcome” and “we realized we were academically behind.” Why were they behind, in an all-black school in a cohesive community, if the academic problem is racism?

Ardmore is not alone in its nostalgia for the benign side of segregation, notes Gary Orfield, founding co-director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project and co-author of Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare? “We tend to evaluate desegregation against the standard of perfect equality, as if the schools could achieve that by themselves,” he says. “They can't. Then we tend to evaluate segregation on the basis of our fondest memories. So we look at the best cases of segregation and compare desegregation to perfection. But when you look back to the time of Brown, it was a different world. People don't remember that only one-quarter of black students were graduating from high school. And they also don't know that from the late '60s to the late '80s, half of the white-black achievement gap vanished. The low point of the achievement gap was 1988, which was also the high point of the desegregation effort. We made a lot of progress.”

In the end, what it all comes down to is not the school board meeting room, or parent groups, or the courtroom. It all comes down to the classroom and what happens inside it as teachers and students, children and adults from different worlds, try to work together. According to George Washington University education professor Mary Futrell, “Who teaches [black students] to meet the challenges of the future is as important as what they are taught.” Which is why the typical cultural and racial gaps between Lower Merion's teachers and black students can be so problematic. “My fifth-grade teacher,” 44-year-old Ardmore native and Lower Merion Township commissioner Maryam Phillips sighs, “is still the fifth-grade teacher,” though the world is a very different place.

As the nation takes stock of 50 years of Brown v. Board of Education and all the challenges left unmet in closing the black-white achievement gap, it's easy to become disheartened. It's easy to believe blacks should have fought for equal and made their peace with separate. One pictures black parents ushering their children onto the school bus each day certain that they'll encounter racism and classism at every step, wondering impotently if their offspring will be among the 60 percent who will fail because the teachers are racist, elitist, ignorant or lazy. One pictures these parents teaching their children about Chaka Zulu but not about fractions, and believing that will make them feel stronger in the all-white classroom. Then one pictures those parents pooling community resources to institute systematized evening and weekend tutoring. One pictures them, harried as they are, scheduling time for conversation and reading with their children each day, and projects like gardening and stargazing on the weekends. One pictures Ardmore immersed in the literature on educational techniques that work with black children, and able to refute bell-curve racists masquerading as scientists. One pictures activists like Mosley hounding noncompliant black parents as diligently as they do the school board. Near impossible as all that is, it's much, much easier to picture than the Main Line overcoming a subconscious racism it doesn't believe it has.

Published in the September 2004 issue of Philadelphia magazine.